From Ranger to Professional Hunter
By Allan Cilliers:
My desire and passion to work with wildlife started as a young five-year-old boy, growing up in Mafeking. At the age of six my father taught me to hunt birds with his old BSA double 12-gauge shotgun. I spent many of my June winter holidays with my father and his friends on hunting trips for meat in Southern Botswana. Those days’ pot licenses/permits could be obtained.
During my high school years some vacations I would spend my holidays in the Okavango delta with my good friend Rocky Palmer, his father being the legendary hunter Lional Palmer who hunted with Safari South at the time. We often spent half our holidays helping Kenny Kay’s building Safari camps for Safari South.
After completing high school I was called up for compulsory military training, spending most of my time in the northern parts of Namibia, with Angola.
After completing my two-year stint with the military, I was fortunate to be offered a post in the wildlife department of Namibia. In 1978 my career started as a game ranger in Etosha National Park. Working through the ranks I was eventually promoted to Chief Warden of Etosha NP in 1987.
During my career in the game department I worked in various other postings in Namibia such as, Waterberg Plateau Park, the Kavango region, developing the Khaudum and Mahango GR, and West Caprivi (now known as Bwabwata NP).
I was fortunate to work in the game department, where I obtained invaluable experience from superiors some with up to 40 years experience and skilled Heikom and Ju’hoansi bushman trackers who had unlimited knowledge about the bush.
Very broadly my work entailed every imaginable task, from public relations, wildlife monitoring, mechanical/maintenance, game capture, problem animal control, anti poaching/law enforcement to administration. To accomplish all practical duties and responsibilities I spent at least 20 days out in my section per month, together with two trackers. Unforgettable memories and untold stories still remain with me today.
Many people fantasize about a rangers job believing it to be romantic and all you do is drive around all day observing wildlife, this is untrue, the work requires a lot of dedication, hard work and long lonely hours, especially in real wild African areas like Etosha and Caprivi, Kavango areas, where you will not see people for weeks on end.
During the early days in Etosha National Park to shoot an elephant breaking out of the Park and causing havoc amongst communities/farmers, was only allowed if there was a very good reason, either it was a real threat to human life, had killed someone or it had been wounded. We were trained in good horsemanship and most elephants were chased and herded back to the Park on horseback. Our horses were well-trained, obedient, accustomed to elephant and accepted the noise of gunfire when shooting from their back. Herding elephant back to the Park always resulted in success, but never without problems. Once elephant got tired then irritated they would turn and charge with meaning, you then became the transgressor and the one to be chassed. During one such charge my trackers horse stepped into a warthog hole and fell. Fortunately the tracker immediately crept into the warthog hole, to escape the elephant bull bearing down on him. I returned and got the attention of the elephant bull, which was standing over the hole trying to recover the unfortunate tracker with his trunk. Fortunately I managed to drive him away on my horse with gunshots. Horses were also used to conduct patrols in ones area, totaling up to 150 hours per month on horseback. Sadly today horses are not used in Etosha N P anymore and vehicles have become the favored mode of transport.
To shoot elephant we were only issued with 458 win mags and 93*62. I must stress that the 458 win is not my favored caliber today but at the time it really had a good reputation amongst conservation staff and fulfilled its role successfully. Because of elephant culling operations and shooting high number of problem elephant I was in a fortunate career position to gain a lot of practical training and experience. A lot of training was given on, marksmanship, gun safety, animal behaviour and most important, correct shot placement at different angles.
