My humbling at the hooves of a small African mammal
In the back of everyone’s mind were the elegant spiral horns and succulent tenderloins of a desert Greater Kudu (Tragolaphus strepiceros). The Kalahari is not the best Kudu habitat but they are sprinkled throughout. Kudu are Africa’s poster child over a huge geographic range; the grey ghost, the spiral-horned beauty. They are to the African veldt what North American Whitetails are to the rural farm landscapes. We were to see Kudu several times on our Botswana hunting safari, in all cases within range, but they were not the individuals I had specified I was seeking. My criteria were a mature bull with some elegant dimensionality to his horns and evidence he had lived long enough to pass his genetics along. The first kudu pair we saw were a cow and calf strolling elk-like out into the middle of an open pan at sunset. No bull.
Another day pursuing Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), we saw spiral-horned shadows at mid-day under a distant Acacia. I got very excited but my Professional Hunter gave a glance and put down his binoculars with two words “Young ones”. Although 2 ½ year old Kudu are very pretty and probably tasty, like a responsible hunters of Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis), or Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) typically aspires, I was committed to a mature animal. Some of the hallmarks we sought were ivory-tipped horns that completed their 3rd spiral and were pointing back forward, and good length indicating an older animal.
Kudu horns are a complex mixture of three-dimensionality. There are no straight lines, all of the curves are on variable radii, and the depth of the curls is compensatory to the height, thus gains in some dimensions constitute losses in others. To quantitatively judge Kudu from afar one must rely on experience and the general “Zen” or gestalt to distinguish large from average. As with trophy Bighorns though, if one has to agonize over an animal’s appearance, it is probably not a mature animal. When a real head-turner appears there is no question in the first few seconds of viewing.
Most PHs, particularly those with extensive Buffalo experience, consider the worst possible animal to remove from the region is a high-scoring young animal with some serious growth potential and breeding years remaining. The loss of horn mass on Buffalo head as the soft bases shrink or are boiled off is unfortunate. Hunters are usually directed toward hard-boss older males.
Of course, it is the hunter’s choice, but if one’s trophy is reduced to inches of horn for self-congratulatory and comparison value they might go for middle-aged animals. There are another set of values that can be accessed however, such as the experience, the discriminating pursuit, the relationship with an old experienced prey animal, and knowledge that your hunting take has little to no negative herd effect. A similar ethos applies to teenaged Kudu. This is one of the pivotal pieces of my “trophy” consideration. The animals are allowed to remain in their wild context for up to 95% of their natural lives, doing their breeding, influencing herd dynamics, being subject to predation pressure. If they manage to run that gauntlet successfully they enter a short term category of being subject to the gun. Their genes remain in the bloodlines. Many never are shot though as the vicissitudes of age weigh on them and their evasive skills are honed.
The idealist in me said things like “I don’t want to just drive around and shoot at creatures in Africa, I want to maximize my time walking and reading sign with the trackers”. That was before we went over to the Kalahari. The reality is that one has 7, 10 or even 21 days to try to see a reasonable chunk of the millions of acres of game-rich wild land. Animals are widely distributed across a huge, well-vegetated area and they move long distances with weather- remember, this is a desert.
There is simply not enough time to walk a significant area of hunting ground for highly dispersed animals. Certainly it could be done and we could have fed our tent mates with juvenile Springbok or an occasional Steenbok but if a hunter is after 5-year-old males with reasonable headgear, it means bypassing many many other animals along the way. That calls for a spot-and-stalk regime.
Walking in soft sand with soaring mid-day temperatures carrying a pack and an 11-lb rifle will limit most hunter’s foot travel to 3-hours in the morning and 3-hours in the afternoon. The waist to head-high vegetation is great at obscuring wildlife unless one is elevated onto the truck box. Given the simple numbers game, of having to locate, glass and sort through many dozens or hundreds of animals to select one on which you want to plan a stalk, some sort of faster-than-walking mode of transport makes sense.
