(This article was published in the October 1969 edition of SAGA Magazine.)
You need more than bullets for buffs. . . . you need luck, a sharp shooting eye, a steady hand — and ice water in your veins. Ask movie star Alex Cord, who, from his own terrifying experiences, will tell you that the Cape buffalo is the most unpredictable, vengeful, ill-tempered and cunning animal in Africa. He should know, he’s been charged by a pair of these treacherous beasts within five minutes of each other — DROPPING ONE LITERALLY AT HIS FEET!
Tracking a Cape Buffalo in the lengthening bush shadows, cinema-television star Alex Cord and a Kenya white hunter, John Fletcher, were studying the spoor when a thicket, 40 yards ahead of them, exploded and three quarters of a ton of raging buffalo pounded toward them, short head lowered, massive horns out thrust above large fringed ears like deadly Maasai spears.
Aiming his double-barreled Rigby .470 at the tip of the buff’s nose two inches above the slime-dripping nostrils, Cord squeezed the trigger.
The heavy slug checked the buffalo’s maddened charge. It raised a dust cloud in its death slide into the dry ground.
“I knew I was going to kill that buff with one bullet before I fired,” Alex recalled later. “It wasn’t overconfidence, prescience — nothing like that. It was something I can’t realy explain. Every once in a while a hunter has the feeling he’s about to score a perfect shot. I had the feeling then. The bullet that killed the buff came straight from my heart.
“Our bearer and the skinner were in the Land Rover some distance behind us when Johnny and I began to walk toward the dead buff.
“We were about 25 yards from it when a second buff erupted from a thicket 60 yards away where it had been standing motionless, watching us.
“This one, even bigger than the first, caught us completely by surprise.
“I brought up the Rigby and Johnny yelled, “Wait!”
“Johnny is young in years for a professional — about my own age. But he’s one of the top pros in Kenya. I’d hunted with him before and had absolute confidence in his judgment. So I waited.
“The buff came on like an express train. The gap between us narrowed to 30 yards, to 20.
“There was a scarce 15 yards between us when Johnny called out again.
“I triggered off a frontal brain shot and dropped the buff literally at my feet.
“Pretty close,” I said to Johnny and wiped the beads of sweat from my forehead.
“Johnny looked down at the buff, then at me and grinned.
“You know John Cook, the hunter at the Treetops Hotel? One time a buff came at him from behind a big boulder. He got off one shot. Hit the beast in the throat and blew a hole in him you could see through but the buff kept coming. When he dropped dead it was on not in front of the toe of Cook’s left boot. That’s what I’d call pretty close.”
In his four African safaris Alex Cord has had several narrow escapes from death. Danger, however, is by no means unusual to him for he, himself, is a most unusual guy and his rocket-like rise to movie stardom in The Brotherhood with Kirk Douglas represents only one facet of his many interests.
Born in New York City, Alex was stricken with polio at the age of 12 and his determination to regain the use of a badly crippled leg took him to a Wyoming ranch where he grew up in the outdoors. Doctors recommended riding as a therapeutic exercise. Not only did it prove helpful to his copmlete recovery but by the time he was 16 he was so expert in the saddle that he became a professional rodeo rider, competing in contests throughout the country.
Like other top riders it was inevitable that he took a number of severe falls and broke several bones. One of his worst injuries occurred when he was thrown from a wildly bucking bronc in New York’s Madison Square Garden. After being hospitalized for several weeks he decided there was more to life than his world of horses and steers.
As a youngster he had made himself a promise to go to college. Now he enrolled in New York University, financing himself with a part-time and summer job in the construction business. It was a decision he has never regretted.
“The biggest turning point in my life came in 1957,” he says. “It’s like you start out along a single trail and someplace along the way you come to a fork. Take one fork and you move on in a certain direction, take the other and you’re heading toward another destination.
“One night I saw Sir Lawrence Olivier’s film version of Richard III, and his performance so inspired me that I resolved to become an actor.”
Alex enrolled in the Shakespeare Academy at Stratford, Conn. He applied himself with the same characteristic intensity with which he had conquered polio and rodeo broncs. He studied at New York’s Actors Studio and played summer stock in 1959 and 1960.
In 1961, he toured with the Stratford group’s productions of Shakespeare and went to Hollywood for several television appearances.
