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What is a trophy?

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Whilst walking around in the bush the other day enjoying the solitude that comes from walking alone in wild places I happened to come across two old buffalo bulls. The thought had been running around in my mind of what constitutes a trophy and as I watched these two old moth eaten, battle scarred veterans, not more than a stones throw away I realized that my ideas on hunting trophies had changed over the past thirty years or so.

Quite drastically so in fact.

Perhaps it is the mellowing that comes with age or maybe a new perspective on life. I’m not quite sure which. Perhaps a combination of the two. The bulls were aware of me.

Although the slight breeze was in my favour I was within range of their misty myopic vision. I could detect no sign of belligerence and left my rifle slung over my left shoulder. If anything, there was a resigned look about them, an expression which seemed to say "If you want to shoot us please get it over with".

Yet I bore them no ill intent. If anything my desire to kill has waned significantly and it was enough for me to just hunker down quietly and respectfully watch these old men going about their somewhat arthritic and ungainly business.

The rheumy, red rimmed eyes seemed to focus with difficulty and after awhile they angled away slightly and headed off slowly into the sunset to wherever old buffalo go on a pleasant winters evening. Perhaps the buffalo too had been thinking about what constitutes a trophy?

"I’m getting long in the tooth now - or more appropriately getting worn down in the tooth. Not much enamel left after twenty two odd buffalo summers and finding food that is tender enough to grind down fine enough to swallow is becoming quite a chore. Perhaps tomorrow might be my last sunrise perhaps not.

I live each day as it comes. Thinking back on my life there have been good years and hard years.

Most of them hard.

Humans have a saying: "Africa is not for sissies". Humans are not right about most things but this saying of theirs is true. I remember as a young calf winter nights especially. Everyone says the bushveld is a hot place and I could not agree more but the African bush can become bitterly cold in the early pre-dawn hours of July and August and I recall lying up close to my mother trying to get some warmth.

And heat? Yes I have had my share of heat too. Scorching hot days when the herd searched for what scant shade there was to see out the heat of the day. What a relief it was when the lead bulls led us to water at days end. Thankfully seasonal pans and flowing rivers were never far from our feeding areas during the rainy season. It was different in the winter months. We had to range much further to find grazing and would often only drink every second and sometimes every third day. I recall the droughts I have lived through.

The worst one lasted for almost three summers. It was an experience to be remembered and for the pain and discomfort of it best forgot. When the first rains broke the drought more than half the herd was no more. What remained of us looked like rugs hung over bags of bone and sinew. Yet I survived.

Strangely enough the big bulls with bosses substantially more impressive than mine were some of the first to die. They seemed to lack endurance. It was often us "ordinary" bulls who would defend the herd in the darkest of nights against prides of marauding lions. The big bossed bulls would make a lot of noise but would make sure they were safely inside the lager of us ordinary guys.

They seemed to be high on testosterone but pretty low on savvy and gumption when push came to shove. And I remember the long treks to find water when thirst would be an all compelling force driving the herd on through heat haze and choking red dust which would cake inside our nostrils and sting our eyes as our hooves churned up the powdery red clay on our relentless quest for dwindling water supplies. What relief it was to slake our burning thirst and to walk hock deep in what cool, muddy water we could find. But soon we would turn around and head back to our feeding areas which receded further and further away from our watering holes.

Our trails to feeding areas and back to water were marked by bloated buffalo carcasses and over indulged vultures.

What kept me going? I don’t know.

Perhaps it was a sense of duty to protect the more vulnerable members of the herd. Lions nearly put an end to me on two occasions during that drought.

On the first occasion two big lionesses nearly pulled me down. They had learned that if they waited long enough at one of the few remaining pools on the Shingwidzi River food would come to them. They had positioned themselves downwind from the water and as I led the thirsty herd down to drink I first became aware of them as they streaked out from behind a Lala palm thicket towards me.

They were pretty inexperienced. The one tried to grab me around the throat and I sent her flying with a sweep of my horns. The other bit me on the cheek and tore my ear but ran off after I butted it to the ground.