Additionally, the auxiliary non-game wildlife encounters are maximized by covering a lot of ground. We bumped into an Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) and a Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis) and such encounters are very rare and special. We also saw a plethora of birds that we would not have seen by restricting ourselves to a few square km of foot-hunting. Although we didn’t happen to bump into any of the big cats, most hunters do see them. Tracks are much easier to investigate from above as well. I would boot-hunt if I lived here and knew the habitats but for now it was a combination of overview then focus in and stalk.
I would also have refused to shoot from the back of the vehicle but that was never expected. Maybe if I were 80 years old and couldn’t walk, I would think differently and set up a blind or a platform adjacent to a vehicle in Africa. Not ideal but with sufficient frailty it could work. I would love to try hunting off horseback in Africa as depicted in Teddy Roosevelt’s Game Trails across Africa. That would be about the ideal. I have been told that a hunter can shoot from ANY horse’s back . . . once! Actually, shifting, breathing, twitching horses make very poor shooting platforms and it tends to make them deafer than most horses already are. Finally, hospitalizable injuries from horseback adventures are 17X as common as motorcycling in traffic and the medical care in bush Africa is not great. Regardless, there is plenty of opportunity to stalk all African game on foot after it has been spotted. We many times would stop the vehicle ½ km short of a pan then sneak and crawl to its border to glass. That is how I killed a beautiful Springbok (different story).
We had set aside all of Thursday to hunt Kudu while remaining open to pursue a Springbok or Common Duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) if one crossed our path.
The typical method of hunting desert Kudu and Leopard (Panthera pardus) is not unlike following a hunting track for Cape Buffalo in Africa or Mountain Lions (Felis concolor) in the Western US; one finds very fresh tracks of a large male and quietly follows them until they catch up with the animal and hopefully, a shot presents itself. Our trackers were as visually attached and solid on a track line as any hound on scent too. In the last few years this camp has taken their Leopard allotment (1 or 2 animals per million acres) this way and the trackers tell some animated stories of those encounters. Track, track, track, bump the leopard, track, track, track, bump the leopard. About four of these bumps and the cat gets cranky and will often come at the trackers and hunter.
Mysteriously, our head tracker Jahnie always wore a heavy tattered army surplus coat in the Kalahari heat. It turns out that Jahnie’s coat has a shredded back from leopard claws that got him just as he dived for cover. The hunter used his rifle butt to smack the cat (he couldn’t shoot for fear of hitting the tracker) they then only killed the cat as it departed. Exciting stuff. The KD1 hunters figure 1/3 of their Leopard kills involve a charging animal after long tracking on foot. Some PHs actually do use a shotgun with buckshot as a backup weapon behind their hunters.
I would have welcomed a Kudu standing, fleeing or charging but that is not what I got. Before we could even get on a large Kudu track something tiny and gray dashed out of the bush and streaked off. The trackers got as animated and excited as I had seen them all week and we all hit the ground running — Duiker Duiker!!. Our PH, a black Botswanan named Robert Ramajarak agreed. Robert queried me though with a rolling R sound “Rrruunning shot?!”. OK, turn the scope down to 3-power and stay at port arms ready to shoot. An hour later, still walking fast, the rifle is slung over my shoulder and I am day dreaming and birdwatching between marveling at the tracker’s skill. Admittedly, after crossing a rock-hard and grassy pan, and circling several dunes, I wondered if tacker Jhanie was pulling my leg about actually being on the track line. The only serious excitement came when we bumped an occasional Steenbok or pushed a group of Eland (Taurotragus oryx) out ahead of us.
