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Hunter conquers challenge of safari

Bob Frye
| Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008

Growing up chasing rabbits and pheasants in places such as Latrobe and Murrysville turned Gene Ciafre into a hunter. His first safari to Africa almost turned him into a corpse.

He was helping to trail a cape buffalo that someone had first wounded when the animal -- which weighed well in excess of 1,000 pounds -- charged him from ambush. It was coming head on and had closed to 10 yards before Ciafre was able to kill it.

That rush, which almost ended his life, definitely changed it.

"After all the hair on my body went back down, I concluded I kind of liked that. I don't know why exactly, but I liked that," said Ciafre, a resident of Greensburg and president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Safari Club.

It also marked the beginning of what turned out to be a 14-year odyssey.

In African circles, the pinnacle of hunting involves taking the so-called "Big Five." That's a cape buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, and rhino, cumulatively Africa's most deadly game.

Relatively few people ever accomplish that. A spokesman in the marketing department of Safari Club International -- a Tucson-based sportsmen's and conservation organization -- could not say exactly how many hunters have taken the Big Five since record keeping began in 1984. Another spokesman in the records department did not return a call seeking comment.

But the group's Web site lists only about 406 members -- not counting Ciafre -- as Big Five recipients. That's less than 1 percent of the group's overall membership, which exceeds 50,000.

Adding his name to the list was not easy for Ciafre.

He slept in blinds for 18 days spread over two trips to kill a leopard. He took an elephant with 70-pound tusks in an era when a 50-pounder was considered a trophy. And he darted -- rather than killed -- a white rhino with a tranquilizer, something that lets hunters target the 4,000-pound animals while letting veterinarians care for them.

Getting his lion was the real challenge, though.

He came home empty-handed from his first two 21-day lion hunts. His third was cancelled when his PH -- or professional hunter, as guides in Africa are called -- was killed by a cape buffalo just days before he was to meet him.

In February of this year, though, on Day 16 of a 21-day hunt in Namibia, after trekking over all kinds of rough terrain, Ciafre killed a lion that weighed an estimated 600 pounds.

"He was raiding farmer's crops and taking livestock and what not. They were afraid he was going to start taking people next," said Ciafre, who's been hunting deer from his camp in Clinton County this past week. "That's fairly common over there when you have a rogue lion."

It was a big one, too. Ciafre's trophy is expected to rank in the top 20 worldwide when it can be officially scored.

Ciafre began hunting Africa at age 48, when his signature mustache was black, finished his quest for the Big Five at 62, with his hair gone gray. But that's OK.

"It took a lot of years, but it was very satisfying," he said. "I don't know that I would change it. I probably appreciate it more this way."

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