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Eleanor man's elephant feeds a village

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Frank Beller came home from his elephant hunt without a trophy. Instead, he came home with something much more fulfilling - the knowledge he had put much-needed food in people's stomachs.

In a hunt sanctioned by the government of Namibia, Beller, 66, of Eleanor, killed a "food elephant" to provide meat for hundreds of hungry villagers. In the process, he discovered just how difficult and dangerous an elephant hunt can be.

"I'd been hunting in Africa four times before this last one," he said. "Most of the hunts were for [antelope, zebra and other] 'plains game.' The only dangerous game I'd killed was a Cape buffalo."

In the lexicon of African big-game hunting, the so-called "Big Five" - animals considered most difficult and dangerous to hunt - includes lion, leopard, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo and elephant.

Several of Beller's friends in the Dallas Safari Club had killed elephants, and hearing their experiences made him yearn for a similar adventure.

"My friends got me in touch with Karl Stumpfe, a professional hunter who guides in Namibia," Beller recalled. "They told me that hunts for non-exportable food elephants aren't as expensive or as difficult as hunts for trophy elephants. They said I probably wouldn't have to walk half a mile. At my age, that sounded pretty good."

Belle and his wife, Joyce, flew to Africa in late April. They found hunting conditions that were anything but easy.

"It was extremely dry," Beller said. "It hadn't rained since February. The water holes were all dried up. We basically were walking in dry, white, loose sand like you'd find on a sand dune at the beach. It was tough to get around."

The lack of water had driven the region's elephants to the only readily available source of moisture, the leaves of mopane trees. Finding the thirsty pachyderms as they shuttled between stands of trees became a frustrating game of hide-and-seek.

"The first day out, we hit some fairly fresh tracks and followed them," Beller recalled. "We followed them for five miles through that sand-dune sand but never found them. I thought I'd bitten off more than I could chew."

The next two days brought more of the same. Beller, Stumpf and their native trackers wandered the bush from daylight to dark but saw only the tracks of a leopard and some plains animals.

"Karl was worried, because he had 10 food-elephant permits and no water holes to attract elephants," Beller said. "But on the fourth day, our luck changed."

Early in the day, the hunting party found the tracks of a good-sized elephant herd.

"The trackers estimated there were 30 to 40 in the herd," Beller said. "We took off after them. We walked 7 1/2 miles in that doggoned loose sand. Right about the time I was starting to believe we'd never catch up to them, we bumped into them.

"They were about 60 yards away, but in that mopane cover we couldn't get a shot. So we circled around for a better angle. Well, the wind swirled, the elephants scented us and they took off."

Rather than have Beller walk 4 miles back to the car, Stumpf and his game scout made the hike and retrieved the vehicle.

"By then it was 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon," Beller said. "Karl said he'd like to see if the elephants had crossed a two-track [road] up ahead. He said if they had, the walk wouldn't be more than a mile and a half. I said OK."

Sure enough, the elephants had crossed the road. The trackers said the herd would be no more than a mile ahead.

"The wind was in our favor, so we decided to try," Beller said. "We walked about 200 yards, and there the elephants were."

Under Namibian law, Beller was allowed to kill any elephant in the herd that didn't have trophy tusks.

"The first one we came across was a big, mature tusk-less cow," he said. "I decided to take her, so we stalked in for a better shot. I was 12 yards away when she realized I was there and charged.

"I tried for a brain shot but hit low and didn't turn her. I shot her again, and that knocked her down and gave me a chance to finish her off."

With his attention riveted on the elephant he'd shot, Beller forgot to watch the rest of the herd.

"I could hear Karl yelling. Luckily, he had my back. He kept a big, tusked cow from charging me. Eventually he was able to run the herd off. I learned a lesson that day: If you shoot an elephant and don't pay attention, you can get stomped."

The guides estimated Beller's elephant at 7,000 pounds.

"The local village got 2,200 pounds of meat from that animal," he said. "Once an elephant is down, the village's chief takes control. He sends in his crew, they butcher the elephant and everybody is happy."

The word of Beller's elephant went through the hunting camp like an electric charge.

"All the camp workers started dancing and jumping around all happy, because they were getting all this food," said Joyce Beller, who was there when the word came in. "These are people whose diet is mostly cornmeal and water. Unless a hunter comes in and kills an animal, they don't have meat."

African professional hunters tell tales of hunters who become emotional after taking the life of an elephant. Beller said the realization he was providing food for people helped him avoid that.

"I put a high value on life, but I viewed [killing the elephant] as the same as going to a slaughterhouse and watching a beef cattle go from a living creature to meat on a shelf at Kroger's," he said.

Would he go back and do it again? He says yes.

"It was a wonderful experience. I could go to Africa and never pick up a gun. I could spend a week watching someone else hunt and enjoy it every bit as much."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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