FAIRBANKS — Just 25 yards stood between Nello Cooper and a cow elephant with two young elephants during an expedition to Zimbabwe in 2006.
Just moments before, two other big elephants had caught wind of him and went stampeding into the brush. Now he and his guide were staring down at the huge mother elephant.
“It was at that time I asked myself ‘How did I get myself in this position?’” he said while recounting the experience at his home in Fairbanks during the weekend.
“Your heart’s pounding, the adrenaline’s flowing, your legs are trembling because if that elephant decides to charge, you’ve got nowhere to go,” he said. “Even if there was a tree, the elephant could grab you and just pound you into a pile of furry raspberry jam.”
While such scenes played out in his head, the elephant caught wind of him and luckily decided to retreat into the brush.
“She made a quick walk away. I was happy about that,” he said. “But it’s not the one we’re looking at here.”
Across the room, a huge taxidermy elephant head stares across an upstairs room packed with the trophies of six hunting expeditions Cooper has made to Africa in the past 20 years.
It’s a veritable safari. There are zebras, impalas, several greater kudu, a blue wildebeest, a duiker, a few Livingston Eland, warthogs, a red hartebeest, a black wildebeest, a gemsbuck, a springbok, a reedbuck, a blessbok, a waterbuck, a cape buffalo and a hyena. His Alaska trophies, moose, two black bears and a few caribou are tucked into a corner.
Cooper went on what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime hunting expedition with his brother in 1993, but became hooked. Now he’s visited Zimbabwe four times and South Africa twice, accumulating more stories than could begin to be fit in a newspaper.
“There’s just something about the dangerous game. I’m attracted not just because it’s dangerous, but there’s an adrenaline rush when there’s an animal capable of killing you and a rifle doesn’t offer you an overwhelming advantage,” he said. “I believe that every time I go to Africa I leave a little piece of me in Africa.”
His first trip to Zimbabwe came at the encouragement of his wife, Kristy. He had just returned from a tour of duty with the Army as a First Sergeant in Desert Storm.
He had pictured an awe-inspiring, animal-packed Serengeti where he could ride around in a truck, looking for the perfect game, but found something much different. He was presented by dense foliage, days of hiking, crawling and stalking just to see an animal, let alone shoot and skin it.
“I was still in the military and I was in top shape, but my hips were hurting, my back was hurting. It was hard work. I told everyone I won’t be going back to Africa again,” he said. “I made it back here to Fairbanks and after a year of thinking about it and reflecting introspectively, I called my brother and said I want to go back to Africa. That was a beginning of a long adventure.”
Kristy has gone with him several times now, but has preferred to hunt the occasional bird.
“He went to war so I felt like he deserved it, but sometimes I have to remind him that he’s only been to war once,” she said.
While some might be squeamish or downright opposed to hunting in Africa, Cooper said safari hunters are well-regulated in the countries where he goes and, like in Alaska, there are limits on the number of animals that can be taken.
“I would like to tell them that this is more than a sport, it’s a way of life over there in Africa,” he said. “It’s more than just taking animals to conserve the range. In areas where the area doesn’t pay for itself, that land becomes bought up and it’s no longer free ranging wilderness for anyone.”
There also are some hefty fees associated with hunting in African countries, with animals like elephants requiring tens of thousand of dollars for a trophy permit. In addition, there is airfare, hiring a professional hunter and shipping of trophies home. Trips for him can cost anywhere between $5,000 and tens of thousands.
Cooper, who now works as with the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice as a juvenile justice officer at the Fairbanks Youth Facility, has found ways to cut costs on his trips to Africa.
“Sometimes I say ‘man, I just don’t have the money,’ but I had set a date,” he said. “I would subconsciously start doing all the things it required to make Africa a reality to me. I’ve been able to do that all the time.”
He’s taken to doing his own taxidermy, slowly learning from the great taxidermists in the Interior. He also reloads his own ammunition — he shoots exclusively Weatherby rifles — with a great enthusiasm.
Not only that, but he’s created his own calibers, getting rifles made for the .358 Cooper and the 8mm Cooper.
This fall, he plans to return to Africa, this time with a plan to get a lioness and a hippopotamus.
Well past what was supposed to be his once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa in 1993, Cooper said he’ll go as long as he’s able to go.
“With going to Africa, I believe you have to go while you have the opportunity to go. Things could change overnight, you could go from rags to riches or riches to rags overnight. You’ve got to do this when you’ve got your health, and there will come a time when I’d like to go but can’t or won’t have the health or income to do it,” he said. “I don’t believe that you should pass up an opportunity.”