THE ADVENTURE OF THE TWO WILDEBEEST
“...I refer you to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time!”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894) “Silver Blaze”
This is a cautionary tale. It’s a story of how inexperience may go unrecognized or worse, be mistaken for experience; and of how vital understanding animal behaviour can be. On my first hunt in Africa, on a large ranch in the Northern Free State, I was presented with a dilemma that had only one possible outcome consistent with ethical hunting. In a few moments in the bush I learned as much about hunting as I have in the past 20 years. What happened to me could have happened to anyone, but it’s most likely to happen to other Americans whose only significant experience with large game hunting is with white-tailed deer. In the hope that I may prevent others from making my mistakes, I present it here.
I've hunted deer in thick cover in eastern North America for nearly forty years with success. Whitetails are very good at the game of hide and seek: fast on their feet, owning exceptional senses of smell and hearing, hard to spot and virtually impossible to stalk. The man who can consistently kill whitetails has reason to feel good about his skill as a hunter. But the premise that North American experience could be more or less directly extrapolated to hunting large African antelope is flawed. There are too many physical and behavioural differences.
As lightly-built woodland animals, however hard whitetails are to hunt, they aren't hard to kill. In other words, they’re the exact opposite of the large antelopes of the veld, and most especially, they’re nothing whatever like blue wildebeest. I knew this, of course. Quite aware that killing a wildebeest cleanly requires a heavy bullet, I was shooting180-grain ammunition in my .30-06. Far more important than ammunition selection, however, was something I’d neglected to factor into the equation: the difference between animals that move in groups and animals that live in herds. After I’d spent several days thinking about what happened and why I began to grasp the importance of this difference. Anyone whose previous experience was like mine might have made the same miscalculations.
Whitetails frequently move in groups; it’s not uncommon to see them in “herds” of 5 to 15 at a time. But they aren't true herd animals. A whitetail’s survival depends on his nose and his ears; to escape danger he relies on individual speed and maneuverability in thick brush. His group isn't a “herd,” it’s more of a loose association on individual animals all of whom happen to be feeding or lazing about in the same area. If you startle them, the “herd” instantly becomes scattered, every deer running for his own life.
To the true herd animal like wildebeest, the herd is life. Leaving the herd is the most dangerous thing such a creature can do because the herd is a sort of super-organism in and of itself: it has many eyes and ears, is able to detect danger farther away and in more directions than any single animal can. Moreover, the herd has a collective consciousness, an instantaneous communication of the state of things among all its members. The herd animal separated from the herd is far more than half blind and half deaf.
As a quasi-animal, a herd has its own behaviour, too, subtly distinct from the behaviour of the individuals of which it’s composed. My failure to understand one essential point tripped me up: the herd and the animal are two different things.
It had been a very long and tiring morning. I’d gone out at first light with my guide Hein and tracker, Twasi, and had spent the morning trying to get close enough to two very sizeable black wildebeest bulls for a shot. These two bulls had been somehow separated from their herd somewhere else on the 3000-hectare ranch. Stalking conditions were perfect: wind in my face and sun to my side. We found them and I stalked them three times that morning, every time starting from about 2 kilometers away. But those two bulls were much better at the game than I was; every time I got within 400 meters they drifted off into the scrub and vanished. By one o’clock I had walked and crawled at least 10 km and was pretty tired, so we started to hoof it back to the ranch house for some lunch. As we were doing so, one of the PH’s came by and said he’d seen a herd of blue wildebeest among the trees a few hundred meters away, so I decided to have a go at them instead of the two blacks.
We found the blues and I spent another hour or so getting downwind of them and working my way close enough for a shot. They were in a small clearing surrounded by thorn bushes, snorting and footling around like cattle seeking shade on as hot day. I stalked up to within about 200 meters, found a nice tree to break up my outline and provide a rest for my rifle, waited for one big cow to give me a clean shot, and when she did I shot her.
She went down with a THUMP and I heard a long, drawn-out moan. Now, I had heard exactly that sound from a kudu bull I’d killed the day before. That bull dropped in his tracks with a shot to the heart. Hein had told me this bellowing noise was an indication of a killing shot in the chest, so I was feeling pretty confident I had made a third one-shot kill.
