Heritage of a Passion
After all these years of observation and learning from my father Frank VANNIER, time has come for me to guide my very first big game safari on my own.
It is one January that I meet my hunter. Didier is animated by the adrenaline that tracking a savannah buffalo provides. It is not his first experience.
The next morning, while we were still getting acquainted in the 4×4, we cross-checked the tracks of a herd of buffaloes. I stop immediately, everyone gets out to judge the tracks. Grass still wet, mowed by a hoof and urine not quite dry, trapped in a dead leaf, testify of the proximity of the animals. On the other hand, some tracks are covered by the feet of a civet cat, which leads me to believe that the buffaloes passed by at the end of the night. Suddenly, my chief tracker whistles to me, he has probably found the footprint of a promising male. 7:05 am: we start tracking!
We spend almost 3 hours on a rather technical tracking before getting contact. The biotope is very closed. A dense bako, surrounded by a wall of grass, slows down our progress. We will have to multiply the approaches to identify all the animals of the herd and to confirm that it does not count any male. The “big foot” which aroused our excitement belonged in reality to an old female. We gave up our hunt and returned to the vehicle.
Half an hour later, as our excitement was just beginning to subside, my windshield received violent blows from a wooden stick, the one used by my chief tracker posted in the back of the pick-up, in order to communicate with me. I immediately kill the engine because a huge solitary buffalo is standing still near the track! I tell my hunter to get out of the pick-up silently while I get out on my side. I realize that I am in apnea, as if to prevent my breathing from betraying our presence. No need for binoculars to confirm that we are dealing with an old male. I walk a few dozen meters on tiptoe, avoiding the slightest dead leaf, in order to correctly position the shooting stick. It is only then that I perceive the timid reluctance of my future friend. He puts the buffalo into his scope but despite my authorization to shoot, does not pull the trigger of his 375H&H. He admits to me that he is not sure he wants to shoot his buffalo this way. As a sportsman, Didier aspires to take a tracking shot since the beginning to eventually reserve this kind of opportunity for the last days. So, he refuses my permission to shoot under the wrathful look of my trackers. I internalize my relief: what a disappointment it would have been to take such an animal in these conditions. I silently thank Didier.
The following days, we will multiply the contacts and the emotions, but hope will often blend into disappointment, excitement in frustration. Isn’t it said that one should be opportunistic in Africa? Was that the lesson? To know how to accept a gift when the Bush offers it to us?
Finally came the very last day.
All for all, we leave the camp at 5:30 in the morning to join a remote area of the concession. On the road, we bump into a leopard which goes along the track several tens of meters before stopping in a well cleared biotope. We observe it for a long time while the first lights of the day underline the contrast of its unique skin.
A little later, while it is still dark, I distinguish an imposing mass in the middle of the road. I don’t recognize the silhouette, too small to be an elephant and not slender enough to be a giraffe. However, the animal is a few meters high! A new species? No. A Lord Derby eland. Standing up. On its rear legs, tearing off some leafy branches of a shiny Isoberlinia. This is the very first time I’ve seen an eland standing up! For sure, this day will not be like the others.
A few minutes later, I see buffalo tracks on the trail. A herd of more than 40 animals without any doubt. I stop the engine of my pick-up to evaluate time of passage. The tracks seem fresh, we look for a few more minutes in the hope of finding a dung or vegetal clues when we hear mooing a few hundred meters away. We are very close! We gear up immediately, it is 6:15 am. The tracking begins while the wind is absent this morning. According to the tracks, a beautiful male must be in the herd. We were progressing silently when the tracks brought us back on the road.
