Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Kalahari Lions

Bowhunting Kalahari Lions- The King of Stalks

Simba travels at the speed of life… or death.  Three New York archers put their life on the line and stalk in for the kill. 

By Joe Byers

            “Lions don’t maim or maul, they kill,” said Professional Hunter Phillip Mostert, looking each of his three clients directly in the eyes.  “If we are successfully charged, one of you or I will die, there’s no doubt about it,” he continued in dead earnest.  If we have to kill the lion with a rifle on a charge your tag is filled and the hunt is over.  That happened to the last client and he was very disappointed, yet a lion can cover 100 yards in six bounds.  One swipe or bite and you are dead.  I don’t mean to scare you but you must understand how treacherous this hunt will be.  Probably, it’s the most dangerous thing you’ll ever do.”
            Despite this “pep talk,” the two plumbers and a retired fireman from New York stayed the course and were somewhat encouraged by Mostert’s next statement.  “On the positive side, male lions are the alpha predator.  Usually they avoid humans or ignore us as if they are impervious to danger.  Especially for archers, this works in our favor.”
            Mostert had intentionally saved this message for the first morning of the hunt to ensure that each man got a good night’s sleep and was physically and mentally ready for the challenge ahead.  “Enjoy your breakfast,” he said with the broad smile and robust sense of humor that marked his personality.  “Trackers are searching the property for fresh sign.  With luck they’ll cut a track in a couple of hours.”
            At noon, with no good news from the field, the PH opted for a drive through the ranch so that the hunters could get a feel for the terrain and perhaps have a chance to see a few of the many breeding prides roaming among the ranches 75,000 acres.   As the sun set on the vast and unforgiving landscape, the trio experienced the trepidation a hunter experiences when darkness descends on a land where virtually every creature is designed to rip, tear, impale, crush, or sting and where the terms “hunter” and “hunted” are often interchangeable. 

Fresh Tracks- Big Ones

            A party of three lion hunters was unprecedented for Mostert, yet all were good friends and wanted to share as much of a common experience as possible.  Ironically, each was an African virgin, that is not hunted even an impala previously.  Steve had been the first to book the hunt and was given the first shooting opportunity.  Early the next day, trackers reported a large fresh male lion track and electric anticipation shot through the entire group.  Boarding a safari vehicle, hunters, PH and trackers set out for the track.  Ordinarily, loud boisterous voices would accompany such a venture, yet the danger and three “elephant guns” on board helped punctuate the seriousness of the quest. 
            Traveling in the soft sand was very quiet allowing the entire party to follow the spore at a distance.  A tracker led the group, followed by a PH, the hunter, cameraman, and another PH.  A third rifle always accompanied the rest of the group to assure a wily cat did not circle and attack from the rear.  “We jumped the cat five or six time,” remembers Vinnie Barranco.  “I got a glimpse of it once through the thick bush, but this cat wanted no part of us.” 
            The stalk began in mid morning and lasted well into the afternoon when the quarry finally tired and sought hydration.  Six hours into the stalk, the king of beasts sneaked to a water hole, drank and then climbed on to the low branch of a tree.  Dogged by human pursuers, the big male lion acted like a Western puma choosing to avoid its antagonist through elevation. 
            Cats miss no movement, yet Mostert led his client 24 yards from the tree, until he finally had an open shot.  Taking careful aim, Steve unleashed the 70# Mathews, sending the Muzzy 4-blade broadhead through both shoulders.  Instantly the lion roared and ripped at the tree allowing Steve to nock a second arrow and release.  This one also penetrated the rib cage and in moments, the giant cat fell to the sand.  Despite the incredible stamina of a lion, one well place arrow generated extreme lethality and hunter and PH were exceedingly happy.

Day 3- Trackers in early Dawn

            I was supposed to go next,” remembers Barranco, “but my buddy Tom really wanted to be next.  The trackers were out in the dark searching for fresh sign and I relinquished my position at breakfast that day.  Tommy was very nervous since he had only hunted about five years and I thought it best for him.  I planned to stay as long as it took.  Some days, no fresh tracks are found, yet our luck held and we got a call shortly after breakfast that spore had been located.  Once again we all headed out together to the point of the track and then Tom, Phillip, and a tracker got down to business.” 
            This track worked similar to the other and the cat was approached several times, only to bolt and run.  After nearly four hours, the trail led into a dense patch of thorn where the big cat had holed up.  Was it waiting for an ambush allowing its prey to walk into a trap or just hiding, hoping that the humans would pass by?
            Lions have keen senses, yet not superior to those of a native bushman tracker who’s survival has depending upon tracking prowess for a million years.  Whispering the location in Afrikaans to Phillip, the PH motioned his hunter to move carefully and nonchalantly around the bush until he could see a clear shooting lane, all the while gripping his .375 for a lifesaving shot if needed. 
            Tom is athletic and in great shape, allowing him to manifest hours and months of practice for a perfect shot, catching the cat through both lungs as its lair of thorns imprisoned the beast in its final seconds.   
            After numerous photographs and a mild celebration, the group loaded up the big cat and headed back for a late lunch.  Ironically, the celebration was in mid stride when a call came in that another big cat had been located. 
            Taking two lions in two days was unprecedented for the safari company and the prospect of encountering a third was most tempting.  However, Mostert recommended waiting until morning when everyone had a fresh start.  A PH actually slept by the spore to assure the lion could be located at daylight.  

