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."