That’s the point at which things got confusing, and at which my misunderstanding of the herd versus the individual led me into the path of error. The herd started milling around like minnows in a small pond, snorting and grunting. After about 15 seconds of The Wildebeest Shuffle, they took off at high speed as a group, running flat-out, bunched up, all in the same direction. This didn't bother me: after all, I knew there was a dead beast on the ground, right there, and started to walk up to it. As the herd survivors disappeared into the thicket, the “dead” beast stood up from the spot I’d watched and began circling aimlessly, casually, as if it were stunned.
I was horrified. I have never lost any large animal I've shot. With that rifle I’d previously killed many whitetails, not to mention the kudu and a gemsbok the day earlier, all of them one-shot kills. That a shot animal could get up and move around was something outside my experience. I was gripped by the necessity to end the affair right now, and took a second shot at the wildebeest, now facing in the opposite direction from the one she’d been facing when I fired the first time. A hit in the base of her neck put her down for keeps and I heaved a sigh of relief.
Hein and Twasi came up, and we called the ranch to tell them to bring the bakkie to haul her in. I told Hein, “I hit her twice: when she got up she turned around, so the original wound must be on the other side. Let’s turn her over so I can see where it hit.” We did so, but there was no wound. The neck shot was the only hole she had in her!
And…something was not quite right about the dead cow. She looked a tad different than when I’d fired the first time: a little lighter colored and a little smaller than she’d looked through the scope. My uneasiness increased; where in the blazes was the first bullet hole? A horrible thought struck me that maybe this was not the same wildebeest.
Still and all, I’d shot, an animal had fallen and bellowed; an animal had indisputably got up at the same location, acting confused and dazed, and been killed stone dead with the second shot. Could I have missed the first time? Even at two hundred meters, on an animal that size, shooting from a rest with a rifle that reliably groups shots into an inch and a half, this seemed almost impossible. And why would she fall down and bellow for a miss?
I said to Hein, “I have a weird feeling about this kill. Something’s wrong here. I'm not entirely sure this is the same animal I shot at the first time!” We all searched for blood or hair or some other evidence of a different animal having been hit. When the bakkie arrived, the PH and his crew joined in the search, to no avail. There was nothing, no hair, not a drop of blood nor any indication of a second, wounded beast within 100 meters of the place where my wildebeest lay, unquestionably dead from my second shot. We loaded her into the bakkie and headed to the ranch.
Half an hour after arrival and the obligatory pictures, I was about to lie down for a much-needed nap, when my partner Rick ran in and said, “Bad news! There’s a wounded wildebeest on the hill!” I grabbed the rifle and we ran to the bakkie. The driver roared out to where the herd had gathered in a tight group, warily eyeballing the second bakkie, in which the ranch manager and one of the PH’s had gone out to look things over and make sure everything was okay with them.
Everything was most decidely not okay: one large cow had blood on her right shoulder from a wound on her hump. This was the cow I’d shot with the first round! I was pretty upset at this development, and as soon as she presented me with an opportunity, dispatched her with two chest hits. When we gathered to look her over, sure enough, she had a hole in the hump on her back. If this was the first wildebeest, the one I’d wounded, where had the second one come from?
That first shot had hit much higher than I had intended. It had failed to expand, drilling a neat hole through the hump, as if it had been a solid. What blood could be seen was coming from the entry wound; there was none at all on the exit side. At the range of the initial hit, lack of expansion in the soft tissue of the hump wasn't surprising, though the point of impact was. Had it hit 3 inches lower it would have broken her spine, but hitting the hump must have been merely a stunning blow from which she more or less immediately recovered. It wasn't a killing hit, and there’s no doubt in my mind she’d have survived what was a fairly minor flesh wound had the PH not spotted her. She was keeping up with the herd and acting perfectly normally by then, and had there been no visible blood he wouldn't have suspected anything was wrong. At that point I assumed that the bellow I’d heard had not been that of a dying animal, but of one crying out in pain and surprise.
I've replayed this incident over and over in my mind and have come to some conclusions about what happened. As I've said, wildebeest and whitetails are different in more ways than just size and toughness. The instinct of the wildebeest to stay with the herd at any cost, explains both the wounded one running off and the sudden appearance of the second one. It even explains the bellow.
