Maiduguri, Nigeria – Ever since he was a boy, Bunu Bukar has hunted big game in the forests of northeastern Nigeria, tracking the footprints of wild pigs, antelopes and elephants through the thick brush.
Now the prey he hunts leaves motorcycle tracks.
Mr. Bukar and dozens of members of a century-old hunting association have trained their weapons on Boko Haram, the militants who have shot, kidnapped and burned their way through villages on an eight-year campaign of murder and destruction across the region.
Nigeria has marshaled huge battalions of soldiers to carry out a sweeping operation to attack and kill the insurgents, who have since retreated to remote forest hideouts.
Last weekend, Nigeria scored a major victory in the battle with the militants, securing the release of 82 girls whom fighters kidnapped from a boarding school three years ago as they were preparing for exams in the village of Chibok.
Mr. Bukar said he was with Nigerian soldiers last fall when they came across one of the abducted schoolgirls: Amina Ali, who was scrounging for food in the forest with other Boko Haram members. She was the first of the girls to be found since the mass kidnapping shocked the world in 2014.
Mr. Bukar’s hunting group is well acquainted with the remote forest areas where the militants have taken refuge.
His group, which once gathered regularly in the bush to track rabbits, wild hens and other game, first encountered Boko Haram when the militants fled the state capital four years ago and took their rampage to the countryside, encroaching on the hunters’ turf.
“In the beginning, there was no problem,” said Mr. Bukar, 51, secretary of the hunters association. “Hunters and insurgents met in the forest, and everyone was doing their own business.”
That changed when the military started chasing Boko Haram through the countryside. The soldiers needed help finding water and shade as they passed through unfamiliar terrain. They turned to the hunters for help. It did not take long for Boko Haram to realize that the hunters were guiding soldiers, and the group wanted revenge.
Boko Haram’s first target was Mai Ajirambe, an elderly leader of the hunters’ group. Insurgents tracked him to a village near his home and kidnapped him. When fellow hunters found Mr. Ajirambe, he had been decapitated, his head carefully placed on his back.
“We decided right then, they won’t stop until they kill all of us,” Mr. Bukar said.
He and other hunters gathered their families and moved them from their rural villages to the state capital, Maiduguri, for safety. Then they joined the fight. Now, the hunters sometimes lead soldiers into battle with their own homemade, long-barreled guns.
Like most hunters, they brag about their successes and lament the ones that got away.
One of Mr. Bukar’s biggest regrets came on the day that he and the soldiers found the first girl from Chibok. He said he caught a fighter and delivered him to the soldiers, but then the man somehow escaped in all the excitement of finding one of the kidnapped students.
While last weekend’s liberation of the Chibok schoolgirls is a victory, Mr. Bukar knows the hunt for Boko Haram fighters is far from finished.
When Mr. Bukar gets ready for a mission, he follows the same routine he has used since boyhood. He rubs an herbal mix across his body to mask his scent. He puts on his lucky necklace. In the field, he stays as quiet as possible, relying on hand signals to communicate with fellow hunters. He never runs after his prey; he lets it come to him.
“Once you meet it, there are only two options: You kill it or it kills you,” Mr. Bukar said.
The hunters are relying on traditions handed down through generations. Many began hunting when they were young boys, heading to the bush with uncles, fathers and grandfathers. A handful of women who hunt have also joined the Boko Haram fight.
Some hunters carry knives fashioned years ago by grandfathers who etched squiggly designs across the blades. Before the bush became too dangerous, they would gather as many as a hundred people at a time for major hunts, combing the bush for prey.
The hunters said pursuing humans was trickier than going after animals — even elephants, which are notorious for fighting back.
“If you climb a tree, you might be safe from an elephant. But not with Boko Haram,” said Mr. Bukar, who is also the secretary of the hunters’ organization. “If you climb a tree, they’ll shoot you.”
The militants specialize in ambushes, he said. Sometimes the best strategy to catch fighters involves carving a hole in a wide tree to hide in and wait for a group of Boko Haram members to pass, typically on motorbikes, which are banned in Borno.
Most hunters have superstitions, and Mr. Bukar and the others are no exceptions. Their bodies are laden with dangling, round leather amulets.
Abba Balomi, a 20-year-old, baby-faced hunter, wears amulets around his waist and a beige, quilted cloth vest designed to look like a bulletproof vest. The items give him a sense of protection, he said.
Mr. Balomi has recovered war trophies from raids on Boko Haram hideouts — mobile phones and cash, mostly, but also the insurgents’ good-luck charms. He said he and his brothers destroyed them.
Ba Bunu, 25, is commander of a local group of hunters. His lucky charm is the tail of a black cat that dangles from a necklace.