I was only 22 years of age when I experienced my first elephant charge, it was an adult cow in a breeding herd of 22 elephant that had been wounded by poachers or locals residing next to Etosha. The inconsistent wind direction at midday and little cover made our approach extremely difficult. The bunching up of the various family groups in the shade also made it difficult to identify the correct individual. After observing the elephant from a safe distance my Heikom trackers and I observed a large cow amongst a family group of seven limping and displaying an aggressive behaviour towards the other elephants. I then noticed a badly swollen front leg. Although the wind was constantly swirling in various directions, I decided to approach closer for a shot, before the whole herd bunched up together and start to move off. I managed to approach within 30 yards when the family group suddenly picked up my scent. Without any warning or hesitation the injured cow saw me moved towards me and charged. The frightening part was that the family group immediately joined in behind her. All in a split second all the training and experienced I had gained flashed through my mind. One mistake and I am dead. Trying to keep calm I lifted the 458 and placed the sights exactly between the eyes. The elephant had dropped her head and was at full charge. I fired and she immediately collapsed to the ground. Fortunately just to my right there was a medium sized mopane bush, which I managed to crawl to and used it as cover to retreat to a safe distance. Hiding some 70 yards away I witnessed the entire heard surround the dead cow trying to encourage her to stand up by pushing her with their feet and lifting her with their trunks. This behaviour carried on for about 45 min; before the herd eventually left. I realized she had been the matriarch.
Her front left leg was badly swollen and after slaughtering her we discovered a 303 round embedded in the leg bone.
A few years later when I was stationed at Otjovasandu, a ranger outpost in the extreme west of Etosha a report came in that police had wounded a lion at a village called Otjikowares, in Kaokaland. On arrival l found a group of 8 policemen who had seen two male lion close to the village and fired on them with their 223 caliber automatic weapons. Due to their ignorance and inexperience one policeman had been mauled by one lion and had already been rushed to hospital. They had sent a message back to their base for reinforcements and an additional vehicle to follow the lions. After a long argument I eventually persuaded them to remain at the village and my two trackers and I took up the lion tracks and began cautiously following. I had two weapons with me, an officially issued 458 and my personal 375 H&H, which my head tracker Sagarias carried. He was familiar with heavy calibers and I new he could back me up.
We tracked the lions down a dry riverbed for about 2 km. We entered a thick stand of Pechuel shrub. Sagarias suddenly stopped instinctively indicating that the lions were hiding in the shrub. As he indicated to me, we heard that consistent growl that a lion makes to warn you before the actual charge. The Pechual shrubs that obscured my view began to sway violently and I new the lion was charging. The only opening I had was about 10 yards ahead of me. I dropped to my knees with Sagarias alongside me, pointing our rifles in the general direction of the charge. The lion suddenly appeared in the opening I took aim and fired. He immediately collapsed and the body slid for about 4 yards. The 500-gr bullet penetrated the chest destroying all the vital organs. The second lion ran off and later we found his tracks leading back into the Park. The wounded lion had two wounds to the stomach and a cut wound to the shoulder. A similar incident happened some years later where police wounded a lion at Oshivelo in Owamboland. Following the lion, two policemen were badly mauled. I sent my experienced Senior Ranger from Namutoni station to investigate. He tracked the lion and successfully shot the charging lion.
Any professional hunter that denies he is not afraid of a charging lion, has certainly never experienced it, is lying or presumes to be extremely brave.
Over the years I attended to many problems involving the hunting of various other species such as buffalo, crocodiles, hippo and leopard. There are a few things I learned over the years as a field ranger and that is, assess dangerous situations thoroughly before attempting anything, do I have the experience, knowledge and ability to deal with dangerous situations on my own and lastly do not try to be a hero, rather request backup. There is a big difference between dealing with wounded animals and trophy hunting. Trophy hunting, one is dealing with animals that are not wounded, and one can safely approach with a client to a shootable distance. If the animal is wounded by a client one advantage is, you are aware of the shot placement, and the behavioral pattern of the animal you intend following. An added advantage, you as PH can back the client in a dangerous situation. As a ranger, attending to problem or wounded animals you normally do not know the extent of the wound and you are unaware of the animal’s attitude. Lastly you are normally on your own and you do not have that sense of security of a reliable back up.
In 1992 I resigned from Parks to pursue a career as a professional hunting guide.
