Malitubu Camp, Zaïre:

Close Encounters of the Leonine Kind

After Successful Hunts

Glenn W. Geelhoed


Senior Fulbright Scholar

African Regional Research Program

Address Correspondence to Dr. Glenn W. Geelhoed

Office of the Dean, George Washington University Medical Center

Ross Hall 103, 901 23rd Street NW Washington DC 20037

Phone 202/994-4428, FAX 202/994-0926

Email: WWW URL:


It happened this way. We were camped under a spreading umbrella of acacia thorn trees in the middle of a munga--the hard rock of a volcanic shield, often sounding hollow under foot with occasional breakthrough of the crust into lava tubes beneath, and with scarce soil, nearly non-existent in some places, supporting the tall yellowed stalks of elephant grass. In the dry season, this thicket of tan dead stalks of tall grass, which looks like what would be called "cane break" in the deep South of the U.S., is burned over. The setting alight of this dry tinder results in long lines of crackling bright fires which sweep in the direction of the prevailing winds, going for kilometers until interrupted by a small stream in a valley or a copse of trees in a mature rainforest community which does not burn over the way the tall grass savannah does. What is left behind is the lava rock looking like it has just cooled from the eruption of the shield volcanoes from the Rwenzori ("the Mountains of the Moon") to the east even though that event happened many uneroded eons ago, with a little bit of ash scattered on the rock that somehow supports the germination of the next rainy season's growth of tall grass.

Our camp was a rainforest island, a hummock--to borrow a phrase from the "River of Grass" that is the Everglades, which is similarly burned in the dry season--with an expanse of burned-over munga on all sides of us excepting a two hundred meter stretch of ash-covered rock to the north where a steep ravine that was heavily wooded led down to a stream that would be our camp's water source. This is Malitubu. Malitubu was the setting in which the action would take place. We were ready for the action, but we expected to be the predators, and had not expected to have "close encounters of the leonine kind." This is how it happened in Malitubu.

Malitubu Camp

We had driven back from the village of Ndamana thirty kilometers from the Uele River and the border with Central Africa Republic at Zemio some fifty kilometers beyond. We were in Northeast Zaïre in the guinea savannah of Zandeland with the Ituri Forest to the east and the vast rain forest collecting system of the River Zaïre to the north, and were out "hunter-gathering" for a cause--not least of which was my interest in doing so. We had examined patients and collected data for the study of endemic goiter--a thyroid problem endemic in this area--in the village of Ndamana for several days preceding our return trip down the hazardous track with large bumps, holes and fallen trees blocking our path which for purposes of Zaïrian transport consists of a double red line on the map which even is glorified with a name--"N-118". This Zaïrian excuse for a road would eventually take the diesel-powered four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser back to Assa, the mission station which was the base for our investigation and volunteer medical and surgical work. Being a mission station, it would also serve as the site for the convening of a large group of church leaders--who had to be fed as guests of the station. This is where I came in.

Jean Marco, the chief tracker, had been out to survey Malitubu earlier and had burned over the tall grass when the wind was right to secure a perimeter around Malitubu camp site. I had always thought that deliberately burning off the dry grasslands was a waste of organic material that could serve as soil-building compost later that might support a greater variety of life than the thicket of tall grass which was in no way like the great prairies of the American Midwest with the sod and soil laid down by the millennia of growing seasons. Jean Marco knew better. When I asked this question several times before, he would point to an area where the grass growth was stunted and thin, saying, "that area did not burn over last year." Somehow, the inorganic nutrients released by burning off the tall grass allow a more luxuriant growth in the absence of soil, a common tropical condition. In alternating seasons of deluge and drought which is the case in the inter-tropic depression along the equator, almost all the organic material that is seen in the abundant speciation and wide variety of the tropical rain forest is suspended up in the air, with almost no support from the meager soil, which bakes and cracks in the dry season and washes away when the rains begin. Whole communities are supported in the arboreal canopy, which rely on the ground only for support and not for much in the way of nutrients which are trapped in the many layers of ecosystems suspended in the tropical rain forest.

I would have abundant opportunity to review this ecology and the interdependence of life in the mosaic of "footprints" of burned over savannah between "life islands" of pocket rain forests as I hunted the mungas of northeast Zaïre.

The Hunting Party Ventures Out From Malitubu

The first days after camp was set up, Jean Marco and a couple of helpers and I set out for "camp meat" to hunt for "the pot". We made long treks around the surrounding environment to get a better appreciation of the terrain, and to search out long distance for antelope or the spoor of the biggest of the game for which we would be meat hunting--Nyati--the ill-tempered African cape buffalo. We would encounter both groups of game before we broke camp at Malitubu, but earlier, we spotted "zigba", the forest hog or "vlakvaark" as its name is in South African Afrikaans. In the burned-over grassland , it is sometimes tricky to close in on prey since we must perpetually navigate upwind around sparse cover to cross open spaces to close in on game that is spotted at long distance after being suspected from subtle sign, such as broken stalks of the dry grass that still remain, urine spatter or droppings, since the hard rock munga leaves few tracks. The "trackers" don't need many tracks to determine anything more than the number of animals passing and the time at which they had moved through, relying more on subtle signs, often "tracking in air" on scent and sound, using the single superior sense that humans have--if practiced--in discriminate long range vision and the intelligence to put all the signs together. A casual visitor hiking through the mungas walking through open spaces over the hard rock that had been burned over might return to say that the region was barren of any wild life, and we had come here deliberately for its wild life to support a large convening of people at Assa a week later.