25 minutes later, we saw dust in the air: they were there. We get closer to the herd, until we make contact. The cows graze here and there: about 50 animals in total! The main part of the herd is on our left, another part is still on the dirt road. No alert has been given, the steady wind covers the noise of our steps. Suddenly, I see movement in the high grass on our right. I look through my binoculars: a few black, red and brown backs. For a fraction of a second, I have the impression to see an old male! His image disappears from my retina as quickly as it appeared to me. Is it my imagination playing tricks on me? I am not sure of anything anymore. Nevertheless, the herd is too spread out. I decide to move forward on the trail, hoping that the few animals on our right will join the rest of the herd by crossing in front of us. We post up and I brief my hunter friend. He is ready to shoot, leaning on his tripod, his breath controlled. Then, a first cow crosses 40 meters in front of us. Followed by a second one, then a calf. A big buffalo takes over. The shutter of Sylvie’s camera, Didier’s wife, will freeze it in its crossing. She looks at us with dilated nostrils and, intrigued, decides to get closer to us. 35 meters: “do not move” I say to Didier. 30 meters: “it will stop”. 25 meters: I feel the nervousness of my team to whom I order not to make a move. The buffaloes pick up the scents and hear very well but their sight is questionable. As long as we remain motionless and our scent does not reach their nostrils, we are like mere stones. The cow freezes, gauges us and then loses interest in us. She ends up crossing the road and joining the rest of her peers. Didier hardly catches up his breath when a second buffalo appears and decides to get closer to us as well. After our first confrontation, I feel that Didier is more confident. We will allow the buffalo to pass the 20 meters mark. The cow will also end up judging that we do not represent any danger. Error of reading. The last animals that I had spotted are crossing in single file a little further, we move forward accordingly. They are females accompanied by their calves as well as a very young male… I distinguish a last animal, it must be HIM! I suggest to Didier to get ready to shoot on my order, the time to estimate the trophy with binoculars. False alarm, it is indeed a female which crosses the track without even seeing us. Then… nothing more. Would I have been mistaken? Would I have magnified this young male in my mind?
After 8 days of relentless search and multiple contacts with young buffaloes, it is easy to imagine the old male and to visualize him everywhere.
While I was already imagining an alternative strategy, I hear the grass moving, still on our right. I distinguish a brown mass, more imposing than the others. This animal is mature, no doubt about it. I cannot see its trophy yet. Is it a big female? Or the old male of my dreams? The animal comes out of the ocean of grass to put a hoof on the edge of the track, 40 meters from us: an old male! The only word I will say is “yes”. Didier pulls his trigger in a fraction of a second. His gun roars. The dull impact follows, characteristic of the bullet that penetrates the flesh. Our buffalo stumbles but continues its race. His imposing muscles unfold and order him to run for his life. The rest of the herd freezes at 200 meters, in hedge of honor. They are sizing us up as much as we are watching them.
My chief tracker spots our target first. He shows it to me at once, overexcited. Didier and I approach to position ourselves for a last shot. The buffalo collapses 100 meters away from us, in a never-ending fall. I can already feel Didier’s emotion and adrenaline flooding him. We stare at each other, all teeth out. But as I turn towards the buffalo, I notice its spasms. No, they are not spasms. He is trying to turn around, still on the ground, using his hind legs, his head up and his neck muscles contracted. He is looking for us. He will get up, I KNOW it. We must react quickly.
The buffalo is frantic, impossible to shoot from where we are. We have to get closer. I invite Didier to follow me quickly. 50 meters, 40, 30 meters. The buffalo gets up in a surprisingly fluid movement. I take off the safety of my weapon and immediately put it in sight. A mute confrontation follows. Time dilates. There is nothing left but him, and me. I do not feel any aggressiveness. Neither in his attitude, nor in his look. Where is it? The one I have often been portrayed. We look each other straight in the eyes, I try to understand. What does he feel? What does he understand about our meeting?
My chief tracker pulls me out of my torpor, I decide to put an end to this face to face.
8 days of hunting. 8 days of doubts. For only a few minutes when emotions are released, impetuous, tenfold.
What I will remember the most during this first safari, are the tears of my father. Those that translate the pride, the transmission of an ancestral heritage, of a family know-how for 4 generations.
Far from my client and from any light, I will also cry tonight.
As a gift to a friend or to treat yourself, order your copy as of now.
THE NORTHERN LION IN IMMEDIATE DANGER
The Northern lion, Panthera leo leo, is in immediate danger of extinction in Cameroon and across the rest of their range. In 2023, it is estimated that there is less than 400 West African lions left in the wild…