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The Big Five
Thomas Newcomb

Morristown, TN

Every hunter that goes to Africa dreams of the Big Five. No other group of animals has inspired so much excitement and debate as these. Their beauty, power, intelligence and the willingness to fight back elevate them far above all over game.
Many animals are beautiful and many intelligent but with the exception of the great bears none carry with them the threat of attack. The knowledge that when you pull the trigger you are starting something which could end in your personal injury or death. It is easy to sit at home in the comfort of your living room and be brave, but when you are in the bush and face any of these five animals, on their terms you will learn things about yourself you probably never knew. Some men will like it and some won’t. If you are one of the men or women that do, there is no finer drug.

Herd of Buffalo

Herd of Buffalo

I’ll start with the buffalo, Cape buffalo. This will usually be the first of the Big Five you take. If you’re hunting him you will surely have read many stories about him. I personally can’t see one without the classic line from Ruaark running through my mind. “He looks at you like you owe him money.” Alas a perfect description.
The next impression you will get of him is his size and alertness. They have nothing of the domestic cow’s bland expression. They are alert, with senses like a whitetail deer. He can move quickly through a thorn thicket you can’t walk through. He goes through a thicket like you do in high grass when pheasant hunting. They smell like cattle, but somehow more ominous.

When stalking close for a shot, almost always 100 yards or less, you’ll be sweating, nervous and your knees will probably be raw from crawling.

At the sound of the shot, if you are lucky, the buffalo will collapse. This almost never happens. Depending on what you shoot him with, he will barely twitch and then make off for the densest bush he can find.

Now you wait. This is one of the best times of the hunt. A thousand thoughts will run through your mind. You’ll approach where you saw him last, carefully, looking for a whole buffalo but usually seeing a black patch of hide. If you’re sure it’s the buffalo, you’ll put a bullet in it. If your first shot was good it may be all over, if not you’ll shoot again and again until it is. About 1 in 10 will change.

The last buffalo I shot dropped dead in his tracks with one shot. The one before, was missed with the first shot, then charged and was then shot four times with the 470’s and three times with a 416 before he stopped. Then it took two more shots with a 416 to kill him. You just never know.

A buffalo on the ground is an awe inspiring animal. They are covered with scratches from the bush. Ticks are everywhere. The horns are beautiful ebony colored weapons. The head and horns are so heavy that even detached from the body they are hard to lift. Their ears are usually in tatters and often there are wounds on them from battles with other buffalo or lions. Their life is a constant struggle and you can see it when they are on the ground. Maybe that is why they are always in such a bad mood.



When you see your first lion, you will know why they are called the king of beasts. They have great arrogance and they exude power. When they look at you, you can tell this is a different animal; it has no fear in its eyes. They are the eyes of a predator.

Most lions nowdays are shot from blinds. Tracking as they do in some countries is probably more exciting but hunting from blinds is more productive. You will set out baits, usually some large antelope or buffalo you have shot in an area known to have a lot of lion activity. When the lions hit one of the baits (you will put out many), you will then build a blind 75 yards or so away.

When you know a good male is coming to the bait you will go there in the late afternoon to wait. The lion may come before it’s dark and you’ll get your chance. If not you may wait all night in the blind. They often come after dark and you stay and wait until there is enough light to shoot in the morning.

All night you will hear lions feeding, the growls and purrs, bones cracking and flesh tearing.

At first light you will probably see gray shapes moving around. You wait until you can see your target. You wipe the sweat from your brow and your cheek and find your target in the cross hairs. When the rifle crashes you’ll hear roaring and thrashing. Nothing seems to take exception to being shot like a lion.

If you do your job well, all may be over in a second. If not you may have 400 lbs. of cat coming at you in a yellow streak.

The last lion my wife shot covered 40 years in 4 jumps (with a broken shoulder) in less time that it takes to read this. He was running straight at us. Whether it was a determined charged or he was running blindly toward us we’ll never know, because luckily another shot stopped him.

When you run your hands over the dead lion his skin feels like a horse. Their paws are like soup bowls with razor sharp claws. When you open their mouth the canine teeth are as thick as your finger. They have the typical feline smell.




Not many people can actually hunt rhino anymore. Black Rhinos are virtually a thing of the past, although they are coming back.