How could we manage to procure, prepare and preserve meat in this tropical jungle without refrigeration or even clean facilities for sanitation? That was one of the functions of Malitubu base camp, where firewood had been procured and a rack had been built over this supply of firewood where very skilled hands would section carcasses of meat into appropriate sized pieces over the dampened fire where it would be dried and smoked to preserve it for weeks to months if need be. Meat is a very precious commodity, and is nearly a condiment in the diet of the Azande people who have a staple intake of cassava, a starchy root that grows almost wild (after its import from South America in the Columbian exchange) with very little effort needed in the cultivation. The root is unearthed and stored like a log, with secure storage since even the rats don't eat the cassava roots. It is then soaked when there is water in the rainy season, pounded to a pulpy flour, and is eaten as a doughy paste. Cassava is high in fiber, low in any other nutrients except some starchy carbohydrates, which is all that the Azande rely upon it for, a low grade nutrient support. They are critically protein-deprived and very eager to get salt, fat or other rare and precious dietary supplementation.

Each of the people in the camp were skilled in this method of preparing and preserving the scarce nutrients from animal sources, including an older mother whom we had taken back from Ndamana for an important purpose. She had wrapped a bundle of cassava roots in the abundant packaging material of the bush--broad-leafed plants abound in the jungle and vines were used as the packaging twine-- and had set out with us as a passenger in one of the few times she would be riding in a vehicle in her life. She was returning to Assa to visit her daughter's grave. Her daughter was a cretin of about thirty years of age, and had undergone operation for the removal of an obstructing goiter. I was grieving about her daughter's loss almost as much as the mother was, since it was unexplained to either one of us, other than the fact that cretins are very fragile in respect to their hold on life, and she simply ran out of energy postoperatively and died without obvious reason for doing so. This was the first loss in the surgical series of goiter patients, and we were carrying "Mama" back to visit her grave to complete her grieving ritual. Mama, being a daughter of the bush, knew what we were doing and was expert in food handling and preparation, although she had never in her life seen so much meat as she would be seeing later in the Malitubu camp. She, and a rotating shift of the trackers would be continually feeding and damping the fire, turning and scoring and preparing the precious meat so none of it was lost, and guarding it from the hyenas we heard howling in the night and any other predator--with one big exception we would encounter later.

Score!--A Tale of Two Waterbucks

We set off before dawn. We hiked from Malitubu camp following a riverine bush cover, where possible, but continuously headed upwind. We scouted about for sign, of which each tracker and even the bearers was astutely aware. Most of the sign they could see was old, but still very readable with the skills born of a life in the bush.

One of those skills that I watched intently and misinterpreted originally was that they would pause and turn their head ninety degrees in focusing what I thought was their binaural attention trying to get a fix on something that they could hear. I carefully noted down the patterns of behavior associated with this activity, but could never hear anything myself. This should not be unusual, because I once joked to Jean Marco who was fascinated about what it was that I was looking for inside the "twins"--binoculars that I carried on a strap around my neck. I explained to one of the trackers that "this was a device that enabled Europeans to see almost half as well as Jean Marco did without them!" They had to believe me, since I would hold up the binoculars for them to look through and reverse them, saying that from this end you see what the white man typically can spot, and from this side you see how the same scene appears to the Zande tracker!

I kept watching this careful head turning activity when we were in a position that was about to change because of shifting subtle breeze or changing course to cross an open space. Eventually I learned that it is not the "binaural fix" that they were employing, but the sensation, hyperacutely attuned, of the tiny lanugal hairs on the mastoids behind each ear which were the most sensitive indicators of the wind direction I have yet known. This was well ahead of talcum powder dropped into the breeze, which--if they had any at all--would have been a scent indicator to any wildlife, and very much ahead of the classic method of wetting the finger and seeing which side cools first as an indicator of the oncoming breeze. With the subtleness of this wind direction sensor by feeling movement behind the ears on either mastoid process when the head was turned, they were able to increase the sensitivity over scuffed dust movement direction or even the downy plant material floating in the air or insect drift. I had to scratch in a new set of notes to correct my earlier interpretation of this behavior.

We entered a likely-looking environment for game spotting around 7:00 am after it had been light an hour and a quarter. We found old buffalo spoor, and some antelope tracks that were yesterday's, but no fresh evidence of any game having been in the dried-up waterhole with only a little mud in the central part of what would become a small lake in the rainy season.

The hunt is good sport, but not only fun. At this point we retraced our steps, coming through some of the same territory we had covered, and turned up along one of the mungas to enter a valley beyond a long sloping ridge with tree cover screening us from the opposite side. At this point, I was feeling a bit tired and febrile, since even on antimalarial prophylaxis, there are lots of "nyama"--in this instance meaning "little animals"--parasites--that can come to live with you in the hunter's pattern of living in the swamps and bush of the equatorial rain forest. I was slogging forward behind Jean Marco with the .375 Weatherby H & H magnum slung over my right shoulder and a backpack carrying the waterflask, a light lunch, cameras, tape recorder, a knife and battery-powered torch which I had padded with cloth to keep any rattling from occurring by contact of metal surfaces. Additionally there was a clip of .375 Weatherby cartridges with 325 grain partitioned bullets in a plastic belt-grooved clip from which I had loaded all but the chamber of the scope-fitted rifle. All of the hiking, packing and scouting is done with an empty chamber, since a good deal of the crawling under jungle liana vines and battering through the broken dry cane of unburned tall grass snags on weapons as well as entangling arms and ankles. The trackers carried the likanga (a smelted ore, pounded, repeatedly-sharpened bush knife called a "panga" elsewhere in Africa) and a venerable spear. They were typically barefoot, wearing shorts and some form of ragged shirt which was principally there to be taken off and rolled up as a head cushion when carrying very heavy burdens, as all Africans do, balanced on their head. Only the Europeans seem to need the luxury of a hat, and in my instance, it was a camouflaged slouch hat which was much admired by Jean Marco's nephew, who wants to graduate to the hunter class when he is old enough to join the men. The next year he did join and is now wearing my hat.