British stage producer Oscar Lewenstein was looking for a leading man to play opposite Siobhan McKenna in Play With A Tiger. He saw the young actor’s work and cast him in the part.
Not only was the play a success, but Alex was nominated for the London Critics Award. After more Hollywood television appearances, he returned to England to score again in The Rose Tattoo on the stage, and in dramatic performances on the BBC-TV.
Alex was vacationing in Arizona, keeping in condition by roping and breaking wild horses, when producer-director Richard Quine asked him to test for a role in Synanon, a drama of the struggle against narcotics addiction. Quine liked the result so well that he cast Cord in a starring role in the picture and signed him to a non-exclusive contract for six additional films.
Six feet tall, a lean and muscle-tough 160 pounds, dark complexioned and gray-eyed, Alex was ruggedly handsome with nothing pretty-boy about him. When he was spotted by movie producer Martin Rackin he was cast for the role of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, the same part that luanched John Wayne’s rise to stardom years before.
Alex has been doing a considerable amount of reading about Africa and the more he read about the continent and big game hunting the more he yearned to see the country. He was also a crack shot, having progressed from a .22 as a 12-year-old to a 12 gauge shotgun, a .30-30 lever action and a 30.06.
His opportunity came during a break between pictures and he went off to Africa. His first safari was more in the nature of a sight-seeing tour of the entire continent.
“I did the whole bit from Johannesburg, South Africa, right on up to the northern end and the more I saw, the more I liked,” he said. “My real love affair was with Kenya and I spent more time there than anywhere else.
“I went on safari and bagged some game: a zebra, wildebeest, and other plains animals. There’s a sporting element to hunting game like that. Such animals are comparatively fast, the hunter must be a fairly good shot and the game gets a decent break.
“I refused to hunt leopard. Sure it has a reputation for being fierce and dangerous, but it’s not my idea of a game animal.
“Leopards are suckers for walk-in traps into which they are lured by either live or dead bait, such as wildebeest, antelope, goat or wild pig.
“With the demand for leopard skins being what it is, a good many of the spotted cats are caught illicitly in steel traps — mostly of American manufacture, I should point out — and the species faces extinction.
“When a visiting hunter wants to shoot a leopard the safari leader puts him on a platform in a tree. Live bait is staked, or a carcass placed in a small clearing.
“The leopard is a night prowler and the hunter waits for it on the platform when darkness sets in. If the cat puts in an appearance it usually offers a perfect, and stationary shot to the hunter who knows the distance between platform and bait to the foot and just pulls the trigger. In my book that isn’t hunting, but slaughter.”
While in Kenya, Alex became acquainted with several pros, like John Fletcher. Another was the famous bush veteran, game warden Maj. Evelyn Wood Temple-Boreham, one of the dwindling number of European administrators in Kenya.
Temple-Boreham fought the deadly Mau-Mau terrorists back in the 1950s and now supervises the poacher-endangered gamelands as senior warden for all southwest Kenya.
“Animals have killed 21 people — all Masai tribesmen — in my jurisdiction during the past three years,” he told Alex. “Cape buffalo got a number of them. They’re treacherous beasts. I’ve known them to hide in brush by a water hole, wait for native women to come and fill their jars, then rip the women up the back as they start home.”
John Fletcher and another white hunter, Henry Poolman, agreed that the Cape buffalo was the most dangerous animal in all of Africa.
I decided then that some day I’d return to Kenya and hunt buff with Johnny,” said Alex. “But let me tell you the tragic story of Henry Poolman.
“He was about 32, a big guy, I’d say 230 pounds. He had a terrible scar on his leg where he’d been bitten by a lion. He got it when the lion suddenly attacked him and he jammed his knee into his mouth, which was better than having his head chewed off and also gave him a chance to kill the lion. It takes plenty of guts to do anything like that, and Henry was one gutsy guy.
“Last year he was on safari when a lion suddenly sprang out of cover between him and his client. The cat attacked the client from behind, knocked him to the ground and grabbed his shoulder in its jaws, getting set to make the kill.
“Henry reacted fast. He pulled his knife and jumped on the lion’s back. He was about to plunge the blade into the snarling cat when his gun bearer, who had stopped several yards behind him, fired. The bullet killed Henry, not the lion . . .”