White rhinos can still be hunted due to the efforts of conservations minded sportsman, but the cost is prohibitive. But for those that want to kill the Big Five it’s still possible.

The first white rhino I ever saw, couldn’t have surprised me more if it had been a brontosaurus. Traveling in South Africa we saw it from the Land cruiser. They are huge. But after your initial shock, they look just right. It’s strange how such another worldly looking creature can look so natural. They move much quicker than you would ever expect, and disappear in thick brush like smoke.

Rhino hunting is generally done by tracking. You go to the waterholes in the morning and follow any tracks you may find. Usually you will find the rhinos resting in the first shady patch of brush at midday.

Stalking a rhino is an exciting experience. They have weak eyes, but their nose and ears are excellent. Their behavior is also totally unpredictable. If they sense something is amiss they are as likely to run toward it as away from it, so you are constantly on your toes. You will naturally be mindful of the wind and more than likely have your shoes off. Hunting in bare feet is a favorite technique of Natie Oelofse, my friend and owner of Wengert Windrose Safari's. Together we have killed the Big Five twice and I still have the thorns in my feet to prove it.

Rhinos are not as hardy as buffalo. But any animals of the rhino’s size and temperament demands respect.

As with all dangerous game the first shot is the most important. You shoot a rhino just as you would shoot an elk or a whitetail, through the shoulder, or behind the shoulder always aiming for the offside shoulder.

When hit they will usually run off in the direction of the nearest thicket. You may hear a plaintive bleat which is the rhino’s death bellow. It’s more of a high pitched squeal which doesn’t seem consistent with the animal.

To touch these animals, any of the Big Five is one of the best parts of hunting them. How many people have been able to run their hand over the back of the rhino? The hide is like concrete, they’re box cars with legs. By yourself you can’t even turn the head they are so heavy. Sadly they always seem to have a tear running down their cheeks when you find them.



The lion by action and reputation is thought to be the king of the jungle. He may be, but if he is it’s only because the elephants allow him to say so.

When the old timers said “they were going hunting big game,” they meant elephant. As wonderful and exciting as all of the Big Five are, elephants are a distinct notch up. The Zimbabwe National Parks and Camp Department state that elephants are by far the number one killer of men.

Elephants are generally hunted by tracking, this is the proper way. Many elephants are shot after they have been spotted from the safari vehicle a quick stalk is made and you have your elephant. I supposed there are also people who would shoot an elephant from the truck, as you could with any of the Big Five. But in my opinion this is disgraceful and if anyone asks you if you’ve been elephant hunting you should say no. You may have killed and elephant and haven’t hunted them.

An elephant should be earned. They are the most magnificent animal on earth. One with a family structure, a dignity and intelligence nothing else can rival.

One of the best parts of elephant hunting is the long walks after them. You track and walk for hours that turn into days. When elephants want to they can be almost completely silent when they walk, and leave for their weight and bulk hardly any sign of their passing.

When elephants walk at their normal pace you have to nearly jog to keep up with them, and if they suspect you are following them they will quicken their pace and you will be immediately be left behind. Now is when you will walk and walk to catch up with them and they slow down. Always being mindful of the wind for their sense of smell is excellent.

In dense brush which is probably where you will catch up to the elephants, you can be unbelievably close to them and not see them. Their great bulk is itself a form of camouflage. If the wind swirls you may see a trunk rise above the treetops like a periscope. The tip will turn as it seeks out the foreign smell then another and another, you may hear the stomachs rumbling or see a patch of gray. Then there will be the rushing sound of the elephants leaving. When they sense your presence they usually leave immediately.

Inevitably there will be times that they spot you. Usually it’s the cows. When they smell you and see you usually they will run away. When they smell you and then see you, you will run away. According to the experts when a cow or group of cows runs at you, it’s often a mock charge. They trumpet and flap their ears and sometimes kick dust at you. At this point you are generally running faster than you ever thought you could. Whether it’s a fake charge or not you can never be sure and to stand there to find out is to invite a disaster.

These days it’s not unusual to look at 40 to 50 bull elephants to find a shootable bull. In this time you will see hundreds of cows. A 50 or 60 bull is shootable. I’m afraid the days of 100 lb. Elephants are about over. But the hunting is the same, as it should be. When you shoot an elephant it will probably be the saddest you will ever be after shooting and of the Big Five. To reduce such a grand animal to a pile of meat and hide, no matter how highly you rate the trophy it should not be done lightly.

