An Empty Quiver: Chapter 6 – Bowhunting the Great Sable

By: Dr. Dave Samuel
By: Dr. Dave Samuel

This story takes place in July of 1988 and it will explain in detail how I got to bowhunt before it was legal to do so in Zimbabwe. I went there to teach bowhunter education in order to help get bowhunting legalized in Zimbabwe. The people that my wife and I met were excited to get bowhunting legalized, and we received first class treatment. One bonus was that Cathy and I had an opportunity to fly to Victoria Falls for several days. Another big bonus for the hard work was the chance to do a little bowhunting with special permits. After teaching the second of three bowhunter education classes to professional hunters and government officials, I was able to take a great wart hog, but that was all. After the third and last class I had a chance to hunt sable antelope. At that time the only thing I knew about sable was that they were beautiful and expensive. I had no idea that in years to come, the sable antelope would become the most expensive (trophy fee) plains game animal to bowhunt in southern Africa. I also had no idea that my first African experience would be so wonderful, so exciting, and so different from anything I had ever done. Little did I dream that this first trip would be one of eight trips I’d make to the Dark Continent. Each trip was an adventure, but having this opportunity to go to Zimbabwe and help get bowhunting legalized there proved to be one of the great adventures of my life and a trip that will always remain vivid in our memory. Yes, Cathy also loved our first trip to Africa.

 Zimbabwe. The sound of that name conjures up a vision of wild bush ­ Africa. In 1987, such an adventure was just a dream, and yet, here we were, my wife Cathy and I, playing a major role in getting bowhunting legalized in Zimbabwe. As I stepped up to begin the first International Bowhunter Education course ever taught on that continent, I was nervous. A lot rested on the outcome of this course. There were government officials in the audience, but none had any bowhunting experience. If they liked what they saw, we had a chance. If I didn’t do my job, bowhunting there would be put on hold, maybe forever.

My trip really started in April of 1987 at the formation of the World Bowhunting Union in Denmark. At that meeting I presented our International Bowhunter Education Program to the nine countries present. Norm Travers, a grand gentleman from Zimbabwe, was there, and afterwards he indicated that if they had our program in Zimbabwe, it might lead to the legalization of bowhunting. Then, six months later, I learned that my job as a wildlife professor at West Virginia University would allow me to go to Zimbabwe to learn more about game ranching. I called Norm immediately and said, “I’m coming over, do you want me to teach some bowhunter education classes?”

“You bet we do Dave,” was his reply, and with that the wheels were in motion.

The itinerary for my wife and me was set by Heather Creswells, Administrative Officer of the Safari Operators Association, and John White, Director of the Wildlife Producers Association. The schedule was relatively simple. I was to visit three different game ranches, teach a bowhunter course at each and then, under special permits, do a bit of bowhunting.

The long flight of seventeen hours, with an overlay in London, left Cathy and I quite tired upon our arrival. With only a short hour of sleep in a hotel I was whisked off by Norm Travers to a meeting with officials from National Parks and Wildlife, the Safari Operators Association and the Wildlife Producers Association. The meeting went quite well, and it appeared that government officials there were receptive to what we were attempting to do.

A short ninety minute drive brought us to the Imire Game Park, a beautiful 6,000-acre game ranch owned and operated by Norm and Gill Travers and their two sons’ Alister and John. The warmth and hospitality they displayed were unequaled in any of my travels. Our accommodations were wonderful, the food was superb, and they had everything organized for the course the next day. That night Alister and I spent several hours discussing various aspects of marketing bowhunting in the United States. It was a discussion I’d have often over the next few weeks. The next day was a “rest” day, so I walked a bit of the area and got a great photo of a big sable with a zebra in the background. Little did I realize at the time that I’d be seeing that sable again.

I took this photo on my first day at Imire Game Ranch. Weeks later I harvested this same sable.
I took this photo on my first day at Imire Game Ranch. Weeks later I harvested this same sable.