My belief has always been to guide clients myself. I have never worked for a large hunting safari company. All the dangerous game concessions I have managed to obtain, I have guided the hunts myself, always dealing with one maximum two client at a time. I am not in favor of having multiple clients in camp, trying to satisfy their needs with a number of professional hunters darting off every morning in different directions. I feel one loses that personal touch and the client does not experience that true feeling of him being in an African wilderness.
I have managed to obtain a number of big game concessions over the years. The first being West Caprivi (now known as Bwabwata National Park) the so-called buffalo area, which is situated along the banks of the Okavango River. Here I hunted buffalo. After this I managed to obtain East Caprivi concession before any conservancies had been established. The Kwando River in the west, the Linyanti swamps and Chobe River in the south and the Zambezi River in the north demarcate the boundaries of this 12000 square km area. The region is surrounded by Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
Here I hunted Elephant, lion, crocodile and hippo. The area, is populated by 80 000 plus people, that mostly reside and farm along the riverbanks. Wildlife, especially elephant that favor these areas is disturbed by the human presence. Elephant tend to feed in these areas at night and then return to the Parks or Botswana in the early hours of the morning. This makes trophy hunting for good trophy’s difficult. The average elephant trophy that one can expect here in East Caprivi is between 35lb and 50lb
A more favorable concession I had, was the eastern part of (previously known as West Caprivi) Bwabwata NP on the west side of the Kwando River, bordering Angola in the north and Botswana in the south, known as the Kwando concession. This 3 800 square km area is renowned for good buffalo, sable, elephant, hippo and large crocodile.
Lastly a very good elephant concession, the 10,000 square km East Kavango concession, situated just north of Bushmanland and west of the Khaudum Game Reserve. One of the last remaining wild areas left in Africa for big tuskers.
My favorite and most challenging animal to hunt is elephant and lion (only if you track it), especially in large unspoilt areas. To be rewarded with a good trophy takes a lot of perseverance and commitment. The long tiring hours of tracking to find a good trophy often frustrates clients but in the end the reward is significant, a hunt that a client never forgets.
One memorable and challenging hunt was guiding an 82-year-old Spanish client Paco Ross and his son Gerrman. I booked them through my Spanish agent the old legendary elephant hunter Tony Sanchez Arino. The hunt took place in Bwabwata NP Kwando concession. My biggest concern was the age of the client and secondly, to hunt two good elephant in 10 days guiding 2 on 1. Elephant hunting in the Kwando concession requires a lot of walking. What also makes it difficult for elderly clients is that there are very few roads to drive on in search of tracks or getting a vehicle in to pick up a client after long hours of tracking. I know in many renowned elephant hunting areas operators have developed the area, by making artificial water points to attract elephant and making a huge network of roads to cut tracks easier. If clients do track elephant in such concessions they are not committed to walking much. This simplifies elephant hunting dramatically and unfortunately a client does not experience a true elephant hunt.
Along the banks of the Kwando River huge breeding herd’s sometimes 400 elephant together can be seen late afternoons drinking and feeding on the marshy floodplains. In all my time there I never saw one shooter bull along the river, perhaps the largest being around 50lb and generally between 25 and 40 pounders. All my elephant hunting took place from about 35 to 80km inland away from the river. There were specific habitats I found that were mainly frequented by elephant bulls. These true wilderness areas were quite and the only water available is seasonal rainwater pans some keeping water throughout the year.