I was beginning to feel like I had put in a long day at about 9:30 a.m. when we crested a small rise and one of the trackers in advance spotted something over a kilometer ahead in a small swale of verdant grass which meant water near this little valley. We had kept seeking out water sources, since cape buffalo travel in herds and require repeated visits to water from which they can never stray very far since each of these huge cantankerous beasts takes in up to forty liters of water per day. In this case, what the trackers had seen in a glimpse before fading back into the bush cover from which they had ventured were not cape buffalo, but what appeared to be three antelope, given the in names in their home tongue, Basili, then passed to Kongonyesi in Pazande, which came to Jean Marco in Bangala from which it was related to me in French--all along the line retaining the meaning--waterbuck!

I quickly shook off my headache and weariness and as silently as possible chambered a round in the .375 Weatherby. Jean Marco crouched and slinked off to the right where there was better cover, and he and I took the lead followed by Bunio, the only African wearing a hat. The hat was an old felt fedora, since he was the one in charge of fueling the vehicles and this hat was the fuel filter when not in its alternate use on Bunio's head.

Jean Marco and I slipped forward around tall anthills from which we peered to see--in my case--nothing at all that looked alive. I spotted the area of the grassy swale, but saw no motion within it. At this point we began a crawl around the scant bush cover using the occasional low scrub ironwood trees to break our outlines. As I got to my knees behind one of these trees I spotted one waterbuck five hundred meters away and looking away from us with two humps that were somewhat closer surrounded by moving grass. We waited, continually checking the wind, and I slipped the backpack from my shoulders and crawled forward with the rifle.

Jean Marco had a tree in mind, and was crab-walking toward it while facing the light breeze in the dark overcast morning. By this time, I could see the outlines of three waterbuck, and recognized that the first one I had seen was a magnificent bull, and the second, another bull, with a third that appeared to be a doe either over-distended with green grass or the late stages of pregnancy. She was the closest, and to all the Africans who could see (although most of the party had dropped off honoring the point and advance of the hunters) and to Bunio, at least, who was lagging a hundred meters behind us, all were clearly focused on the waterbuck doe as the first target of our approach. I didn't think so, but didn't say anything nor indicate to Jean Marco that I might have a different set of plans. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, Jean Marco, ten meters ahead of me, had advanced to the tree he had in mind with a side branch that was stout and horizontal one meter off the ground. The waterbuck doe was within a hundred meters and the two magnificent waterbuck twice as far beyond. Without saying a word or even looking in my direction, Jean Marco raised his left hand and simply tapped the horizontal branch of the ironwood tree. I understood implicitly and got into position to use it.

With the antelope in front of me alternately raising and lowering their heads, I waited for the synchrony when each of the three would be turned, and slid the rifle barrel onto the convenient gun rest. I swung the scope to the field of the furthest and biggest waterbuck as one of the two closer waterbuck raised a head looking in our direction. From the corner of my eye I saw the ears cocked forward pointing toward us, but I was centering the scope on the furthest waterbuck and slipped off the safety. The magnificent waterbuck horns came up above the grass and the head swiveled to look back in our direction as I squeezed the trigger when the crosshairs settled below the ear high in the neck.

At the sound of the roar that filled the valley, the first and furthest waterbuck dropped like a stone out of the scope's field of view. I picked the rifle off the rest and swung it in the direction of the midfield waterbuck, the one I identified as the second biggest of the males, and it was already in full flight bounding away from us over the grass when I had chambered a new round and found it in the scope on one of it's upbounds. When the forked horns were bisected by the crosshairs I squeezed off the second shot. With both eyes open I could see the waterbuck rolling end over end and kicking once in the grass before lying still. In the corner of my vision, I saw the waterbuck doe, still frozen in the position closest to us. At this point I saw that the large swelling was not forward in her belly but clearly a late-term gravid uterus. When I slung the rifle again over my right shoulder, she bounded off perpendicular to our path, until she disappeared into the scrub trees beyond the anthills.

I heard, then saw, Bunio come rushing forward in a crouch, carrying my shed backpack in his left hand, my binoculars in his right, and running toward the place where the first waterbuck had fallen. He said something to Jean Marco in passing and looked at me before running on. The rest of the party came forward more slowly, but quite excited, and one of the trackers was heard to ask the same thing of Jean Marco. I thought they were congratulating the shots, since they heard the hits, and although they did not see the score, they saw the second waterbuck crumple in midflight when he was bounding away, so they knew there was "nyama"--in this instance meaning "meat", to be brought back to Malitubu camp. When the whole gang had gathered and the Europeans were pounding my back in congratulation I asked what was the phrase that I heard said twice to Jean Marco. Perhaps secretly I yearned to hear praise-singing from one group of hunters to another, who was longing to be recognized as at least half as good as they were, if not in the hunt, at least in the score in this instance. One of the Europeans burst into laughter, and translated for me: "Why not the third?"

The Return to Camp

By fortunate coincidence, the neck had broken cleanly in each waterbuck, not only bringing instant death, but preservation of the intact carcass of each animal--a good deal of meat, not only for the camp, but for the conference that was the forthcoming event toward which this hunt was planned. Within minutes, trackers and bearers set about returning fallen waterbuck, with only one deviation from usual practice in order to accommodate the special interests of their guest shooter. The bigger of the waterbuck had a magnificent head, and I was considering carrying back the cape and horns as a trophy. This is not typically done on a meat hunt, and every conceivable use that can be extracted from the animal carcass including hide, hoofs and viscera is preserved, not as trophies, but as basic necessities of life. In this one instance, this part of the hunt looked like a sportsman's trophy procurement, and the head of the bigger waterbuck was returned intact for later careful salting of the cape after scraping and dressing its skullplate. I went out into the bush to gather the green leafy "wrappers" for some of the viscera, and other parts of the carcass were cut into portable chunks that would fit principally as head-borne loads, and to a lesser extent, burdens that did not accommodate balancing on top of the head were swung on poles cut almost immediately from the adjacent forest. Within a very short time, the loaded hunting party began the trek back to Malitubu camp.

