A few years ago, while conducting a Trail in the Kruger National Park, we encountered three White Rhino feeding in a large open area. With a gentle breeze in our face and a low sun on our back conditions were seemingly perfect. Yet, just before extracting from the sighting, something worried the animals and they took off in our direction with a determined canter. We immediately realised that the Trails group was in trouble. There was no time to take cover and the Rhino could not hear our shouting with which we tried to alert them of our presence. They were making too much noise while running in a tight crash. Both Lead and Back-Up rifles chambered a round in preparation to fire. What happened next most certainly saved lives.

With the group of Trailists positioned directly behind the two rifles and the Rhino heading precisely in our direction the Back-Up Trails Guide fired a ‘warning shot’ with less than twenty meters to spare. Upon the audio disturbance of the large caliber shot going off and the visual disturbance created by the puff of dust as the bullet hit the ground to the right and slightly short of the animals, they veered off to the left. Fortunately, they sidestepped the Trails group by less than five meters and continued running. They were unaware of our presence, until the warning shot went off.

It is important to note that warning shots are rarely effective (across species), but the execution of a coordinated plan between the Trail Guides will most likely determine the outcome of sudden dangerous encounters such as this.

George B. Shaw summed up the current status of the Trail Guides’ Brief when he said; “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. This greatly neglected, yet critical discussion between the Lead and Back-Up Trail Guides before a walking safari should include standard operational procedures (SOP’s) or ‘golden commands’ for a sudden situation or dangerous encounter.

It is highly recommended that two Trail Guides, each with a big bore rifle and monometallic bullets, conduct the Trail despite the number of participants (maximum eight persons). The Lead and Back-Up Trail Guides walk in front of the group as they move across the terrain in single file. The purpose of the Lead Trails Guide is to facilitate the walking experience, which may include viewing potentially dangerous animals, while the Back-Up Trails Guide provides an extra set of eyes and ears, group control and support (firepower) during a sudden and dangerous encounter. It is important that the Back-Up Trails Guide always ‘follows the lead of the lead’. In other words, the Back-Up Trails Guide will prepare the rifle to fire and wait for further commands once the Lead Trails Guide has done so and is in a safe position (not behind the Lead Trails Guide).

We encourage that the following ‘Three Command System’ is incorporated by Trail Guides if no structured operational procedure is currently in place. The commands are to be delivered by the Lead Trails Guide only and are as follows;

Hold.

Confirmation that the plan is in place and that the Lead Trails Guide has decided not to take any further actions at this point in time. This is valuable as it eliminates any doubt as to what action the Back-Up Trails Guide should be taking and confirms leadership by implementation of a predetermined plan. This command may be used while an animal is approaching the group out of curiosity, approaching the group with the intent to confront or is performing a warning charge.

Warning.

The Lead Trails Guide does not deliver a warning shot. Should a warning shot by the Lead Trails Guide be ineffective, valuable time (space) would have been wasted and the likelihood of a rifle malfunction while reloading a second cartridge is amplified. Therefore, the warning shot should only be taken by the Back-Up Trails Guide upon the command provided by the Lead Trails Guide. The warning shot should be placed off to one side of the animal (not directly in line with the animal) and into the ground approximately three quarters the distance to the animal. The warning shot would therefore not only provide the loud audio disturbance, but an additional visual disturbance (puff of dust) as the bullet hits the ground. The warning shot placement is ultimately dependent on terrain. Warning shots have been effective in some cases, but is most often not enough to discourage an animal of a determined confrontation or charge. Should the warning shot be ineffective, the Lead Trails Guide will be ready to provide the next command.

Kill.

This command may be delivered in two ways. First, a shot fired by the Lead Trails Guide. This will always be a kill shot (aiming for the animal’s brain). The Back-Up Trails Guide should follow up by shooting at the animal’s brain as soon as the Lead Guides shot is heard. The second and alternative command to the shot fired by the Lead Trails Guide is a verbal command – “kill”. This verbal command may be necessary if the Lead Trails Guide is experiencing a rifle malfunction or is not in a position to land a brain shot. Once the verbal command has been delivered, the Back-Up Trails Guide takes over the responsibility of the situation until the animal is declared dead by means of checking corneal reflex.

It is the responsibility of the Trail Guides to kill the animal once the ‘kill’ shot has been delivered. Should the shots not be fatal and the animal turns to run away, an anchor shot will be necessary to halt the animal and it should then be neutralized. It is unethical to allow the wounded animal to run away.

The Three Command System is valuable as it provides a very clear course of action when a situation develops rapidly. However, Mike Tyson raises a valid point when he says; “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. Flexibility in approach must therefore be maintained due to the variables involved. A few years ago, Matthew Burnett was walking as Back-Up on the Mphongolo Backpack Trail in northern Kruger National Park when an old Buffalo bull, that had gone unobserved in the Mopane scrub to their left, charged the Trails group from close proximity. Matthew made an appropriate and extremely quick assessment and decided to fire the ‘kill’ shot. It all happened in a flash, so fast in fact that the Buffalo bull ended up (dead) at the Lead Rifle’s feet while he was still chambering the first round. There was no time for any of the three commands. Both Lead and Back-Up Trail Guides should be able to use their judgement and experience to make a call when a situation demands it. This once again places emphasis on the importance of the practical experience the Trails Guide should accumulate before conducting walking safaris. When you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk.

Thankfully, Trail Guides conduct their duties in a very forgiving environment. The last thing a Trails Guide would like to do is kill an animal on Trail. However, the more time Trail Guides spend out in the field, the more likely it is that they will require the implementation of the ‘Three Command System’ to best manage a sudden or dangerous encounter.