It is usually a mistake to make generalisations about Africa or anything African but if there's one truism about the Dark Continent, it's that you should never say never and never say always. Animals being animals and not having the same thought processes as we humans, are to the uninitiated, usually unpredictable. However there are, if you'll forgive the pun, certain 'tell-tail' signs in their body language that can help us predict (amongst other things) alarm and often aggressive intention. We also need to remember that animals can have good and bad days and can change their minds at very short notice. Hopefully this article will, in some small way, help some readers who are lucky enough to visit and hunt that paradise we know as Africa.
The Big Five consist of elephant, lion, leopard, Cape buffalo and rhino and are so called because these are the species that really epitomise African wildlife. For hunters, successfully taking these animals is the crowning glory of their hunting career and trophy room. However, they are also the animals most likely to try to kill you in the African bush and many generations of hunters have had no end of meaningful discussions around the campfires as to which of the Big Five is the most dangerous. The truth of it is that any one of them can kill you and there are no degrees of dead.
Elephant and lion especially are prone to staging mock charges. As I said, they can and often do, change what begins as a mock charge into a full blown charge at anytime. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to ignore the mock charge situation and assume that all charges are begun with intent to kill on the part of the animal concerned. The differences in body language between a mock and real charge can be very subtle and your Professional Hunter, if he's worth his salt, will know the difference and react accordingly.
All animals have three zones, known in my neck of the woods, as the sight, flight and fight zones. The sight zone is when the animal sees you and it will usually turn to face you, its head will come up and the ears prick forward. Elephant, buffalo and rhino may raise their tails too. Buffalo may also stamp a hoof. Lions will often just show their usual feline disdain and stay put - it often takes more than a sighting of a mere human to shift a lion from where he wants to be, unless of course he is hungry or just plain curious, when he just might come to investigate you. Leopards will habitually slink away and lose themselves in deep cover - you'll probably never even know you've been observed by a leopard. Vocal alarm 'calls', often common in antelope species and zebra, are limited to snorts, huffs, puffs and the odd trumpet from a twitchy elephant. This initially means the animal has identified you as a potential danger but is unsure of what further action to take.
The flight zone is when you cross that invisible line the animal has decided upon and it will then turn and flee. Elephant, buffalo and rhino may raise their tails further and run back into the sight zone where they will often stop and reassess the situation. In areas such as the Zambezi Valley in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where these animals are particularly under pressure, they will not bother to stop and reassess, but will instead head straight for the hills. Leopards, as I said, will usually bolt away and not look back at all and the lion may well disguise his anxiety and stroll nonchalantly away, often stopping to look back with an expression of utter derision on his face. Whether or not, he has food nearby, he probably won't go far - a case of pride coming before a fall has caused many a lion's demise!
Then there's the fight zone. Action of the lethal kind is most commonly caused when humans and animals unwittingly closely invade each other's space - such as a hunter stalking his quarry and bumping into a dozing elephant or lion en route. The animal judges that he has no time to make an escape, so turns on the interloper with enough aggression to frighten him away or incapacitate him with tooth, claw, horn or tusk. The fight zone may be increased in a case of a previously wounded animal or with one carrying an old painful injury. In these cases, flight may not be an option, so an animal will attack the threat with all the strength he can muster. Of course, the case of nervous mothers defending their young is another well known reason for attack and you may never see the young animal she is fighting for. A good rule of thumb would be to approach females with even more caution. As Mr Kipling said, the female of the species is more deadly than the male.
So let's look at what is most likely to happen with these animals. Remember however, that you have to see the animal in the first place and then you have to identify the signs of alarm and aggression. Anyone, no matter how experienced can get blindsided, and many even very experienced Africa hands have been killed in just that way.
There's often more warning with an elephant than the other species. The animal will draw itself up to its fullest height to intimidate you, the ears will spread and the trunk will often rise to gather scent. Also watch for tail movement if you can see it. The tail is a really good indicator of level of alarm. The higher it is, the more alarmed the animal. When it curls up over the back then the alarm level is very high indeed. Also (if you get time - and you probably won't) watch the tail as it'll turn like a boat's rudder and will give you a very little warning of which direction the animal will turn.