I was only thirty minutes into the bowhunter education course, but already I realized that teaching in Zimbabwe was no different from teaching in West Virginia, or anywhere else. The participants weren’t the normal type we get in the states however, with professional hunters, game ranchers and government officials in attendance. The students were totally receptive and excited about learning. The sessions on equipment and on shot placement and vital organs really got them involved, and the hours zipped by. George Pangeti, Deputy Director of National Parks and Wildlife, took part, as did John White and Bruce Austin, Chairman of the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters Association. When we finished, I felt totally satisfied with the results. Enthusiasm for bowhunting was evident.

Dawn the next day found Norm Travers, his tracker Elijah, and me walking toward a tree hide. Norm and Alister had recently built four such stands for me to try. The topic of the ethics of using tree stands had arisen during the bow course. Though taken for granted in the states, it wasn’t done in Africa (remember though, all hunting there was with rifles, and all the professional hunters there had that rifle bias). After considerable discussion it was decided that as long as they weren’t placed directly over water, tree stands would be ethical for use by bowhunters in Zimbabwe. (I might add here that once bowhunting was legalized, and their bowhunting experience grew, tree stands and ground blinds at water became totally accepted for bowhunting).

I settled into the stand around 7:00 A. M., a bit later than I would have liked. It was much more comfortable than my portable tree stands back home, with plenty of space to move around. Within a half hour I saw impala, tsessebe and one nice sable. The sable slowly fed my way, but he passed the stand just a bit too far for a shot.

Meanwhile, two different herds of tsessebe moved behind me in the rocks. Around 9:00 A. M. a herd of fourteen bulls milled about 100 yards to my right. Actually, I couldn’t tell bulls from cows, but they pushed and shoved each other continually. The head butting and chasing led me to believe they were all males. To my inexperienced eye, picking out the largest animal was difficult. However, after twenty minutes of observation, I picked out a bull that seemed to soundly trounce the few challengers he faced.

The trail they were on came directly past me at 28 yards, and sure enough, the biggest bull started down that trail. I got ready to shoot through an opening in the matted straw around the stand. As the tsessebe walked through, I held my Hoyt bow steady and let fly. The Easton shaft, tipped with a Zwickey black diamond 2-blade broadhead, completely penetrated that animal, and off the group thundered. And “thundered” is the word. Those tsessebe could flat out fly. The bull, however, stumbled about 100 yards out, recovered and kept on going. As I descended the tree, Norm and Elijah came off the far hill.

They had seen the herd run off and figured I’d shot. I felt the shot was right in the lungs, however, my previous experience on shot placement was based on American game animals, especially deer. I would later discover that the vital organs of the tsessebe are much lower, forward, and compact, and that my shot just clipped the top of the liver. We waited twenty minutes or so, then followed the trail. Blood was sparse at first, but with the speed of the tsessebe, this wasn’t a surprise.

He stopped about 200 yards out, and we watched him lay down. Norm urged me to sneak in for a second shot. I knew better, but moved in anyway. At thirty yards the bull jumped and ran off into a small ravine. There was no blood trail to follow, and the spoor was soon lost in high grass. We circled the rocky hill for an hour, but to no avail. Then we returned to the last sighting, split up and began to sweep the area. We covered several hundred yards, with no luck.

Norm then directed Elijah to sweep the bottom of the ravine, while we moved along the sides. Suddenly, Elijah found the tsessebe. He’d covered 400 yards from the tree stand, and had died on the run. I was elated. My first shot at an African animal, and probably the first modern-day, compound bow kill from a tree stand in Zimbabwe.

Late afternoon found Norm and me stalking impala. This proved to be a tough job as these guys were constantly alert to my wind and my sight. As I slowly moved through a patch of Mopani trees, I spotted a small herd of zebra. A medium-sized stallion trailed behind, and I carefully crawled in the grass downwind of the herd. After twenty minutes, I got in position as he moved through the grass at thirty yards. The shot was good and the search ended with my zebra.