Several things of note occurred on the transit back to camp, which should have been shorter and more direct than the one earlier in the morning following the wind in the course of the explorations of the hunting party. For one thing, we crossed near an open munga of dried broken down tall elephant grass that was unburned, and matches were dropped on the windward side in order to fire it over "to create better food and cover next season for the wildlife". The primitive appearance of the party of hunter-gatherers returning from the successful hunt under the burdens of bloody meat and carcass parts crossed in front of this wall of fire--an almost primordial scene. It was only later that I thought there might be some other utility of having a wall of fire adjacent to a line of bearers with fresh, bloody meat, dropping a spoor of liquid on the ground and a plume of scent trailing in the air behind them.

There was a small deviation toward an area of cool shade in a glen with water that had been a waterhole during the rainy season. This would be the mid-trek rest stop. While the group rested, I restlessly wandered around the waterhole stumbling over the skulls of two large elephant skeletons. The very large molars after which this species is named--Loxodonta--were still intact in the skull, since the poachers had no interest in these teeth. Where the tusks had been, there were sockets with hack marks from machetes in the skull bone, showing their real focus of interest. This huge beast is a victim--named for its molars and doomed by its canines.

We returned to camp triumphant with a lot of venison to be processed. The meat processing was immediately taken up as tasks by each of those who had remained behind as well as several of the trackers who stopped only momentarily to go over to the ravine behind the camp to wash in the stream at the foot of the hill.

That night following a wonderful dinner (that would have been called a "braai" in Southern Africa) of fresh waterbuck tenderloin, we sat back in our copse of trees at Malitubu camp and looked up at the stars, brilliant in the absence of any light pollution around us with the exception of the low flickering fire. All night long the stoking of the smoky fire over which waterbuck meat was drying was attended by one or more of the camp carefully preserving what was so precious and had just been carried out from the field where it had fallen earlier the same day.

The ambience of the camp fire circle at night had two additional sounds to make it uniquely memorable. One was the babble and frequent chuckles of the contingent hunting party as they set about their tasks of dressing and drying meat, cleaning and repairing equipment, and getting ready for the early morning hunt to follow before dawn. But, second, and more eerie, was the high howling whines of the hyenas. First there was one, then there were several, and at quite a distance. Then there were many, and very much closer. At about 9:30 p.m., I left the camp fire when I heard one at very close range, and walked out into the perimeter of the camp in the area that had been burned over. When I heard something, I switched on my torch and two golden glowing embers looked back at me. Then with the squat hindquarter shuffle of the loping hyena, the rather ugly creature ambled off with a side-winder gait into the darkness. Farther off, a second set of glowing eyes returned my light, but this one was crouching, silent, unblinking, and did not run. I returned to camp and rolled into the sleeping bag content, tired, and eager to get up early to do it all over again.

On the Track of The "Tuff Buff"

The next morning I felt better, as a successful hunt often seems to engender this therapeutic effect, I have noted. Success doesn't necessarily mean scoring, or even pulling the trigger, since "a good hunt" and "a good shoot" are not necessarily co-terminus, but both coincided in the previous day. 'Mama' and a couple of bearers were happily stoking the fire and continuing the drying/smoking of the meat that had continued all night and would throughout this day as well. With this scent in our nostrils (and, perhaps in other carnivores' as well) we set out before dawn in a different direction to follow a lead from one of the trackers who had scouted in that direction and reported day-old tracks of a cape buffalo herd that had passed through. As previously noted, they would not wander too far from water, and in this part of the dry season, the Malitubu camp had been strategically placed adjacent to a slow flowing stream and there was water where this scout indicated the tracks were headed about ten kilometers from camp.

We set out in that direction, crossing the tracks about the time that it became light. The herd looked quite substantial, with a mixture of the sizes that are quite typical for the interbreeding here between the dwarf or rufous "forest buffalo" and the larger black "Kafir bull" of the dominant species of Cyncerus that is recognized in the game parks of East Africa and down through South Africa. The rufous or dwarf buffalo is smaller, more agile, and seems meaner than the imposing "Nyati" with which it "intermarries" and although neither strain is to be trifled with, the mean streak seems to breed true in the hybrids, so the cape buffalo we have encountered manifest all the worst features of both.

Right after crossing the tracks, we left them. This I thought curious, but it was apparent that we didn't need to track to know the buffalo were nearby, at least within a day's passage at their rate of travel when not alarmed, but once again, we would be traveling oriented to the very light wind which only became apparent as it got light. We set off following Jean Marco in the lead with me packing the same gear as the previous morning next in line, and the string of trackers with a couple of straggling bearers. They did not keep up with us for cause. Diminishing the numbers of people diminished the scent and sound that could alarm the buffalo, and none of the assembled party were in any danger of getting lost in the bush or not following up on their comrades, since the hunters should be more easily tracked than the game. This was generally true with at least one notable European exception. While crisscrossing back and forth over terrain with the nose headed into a variable wind, I could hardly remember where we had left camp, let alone what direction we might be heading.