When the elephant charges in earnest, it's trunk will typically come down from the elevated position and tuck under the chest, ears will usually fold back against the neck, it will usually drop it's shoulders and make itself as small possible, then at the last moment the trunk will often reach out to grab you. Oh yes, and those beady little eyes will burn red with rage. You need to get a bullet into the brain to drop a charging elephant and to do that, you need a bullet that will penetrate a number of feet.
Large calibres and solids - preferably monolithic solids are the answer. Don't try to pick an aiming spot on the outside of the head here, as the angle it's held in relation to the body will probably mean you'll miss the brain. The answer is to imagine a broomstick shoved between the ear holes, then aim to break the broomstick in the centre of the head. If your bullet hits the brain, the animal will collapse immediately with the rear legs giving way first. Then the head comes up and the front of the animal goes down. Even a close miss with a large calibre will probably stun the animal for long enough for you to get behind the head and put an insurance shot into the brain pan from behind.
You can learn a lot about the big cats by studying your domestic kitten at play. A lion can hide behind a single blade of grass, so hope you see it early. Before it charges, it will wave it's tail and move it's feet around to make sure it has the best possible purchase to minimise 'wheelspin' on takeoff. The head will usually be held fairly low and the ears will be flattened back against the head. As I said, just like a playful kitten, but a lot more dangerous. Keep watching that tail - just before the animal comes for you, it will stiffen like a broomstick and go upright. A split second later, the charge is launched - and I really do mean launched!
When the animal comes for you, it'll probably be making short deep grunts of rage and will come with the head and body held low to the ground and he'll come in large bounds. The mane and tail hair will all be standing on end. If you have time and the terrain is suitable, try to kneel down to bring your shot as close to the lion's level as you can. That way, you're increasing your chance of a killing shot dramatically. If you miss, you're also in the right position to bend down and kiss your ass goodbye! Aim for the eye region if you can and the bullet will penetrate though into the body cavity.
If you think a lion is fast in a charge, a leopard really introduces a new dimension. He's like greased lightning and it's highly unlikely you'll see the charge begin, but if you do, it'll be similar to a lion's body movements. There's not usually any vocal warning and if you're lucky, the first thing you'll see is the animal in the air and about to hit you. Don't even think you'll have time to pick your shot. It'll all be instinct shooting. The good news, if it is good news, is that a leopard is more likely to get in amongst the crowd, beat everyone up and then bale out, whereas a lion will usually target one individual and try his hardest to kill him.
Sometimes called Mbogo or Nyati, this species is tougher than all hell. Once that big heart starts to pump adrenaline to the brain, you can shoot him full of holes and he'll just keep coming. Even if you can knock him down time after time, he'll just get up again and once he's started his charge he won't ever turn from it. There's absolutely no doubt that if you don't kill him, he'll try his hardest to kill you. My advice would be, as with all charging dangerous game, to shoot for the central nervous system.
If his head is held high, as it will be during the earlier stages of the charge, aim for the nostrils or the eyes depending on the angle of the head - aim to get a bullet into the brain. At the last moment, he will drop his head to put his horns to good use. If you have time and the presence of mind, a bullet through the spine from above will drop him like a sack of spuds. Even if you get this shot right, he's going be right in your lap though so try to be ready to move backwards with a great deal of speed.
To give you an idea of how tough these animals really are, I hunted a buffalo with a client last year and it took no less than 14 shots to put the lights out on that big old bull. The client shot out of ammo and with a cheery and very sensible "f**k you - send me a post card", headed for the nearest anthill, leaving me to administer 500 grains and 7000 foot pounds of coup de grace.
Now these animals really are as dumb as a sack of spanners and even less predictable than the previously mentioned animals. Watch for the tail as an indicator of alarm level - the higher it's held, the higher the alarm level. If it's rolled right back over the spine then they're seriously concerned. When one of these animals charges you, it's sometimes possible to dodge behind or climb a tree and he'll just go thundering straight past. In these cases, he's not even sure where you are - probably because his eye sight is so bad. If you have to shoot him then it's not easy - the horns get in the way until he drops his head at the last moment, which is the time you're offered the best opportunity of a killing shot into the spine.