Kenya was an irresistible magnet which drew Alex Cord back repeatedly between pictures and television specials he made, including The Scorpio Letters for MGM, The Lady Is My Wife for Bob Hope,A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die for Selmur Productions, and the tremendously successful The Brotherhood in which he co-starred with Kirk Douglas.
On one safari with John Fletcher, after being attacked by two Cape buffalo in less than five minutes, he “joined the club” of sportsmen who regard the buff as the most dangerous big game animal in Africa.
“A buff will not flinch from a bullet the way a rhino or an elephant sometimes does,” Alex explains. “Even if you hit him with the heaviest gun you can carry, say a .500 double Jeffery, he’ll still come right at you unless your shot is fatal.
“He’s cunning, too. Wound him and in mid-charge he may double back. But it can be fata error to interpret this as retreat. The wounded buff may circle widely through the brush or high grass and attack again from another quarter. Or he may decide to lie in ambush beside his trail for the hunter that wounded him.
“In Nairobi bars, where big game hunting ‘advice’ is dispensed as frequently as gin and bitters, they say that a wounded buff will wait as close to the trail as there is concealment so that his second charge will be short as possible. They also say that he’ll always hide on the same side of the spoor from which he approached it.
“Neither is true. The buff may lie in wait — sometimes patiently for days — at a greater distance and likely as not he’ll cross, or crisscross his own trail in choosing his hiding place. As Johnny explained to me before I hunted my first buff, if there are any ground rules in hunting African big game you may be certain that the Cape buffalo will ignore them. No wild animal anywhere in the world is more unpredictable.
“Another thing; unlike the rhino, a buff has damned good eyesight. And that makes him hard to approach.
“If a buffalo herd is grazing out on the open plain there may be egrets riding on the backs of the animals and you can see them take to the air and fly around like sheets of white paper blown by the wind. According to Johnny, and I’ve never heard anyone with a different explanation, they pick off and eat the ticks and when they take to the air they alert the buffs to the imminence of danger, whether it be in the form of a human hunter or a lion.
“In bush, thicket or tall grass, even a large herd may move so quietly that you may not know it’s there.”
On one such memorable occasion, Alex was lunching in camp with John Fletcher and Temple-Boreham when a Masai herder arrived with word that a hunter in a safari a few miles away had wounded a big buff, which then quickly disappeared.
Fletcher and the game warden exchanged glances of concern. They were both aware that in addition to the safari, there were other Masai herders tending their cattle in the surrounding area. Temple-Boreham shook his head grimly.
“Mustn’t leave that buffalo on the loose. Likely to toss the hunter or a Masai. Perhaps both.”
They set right out to track the wounded buffalo, the game warden with the Masai, Alex pairing off with Fletcher.
Temple-Boreham and the herder took off in the direction where the buff had last been seen, found its trail, plainly marked by dripping blood, and followed it.
About an hour later they observed cattle far out on the sun-scorched plain beyond the brush. The game warden scanned the plain through his glasses but saw no sign of a moran, a warrior-herder.
At this point the trail led in the direction of a waterhole marked by a single moyela tree.
Suddenly the game warden froze in his tracks.
An instant later the wounded buff thundered out from behind the tree and charged.
The game warden was ready and brought the buff down with a brain shot.
He nodded toward the moyela. “That the gree where the buffalo was wounded?”
“Same tree,” the Masai answered. “Buffalo he wait at tree for hunter who shoot him.”
Temple-Boreham glanced again toward the untended cattle. “Guess you better look behind the tree,” he said quietly.
His companion moved forward. A few minutes later he shouted to the game warden: “Find moran here. Is pelele?”
What had happened here was plain to see. The herder had approached the waterhole, spear in one hand, goatskin water bag in the other. He had been unaware of the lurking buff until too late.
The buff had gored him terribly, punching an enormous hole in his belly, virtually degutting him before tossing him high in the air and snapping his spine like a dry twig. The horn of the Cape buffalo is broad at the base, averaging 12 inches. Despite this impressive thickness, it does not impale as it tapers sharply to the tip. The powerful upward thrust of the buff’s head when the horn pierces the body tosses the victim into the air, arms and legs grotesquely angled like a human swastika.
Alex Cord and Fletcher had left camp in another direction, planning to intercept the wounded buff if the game warden did not succeed in catching up with it. They hiked into the thick brush some distance beyond the waterhole, searching for tracks.
“As we hunted through the brush I gradually became aware that a lot of buffalo were somewhere in the vicinity,” Alex relates. “I could smell them and hear their movements, but I couldn’t see a single one of them.
“Suddenly I was confronted by a buff cow a short distance ahead of me. Behind her I could see the head of a calf. I guess that the cow figured I was a menace to her calf for she started toward me.
“I didn’t want to shoot her if I could avoid it and I started backing away. She came on faster. She lowered her head, getting set to charge me.
“At this point I turned and ran, if you can call a fast, frantic stumble running. The bush was so dense I knew I couldn’t fire an accurate shot if I had to. Johnny was awrae of my predicament but he wasn’t in any position to help and was reluctant to fire a snap shot for fear of hitting me.
“The cow was gaining on me, mowing down brush like an army tank.
“Johnny shouted to me to spook off which I was trying to do and I made for the nearest tree and tried to climb it. That tree bent under my weight like a green sapling. I dashed to another and when I grabbed it the same thing happened so I started running again with the cow snorting heavily behind me.
“There were no other trees nearby and I thought of a couple of things I had heard that guys did when caught in a similar situation.
“One supposedly peeled off his shirt, turned to face the charging buff and played it like a bull fighter with Veronicas and other tricks of the bull ring until another hunter maneuvered into a position to make a killing shot.
“Perhaps this can be done if a guy is agile on his feet and the terrain is right. But it is suicide to try it in thick brush where there isn’t enough clearance to swing a cat.
“The other tactic I’d heard about was to lie down and pretend to be dead. Some whites as well as the Masai, the Kikuyus and the Somalia believe that a buff will neither horn, toss nor trample upon a body he has not killed himself. But as Johnny had pointed out to me, a buff is the least likely to follow any ground rules and with this big cow coming after me I had no intention of putting the theory to the test.
“I just kept on running with the cow gaining on me at every step. Finally — it seemed like an eternity later — I heard the blast of Johnny’s Rigby and the cow dropped in its tracks.
“I came to a stop. Then I heard another animal approaching through the brush. It was the calf, following its mother. Luckily it was the only buff that did. I don’t know what happened to the rest of the herd. Apparently it had completely ignored what was going on and had moved off in another direction.
“We rounded up the calf and brought it back to the camp with us. Later, Lynn — that’s Temple-Boreham — took it somewhere out on the plain and released it to find its way back to the herd.
“There’s one thing more I want to add about Cape buffalo. Not only does it horn, toss and trample, but it has formidable teeth which can take a hellish bite and even its tongue, as raspy as a steel file, can inflict considerable punishment.
“From Mombasa to the Masai, Amboseli Game Reserve, I’ve heard grisly stories about the buff’s tongue. The most popular version is about a female hunter, name unknown. I’ve come across that story repeatedly, not only in Kenya but in popular books about African hunting and in ‘authoritative’ tomes about Cape buffalo, Syncerus caffer.
“There are even writers who claim that they knew and hunted with the ill-starred, anonymous lady.
“The way they tell it is that one day she started out from her safari camp to hunt alone, which is a rather idiotic thing to do in big game country.
“She was some distance from camp when she encountered a buff and fired at it with a double barreled .405.
“Her first shot hit the buff in the shoulder and infuriated it. Her second was a complete miss and the wounded animal charged. There wasn’t time for her to reload. She dropped her weapon and ran to the nearest tree. She managed to climb it before the buff got to her.
“The buff hit the trunk with a terrific impact but failed to knock her down. It tried to hook her by plunging upward but she clung to the branch just beyond reach of its lethal horns and drew her bare legs in bus shorts as high as she could.
“After making several more attempts to dislodge her, the buff switched to another tactic. It stretched upward as far as it could reach and licked her ankles. She was unable to pull her legs up any higher and the buff kept working on her ankles with its long, rough tonuge, through skin and flesh right down to the bone.
“Her white hunter didn’t find her until after daybreak the next morning. He shot the buff which was still standing at the tree and as he approached he saw that she had strapped herself to the branch with her belt so that she would not be shaken down.
“He called to her but she did not answer and when he reached the tree he discovered that she was dead. She had bled to death during the night and there wasn’t a strip of flesh remaining on the bones of her ankles.”
Upon returning to the U.S., Alex immediately became involved again in his acting career and months passed before he completed several movie and television commitments.
During this time he chance to hear about a little known and exciting kind of hunting that was going on in the West; roping and capturing mountain lions alive. The idea sounded intriguing and he resolved to investigate it.
In an interim between pictures he went to Canyon City, Colo., where he located a couple of chaps who were experts. With Alex Cord the result was inevitable. He relates his experience without dramatic embellishment.
“They briefed me about their technique and we went up into the mountains with a pack of trained hounds. Most of them were veterans of previous cat hunts with the scars that showed it.
“These hounds knew their business. They tracked a mountain lion to a high rock ledge where it was sunning itself and it took off in a series of bounds with the pack hell-bent in pursuit. I’d say that some of its jumps measured about 20 feet.
“The hounds treed it part way down the mountain slope and kept it up in the branches until we arrived. The cat was average, about 150 to 160 pounds, its lithe, six-foot body covered with tawny fur.
“When I looked up at the cat with its long, twitching tail, it seemed enormous.
“I’d learned to use a rope as a youngster back on the Wyoming ranch and I didn’t have much difficulty in getting a rope around its neck. From this point on the action was plenty fast.”
It took all of Alex’s strength to jerk the cat down from the branches. The cat landed on its feet, a snarling, screaming, furious feline.
Alex dashed for the tree, snubbed the rope around the trunk and hoped that the cat wouldn’t bite through it with its long murderous fangs. He had been warned that this sometimes happened.
The maddened cat tried to free itself by backing away from the tree, which kept the rope taut.
Grabbing a light, but bite-proof flexible wire cable, Alex maneuvered the loop so that he roped the cat’s left front foot and secured it to the tree trunk.
Leaping upward, twisting and turning with a ferocious display of fang, the maddened cat tried to get at Alex who was approaching again, readying a second wire loop.
He watched for an opening, darted forward, then to the side to dodge the cat’s kicking hind legs, threw the loop and missed.
On his next try he succeeded in catching the cat’s rear right foot. Sprinting to the tree he wound the second cable end around the trunk.
Although the mountain lion was now anchored fore and aft it fought more furiously than before when Alex flipped it with a powerful jerk on the cable. Its two untied legs lashed upward in frenzy, deadly claws fanning air in disemboweling arcs. Not until Alex succeeded in ropiong those two legs could the cat be approached, taking care to remain beyond reach of its terrible, snapping jaws.
“After tying up that cat,” said Alex in a succinct understatement of fact, “I understood why capturing mountain lions alive will not become a popular sport among hunters.”
On one of those rare days when Alex Cord was relaxing (he had just finished Stiletto for move producer Joe Levine), I asked him about his greatest hunting thrill.
“Elephant!” he answered without hesitating.
The story of how he bagged his elephant to put in proper perspective, begins out west in the ski resort area of Squaw Valley.
Alex had made arrangements for a safari with John Fletcher. Temple-Boreham and Gen. James H. Doolittle of WW II Tokyo-bombing fame.
A few weeks before he was scheduled to depart for Kenya he had a long free weekend so he flew to Squaw Valley to get in some skiing.
He was schussing down a steep trail when he had an unfortunate spill. For a skier to break a leg in one or two places of course is fairly common. But Alex set a record, as it was discovered when he was hurred to the hospital, by breaking his leg in six places.
His leg was still in a cast as the day neared for him to leave for Kenya. He stared pensively at the cast.
“What do you think, Doc?” he asked.
“Absolutely out of the question,” his physician said sternly.
So, with his leg in a cast, Alex flew to Kenya.
“Naturally that mending leg was a bit of a handicap on safari, but I had made the decision and I couldn’t very well complain. Especially with General Doolittle in the party.
“He was one great little guy. He was 72 years old at the time but he hiked 10 miles a day through the brush like a man half his age. he also had the most inquisitive mind of anyone I’ve ever known. Flora, fauna, natives, terrain formations; everything interested him greatly and his knowledge was amazing.”
Once there had been plenty of elephants in this section of Kenya. But day after day as Alex and Doolittle explored the aera surrounding their camp they became more and more appalled by the toll taken by poachers. They came upon carcasses, many of them near waterholes from which only the tusks had been hacked out.
“Wanton slaughter,” explained Temple-Boreham indignantly. “Gangs of poachers lie in wait at waterholes until elephants appear, then hit them with a barrage of poisoned arrows.
“We apprehend some of these scoundrels and confiscate the tusks which are sold at auction at the government’s ivory warehouse in Mombasa. But the poachers move around quickly from one district to another and the black market for ivory is increasing. Arrest one gang of poachers and there’s always another ready to replace it. The battle is endless.”
Late one afternoon, just before sunset, Alex and John Fletcher came upon fresh elephant tracks and the white hunter examined them carefully.
“Looks like this one is yours,” he nodded, “but it’s almost dark, so we’ll wait until morning.”
They returned at 6:30 a.m. the next day and began tracking through fairly open country. It soon became apparent that the elephant wasn’t loafing in the immediate area but was definitely headed somewhere.
For the next two hours as they hiked they occasionally encountered pungent-smelling elephant droppings that swarmed with small forest flies. Once Fletcher stopped to study one.
“Kernels of undigested maize. This elephant probably trampled through a maize field recently, was driven off and is now looking for another field to raid.”
They resumed trailing with Fletcher setting a steady pace. Alex was beginning to tire and his bad leg was aching. he didn’t mention it lest Fletcher decide to call off the hunt.
The trail now led them into the brush and the walking became tougher. Wait-a-bit thorns and creepers pulled at their legs, sometimes snarling them and Alex’s injured leg developed a steady pain. He was grateful when they emerged into an open clearing under a canopy of bright blue sky.
Midway across the clearing Fletcher came to an abrupt stop and pointed toward the tangled brush beyond.
“Elephant’s in there watching us. You can see his head over there toward the left.”
Standing in the sunlight, Alex scanned the bush shadows and glimpsed the head of their quarry for a moment before it retreated deep into the thicket.
“The sight of that head looming up in the bush made me forget my aching leg,” he said. “It sure excited me.”
“The bush was too thick to go in after it. We had to wait for it to come out and Johnny was certain that it would, sooner or later.
For the next hour or so the elephant played hide and seek with us. We caught an occasional sight of it at the edge of teh clearing, first at one spot, then another. I guess it was waiting for us to go away and was getting madder each time it saw us still in the clearing. Each time it retreated back into the bush I marveled at how lightfooted an elephant can be in moving around. I’d heard buffalo and other animals signal their movements but this big fellow moved from point to point in comparative silence until it finally decided to charge us.
“When it did, it thundered out into the clearing and it looked like it was about 100 feet tall. Its high-pitched shrieks of rage were siren-loud; ears cocked and trunk up.
“This time I didn’t wait for Johnny to tell me to fire. The distance from the edge of the clearing to where we were standing was short and the elephant was coming toward us at terrific speed.
“I knew that if I missed there wouldn’t be time for Johnny to fire before the elephant trampled us; that he was gambling his life to give me this chance. I had to stop that elephant fast, either with a shoulder shot or with a bullet in its wide open mouth. A forehead shot, what the pros call a ‘duffer’s shot’ wouldn’t stop it. Johnny had explained to me that the top part of an elephant’s skull houses little more than air cells and a lot of amateur big game hunters have been killed after mistaking this for the brain.
“I aimed at the redness of the open mouth and fired.
“The impact of the .470 slug was so great it killed the elephant in mid-stride. Its forefoot didn’t even touch the ground. It tumbled forward in a half-somersault and fell dead in a huge heap.
“My heart was pounding wildly and I don’t mean this to sound dramatic. It kept right on pounding and I think it was about 24 hours before my excitement subsided and I returned to normal.
“My greatest hunting thrill? That was it. Anything else would be an anticlimax after bagging that elephant.”
This explains why Alex Cord no longer has much interest in hunting big game with a rifle. He’ll continue to go on African safaris whenever he has the opportunity, but hereafter he intends to do his shooting with a camera.
“Hunters can still bag limited game quotas in designated ‘shooting blocks’, but nine out of every 10 who now go on safari in Kenya obtain their ‘trophies’ on film,” he says.
“There are excellent subjects to be photographed everywhere, from colorful concentrations of lesser and greater flamingos at Lake Nakuru to 18 foot tall reticulated giraffes in the Marsabit Game Reserve.”
From now on, that’s for Alex Cord.