Our second hosts were David Peddie and professional hunter Rob Murray of the Savannah Safari Club. Out temporary tent camp was located on the shores of the Schakwe River. The second bowhunter education course went smoothly and was well received by fifty professional hunters. The next day I again was given the opportunity to bowhunt. Warthogs were plentiful in the area, and after spotting a large male, off we went. But something was wrong. Rob was with me, and two other fellows joined us as well. Needless to say, with the four of us all stalking one warthog, we never really got close. At fifty yards Rob told me to shoot, but I told him that it was just too far.

“I don’t think we can get you much closer to these animals, Dave. How close do you need to be?” he asked. “Twenty yards, thirty at the most,” I answered. “We can do it Rob, but we need to reduce our load here. Why do we have all of this entourage following us around?” I quizzed. “Well, I’m your professional hunter, Joshua is your tracker, and George is your skinner,” he explained.

A discussion followed where Rob explained that this was the way they rifle hunted. I was the first bowhunter in their camp. I asked if we might leave the skinner in camp until needed, and have the tracker 200 yards or so behind us until we hit an animal. Rob agreed.

The next morning we hit the trail again. After a five-minute drive in the Land Rover, we spotted a group of several hogs. I snuck off into the bush, and ambushed the herd, but shot too low on a medium-sized animal at thirty yards. However, I was now convinced that warthogs were possible with the bow. If you got downwind and moved parallel to the direction they were going, you could get close.

Off we went again, and soon spotted the largest hog I was to see on the whole trip. Rob agreed that he was a dandy, so we circled ahead in the direction he was feeding. We moved slowly and suddenly there he was at fifteen yards, feeding among a few cattle in the bush. However, he’d spotted Rob off to my right and bolted about 150 yards. He stopped in the high grass, so I again circled ahead of him. The hog hadn’t moved, and was looking back as I crawled closer. At thirty yards I rose to a standing position, took solid aim with my 63-pound bow and released.

The arrow “felt’ good, and when it hit home, the hog really moved out of there. I could still hear him running as Rob came up. “Nice try Dave,” he said. “What do you mean, nice try?” I responded. “I hit that rascal pretty hard.” Rob had watched me shoot, but didn’t realize the arrow had found its mark. We found the spot where I had shot the warthog and there was an immediate blood trail. I liked what I saw, and so did our tracker. I didn’t know it but Joshua hadn’t been too happy about going into the field with a bowhunter, and his comrades back at camp had been ribbing him considerably. Their vision of the bows they used was a far cry from my modern equipment. They all understood how a 30-06 rifle worked, but had no conception of how a bow worked. But Joshua was about to learn and now that he had something to follow he did so with enthusiasm. A short search and we found the pig dead about 100 yards from where he was shot. To say that Joshua and Rob were impressed was an understatement. They were both hooked on bowhunting.

A great shot, a 100 yard track and the author poses with his first Wart Hog.
A great shot, a 100 yard track and the author poses with his first Wart Hog.

From Savannah Safari Club, Cathy and I moved to the low veldt near Chiredzi. Our hosts were Clive and Lyn Stockil, with Chiredzi Wildlife Investments. They owned a 100,000-acre game ranch with no cattle, and some fantastic wildlife habitat. While there, we saw many kudu, eland, impala, zebra, and wildebeest. There were elephant, lion and leopard as well. The accommodations were wonderful, the food excellent, and again the bowhunter education course was very well received. I only had one day to bowhunt, and we did stalk one huge kudu bull and several large eland. However, our hunt was interrupted when we found the track of a lost five-year-old native girl who had wandered away from her compound the day before.

Gibson, my tracker and guide, found her tracks as we stalked the kudu. She was thirteen miles from where the search was taking place. We quickly formed a search party and followed tracks until dark. As we gave up that night, Gibson commented, “God will bless you Samuel for giving up your kudu hunt to look for this child.” Watching Gibson track that girl through the jungle was an amazing experience. I had to leave early the next morning, but Gibson and others picked up her trail at sunrise and followed it all day. Amazingly, they found her alive and well at 4:00 that afternoon, sleeping under a tree. She’d covered more than twenty miles in the bush. Gibson was the most amazing tracker I’ve ever seen, and he proved his worth and caring on this hunt.