As you'll appreciate, a lot of the skill in this kind of situation is in your snap shooting skills and sharpening these is always very difficult. Some hunters go as far as making all kinds of weird contraptions to simulate charges, others have a friend roll a tyre down a hill but I'm sorry to tell you that none of this will really help you when the brown stuff hits the fan. At that moment it's all down to snap reactions but choosing the right tool for the job will help you dramatically. Try to use a rifle of sufficient calibre for the job.
.375 H&H Magnum is usually the minimum permitted for most dangerous game species in most African countries but that's a minimum that can be used to hunt these species - it's not the calibre most suitable for stopping a charge. If you can shoot a larger calibre competently and comfortably then go for something bigger. In my opinion, real charge stoppers begin at .458.
Short barrels are a good idea as they give faster pointability and if you fit a scope to your chosen rifle, make sure it's fitted with QD scope mounts. A scope on a rifle in a close charge situation is a very serious disability. As to your choice of open sights, this particular Professional Hunter likes a shallow vee rearsight and one of those wonderful, large red fibre optic foresights. My advice however, would be to stick with what you know and like. If you're used to a peep sight then stick with it.
We've only discussed the Big Five so far, but there are plenty of other animals in the African bush that can and will try to do you serious harm if given half a chance. Hippo are formidable animals and whilst not particularly aggressive if left alone, will come right through you if they feel the need or if you unintentionally disturb a mother and calf, often to be found nesting in thick riverine bush. They also get extremely aggressive if you cut off their escape route back to water. If this happens, don't do as a game guard once did to me a few years ago which was to run and hide behind the Professional Hunter! Instead, try to put a bullet in the nose of the animal or if its mouth is open in that famous gape, and it may well be, put the bullet straight down the gullet.
In some cases, it's possible to turn a charging animal with a warning shot either into the air or into the ground in front of them. This should only be considered if there will still be time to reload and take a killing shot should it be necessary. One trick worth remembering with elephant is putting a shot through the outside edge of the ear. I guess it must sound like a clap of thunder to them. If anything is going to persuade an elephant to turn off of a charge, it's this. Another piece of advice worth remembering with any African game, but especially dangerous game is never, but never, turn or run away from them. They have more legs than you do and can always run and turn faster than you can ever hope to. Anyone who escapes any African dangerous game animal by running away from it is a very lucky man indeed!
Even the smaller antelope can be aggressive at times. The diminutive bushbuck for example, has sharp horns and stands at groin level. One sweep of those pointy horns and bang goes your femoral artery, and you're just as dead as if the biggest elephant in Africa had stamped all over you. Admittedly, death by bushbuck lacks something in the glamour department, but you're just as dead - perhaps an elegant body piercing by oryx or sable may be the answer. These antelope can valiantly defend themselves against lion and anything else for that matter - and win.
If you shoot straight in the first place and follow your Professional Hunter's advice then these situations will be kept to a minimum. Once your animal is down, don't think it's all over and don't try to grandstand by approaching the downed animal from the front. You should always approach any 'dead' animal from behind and with a great deal of caution. Remember, it's the 'dead' ones that get up and kill you. Once you're within a few yards, with your rifle all ready to rock and roll, have the tracker throw a couple of rocks at the animal's back end while you're slightly off to one side - a catapult or slingshot is ideal for this. Then if there's no reaction, approach closer and a try a kick or two. If there's still no reaction, move forward again and touch your rifle barrel against the eye of the animal. If you still get no reaction, then it's time for the pictures and then butchering the animal. Only once that job is finished can you be pretty sure the animal is dead!
Hunting dangerous game in Africa is one of the biggest thrills in the world and I love it dearly, but always remember that they're called dangerous game for a very good reason. You are, after all, visiting their world for an adventure, so try to ensure you know how to stay safe. Gain your cuts from thorns, your bruises from falling down a warthog burrow and your bleeding knees from leopard crawling and enjoy every minute and who knows, maybe we'll get to share a campfire together sometime down the road.