Last week I was reading the book of the earliest recreational hunter to visit South Africa, Captain (later Sir) William Cornwallis Harris, originally called, Narrative of an expedition into Southern Africa during the years 1836, and 1837, from the Cape of Good Hope through the territories of the chief Moselekatse, to the Tropic of Capricorn, with a sketch of the recent emigration of the border colonists, and a Zoological Appendix. I thoroughly enjoyed the book which, fortunately, had this mouthful of a title changed in the next edition to the more familiar, Wild Sports of Southern Africa. What I found particularly interesting about it was that the animal at the top of Harris’s wish list was not one of the Big Five or the Spiral Horns as you might have expected but a giraffe!
It reminded me that so much of hunting is subjective. A bit like beauty – in the eye of the beholder. To some, the arid Karoo is God’s country. To others, the green deserts of the rainforest hold the greatest attraction. To some, the greater kudu with its majestic spiral horns is the most beautiful animal on the African continent. To others, the size of the elephant, the roaring of the lion, the elegance of the nyala or the dramatic colour variations of the sable, dictates their choice.
Although I have always thought there was something stately, even graceful in a ponderous sort of way, about giraffes, they did not originally feature on my priority list of game animals for a number of reasons. Firstly, in my innocence, I did not think they were going to be hard to hunt or kill. Secondly, I was not sure what to do with a giraffe once I had shot it. I knew that their meat was fibrous in texture and probably only good for biltong and that the skin was extremely thick and difficult to work.
It was Rodney Kretzschmar of Transafrican Taxidermy who first really aroused my curiosity. I remember him telling me that, although he had been on a number of giraffe hunts, the hunter had never succeeded in killing the animal with one shot. In fact, he had been on a number of hunts where this gentle giant had been wounded and either never recovered or only some days later after extensive effort. I must confess that I found this hard to believe until I started researching this interesting animal. One of the first things I noticed when reading Kevin Robertson’s Perfect Shot, was that the position of the heart and lungs was much higher than I would have expected and a shot in the usual spot behind the shoulder would almost certainly miss the vitals, which may partly explain some of Rodney’s stories.
Up until I started hunting them, most of my impressions of giraffes had been formed while watching them at close quarters from a vehicle. They would stand looking down their noses at my truck from only a few metres away and move only grudgingly when all but pushed by the vehicle. When hunting other game on foot, such as zebra and wildebeest, which both seemed to use giraffes as early warning systems, even when these two species would run off, the giraffes often seemed to stand or move off slowly. When I was young, they became like grey loeries – the go-away bird – to me and, if anything, I am ashamed to admit that I found them gormless and vaguely irritating.
My first giraffe hunt, however, was not as easy as I first thought it was going to be and, after at least half a dozen abortive stalks (when I still thought all it took was to walk up to one, approach within 100 metres or so and shoot it in the head), I changed my tactics and hunted them in the same manner and with the same degree of respect I would have given to an elusive spiral horn. It was still not enough and I was amazed at how easily they spotted me and, even when they didn’t, how difficult it was to obtain a clear shot at the head while it was wafting about in the upper reaches of a tree. One of the few positive factors about the hunt was that at least I had done some homework and took along a .375 loaded with solids which I eventually used to shoot the animal through the roots of the ears. And yes, the sheer size of the beast up close was, despite my previous exposure to the animal, still a surprise – no ground shrink here – and I could not believe, for example, how heavy the head was to move for a photo.
I suppose I can’t blame the game ranch staff really but the skin was poorly salted and, to make matters worse, somehow the skinner misunderstood my instructions and, when next I looked, he had cut the head off. When tanned – and there are only one or two tanneries in South Africa that will accept a whole giraffe skin – the hair had slipped in a number of places and that just about summed up my first giraffe hunt – a series of blunders made worse by my inadequate preparation, taking this wonderful animal for granted and treating it with little or no respect. In my youthful ignorance, arrogance and stupidity, I had thought that the successful conclusion of the hunt was a foregone conclusion and almost a "gimme". I didn’t make the same mistake on my second hunt but I learnt a whole new set of lessons.