We traveled a long way. The sun was not bright because of a haze in the air from the smoky fires elsewhere in the burning bush, but I sensed it was getting on toward mid-morning even though I could not find the sun overhead in the haze when Jean Marco speeded up the chase. We were crossing a hard-scrabble munga at the time, and no tracks would be visible, but he hardly needed any, since he pointed to urine spray. Even I could recognize the difference between a buffalo cow and a buffalo bull in the urinary stream patterns they emit, and the dust showed several of each as we followed this spoor over a ridge into scattered scrub trees. We reached, and then passed, the first recognizable landscape feature that I was able to remember, the swale of green grass under tall trees where I had kicked over the elephant skulls and where we had paused to rest in our return trip bearing waterbuck meat the day before. We did not pause to rest this time, but skirted the swale and headed over the ridge following Jean Marco's nose. He seemed intent on sniffing the air, no longer concentrating on the ground, but the mid-distant field of vision looking for movement or outline suggesting that we were being watched as we were on the lookout. I stared ahead, and saw, characteristically--nothing. But, so did Jean Marco, who also saw nothing, but that did not mean that he was not convinced that the buffalo were very near by. Then, I, too, finally recognized it. The barnyard odor wafting toward us, quite helpfully liberally applied by the buffalo bulls who like to wallow in muddy urine of their own making, particularly at certain testy periods in their interest patterns.

When we approached the rise looking ahead, Jean Marco stopped, as our outlines were broken by scrub trees. I looked ahead, and, again, saw nothing. Neither did he, but after standing for a long pause, I heard it. Borborygmi. The "belly rumble" of a large herbivore was audible even before our advance to hear an occasional snort or grunt mixed in with this low-frequency sound. It is not a subtle sound, and I had heard it previously emanating from elephants when I had been in the Zara marsh at a range that turned out to be much closer than I had estimated, whereas they knew rather precisely at all times where I was positioned. Echo location did not seem to be working very effectively for us as sonar-guided hunters, however, since we kept moving forward and still not closing on the herd. Rather than crossing the ridge, we crouched along the side of it so as to give some advantage quartering up the wind when we eventually crested and looked over toward where the sound seemed to be originating. We were not far enough. Jean Marco spotted movement, and we backed up to repeat the lateral rapid crouching quiet scramble. However, we were not too quiet. If the buffalo were aware of a presence on the other side of the ridge, a very quiet stalk suggests predators that would alarm the buffalo, whereas an occasional snapping twig might mean they were being crowded by their own kind and they would continue to listen and try to pick up scent to help them speciate who or what was making the sound. Now Bunio and Kongonyesi dropped back and it was just three of us going forward and laterally to start up the gradual slope for the confrontation Jean Marco seemed to think was coming to closure. It was known by the others and very well understood by myself that this would be my first cape buffalo, and the moment arrived with some tense excitement on what this encounter would be like on their turf and under their terms. A round was chambered as silently as I could move the bolt, and when J.M. slowed down and motioned for me to pass I looked up ahead for what would be my first--but not my last--"close encounter with Tuff Buff".

My First Buffalo

As I eased from a sideways profile behind small trees I saw several forms ahead exchanging snorts and grunts, and remarkably different in color. It was not your average barnyard scene. The buffalo were milling around restlessly fanning ears and snorkeling in several directions. The one closest to me was a rufous forest buffalo nearly the color of a Hereford. Behind him was a large black shape which I gradually realized was a backside of a buffalo looking straight away from me. In an instant, he swapped ends. I never really saw him turn, but now I saw the front end of the same mean machine and he was not so much looking at me as heading towards me. When the safety flipped off I was looking at my first cape buffalo through the scope with the crosshairs searching for a spot where I might disconnect Nyati from his central nervous system. A front-on shot did not offer an ideal shot placement, but even if he were standing sideways to me, I would not aim for the chest. Putting a bullet through the lungs or even the heart of a cape buffalo at a hundred and fifty meters range would give him too much time and a whole lot of inclination to settle the score by shrinking that distance in a remarkable agility I had just witnessed in his turning toward me. I was vaguely aware of other shapes behind and on either side, but they were mostly obscured by groups of the scrub trees that broke up complete outlines of each of them, and the only one I had full view was end-on and sniffing. Still in this position, the massive head swung to the right and I was looking at his left ear. That is when the almost unconscious squeeze touched off the bedlam that followed.

I hardly knew which way to look, and lost focus on my target. There were buffalo milling and running in every direction. It was all of a sudden apparent that the dominant direction was away from the rolling roar of the echo from the opposite ridge which meant--directly toward us! I had frozen in position trying to melt into the six inch diameter of the scratchy tree, when I thought the better part of valor would be to chamber a new round, and even though I had lost track of which of the black bulls ahead I had shot at, shoot again at the first one that came closest to me. One of them did an amazing pirouette after stumbling when the right forequarter buckled as he had run half the distance between us, and I realized that buffalo was wounded. As he ran to my left, Bunio appeared on the ridge running over from the right carrying the .458 Golden Eagle which had lost its rear buck horn iron sight long ago, but somehow inexplicably the front blade of the foresight "went missing" when it had been carried along unused on yesterday's hunt. As buffalo were still milling about in front, I saw Bunio raise the .458, and a second roar issued from that direction followed by what seemed a louder echo of the return from the far ridge. The buffalo seemed more directed by the movement when Bunio ran onto the scene than they were oriented by the sound that had rolled at them from several directions, and now ran out of sight following the wounded buffalo that had pirouetted in front of me. Jean Marco ran forward after them to try to keep them in sight, and only dust clouds could be seen when I followed him.

Bunio was faster than I and joined Jean Marco when both of them suddenly stopped and started a cautious approach as I came in upon them. There, two hundred meters ahead at the limit of our visual, range was a large black object perfectly still. It looked like a large black rock, but we had seen nothing like such a rock in this area, and I walked around laterally to approach it from the side. The buffalo's outstretched head was lunged forward in the direction of its travel and his eyes were wide open but dilated. I reached forward with the rifle barrel and touched the eye without response. The Tuff Buff was stone dead.