Three Lions for Three Hunters in Three Days???

            So far the group had been incredibly lucky.  Not only had they located trophy animals, but were able to track and shoot them successfully without the need for rifle back-up.  However, as Vinnie Barranco was about to learn, the next cat would not cut and run.
            Usually each day began with a leisurely, American-style breakfast, yet this day coffee and toast was the ticket so the hunters could be in the bush by dawn.  “Getting to the area of the big tracks, we found fresh spore and got off the truck a couple of times, but those turned out to be immature animals,” Vinnie remembers.  “Apparently the big cat had mingled with them overnight and we needed to cut his lone track.” 
            Traveling slowly, searching the sand for fresh pugs, Tommy sighted a lion in the bush about 350 yards away.  Stopping the vehicle, Phillip glassed the cat and quickly took action.  “That’s a huge male,” he whispered.  “We’re going to go a bit farther to get the wind in our favor.”
            Phillip organized the hunting party stressing again that everyone must walk in a straight line, should he have to shoot.  Not far from the vehicle, Phillip hand signaled to stop.  The cat wasn’t running away.   Instead, it walking directly toward them.  As pulses raced and stomachs churned, tension filled the air, the big tom approached to 125 yards and stopped. 
            “If it charges and I have to shoot that fills your tag, Phillip whispered, making sure that his client knew the score.  For long seconds predator and predator locked eyes.  Not exactly eyeball to eyeball, yet a blink was inevitable.
            Phillip motioned to follow and stepped forward at a, slow and steady pace stopping again at 75 yards.  “The lion will not run,” whispered Phillip, “Let’s just keep the pace until we are in range.”
            At 45 yards, Vinnie whispered, “He’s within range,” but Phillip maintained the stalk, hearts pounding with each step.  At 35 yards, Vinnie came to full draw and stepped with his arrow anchored waiting for the right moment.  The lion had its head down, ears back, and its tail whipping back and forth like a house cat about to pounce.  Still, the men advanced.
            At 30 yards, Vinnie’ arms began to tremble and he had to let down.  Death was just two bounds away and hunter and hunter had crossed the threshold of no return.  Five steps closer the lion, blinked and turned slightly to the left.  In an instant, Vinnie drew and released, catching the beast with a frontal chest shot.  “It must have jumped five feet in the air, roared and grabbed at the arrow,” he remembers.  “I knocked and shot again, putting a second arrow into its chest and it was done.”
            Moments of caution to assure the animal had expired led to an emotional release and back slapping celebration.  “I think I was more scared after the shot than before,” remembers Vinnie, as the adrenalin subsided and the reality of the hunt set in.   The lion weighed 420 pounds and the natives would consume every ounce, believing it gives special powers to those who eat it. 

            Finally, Phillip Mostert is a career Professional Hunter who has guided clients for the Big Five animals in numerous African countries, yet had never experienced such incredible success.  Vinnie could barely believe their good fortune.  “It was the experience of a lifetime and I’m so glad I didn’t wait for another year” he said.  “The lion I took was beyond my imagination and I would recommend this hunt to anyone.” 

Author’s note:  For information about hunting lions and plains game in Africa contact Phillip Mostert by e-mail at phillip@huntinglengends.com or on the web at http://www.huntinglegends.com/

Sidebar:                                Fair Chase or Faux Pau

            Lion hunting is a world class adventure and a free-roaming, fully fair-chase hunt costs $50,000 or more.  Like elephants, some of the best results come from land bordering national parks, bringing fair chase close to the line.  Most South African game ranchers don’t want lions on their property because a pride can easily consume $250,000.00 of game in a single year, quickly putting a safari company out of business. 
            So-called “canned hunts” occur when lions are raised and released on small properties where they are hunted after two weeks in the wild, a practice that has become illegal under South African law.  Ironically, these put-and-take hunts are often more dangerous than free roaming safaris since cats have no fear of humans and seek “revenge” on their previous captors.  One breeder reported that 50% of his females charged the hunter at first sight.
            The three hunters in this article were unanimous about the “fairness” of their chase.  The ranch was a massive expanse where they only saw a fence on entrance.  They hunted on foot using native trackers as has been done for thousands of years.  All shot Mathews bows, used Muzzy 4-blade heads, and Full Metal Jacket arrows for added weight, basically whitetail set-ups, and nothing that would provide an unfair edge.  Finally, this ranch has been credited by Cabela’s as the best Big 5 operator in South Africa.   

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