Our trip was almost over, but Cathy and I decided to return to Imire Game Ranch for one last try for sable. Few of these impressive trophies have been taken by modern day bowhunters, but Alister Travers was game, and so was I. The first day proved fruitless. We stalked one medium-sized bull, but he outwitted me and was gone. That afternoon we found a huge sable bull with a herd of about twenty animals. I again blew a stalk and the herd was gone.

The second day we searched for the herd and found them around 8:30 A. M… Quickly we circled ahead of them and set up an ambush for the feeding animals among some bushes. I waited as sable after sable passed by at twenty to thirty yards. They were mostly cows, but several medium-sized bulls were mixed in. After five minutes we realized that the herd bull wasn’t with them. Bulls are territorial, which probably meant that the herd would lead us to him, and they did.

There he stood, one-half mile away in the open grass. We watched him for an hour, hoping he would move into a situation where we might make a stalk, but to no avail. “Alister, if I take my time I might be able to crawl in on him downwind through the tall grass, but I may be in there all day.” “Go for it,” Alister answered. “Raise your hand every so often so we can follow your movements.”

Off I went, and an hour later I was within sixty yards of the feeding herd. I’d run out of tall grass, and just laid there waiting for a break. A wind change brought some snorts from cows that smelled me. But the bull paid no attention and continued to feed. Finally, after another thirty minutes I got my chance. The herd moved toward me, but cows completely surrounded the bull and prevented a shot. As I positioned my body in the grass, a small bull only fifteen yards to my right spotted me. Darn, I didn’t even know he was there, but now he alerted the whole herd.

I was now on my knees at full draw, but shooting was out of the question as a cow blocked my shot. The bull was also looking my way, and any shot would have caused him to jump the string. Now was the time for that blessing that Gibson said I would receive. It came.

The cow moved out of the way, the bull looked away and the 48-yard shot was off. The herd reacted instantly causing the bull to move. The shot was perfectly aimed, but his quick reaction caused the shot to hit further back than I wanted.

Alister and Elijah had seen the whole thing, and felt the arrow was perfect, but I explained that he had jumped the string and that the hit was too far back. Alister said not to worry, we would get him.

But worried I was, and after an hour we could not wait any longer as it was starting to get dark. Africa was different from America. You couldn’t leave animals out over night. Too many critters that eat things are wandering around the bush. Thus, we began to track, and blood was scarce. After 150 yards we found the arrow, and the blood sign indicated full penetration. The trail soon gave out, so we followed the spoor of the herd for another two hundred yards. We jumped the bull and he slowly moved into the Mopani trees. He was hurt and couldn’t go far, but darkness was fast approaching. As mentioned, the chances were good that we’d lose him to predators if we left him over night, and I didn’t want that to happen to this majestic animal. At this point I told Alister that if there was even a chance that I couldn’t finish the sable before dark, I would do it with his rifle. He agreed, but only as a last resort. We ran ahead and slowly moved through the Mopani, and had only gone a short distance when we spotted his massive horns. He was bedded, but spotted me as I snuck in for the finishing shot. Again he was up and moved slowly away. We moved ahead and tried to close in. At sixty yards, with dark almost upon us, I decided to use the rifle. Suddenly it was over. The animal was too weak to run, and he would have died quickly. But I didn’t know that and even today I feel that a quick finish was the best thing at that time. A quick measure showed the bull scored more than 40 inches, a huge sable. The bullet prevented entry in Safari Club bow record book that came out years later, but he is still an elegant animal and one that I will always remember. Oh yes. The photo I took of that big sable the first day I was at the Imire Game Park with the Travers family had a small knob about nine inches from the base of one horn. The animal taken above was that same sable. What are the chances?

Alister Travers was a wonderful professional hunter and bowhunter. He was killed by a cape buffalo several years after this photo was taken in 1988.
Alister Travers was a wonderful professional hunter and bowhunter. He was killed by a cape buffalo several years after this photo was taken in 1988.

