Africa's Disasters: How to Avoid Hunting Tragedies

This safari season has been a bad one for professional hunters. As I write this, I know of three who were killed by buffalo, two wounded by buffalo, and two gored by bongo, one of them fatally. They call it dangerous game for a reason, and the hunters can't win every time, so such fatalities, though tragic, must be expected. But the truth is the client behind the professional hunter is just as dangerous as any gut-shot buffalo. Two other PHs that were shot by their clients this season are proof of that.

According to a PH who works for the same safari company, the first shooting occurred in Zimbabwe when the hunting party jumped over a small stream. Instead of unloading his gun and passing it to the PH or a tracker who had crossed ahead of him, the client jumped with a loaded rifle slung on his shoulder. When he landed, the rifle slipped off his shoulder and somewhere between him trying to catch it and the rifle hitting the ground, the .500 Nitro went off and struck the PH in the elbow. He will live, but he lost his right arm just above the elbow.

The second shooting occurred in Mozambique. According to the hunter, who happens to be a friend and colleague, he and his party were hunting Cape buffalo when an unwounded buffalo they were following charged them in very thick brush. The trackers parted like the Red Sea, and the first thing my buddy saw was a black mass coming right for him. He tried to walk backwards as he was bringing up his .458, but he tripped and fell. At some point during the fall, he hit the trigger and shot his PH high in the back. Fortunately, he was shooting solids, and the bullet passed through without doing much damage. The PH suffered a broken collarbone, but he'll be fine.

Both PHs are facing a mountain of medical bills, and the first will probably never work as a professional hunter again. The painful scars of the unfortunate hunters who shot them will never heal either, and I bet the PH with a broken collarbone will always have one eye on the client behind him. I don't intend to play armchair quarterback, but those incidents serve as a very vivid reminder of what can happen to any of us when we forget to follow the basic rules of gun safety.

Safety First—Always

The first incident could have been avoided had the client simply unloaded his gun. After unloading it, he should have passed it to a member of his hunting party who had already crossed the stream. Every kid that's ever sat through a hunter safety class knows that, but too many hunters don't bother to take the time to cross streams or fences safely. The few seconds it takes to do it right will keep you from having to live with the tragic consequences of such a careless mistake.

The second case is a bit more complex, but it could have been avoided if the hunter had followed the two most important safety rules: never point your gun at anything you aren't willing to destroy and don't touch the trigger until you're ready to fire. You might get away with breaking one of those rules, but if you violate them both, someone will get hurt. Once again, I do not mean to armchair quarterback, but the fact is my friend made a big mistake.

When you fall, closing your hands is instinctive. If your finger is around the trigger, you are going to pull it. To combat that, train yourself to keep your trigger finger pressed along the side of the stock, just like police officers do. If you're not about to squeeze the trigger, your finger should be pressed against the stock. When you recover from recoil and work the bolt, your finger should go right back to the side of the stock. Some folks resist the change because they think it's slow or uncomfortable, but it doesn't take long to get used to it, and hitting the trigger is fast and easy from that position. The difference is you'll only hit the trigger when you mean to.

Keeping that trigger finger against the stock will also make the rest of your gun manipulations safe. I've seen guns go off countless times when a student's or hunting client's finger hit the trigger while he took his rifle off "Safe" or closed the bolt. It seems like such an unlikely event, but it happens, and the more stressful the situation, the more likely you are to have an accident. You never want to cover anyone with your muzzle, but if you do it accidentally and your finger is off the trigger, you'll probably be okay. You will (and should) get yelled at, but no one will die.

I am obsessive about gun safety. I know it's true because I hunt 180 to 200 days per year, and every PH I've ever hunted with commented on it at some point. But last month, I got a little reminder of the fact that accidents can, indeed, happen to anyone. I was hunting Cape buffalo in South Africa, and we'd just finished tracking a buffalo for 7 miles. When we got to the truck, I asked the tracker to hold my rifle while I answered the call of nature. By the time we got back to the truck, he had cased my rifle and put it on the roof of the vehicle. I asked my PH if he'd unloaded it, and he said he had, so I didn't give it another thought.

My rifle rode on the roof of the Cruiser the rest of the day, and I carried it to my room that night. In the morning, I put it back on the roof until we found fresh buffalo tracks. At that point, the tracker handed me my uncased rifle, and I worked the bolt to chamber a round. When I did, a live round flew out of the gun. Seeing that shiny .375 round fly out of the gun almost made me physically ill. All I could think about was what could have happened if that gun had been dropped or if the tracker had pulled the cased .375 towards him, muzzle first, and caught the trigger on something. I'll never let anyone else put my gun away again.

I have a gun in my hands almost every single day of the year. I know that if I mess with guns long enough, the odds of me having some sort of accident are high. And it seems the more familiar we are with guns, the more likely we are to play fast and loose with the rules. But we cannot become complacent. Believe me, an accident can happen to you.

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