The second time lions tried to make a meal of me it was much worse. There were six of them. A male and five females. Two of the lions had moved upwind of me and as I caught the rancid scent of predator I turned and headed off in the opposite direction. I am wiser now but then I did not know that this was a favourite hunting strategy of the so called king of beasts.

I walked straight into the ambush and suddenly there were lions all over, on and around me clawing and sinking their long canines deep into my flesh. It was a titanic struggle and two hours later the lions decided to give up.

Two would be dead by morning: the one gored through to the lung the other hemorrhaging internally after it had felt the full weight of my body trampling it under iron hooves.

But I had not come through unscathed. I stood trembling from exhaustion. Blood poured from deep wounds on my flank, rump, face, neck and shoulders. I felt weak and came close to losing consciousness.

Walking slowly to a pool of nearby water I drank deeply. It was dark by now and the water was deliciously cool. It revived me somewhat and I determined to try and join up with the herd which had spooked when the lions had waylaid me.

It was easy to follow the herd as they had splashed copious quantities of semi-liquid fear-induced dung along their flight path. It soon became apparent that I was too weak and found dense cover where I could try and rest and regain some strength.

The next few days were very, very hard. The wounds on my body turned septic and a rampant fever transported me into a pain-filled world of semi-consciousness. I was aware of the sun rising and the heat and the thirst and then the sun setting.

Sunrise, heat, thirst… sunset. Sunrise, heat, thirst…sunset.

After the third day I could smell the stink of my infected wounds and my misery was compounded by the Oxpeckers which pecked at the already painful flesh.

I lost track of time but was aware of an all consuming thirst and somehow found my way to a waterhole where I slaked the raging thirst fire burning in my fever wracked body. I then lay down in the cool black mud of a wallow for two more days. It was a delicious balm to my aching wounds.

About six or perhaps seven days after the lions had mauled me I took a turn for the better. The fever was gone, the pain in my wounds was subsiding and I had, for the first time in many days, an appetite. I was still stiff and sore but was able to rise up out of the mud and slowly head for a feeding area.

That was in my fifteenth buffalo year. I had sired a number of progeny and felt no inclination to rejoin the herd of gossiping cows and boisterous youngsters and so began my year as a lone bull.

It was a lonely year and I was happy to eventually join up with a small band of five old "dagga bulls".

We were close knit and experienced much in the way of hardship together which was made easier by the bond of companionship.

Now only two of us remain.

Two of the guys died of a coughing disease humans call bovine TB. They just wasted away. The oldest bull of our group was taken by lions and he just did not have the strength to fight them off. We tried to help and kept some of the lions at bay but there were just too many of them and when we heard the death rattle we knew there was little more we could do.

We were shot at by poachers and gawked at by hunters who stared at us through binoculars. They laughed and said "nah too small!" and then went on their merry hunters way to look for bosses that would get their names into the record books humans keep.

Strange. Humans measure buffalo greatness by length of horn. We buffalo measure greatness by size of heart but we should not expect humans to know this.

They are, after all, only human. And I must admit a year or two ago before my eyes had grown dim and I looked at my reflection in a clear pool of water I sure was no pretty picture. Must be even worse by now.

Ears in tatters, bare patches on my face, white scars streaking my body, horns rounded and blunt and all but worn away by the battles of life.

I chuckled a buffalo chuckle. Who would want a trophy like me? I have lived a full and adventure filled life and would in fact welcome a bullet to dispatch me quickly before I grow too weak and the pain I feel in my joints becomes too great. But who would bother? "Nah he’s too small and mangy"

Cleve Cheney is a wilderness trail leader, rated field guide instructor and the author of many leading articles on the subjects of tracking, guiding, bowhunting and survival. Cleve has unrivalled experience in wildlife management, game capture and hunting, both with bow and rifle.
Click here to visit his site

Old friend, if I was still a hunter, was thirty years younger, still had the inclination to kill, had the insight I now have, you would be the trophy I would want hanging on my wall.

I used to have trophies hanging on my wall. I have taken them down.

They were nothing more than proofs of manhood. Let those who have the need to prove themselves do so. It is their prerogative.

If I could live my life again, I would measure my trophies by heart, not by inches - and the trophy would be a monument to your courage, stamina and endurance for having lived twenty two buffalo summers - not to my ego or prowess as a hunter.

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