The next day we met with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and Mr. Pangeti announced that all bowhunting permits would be granted and that bowhunting legislation would begin to be enacted. A new era in hunting was beginning in Zimbabwe. The opportunities would prove to be fantastic, the amenities and facilities outstanding. This was proof that a little education goes a long way, both here and in Africa.

Postscript

 There are so many feelings I have about Zimbabwe since this hunt and the education courses I taught there. First, it took two years, but in 1990, bowhunting became legal in Zimbabwe. Over the years other countries such as Namibia, also legalized bowhunting because of what happened in Zimbabwe. I fell in love with that country and would return four more times in the 1990’s. And thousands of bowhunters have since gone to Zimbabwe for the hunt of a lifetime.

 But there are some sad notes. Very sad. Alister Travers was an unusual young man. The youngest son of Norm Travers, Alister was a professional hunter. I hunted with him again in 1991, and his wife was pregnant with their second child. After I returned home, I’d learn that she died in childbirth, but the baby survived. The next year Alister was killed by a cape buffalo. He was guiding a banker from Pretoria, South Africa and his son. They wounded a buffalo with a gun, and followed it the next day. The buffalo charged, and Alister and the hunter shot him again. He attacked the hunter, while the son scaled a tree. Alister then called the buffalo off and it charged Alister as he shot him again. The buffalo pinned Alister to the ground and during that melee, while trying to shoot the buffalo again, the hunter shot Alister in the groin area. The buffalo then charged and killed the hunter and left. They took Alister to the hospital where many hours later, he passed away. When I returned again to Zimbabwe the next year, his father told me that the doctors felt Alister would have died from the buffalo wounds and from the gun wound. Being a Professional Hunter in Zimbabwe is a very dangerous way to earn a living. These Professional Hunters are truly amazing people, and they guide you in areas where there are lots of things that can kill you. Yet, in all my trips there, I rarely felt any qualms about bowhunting because of the fantastic Professional Hunters I was with. (OK, I did have fears about snakes in my ground blinds when sitting many hours alone with nothing but my bow).

Before he died, Alister bowhunted under special permission, for dangerous game, killing a cape buffalo and elephant. Because of that hunt, the government legalized dangerous game with the bow in Zimbabwe. Bowhunters owe Alister Travers and his father, Norm, a great deal for being leaders in opening up Africa to bowhunting.

 Things have changed in Zimbabwe, because Mugabe has taken over many of the“white” ranches. Wildlife on those ranches has been devastated as has the habitat. Many natives have been killed by Mugabe’s henchmen, and millions have starved. He is a brutal ruler with no real caring for his people. Still safari hunting continues, but bowhunting there has been curtailed a great deal. Many bowhunters today go to Namibia and South Africa.

 As mentioned I returned to Africa many times. Perhaps the greatest loss I suffer as a result of bad surgery is the fact that I cannot return to Africa to bowhunting. For me, it is the greatest bowhunting in the world and I heartily recommend it to all. If my health allowed it, I’d be going again. It is hard to verbalize just how special an African bowhunt is. Somehow you need to do it, at least once while you can.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. David Samuel spent 30 years as a professor of wildlife management at West Virginia University. He is now in his 44th year with Bowhunter Magazine, where his Know Hunting column still appears. He currently writes the Know Whitetails column for the Whitetail Journal,  The Future of Hunting column on www.bowhunting.net and writes a weekly outdoor column for WV newspapers. His activities on behalf of wildlife are diverse: from initiating the West Virginia Bowhunter Education Program to helping get bowhunting legalized in many European and African countries.

He has won honored lifetime achievement awards from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, the Wildlife Society, the Quality Deer Management Association, and Whitetails Unlimited. He is in the SCI Bowhunter’s Hall of Fame, and his greatest honor was being inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 2007. He has written 9 books, with his three most recent books being Whitetail Advantage, Whitetail Racks, and the one being presented here, An Empty Quiver – A Lifetime of Bowhunting Adventures which is now SOLD OUT. You can find the table of contents for the two whitetail books, and get autographed copies of all three of these books on Dr. Dave’s website, www.knowhunting.com.

for more please go to: The Future of Hunting

For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel