Arrowing her way through Africa: Bates becomes first woman to take the Big Five with a bow

By Bow StaffMarch 3, 2014160 Comments

LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015

By Joella Bates as told to John N. Felsher

Authors Note: The only woman to arrow the “Big Five” in Africa in a single safari, Joella Bates of Waverly, Tenn., downed an elephant, lion, rhinoceros, cape buffalo and leopard in South Africa and Zimbabwe between Sept. 7 and Oct. 3, 2009. For the rhino, she practiced “green hunting,” tranquilizing the animals and releasing it unharmed. Bates also won five 3-D Archery World Championship titles as well as many other shooting titles. When not hunting, Joella teaches archery clinics at schools and conducts hunting and archery seminars all over the country.

I’d always dreamed of hunting in Africa, the only place in the world where a hunter can pursue the Big Five consisting of the most dangerous animals in the world. In 2001, I went to South Africa with Itaga Motsumi Safaris. On May 10, I downed my first Cape buffalo, reputed to be the most dangerous game animal in the world. In 2003, I returned to South Africa and arrowed 11 plains game species and made my first white rhino “green” hunt. For “green” hunting, I shot the rhinoceros with an arrow tipped with a syringe containing a tranquilizing drug instead of a broadhead. The drug put the animal to sleep so researchers could take blood samples and evaluate the animal’s health. Then, a veterinarian administered an antidote to revive the beast. The bull rhino got up and left in a cloud of dust, but came back for a last stand before disappearing into the thick thorny bushes. I was blessed to enjoy the excitement of the hunt and then release the magnificent animal back into the wild.

Bates and Green Hunted Rhino

Joella Bates, a world champion archer from Waverly, Tenn., poses with the live rhino she “green hunted” in Africa. “Green hunting” means the animal was shot with a tranqualizer, examined by biologists and released unharmed. (Photo courtesy of Joella Bates)

At a sport show in February 2009, I met with Tienie Bamburger, a professional hunter with Warthog Safaris (800-872-5979 www.warthogsafaris.co.za) and his wife Ananja. They suggested I complete a Big Five slam in one safari, something no woman archer had ever done before. I left the United States for Johannesburg, South Africa, on Sept. 4, 2009 and began hunting on Sept. 6. After zigzagging for 10 hours through deep sand that made walking difficult, particularly with blisters on my feet, we tracked a lioness for about 30 miles across the dry, flat Kalahari Desert the next day. The ordeal challenged my physical endurance, but adrenaline kept me going, knowing that the animal we hunted could also be hunting us!

On Sept. 7, the native trackers nearly stepped on the lioness, considered far more dangerous than a male lion. The giant cat roared and charged the hunting party stopping merely 6.5 yards away. Tienie quietly, yet firmly issued the command: “Shoot your lioness!” I brought the 75-pound bow to full-draw. My heart raced, but the Carbon Express arrow flew true. The 100-grain Atom broadhead pierced the heart of the great beast, but she did not go down immediately. As the wounded lioness posed for another charge, Tienie shouted, “Shoot your lioness again!” I did, delivering another arrow to the front of the wounded cat. She crouched lower and I followed up with another frontal shot. After the third shot, the dying lioness bounced two strides and walked about 25 yards before collapsing.

Bates and Arrowed Lioness

Joella Bates shows off the lioness she arrowed in South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Joella Bates)

“One down and four to go,” Tienie responded as he gave me the first of many congratulatory hugs that were to come. On Sept. 10, we rode 16 hours to Zimbabwe, where I would stalk an elephant, the ultimate big game animal. Villagers reported elephants destroying crops in the area. Since I had a problem animal control permit, our objective was to remove one of the nuisance elephants that was rampaging the local villages. At every stop, local men and boys wanted to join the hunt as scouts. We received a report from the scouts that three big elephants chased some women washing clothes. We stalked to within 22 yards of the big beasts, but could not get a clear shot in the thick cover. Early on Sept. 12, we went out looking for the problem elephants again. At about 10 a.m. we received a very excited radio call. One of the scouts had lost his shoes when elephants trumpeted and chased them. We stealthily approached the herd, avoiding making unnecessary noises and watching the wind. Slowly and methodically, we followed the tracks as the sound of breaking trees marked the position of the feeding herd. We approached to within 15 yards of a huge sleeping bull. I drew on a bull feeding about 25 yards away, but then the wind shifted. The bull whirled, facing us and mock charged, stopping at 20 yards. As a cow broke small trees within 10 yards, the professional hunters opened fire. She fell with two bullets in her brain two steps from me as the herd exploded from the thicket and scattered.

It all happened so quickly that I remained in shock for days. Immediately, I cried and thanked God for protecting us. Within minutes, villagers with knives and bags came to claim their share of the meat. We returned to base camp for lunch and to think of Plan B. I took home some hair bracelets from this charging cow elephant, my only animal trophy from this safari. We had to wait several days to get another problem animal control permit. I spent time writing and shooting my heavy bow. After securing the new permit for a problem elephant, we discovered a big one coming to a nearby waterhole at night. At daybreak on Sept. 16, we began following his tracks. After a grueling stalk, part of which required running through thick brush, we came within range of the big bull. Trackers stayed in front of the bull to keep its attention as we moved to the right for a broadside shot.

Bates and Professional Hunter with Elephant

Joella Bates and Tienie Bamburger, a professional hunter with Warthog Safaris, pose with the elephant she bagged in Zimbabwe, Africa. The animal was a problem elephant known for chasing people and destroying crops. (Photo courtesy of Joella Bates)

After eight years of dreaming, the moment had finally arrived. Rapidly working to catch my breath and regain my composure, I put the pin behind its front leg and released the arrow. Tipped with a Carbon Express 175-grain titanium First Cut broadhead, the arrow disappeared totally inside the elephant. We moved to the left as the elephant humped his back up from the heart-lung shot. He whirled and stopped as I released a second arrow into his heart and lung from the other side. Moving in closer, I shot my final arrow frontally into his heart from 15 yards away. Seconds later, he staggered and collapsed. As the adrenaline rushed through my body, tears rolled and emotions flowed. Once someone hunts elephants in Africa, they will never be the same again.

On Sept. 18, I turned my attention to Cape buffalo. I approached to within 14.5 yards of two big bulls. One had broken a tip off one horn while fighting with another big bull, so he already had a bad attitude. I released a frontal shot from the 91-pound Athens bow with a full-length weighted Carbon Express Rebel Hunter arrow tipped with a Simons Land Shark 160-grain broadhead. The arrow went right into the heart of the most dangerous game animal in Africa. With all the excitement and close encounters up to this point, I fully expected him or his buddy to charge. Thank God, he and the other bull ran away. My bull only traveled 30 yards before crumpling. We donated the meat from this 3,000-pound brute to orphanages and church camps. Two days after bagging my Cape buffalo bull, I green hunted a white rhinoceros. For the rhino hunt, I would turn the 75-pound bow down to 45 pounds. Since my 2009 hunt, the rules for green hunting changed. Now, only a vet can shoot the animal with a tranquilizer. The hunter must shoot an arrow tipped with a vitamin-filled syringe.

Bates and Professional Hunter with Cape Buffalo

Joella Bates and Tienie Bamburger, a professional hunter with Warthog Safaris, show off the 3,000-pound Cape buffalo Joella downed with an arrow in Africa. Many people regard Cape buffalo, dubbed “Black Death” by the natives as the toughest and most dangerous animal to hunt in Africa. (Photo courtesy of Joella Bates)

After green hunting the rhino, we moved to the Lepelale area of South Africa for probably the most difficult hunt of my African experience since most of it took place at night. For seven consecutive afternoons, we climbed into a blind at about 3 p.m. and stayed there several hours trying to outwit a wily leopard. The blind sat on a rock cliff facing a steam that flowed between the blind and the tree that held bait 16.5 yards away. In total silence each night, we communicated only by hand signals. Sometimes, we stayed in the blind until 7 a.m. the following morning. Sometimes, we quit hunting at 11 p.m. or 1 a.m. Because of long exhausting hours with no talking in pitch dark, my imagination became my worst enemy.

Bates and Leopard she Arrowed

Joella Bates shows off the leopard she arrowed in Africa. Many people regard leopard as the wilest of all African game and the most difficult to hunt. (Photo courtesy of Joella Bates)

On the evening of Oct. 3, I completed my epic quest when the leopard began eating the donkey meat. Using the 75-pound Athens Accomplice bow, I put an arrow with a Dynamic Solutions Atom 100-grain broadhead into the big cat. I can’t wait to return to Africa and hunt more animals. Next time, I’d like to take a hippo and a crocodile or hunt different types of plains game in other countries. Authors Note: The only woman to arrow the “Big Five” in Africa in a single safari, Joella Bates of Waverly, Tenn., downed an elephant, lion, rhinoceros, cape buffalo and leopard in South Africa and Zimbabwe between Sept. 7 and Oct. 3, 2009. For the rhino, she practiced “green hunting,” tranquilizing the animals and releasing it unharmed. Bates also won five 3-D Archery World Championship titles as well as many other shooting titles. When not hunting, Joella teaches archery clinics at schools and conducts hunting and archery seminars all over the country.

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