Here’s what must have occurred: wildebeest #1 (the cow I wounded) was standing in front of wildebeest #2 (the one I subsequently killed), and wildebeest #2 was lying down to rest. Since there was knee-high scrub, I simply didn't see #2 at all, who was probably asleep. When #1 was hit, she staggered from the blow and fell on top of #2 and the bellow I’d heard was not from #1 at all, but from #2, who’d had the wind knocked out of her when 250 kg of #1 fell on top of her.
As soon as I shot, the herd had begun milling around in all directions. This I now realize is another herd-behaviour tactic that serves to distract and mislead a predator, giving an injured herd member a chance to escape an Isolate wouldn't have. When forty or so scared wildebeest are trampling the brush, it’s easy to lose track of the one you want, and that’s exactly what happened to me. This never happens with whitetails: they simply hit their afterburners and scatter like a covey of birds at top speed. After a few seconds of random motion had taken my eye off the beast I had actually shot, the herd generated a collective signal of, “OK, we've distracted him enough, now let’s run that way!” Off they went, #1 staying with them because her injury wasn't too bad.
Immediately after the herd took off, wildebeest #2, still partly stunned by the impact of #1, got up and starting looking for the herd. From my shooting position, this appeared to be #1 standing up after the shot. As they were literally on top of one another, from 180 or so meters I was unable to recognize the fact that there were two to begin with, especially with everyone doing The Wildebeest Shuffle. Wildebeest #2 was dazed and had the wind up, but not having been part of the group decision to run that way, she was unsure of where the herd had gone. She wasn't injured: she was looking for everyone else. She knew that isolation meant death, and thanks to my unfamiliarity with the species I misinterpreted her confusion and searching for the wobbling of a wounded animal.
There are lessons to be drawn here. The first is that no matter how much hunting experience you may have in your home country, it’s a pretty good bet that not all of it will apply somewhere else. I'm a good hunter but in terms of African game I was a total novice who didn't understand his quarry as fully as he should have done. It's been suggested to me that it was Hein's job to explain the behavior of wildebeest, but I can't accept that. Hein had seen me drop two animals in their tracks the previous day, and had no real reason to think I wasn't conversant with the subtleties of large antelope behavior. To put the onus on him is indefensible: the fault was entirely mine.
The second lesson is that even if things seem dead-certain sure and pulling the trigger a mere formality, things can go wrong that are unexplainable as they are unexpected. That first shot should not have gone high, but it did. It might have been rushed, and it might have been deflected by a twig or thorn. I'm inclined to the latter theory, and here again I was probably misled by my own experience. Though I hunt in heavy brush with limited visibility, and know about bullet deflection; differences in the vegetation probably caused me to miss seeing some very minor object in front of the barrel. A twig or even a single thorn in the right place could have cause that high hit. That’s one question I will never have the answer to, but it’s a tenable theory.
The third lesson is that what had to be done, had to be done. Though I believe #1 would have recovered, ethically it would have been unthinkable to let her take her chances. Once it was definite that there were two wildebeest, not one, it was imperative to follow up and kill the wounded one. When she was found one of the PH’s asked if I wanted him to dispatch her. “Not on your life,” I replied, “I wounded her and I'll finish her off. It’s not your job to clean up my mistakes. Just keep an eye on her so she doesn't suffer any longer than she has.” Furthermore, I’d had no real option but to shoot #2 as well. I had to assume it was the same animal, given the situation. Not to have shot would have been irresponsible because at that point I didn't know for certain there were two animals.
Once we had #1 back at the skinning shed, I gave her to the skinners, who had earned the meat by doing my grunt work for me. Having botched the hunt and only partially redeemed matters by what amounted to an execution—I suppose I could comfort myself with thinking of it as a "mercy killing" if I hadn't been the one who made it necessary—I wouldn't have felt right in keeping it for myself. I did keep the horns: while most trophies hang on walls to remind me of what I did right, these will always remind me of what I did wrong, and serve as a warning against bungling again in the same way. It’s the only way I can think of to honor wildebeest #1 properly.