As well he should have been. My shot had hit where it was aimed, going through the neck and shoulder plowing through the chest up along the spine and stopping underneath the skin in the opposite ham. This represented one hundred percent absorption of a lethal high energy 325 grain solid bullet from the .375 Weatherby H & H magnum. Yet the buffalo hadn't read the ballistics, and had run without evidence of injury until he abruptly changed course when he saw Bunio running upon him and stumbled in the abrupt change of course. This identified the target for Bunio, and incredibly, since with essentially nothing but barrel sighting to guide him, he shot--and hit--the buffalo in the lower mid-chest with the .458 Winchester express that puts out six thousand footpounds of energy. That should launch a ton of weight one meter in the air and dump it back as dead weight. But having absorbed two lethal hits the buffalo had covered four hundred and twenty measured meters.

This one had tried to get away, and, as I learned later, they don't always do that. But, this one did not get away this time as he had once before. There were parallel linear streaks on its flanks and hindquarters, scars of a close encounter with a lion. A lion had scarred him, and two heavily armed men had killed him, but not because of any weakness on his side was he now lying at our feet. The trackers came up over the ridge and gathered around the fallen buffalo and each mumbled quiet gratitude that here was "very much meat" and no one of us had been hurt. These were hardly triumphant chest-thumping war cries over the vanquished, but a much more realistic appreciation of hard-won food-gathering high-risk effort rewarded.

The butchering began immediately with the evisceration of an enormous rumen and an opening of the stomach with several bushels of what looked for all the world like the green grass clippings emptied from the catcher mower. There were also small red wiggling larvae attached to the mucosa of the stomach lining, the "tripe" that is such a prized delicacy for them. When they opened the stomach, which they refer to as "the book", the folds of this mucosa, like pages, shows this redundant juicy animal fat/protein viscera that is salty and tasty and has to be eaten fresh since it cannot be smoked and dried. This means that the hunters themselves can enjoy the viscera, and as when the lion has killed a large buffalo, the lion eviscerates and eats the offal with a higher energy, salt and fat-soluble vitamin and mineral content, often leaving the skeletal beef to the vultures, hyenas and jackals that raucously compete for the leftovers.

Nothing was wasted from this carcass which was disassembled by means of each of the four quarters being removed after evisceration, and then rib sections, flanks, neck, even the hoofs and head were salvaged for consumption, and then distributed depending upon energy content, and the recipient's need. What a Westerner would consider prime beef is relatively low down on the list, since it is capable of being dried and smoked, and therefore can be preserved in this refrigerator-less land for weeks to months later. The spoilable parts may be allowed to "ripen" and are still consumed, but not at the risk of losing energy content to the vermin or scavengers, so they are consumed earlier than the skeletal beef.

I looked at the enormous hoses coming from the powerful muscular heart and admired the smooth glistening intima without any evidence of sclerotic plaque which is the principle reason surgeons are typically looking at vessels at all, since they are plugged up beyond their capacity to conduct life-sustaining blood flow. While I was interested in studying the nature of the condition and the buffalo and the parasites to which it was host, the group was eager to get moving back toward camp which I could never have localized camp, nor even possibly backtracked the long way reversed on our own trail to find it. Very concerned that Bwana was trying to hoist a forequarter to his shoulder (because he is incapable of carrying it--as all the others did--on his head) two of the trackers almost casually snatched up a hindquarter with double the mass of the forequarter and hoisted it on the rolled up shirt that cushioned the load on each head, set off on a trot cross country opposite the direction we had come in from on a route only they knew. They were all serenely confident of the way back to camp, about which I had less than a clue. But they did take the precaution of layering logs, downfall branches, and whatever leafy cover they could find over the few pieces of the carcass that could not be carried by our limited band heading back to camp, since we could not afford to drop off one of the bearers to guard the remnants of the carcass from scavengers. They hoped that it would be obscured from the principle diurnal voracious scavenger--the vulture. I strained on with a buffalo forequarter on one shoulder and scissoring the slung rifles on the opposite shoulder, I was soaked with sweat and blood and encrusted with juices from both me and the buffalo quarter. I finally recognized something when we stopped at the same swale we had passed coming in. We all dumped our loads and rested in the shade. I even caught a snatch of conversation of the contented hunters returning from the hunt by switching on the tape recorder I had had in the backpack. I looked around for my elephant skulls once again and took a few pictures. Then, the assembled party got up and remounted their loads and headed off toward Malitubu camp. In a long single file, I could see the hunters returning, bearing their booty, and setting up a track for me--and others--to follow.

The Return to Camp

We were weary and filthy upon arrival in camp, and dumped our meaty loads at the drying platform while stretching aching muscles and picking at encrusted gore. I was eager to get down to the stream to bathe and wash the camouflage outfit that was soaked in blood and sweat--the former the buffalo's, the latter, mine. The other trackers took a large yellow twenty liter gerry can with them to draw water while they were down at the stream, and I took a bar of soap, a small hand towel, my camera--and because I am not an African virgin--the .458 Winchester and walked down the steep slope to the stream.

The swale was much cooler, with an abundance of sound overhead from chirping birds and chattering monkeys. The trackers had come down with me, and in a mark of deference to Bwana as they noted him slinging the camera over the rifle barrel propped against a small tree on the bank as he walked out with a bar of soap to sit down fully clothed in the stream, they pointed out the monkeys overhead and said they were going upstream to see the monkeys. This was a very gracious way of saying that they would not disturb me at my ablutions, and not that they had never seen monkeys before, but would use this little lateral sortie to give me my private space. I appreciated this thoughtful gesture, and sat down in midstream placing the bar of soap on a rock and submerging my encrusted head. I lathered up with the soap and started squeezing the suds into the stiff camouflage shirt. I was covered in white soapsuds, when I put the soap back on the stone and was about to submerge to rinse before peeling off the clothes. Abruptly, I noticed that something very major had changed.