Your shot will probably be behind the shoulder. Everyone wants to shoot an elephant with a front or side brain shot. But unless you are very experienced the shoulder shot should be taken. It’s a big target and sure to kill quickly. The brain shot is difficult. The brain is small and the head is big, if you miss the brain you won’t really have done much to the elephant. He will run off and you will be lucky to catch up to him. It’s much better to be sure than fancy.



I’ve read and heard people say that the leopard should not be included in the Big Five. I would suggest that those people had never had very much experience hunting leopards. They are small in relation to the other animals on the list. But then a 375 magnum is small relative to a 500 NE. They are both deadly.

Last August I was eating lunch on the banks of the Kilambero River in the Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania. As luck would have it about 200 yards from us a brush buck came to the edge of the river to drink. Naturally we were watching it, luckily through our binoculars. Suddenly there was a flash of yellow, a cloud of dust and we saw four hooves in the air. A leopard had come from the edge of the bush and taken the bush buck in seconds.I had alway read that busk buck were aggressive, tough animals, one of a few antelope likely to charge when wounded, etc. This bush buck on this day was completely outmatched by a leopard his own size. The quickness and ferocity of the charge left no doubt as to the outcome.

Another tale I’ve found to be true is that more hunters carry scars from leopards than any of the Big Five. If you get a group of trackers together it is not unusual to have one display where the leopard got him. According to the Zimbabwe Game Dept. 80% of hunting injuries are from leopard.

Leopards are almost always shot over bait. Some people now shoot them with dogs and I hear they track them in some areas, but more than likely if you shoot a leopard it will be over bait. You will hang as many types of bait as feasible, impala, wart hog, whatever is available and on your license. Daily you will check the baits, hung high in a tree.

When a large male hits one the P.H. and trackers can judge very accurately from the tracks the size and sex of the leopard, then you will construct a blind. The blinds are made completely out of grass, with an open top with just two holes, one for the P.H. to see out of and one for you to shoot out of. Nowadays some P.H.’s have portable blinds that you can order from any of the major catalogs. Shoot through blinds generally are used by bow hunters to hunt deer.

Both ways you will be completely concealed and sitting on a camp chair, peering out a 6”hole while tsetse flies drone around you until dusk, then the mosquitoes come out.

You can’t move. It’s amazing how much noise you can make, scratching or crossing and uncrossing yours legs. But you try to be as silent as possible.

Sometimes you will hear the leopard coming. The chatter of baboons might signal the approach. You can often judge the process of the cat by listening to the animals announcing its path. If you are lucky enough to see him he moves up the tree like liquid spots. You’ll hear the scratching of claws on the bark.

But as often as not you won’t hear anything. You’ll be looking at the bait tree. One second it’s empty and the next the tree is full of leopards. Its eyes look everywhere at once, and you know he’s looking right at you. But if you are still he will settle down to feed. After he’s fed for what will seem to you like an eternity you’ll get the nod from your P.H. to shoot.

They say more leopards are missed than any of the Big Five. The unbearable tension has to be the reason. The shots are never far and you have a solid rest.

If you are lucky when you shoot the leopard will fall out of the tree and hit the ground with a dull thump.

If you’re not lucky, he will jump quickly off the limb.

With all of the Big Five it’s important to call your shot. You have to know where you hit. But with a leopard it’s especially important. If you know you’ve made a good shot it will the follow up easier, at least a little psychologically. It seems it’s always dark or very nearly dark when you go back for your leopard.

Walking with a flashlight to look for an wounded leopard is a very tense experience. Leopards, unlike a lion which will usually give a warning grunt before he charges, will come quickly and silently at you if they have any life left in them at all. If the leopard charges it will be at close range, quiet, and unbelievably fast. It’s then that you want a good P.H and a shotgun or double rifle.

If fall goes well, you will soon have your picture taken with the most beautiful animal you’ve ever seen. Leopards are wonderfully clean and have a great cat smell.

These are some quick thoughts on hunting the Big Five. There are many wonderful books available on each individual animal. With any luck maybe I’ll meet some of you in the Selous tracking buffalo, and this article will have inspired you.

Thomas Newcomb