It's rare that a hunter is faced with a buffalo charge, but it can happen, and you must be ready.
By Craig Boddington
Robert Ruark had it right. The Cape buffalo does look at you like you “owe him money.” He is a magnificent animal, always tough and sometimes incredibly brave, and he has a fearsome reputation. The reality, however, is that facing a determined charge is not a normal end to most buffalo hunts. Hunting in the 1950s and early 1960s, when bag limits were much higher than today, Ruark shot a lot of buffalo. I believe there is a passage where he stated that he had taken more than a hundred, and in the period he hunted in I don’t question the number. Although badly mauled by a leopard (in India, not in Africa), I don’t recall Ruark relating a first-person account of a genuine close call with a buffalo.
This business of charging animals has much to do with the subject of my latest book, Deadly Encounters. Fortunately, in this book I drew upon all manner of accounts from various sources rather than just my own experience. Because, at the time I started the project, I had never actually seen a buffalo charge! My tally of buffalo isn’t quite up to Ruark’s, but they’re my favorite African animal and favorite African pursuit, and I’ve hunted them a lot in the last thirty-eight years. Going into 2014 I’d never seen a buffalo charge. Despite considerably less experience with Africa’s other dangerous animals, I’ve seen multiple charges from leopards, lions, elephants, and hippos--but buffalo, never.
One of the wonderful and sometimes frustrating things about hunting is the element of blind chance. You can do everything exactly right, but that doesn’t mean the proper animal will present itself to you. And you can do everything wrong and a new world record still wanders by. Luck is a factor, and there’s good luck and bad luck. Mind you, I am not suggesting that facing a charge represents good luck! Most of the time it happens because mistakes were made, which is actually a major part of Deadly Encounters: Recognizing errors, so perhaps they can be avoided. But even when mistakes are made, charges don’t always happen. Believe me, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I’ve followed up a number of wounded buffalo; there were several times when charges were expected, and, as the tracking job grew longer, hoped for as a means to getting this over with.
It never happened. When wounded the buffalo has the reputation of circling around and setting an ambush. Yes, they will, sometimes, but hardly always. I’ve discussed this around the campfire with professional hunters for years. Their consensus is that, with buffalo, unprovoked charges are extremely rare, and even with wounded buffalo only a small percentage will lie in wait and launch. Don’t get me wrong: African PHs respect buffalo, and have lost good friends to them. They go in cautiously, prepared for the worst, but in the knowledge that, percentagewise, the most likely outcome of a non-fatal initial hit is that buffalo will never be seen again.
So I find it oddly interesting that, at the beginning of 2014 I had never seen a buffalo charge. Since then I have seen four buffalo charges! Lest it appear that I’m getting old and careless, only one of the four was my buffalo; the rest belonged to others I was hunting with. Except for my own, I fired no shots.
The one that was mine was probably the weakest of the four. Although not unheard of, it is unusual for a buffalo to take a bullet and immediately charge. Initial flight is much more common, usually in whatever direction it is facing. Frontal shots are relatively common on buffalo, because before spooking a buffalo bull will often face you, giving his “you owe me money” look. On receiving a frontal shot a buffalo will often (maybe even usually) take a few steps forward. This is not a charge; this is flight in the direction it’s facing. Of course, if you’re close enough to get run over, the buffalo’s actual intent doesn’t matter too much.
In a very unusual move, this West African savanna buffalo from Burkina Faso charged instantly after receiving the first bullet…or at least ran straight toward me. The ground was open and there was some space, so it wasn’t really a big deal.
This buffalo, on a very hot morning in Burkina Faso, was fully broadside, and I shot him on the shoulder with a .375 H&H. He instantly wheeled toward me and came at full speed, straight in my direction. At this point it didn’t matter if he was purposefully attacking, or if, for some bovine reason, I was standing where he wanted to go. I didn’t give it long to find out. Still steady on sticks, I stopped him with the second shot and then dropped him.
Two other charges happened in the swamps of the Zambezi Delta. The first one was totally unprovoked. We were in a Hogland BV, a big swamp vehicle, looking for buffalo on that day but at that moment just traversing tall saw grass. A bull stood from his bed about ten yards away--clearly we were within his “fight” radius—-and instantly charged. The impact rocked the heavy vehicle, and the bull was preparing to hit us again when Bill Hober shot him.
A year later in the same swamps a friend of mine shot a bull in a big herd. Initially the stricken bull was lost in the herd. They were quickly out of range, and as the herd moved off we saw a bull trailing the group. We watched them until they were very far away; believing that last bull was our bull we brought up the BV so we could close some distance.
Again, there’s luck, both good and bad. We hadn’t gone three hundred yards before we saw a lone buffalo bull moving slowly through very tall saw grass. Thinking it might be our wounded bull—-but not certain-—we approached. This one hit the front right corner of the vehicle, again seeming to lift it up and rock it back. It was our wounded bull, and in that deadly saw grass, I’m really glad we didn’t go through that area on foot! Let me say that I abhor hunting from a vehicle and, with buffalo, to do so is robbery, stealing a huge slice of the experience, but both these situations were inadvertent, part of the randomness of chance. Also very hard on the vehicles!
In totally separate instances a year apart the Hogland BV swamp vehicle I was in was charged by buffaloes in tall sawgrass. One was wounded; the other surprised in his bed. It took a lot of duct tape to make the vehicles waterproof again!
One of the most amazing sights I’ve ever witnessed in my hunting career happened on the last day of a buffalo hunt with PH Mike Payne in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley, June 2014. I probably enjoyed it most and very possibly saw it best because I was purely an observer, with no pressure. Also, being fourth in line (tracker, Payne, Allen, then me), I was in little immediate danger! It had been a tough hunt, and Chad Allen was still looking for his first buffalo. We were onto a big herd, but had to make a wide circle and get around the wind. So, as we crossed a sand river and stepped into tall, yellow grass on the bank, we believed there were buffalo somewhere ahead of us, but we weren’t sure exactly where.
Fifty yards of tall grass, then the vegetation opened and there were several palm trees just ahead and a bit to the left. A buffalo bull stood from his bed under the nearest palm, not thirty yards away. He shook his head once, then launched in the most magnificent charge anyone has ever seen. His head was up, black muzzle shining, horns gleaming in the midday sun. Chad and Mike, well, they needed to be busy, and they were. Me, I got to enjoy the show.
Split seconds and it was over. Payne, cool as a cucumber, told Chad to take him, and waited for his shot. At about ten yards their two .470s were a quick “one-two” punch, ten thousand foot pounds shoving the bull off course, and then ten thousand more dropping him steps in front of us. The tracker had instantly faded right to get out of the way, and I had stepped a bit left to clear a shot if needed. My rifle was ready, but I never raised it; there was simply no need. Technically I suppose you could say this was an unprovoked charge, but this buffalo had recently had a bad encounter with a lion; he had deep lacerations on his tail, and his penis sheath was torn and infected. But there was nothing wrong with his mobility!
I’m glad I got to see it, but I hope this rash of buffalo charges is over. Whether it’s been good luck or bad, I think I’m caught up. And let’s keep one thing in mind: A buffalo charge, though an amazing sight, is not something to crave and certainly not something to seek. There is a stark fact out there, and it’s very simple: Not all charges can be stopped.
Chad Allen, PH Mike Payne, and me with Allen’s buffalo, stopped by Allen and Payne at very close range in a determined charge. The charge was essentially unprovoked, at least by us, but the bull was nursing nasty injuries from a brush with a lion.