Close Encounters of the Leonine Kind

What was it that was different? It was eerily quiet. The monkeys that had been chattering and screeching at our approach had vanished--had they grown accustomed to my presence, or had they left? The birds that were chirping and chattering were no where in evidence. It was spookily quiet. For a moment I planned to submerge and rinse off the soap, and crouching down I looked up to see something even spookier. The very precious yellow gerry can was floating downstream toward me, a highly valuable utensil that would never be casually lost. Blinking soapsuds from my eyelids I looked beyond it and saw one wide-eyed black face with a gaped open mouth before it vanished in a swish of swinging branches and swaying trees. This was the first sound, and I eased back up to see what had happened. I gradually began easing to my right, for the towel on rifle were leaned upright along the bank. I must have been quite a sight at that point looking like a white ghost or wraith rising from the river.

Suddenly it shook me. A roar like none other I have heard before which surrounded me with sound bouncing back and forth off the banks and totally nondirectional. There was a sudden swish to my right within only a few meters that separated me from the bank, and I heard the snap as the rifle fell over and a large tawny shape blurred past me so close and so large that I could not see it all with one glance. My first conscious thought was that I should not run. My next unconscious thought was "well, what else is there for me?" I splashed to the right where the blur had just passed, and found my camera in the mud, and the rifle lying next to it with a large pug mark pressed into the mud. I snatched up the rifle, leaving the towel and camera and started clawing air in the scramble up the bank of the swale to run to camp.

Still covered in soapsuds, I passed by one tracker identified by the soles of his feet hanging from a tree as I passed beneath him, as I was still running breathlessly up to the blackened burned-over perimeter of the Malitubu camp. When I got to the edge of the swale and broke from the forest cover, I was not alone in the burned-over ash-covered perimeter. Between me and the tent was an enormous black-maned male lion striding with supreme indifference, looking back toward me and then forward to the drying rack. Ahuka was in the screened-in gazebo tent staring out with the wide-mouthed gape of a soundless scream, and 'Mama' was cowering against the drying rack as the big male lion sauntered through camp between the drying fire and tents! The lion looked back at me as I was standing in the midfield of the burned-over munga, and with all the deliberateness of a cat enjoying a cornered mouse, slowly reached over and clawed at one of the rib sections of the buffalo that had just been dropped at the drying fire. He nuzzled it, and for a moment, I thought in full view of all of us he was going to gorge himself on our buffalo in the middle of our camp with human beings on six sides of him. I had the rifle in a hand slippery with soapsuds. I didn't even raise it, since I would be shooting at the camp, and without any sights on the barrel, at that. In addition, I had seen what six thousand foot pounds had done to a buffalo. This was a lion, and I had not even dreamed of shooting a predator unless it were last-minute self defense, and the lion seemed attracted less by human scent--let alone put off by it--than the powerful plume of fresh meat emanating from our Malitubu camp which must have been a scent-beacon for kilometers all around.

The tracker in the tree screamed, and the lion seemed to take no notice. I stood where I was, mesmerized by the scene, as Mama sat by the fire with her hands over her head. Ahuka, still speechless, looked through a mesh designed to separate him from mosquitoes, and not claws and fangs. The big male lion casually picked up the ribs he was nuzzling and tossing fifty kilograms of beef into the air and catching it neatly, slowly turned and walked past Ahuka in the tent without even giving him a glance. The lion crossed the far side of the munga almost slower than he left the camp, so deliberately that he was still there when Mama began to ululate. The trackers behind me came down from the trees and came over to look at me. I must have appeared to be much more ashen and whiter than most white men are ever seen.

I went forward to the camp where Ahuka was repeating over and over, "I never, in all my life, expected to see . . .a lion. . .a lion. . .right here in the camp. . .a lion!" Mama appeared to be in a trance. She had experienced a lot in the course of the past week, the death of her daughter, her first ride in a vehicle, being carried off by strangers to a place she had not been, and suddenly confronted with this bonanza of fresh meat that she would share in as her part in the preparation, and all of a sudden this apparition to remind her of sinister reality. All of this was a bit hard to explain--and not only to Mama.

The trackers from the trees reassembled with those that had recovered the yellow gerry can, now filled with water, and they were babbling all at once to Jean Marco when he came back from where he had gone. He missed the sighting, but knew immediately what had happened from the pug marks all across the ash-covered munga. The trackers had told him in the story that came back after it was pieced together, that they had left Bwana to his ablution, and went upstream to draw water, a very good idea considering the soapsuds and mud that I was stirring up in the water. When they were up at the bend in the stream, they looked back and saw Bwana, all lathered up, with a large black-maned male lion sitting on his haunches on the bank observing him. They figured it was curtains for Bwana, and there was nothing much they could do. Then they saw on the far bank four lions, at least three of them female, and one on the same bank that they were perched on looking downstream at me. Three of them ran along the bank upstream, and the one I had seen had essentially climbed through air snatching vines or whatever would suspend him above ground, and remained there until I had passed beneath him. They were encouraged to see that I had picked up the rifle, and were quite surprised that nothing had been heard from it when I had come up behind the casually strolling lion while they were worried about where the lionesses were that they had seen. They never were seen again, but they were certainly heard, since the big male from the far side of camp roared, and was answered by coughing roars from the far side of the stream later in the day. I was feeling caked and sticky, so went back with the rifle to the stream, and held it in one hand as I soaked my head under water to get rid of the soap, and quickly toweled off. I had changed the blood-caked shirt to the spare white one I had carried. When I came back to camp, Jean Marco had assembled a group of the trackers and we went out to follow the spoor to see what could be read in the story of the prints. I carried the camera, the dictaphone and the rifle and we heard the lions again, but did not see them.