One of the real beauties of hunting Africa’s dry tropics is the abundant bird life, interesting reptiles, vegetation patterns, and big dynamic wildlife that materializes in context as you walk. Kori bustards launched ahead of us Few nature tourists get the immersion in that context that is obtained by an armed hunter. No Jeep, trails, or known habituated animals. Above I only mention that Robert is a black Botswanan PH because there are only a few of them persisting after the country-wide attempt to integrate the White-dominated PH industry. His quiet humble demeanor, knowledge of farming and mastery of five local languages inculcated a trust of the trackers were serious value added. He was also an appreciated window into the cultural gulf that separated my life from theirs which was something a white PH could never do.
We had gone about 300 yards past the pan when the strangest thing happened. With no discernible change in the track pattern, Jahnie slowed crouched, raised two fingers and waggled them while panning the brush as if to say “Somewhere in here, be ready” so I inched forward as if I was approaching a covey-rise of quail when 30 yards away a chunky gray-brown animal of mid-thigh height appeared at full speed from under a fallen acacia. He was going flat out away presenting a 25 mph target dashing through brush. I was taken aback and there were some chuckles and head-shaking amongst the trackers and PH. The word “running” did not do him justice, he was Rrruunning! Well, they had warned me. Damn! I should have been carrying a shotgun with #2 buckshot as this was more like rabbit hunting for 40 lb rabbits at 40 yards.
One cannot discuss such a hunt without discussing the trackers. I tried to pay as much attention to what they were doing as possible but it was clearly a higher level of interpretation than I have undertaken in the gumbo mud of my native Louisiana, USA, or my snow-tracking in Alberta, Canada where my hunting now takes place. The 50-year old (?) Jahnie would occasionally trade off with the 20-year old Matutsi as they strolled, trotted, or pondered the track line.
There was only one conversation for hours on end while tracking and that was Jahnie softly talking to the tracks. He was in a zone and was carrying on animated but very quiet exchanges with the track and possibly the animal, I could not tell. It did seem almost trance-like and as I watched his eyes, he was taking in the landscape, I’m guessing to predict where he would go if he were a Duiker, where the distant track line went, and what the tracks in front of him were saying. In the easy spots he was looking 30 yards out, in the tough spots he was looking six feet ahead to the closest tracks. When walking he would run his hand along above the line as he walked just to the left of the tracks. This provided me, Robert and Matutsi a view of the track line and would allow him to quickly set up the shooting sticks in his left hand or to make a quick departure from the firing line of a right-hand shooter if things happened fast.
It is worth while thinking through in advance the hunter’s obligation to shoot safely when there is a tracker out front, bearing in mind also the risk of hearing damage from muzzle blast even if the firing line is clear. In most of our group hunting in North America, only the gun in front comes into play on game. On Africa’s dangerous game there are typically multiple large-bore rifles in play and hearing damage is a real consideration.
Duiker run like a pig in what has been described a head-down diving motion, hence the name, Afrikaans for “diver” is duiker. Both front feet strike the ground together sending sand plumes rocketing. They run head-down like a fullback and I sense that the trackers love them because they are so linear in their direction, leave such a distinctive two-footed track, and because they tend to stay in the sandy portions of the range. While running, they seemed to make big, predictable sweeping curves. I learned later that when they slow, it is a precursor to meandering off their travel line to bed or hide. Here is where one gets ready because the hunters are probably within 50 yardsof them.
Duiker only seem to have two speeds — flat-out, or stationary. One wonders how they feed! Interestingly, when we first started tracking it was not clear if this was a male or a female. Only the males have horns and those are small. The world record horns are around 7 inches long. I had asked Robert to call shoot/ no shoot based on horn presence as I was willing to try for any Duiker with visible horns. Turns out, this guy was a biggie; 5+ inches estimated. Running shots with a rifle are generally a no-no for me, but in this case I was trusting the tracking ability and the ballistic/systemic havoc that a big rifle (7mm Mag., 160 gr. Nosler Partition) would cause with any hit on a 40 lb animal. I felt confident if I could even slow him down a bit I would kill him.
