In April 2017 Scott van Zyl set out on a hunting expedition with a single guide and his dogs. But when the dogs returned to base camp without him, it was a sign that something had gone terribly wrong. Eventually a rescue team traced his footprints to a riverbank – and it was then that they first suspected his grisly fate.
Scott van Zyl was a South African hunting fanatic and a keen advocate of the sport. His company, SS Pro Safaris, organizes expeditions for visitors to travel to countries across Africa to go hunting. The company proudly boasts of its record of having arranged trips to kill animals ranging from lions and giraffes to elephants, leopards and zebras.
On that fateful day in April, however, Scott left his home to go on a private safari of his own in Zimbabwe. He traveled with just one guide and his faithful pack of dogs. His stated destination: the Limpopo River, which runs across the continent and towards the Indian Ocean.
He and his guide parted ways at the river, van Zyl heading off with the pack of dogs as he trekked alone in search of wildlife. It would turn out to be the last time that anyone saw Scott van Zyl alive. Suspicions were raised when the dogs later returned to camp… but with Scott nowhere to be seen.
Sensing that something had gone wrong, the guide contacted the authorities. A search party was quickly assembled to look for the hunter. Trackers and helicopters were called in to scour the landscape from the ground and from the air. The team even included divers to account for the possibility that van Zyl had fallen in the river.
However, following hours of searching, all the party had found were Scott’s footprints heading in the direction of the river and an apparently abandoned backpack. Meanwhile, his rifle was still in his vehicle, along with much of his kit. Otherwise, there was no trace of Scott van Zyl.
That was when two gigantic crocodiles were seen in the area in which Scott had vanished. These crocs can grow to be over 16 feet long and are known to attack humans who stray into their territory. It was then that the party began to suspect what must have happened.
Fearing the worst, the beasts were shot and killed. Then, during the autopsy, forensic experts discovered human remains inside them. DNA tests proved that it was indeed the unlucky hunter who had fallen victim to these monsters.
Questions remain, though. For instance, why would Scott leave his gun in his vehicle and wander downriver without it? Considering that he was extremely experienced in the wild, why did he fail to recognize two massive crocodiles? And why didn’t his dogs prevent the attack?
In the month preceding his death, there had been four crocodile attacks in Zimbabwe. Experts believe that unusually swollen rivers and heavy rainfall allowed crocodiles to move further from their traditional habitats and into contact with human beings. This makes it all the more surprising that Scott was so unprepared.
Nile crocodiles usually eat fish or zebras and antelopes that stray too close. The crocs sneak up while their prey is drinking and then drag them into the water. Once they have the unfortunate zebra in their jaws, they perform a drowning technique called “the death roll.” It’s likely this is how Scott van Zyl met his doom.
Nowadays, big-game hunting is controversial in the West so it’s hardly surprising that reactions to van Zyl’s death were mixed. One conservation group noted that Scott would almost certainly still be alive if he hadn’t been hunting animals in the wild. There were many who mourned Scott’s death, though.
Phillip Bronkhorst, the Chairman of the Limpopo Hunters Liasion Forum, wrote, “Our hearts go out to Scott’s wife Suré and their two children…he will be remembered for the passion he had for his profession and life in general.” Considering what an experienced outdoorsman Scott was, his death must have come as a shock.
In recent times many foreigners who have gone hunting endangered or protected animals in Africa have faced censure upon returning home. The most notable example was the case of Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, who killed a lion in Zimbabwe.
In any other situation, Palmer might have returned home without fanfare. However, the lion in question – who had been dubbed Cecil – was a university research subject. The team based in Britain’s Oxford University had been tracking him for seven years. Hence, they could hardly fail to take immediate note of his death.
When Palmer returned home, he was consequently the subject of intense public hostility. Furthermore, it was discovered that Cecil the Lion was far from his first kill. Indeed, Safari Club International’s website has publicly-accessible photos of Palmer posing alongside a slain mountain lion and even a polar bear, killed with a bow and arrow.
The result has been a greater level of scrutiny on trophy hunters and increased requirements for licenses and fees. Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean guides who took Palmer on his trip faced serious charges. It’s perhaps remarkable that van Zyl’s company SS Pro Safaris was still doing so much business given this climate.
Big-game hunting is by nature a risky venture. Carnivorous animals are unpredictable and can attack humans for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s for food, but on most occasions they will attack simply to protect their territory or to protect their young if they feel they are under threat. In this case, Mother Nature bit back in spectacular fashion.
However, even the most dangerous of animals are rarely a match for a hunter’s ingenuity and weaponry. The crocodiles that killed van Zyl could have attacked anyone, but he undoubtedly put himself in harm’s way. His death will now stand as a warning to everyone in the region.
The tale of big-game hunter Scott van Zyl is a chilling reminder that, however prepared, human beings don’t always get it their own way in the wild. It’s also proof of just how deadly Mother Nature can be.