The second morning I decided to visit one pan called Delta pan, 40 km inland from the river. We found large fresh elephant tracks perhaps 3 hours old. One bull herd of 9 moving in the direction of Angola and another group of two bulls moving in a southeasterly direction. Experience has taught me that a large group of bulls normally travel far distances and only on very rare occasions have I found a good trophy bull amongst them. Together with my trackers we decided to follow the two bulls. Tracking slowly and stopping frequently allowed my aged client and his son to rest. It was imperative that we locate the bulls before the midday heat sets in. I was also concerned as we were now moving a far way from the hunting vehicle. After three hours tracking my trackers stopped to listen and not to far off we could hear the all to familiar cracking sound of branches breaking, the elephant were still feeding. After a brief discussion the son was to shoot if the elephant was a good trophy. Checking the wind I placed the client behind me and slowly began the approach. About 40 yards off I could see the two bulls feeding, totally unaware of our presence. I gave thumbs up as I saw the heavy ivory on the one bull. Using the dense Terminalia/Burkea woodland cover we made our final approach. At 25 yards I indicated to the client to shoot. On the first day of their arrival I had already discussed the best-shot placements, depending on the situation. I have always advised my clients on the heart lung shot, a big target, safe and deadly. I only advise clients to take the brain shot, if we have a charging situation. I have heard about and seen to many elephants lost with a bad placed brain shot. The chances of damaging ivory with the frontal brain shot are also extremely good. Gerrman slowly lifted his 500-nitro double, aimed and fired, placing the first shot in the heart and almost immediately he fired the second round into the lungs. The huge bull, stunned by the rounds turned in a circle 3 times then ran to our right and collapsed within 30 yards. We quickly approached and finished off the bull with a third shot behind the head into the brain. The ivory weighed in at 72lb and 69lb a very fine Angolan/Caprivi elephant. The following morning Gerrman shot a nice Caprivi buffalo. For the next eight days we tracked and located a number of elephant bulls, some of them in the mid 50lb to 60lb range. I was adamant that we could find better and it took a lot of explaining to persuade Paco not to shoot any of these bulls. I was impressed with the client on one day after walking and tracking six bulls for 15km. On the ninth day I decided to hunt an area 90km west of the camp some 4 km from the Angolan border with Namibia. We found very fresh tracks of 13 bulls that had just crossed a two-track road. Again a large heard of bulls I thought, chances are very slim of finding a good bull amongst this lot. Tracks are fresh and I indicated to everyone we should have a look. Tracking for about an hour and a half we found the bulls resting. Checking all the bulls the biggest ivory was around 55lb. As we were still observing the bulls from a distance of about 50 yards, a 14th bull suddenly appeared from our right, slowly moving towards the others. It was a good bull and I indicated to Paco that we should approach the bull. At that very moment the wind changed, the group of 13 bulls got our scent and quickly disappeared. The 14th bull, unaware of our presence, but alarmed by the stampeding elephant turned and ran in the opposite direction. We quickly followed and about 600 yards further we found the bull feeding. We approached within about 35 yards. I quickly set up the shooting sticks. Paco placed his 416 Rigby on the sticks aimed and fired. I just saw a puff of dust on the shoulder of the elephant, a perfect heart shot. The bull ran at high speed for about 70 yards and collapsed. We approached and fired another shot into the brain. The ivory weighed in at 66lb and 64lb another remarkable elephant. At the time it was Pacos 72nd elephant but at the ripe old age of 82 years. Since, Paco has hunted with me again, his 80th elephant in East Kavango concession.
I now own a game ranch in the northeastern regions of Namibia bordering Bushmanland. I have developed the ranch for bow hunting only. As there is an abundance of leopard I do permit 1 or 2 leopards hunts a year with rifle.
Although leopard trophy hunting with a bow is illegal in Namibia, I was granted special permission by the game department to conduct tests some years ago.
The hunting technique I used is to track the leopard with my Ju’hoansi trackers until we locate his kill. I would then setup a double bull popup bow hunting blind 14 yards from the kill, clean a shooting lane and tie the kill down. It is of utmost importance not to disturb or move the kill from its original position and leave as little human scent as possible. My trackers being hunters themselves are exceptionally good at this task. Using this technique I had a 100% success rate in getting the leopard in at such close range. All 8-bow hunters I had to hunt leopard had shot opportunities in daylight, around 17h30 to19h30. Normally in a 10-day period hunters would have at least two opportunities of shooting a leopard. I use the same hunting technique with gun hunters now.