It was early in the day and we would follow the Duiker for two more hours. At one point our quarry made a dramatic and un-Duiker-like 90 degree right hand turn that threw us. Even after Jahni had relocated the track he would not leave the turning animal’s track until he understood why. The reason was that the Duiker had run right up to a walking pride of lions in his way. We were only 20 minutes behind a similar meeting.
We were back on his trail for another hour and half when the exact same game flushing scenario played out, Jahni slowed, gave the scan signal, a bush shook and the brown streak was flying away, Robert said “Take him!” so I shot . . . twice. There was hair in the scope both times but God only knows where the crosshairs might have been Jahnie smiled broadly and said “Good shot. . . but you missed” Classic San optimism! His assessment was corroborated by glimpses of our quarry going over a distant dune in flashing unbroken gait. I think I saw a faint blue streak in his wake. Then the trackers found the powdery silver depressions in the sand where each of the bullets had struck — they don’t miss a thing. Six inches left of the track line then 8 inches to the right.
All accuracy aside, it always surprises me how quickly I can shoot a bolt action. As a kid I would spend hours mock-shooting my dad’s old military 06 Springfield working the bolt fast as I could to kill the next imaginary enemy or trophy moose. Dad always said to slam the bolt front and back to ensure a full ejection and cartridge pick up. That practice comes back I guess, but as mentioned, the accuracy on such shots is another thing entirely. In hindsight I should have spent more time on a single well-placed shot but based on those two flushes, I estimated there was a 2.5 second window of shooting time on each flush.
The morning that had started for Kudu, the prince of the spiral-horned antelope was totally occupied with Duiker, a diminutive primitive antelope with small headgear and I was completely immersed in and enjoying this very active hunting. I came to call Duiker “poor man’s leopard” because of the tracking style hunt and the adrenaline filled moments. After 3 ½ hours of fast walking in soft sand we were all flagging out a bit. Jahnie seriously did not want to give up the track but Robert and I were tired, hot, and thirsty, it was past lunchtime, and it was miles back to the truck where we had left Naomi alone.
The Duiker had clearly and utterly won this contest and I tipped my hat to my quarry. I was satisfied with awarding him his respite and remembered how important it is that we hunt as hard as we can and that we are not always successful. Apparently only 20% or so of Lion stalks culminate in a kill so we remain in good company. It had been a great and memorable morning. It is an amazing privilege to have 3.2 million acres available to just 2 hunting parties to wander around in, go where we want, and use the wildlife resource.
Also interesting is there are two local villages and no fences in the 8 million acre complex of hunting districts and National Parks of the Southern Kalahari. The local people keep a few goats and cattle but those stay within a couple of km of the village where water and cat-proof bomas are erected for night time protection. They have willingly kept livestock out of the game range because the receipt of dollars from game exceeds livestock income. We paid the tribal councils $4,500 USD each for our week of hunting. That is badly needed cash injected into a region with one of the highest HIV incidences in the world (now largely contained with anti-retroviral drugs) and where daily average income was around $4 per day. Our hunting was also a highly sustainable activity that removed but a tiny fraction of the animals on the land each year (approximately 70 male animals taken per year on over a million acres) and helped ensure the future of an intact desert ecosystem. The incentive to moderate commercial bushmeat trade exists because of sport hunting while still allowing some room for a low-level subsistence take to feed the villages. Even my non-hunting wife, the environmental sociologist who focuses on international development issues, found a great deal of merit in this cultural/ecological arrangement.
It had been a long morning of circuitous walking in terrain that all looked pretty similar. Now it was time to go back to Naomi and the truck. The trackers internal GPS pointed them straight toward the vehicle (amazing again) and we trudged out of the bush over many Cheetah (Acinomyx jubatus) and Black-backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas) tracks suggesting we were near a kill site not of our own. When the truck finally came into view, Naomi was not in it. It seems sweat bees had found a leaky water jug and were swarming the truck so Na had stretched out under a nearby Acacia to do some reading. I slightly wished that pride of lions had wandered past in her view from where she sat but then again, I was glad they didn’t!