We stoked up the fire and consoled Mama who was relieved of duties as a meat preparer, and she bundled up her cassava roots and her share of dried meat in wrapped green leaves, and rolled up in her cloth next to the brightly blazing fire at late afternoon, and still whimpered while attempting to nap to see if these images would go away.

When we were sure that the lions were not sitting close by to steal more of our precious stock, four of the trackers were delegated to return to the remnants of the carcass to carry back the remains of the buffalo, which would make up for some of the loss we had just sustained in our "close encounter of the leonine kind."

I carried the .375 Weatherby with its intact scope and iron sights around camp the rest of that day, including while sitting in the tent. It was bad enough having seeing the lion, defiantly plundering our camp at his leisure and with impunity, but having heard the roar in later afternoon, I thought he was letting us know that he had finished his appetizer and would be returning for the entré. Some of our party had gone ahead with the vehicle, so we had no secure place in which to enclose either meat or personnel, and it would be hard to make a choice between the two for safety and security. I thought it might be appropriate to leave out some sacrificial haunch of lesser quality meat and debated what the advisability of shooting one of several lions might be when they would be so close as to be hard to handle if they got further annoyed. Fortunately, that choice did not have to be made, since we did not see the lions again even though we heard them later that night.

While I stood guard, still in late afternoon, the four trackers returned weary, hungry, dirty and disgusted. Slung between two of them were the clean white ribs of a meatless skeleton. Dangling over the shoulder of another was an ugly and smelly bird. The bird was a vulture, and stuck in his mouth was a bolus of buffalo meat. He had been killed by a stone, and one of them was not hard to hit, since they said there were thousands of them. The site of the buffalo carcass and its cache looked like a battle zone, as they had described it, with the ground all torn up by the squabbling and fighting of hundreds if not thousands of vultures that had descended on the site, probably using their acute vision to have noticed the commotion and our tracking away with meat. The vultures--for obviously adaptive reasons--do not have a keen sense of smell, or presumably much of a gag reflex either! But their vision should never be underestimated and their ability to track down on opportunism is remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that the four trackers who were out there on the first visit recalled that when Jean Marco and I got on either side of the head, and with one of us holding up on one horn, and the other trying to lift from the opposite horn, we could just barely hold up the head for a photograph of the cape buffalo kill suspended between us. This was after the head had been detached. This head which we were scarcely able to move with two men, had been found several hundred meters from the site where it had been cached. Its eyes had been plucked out, its hide completely denuded, and the skull nearly polished, as was evident from the ribcage they showed us. Around the remnants of the carcass there was such an amazing mass of flailing vultures that a stone hurled very hard but randomly, had killed the one that they brought back to show us what had happened to the remainder of the meat.

We had lost a small sample of beef to a powerful predator who could act at will. We had lost much more to a countless flock of much more effective scavangers who had taken whatever they wanted, which was all we had in the field before the arrival of the four trackers who carried back nothing edible, but evened the score with only one of our competitors.

Man is only one of the predators on the prowl, and if the lion is said to be king of beasts, he must have been somewhat frustrated in terms of the amount of meat that he was able to snatch compared with the appetite of the pride that had encircled us. We carried back quite a bit of prepared meat from the two waterbuck and half the cape buffalo for the congregation of conferees that was coming to the church congress and would be hosted by the Assa mission station. For that reason we were all grateful that the meat supply could sustain such a gathering for a period of over a week. The lion only needs to kill every three to five days to satiate his appetite, but a number of lions out doing the killing would supply quite a few of the airborne predators that seem to have scavenged not only lions' kills but in this case half of the intended human nutrient which we had taken considerable pains to procure and preserve. The close encounters with both prey and predators reinforced our awareness of our position in the food chain and our eventual place as consumers and consumees.

The vehicle returned in early morning when all of us tried to tell the story at once. We loaded the vehicle with the meat that had been dried, so that its second trip back to Assa would supply the conference that would be convening later the next week, and started packing up the camp at Malitubu. It had been a rather memorable encampment. The setting was almost ideal, the ecology unique. The hunts had been memorable, with two of them highly successful. They had included "doubling up on waterbuck". Furthermore we had taken up the spoor of the wild buffalo, and I had scored my first buffalo kill--with a lot of help from the principle hunters. I was well armed with fire power but they were carrying more highly practiced skills in this art.

And then the icy icing of this experience had been the experience of being predated upon with the loss of some meat to a plague of vultures, and the even more exciting leonine loss after being stalked by a pride of lions who had followed our lavish scent trail to take advantage of the easy pickings. I had had a close encounter of the leonine kind, and it had fortunately turned out that both lion and I survived the encounter with no foolish heroic gestures made by either one of us. We had shared in the spoils of the munga's ecology. The energy relationships of predator and prey had been brought home in very vivid memorable images at Malitubu camp.


1. Malitubu Camp is set in a copse of acacia trees amid the mungas of the Zaïrian northeast

2. The burning off of the dry grass, fires over the munga in the dry season for new growth of elephant grass with the coming of the rains.

3. First blood is a double header--a double score on prime waterbuck, to be dressed and packed back to Malitubu camp.

4. The line of trackers and bearers carrying meat back to camp--leaving a scent trail following them as a plume to entice predators.

5. The site at the stream where the black-maned lion tipped over the rifle and camera while watching me bathe in mid-stream.

6. The pug marks in the ash of the fired over munga mark the tracks of the lions as they sauntered brazenly through camp.

7. The camp occupants at mid-day around the drying/smoking fire preparing the buffalo meat for preservation.

8. The scent that drew the attention of a pride of hungry lions that stalked Malitubu Camp.