My third attempt took place much, much later and only when Rodney Kretzschmar re-appeared on my radar screen. A game rancher acquaintance of his had a huge giraffe bull that needed to be hunted and shot as it was fighting with and killing the younger bulls, on the one hand, and not doing his job and covering the cows, on the other hand. A two time loser in any game rancher’s book!
Older and wiser, I researched giraffe more carefully and discovered that a lot of what I thought was fact, was hearsay. Like the often repeated point that giraffes don’t and can’t make any sound. Well, they can and do. Smithers in that comprehensive research work, Mammals of the Southern African Sub-region, writes that they "grunt or snort when alarmed’ and goes on to report that, "captive giraffes bellow when they are hungry and moo gently when lonely and that females call their young with a whistling call."
As I researched giraffe I became more and more interested and so my research expanded. Without wanting to sound like a quiz-master on a TV show, did you know that the earliest known giraffe fossils were discovered in Libya and date back 22 million years? Did you know that their name comes from the Arab word, xirapha, which means to walk quickly, although their taxonomic name, giraffa cameleopardis, refers to the markings of the beast – big as a camel and spotted like a leopard?
These huge animals – the males can measure nearly six metres high and weigh, on average, 1 200 kilograms – can walk within five minutes of being born, are completely independent by six months and double their height in a year despite the fact that they are small eaters. Yes, giraffe have the most efficient digestive system of all ungulates and, because the foliage they eat is so nutritious, they eat less than half the intake of typical grazers.
And do not be fooled by those languid competitions you sometimes see in the veld with two giraffes standing shoulder to shoulder and lazily swinging their heads at one another in turn. Giraffe have been known to break necks and jaws in these contests and, one blow from a giraffe head, was seen to lift an adult eland bull off its feet and into the air! Even so, Kingdon, my other favourite research source, says that between a half and three-quarters of giraffe fail to survive their first year due to predation by lions, hyenas, leopards, crocodiles and, of course, us humans.
Not that they just give up and allow themselves to be eaten. A giraffes’ forefeet are their most dangerous weapons as they rear up on their hind legs and stamp down with their anvil-like hooves in an attempt to trample their attacker. I have been told on more than one occasion that giraffe have killed lions with their hooves but never been able to corroborate the stories.
The early recreational hunters were often also good naturalists and their keen observations and drawings provided a lot of useful information to those who followed in their footsteps. Even today, I found what Cornwallis Harris had to say about 175 years ago both interesting and instructive. He wrote as follows: "The rapidity with which these awkwardly formed animals can move, is beyond all things surprising, our best horses being unable to close with them under two miles. Their gallop is a succession of jumping strides, fore and hind leg on the same side moving together instead of diagonally, as in most other quadrupeds … Their motion, altogether, reminded me rather of the pitching of a ship, or rolling of a rocking-horse, than of anything living; and the remarkable gait is rendered still more automaton-like, by the switching, at regular intervals, of the long black tail, which is invariably curled above the back, and by the corresponding action of the neck, swinging as it does, like a pendulum, and literally imparting to the animal the appearance of a piece of machinery in motion …
The senses of sight, hearing, and smell, are acute and delicate; the eyes, which are so soft and gentle, eclipsing those of the oft-sung gazelle of the East, and being so constructed that, without turning the head, the animal can see both before and behind it at the same time. On the forehead there is a remarkable prominence; and the tongue has the power of mobility increased to an extraordinary degree, accompanied with the faculty of the extension, which enables it, in miniature, to perform the office of the elephant’s proboscis. The lofty maned neck, possessing only seven joints, appears to move on a pivot, instead of being flexible like that of the swan or peacock, to which, from its length, it has been likened …
Although very extensive, the range of its habitat is exclusively confined to those regions in which the species of mimosa termed mokaala, or kameel-doorn, is abundant, the leaves, shoots, and blossoms of that tree being its ordinary food."
At the time I began my research, I thought there were only two sub-species of giraffe, the reticulated one with its bright, orangey brown and white, clear, geometric patterns and the common one from the South African lowveld, Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa, but up to nine sub-species have been identified and they range from the Sahara southwards through most of Southern Africa. Lastly, the dispute about whether a giraffe’s horns (or ossicones as they are more correctly called), are fixed to the skull or not was also resolved by my research. The answer is both. They begin as cartilaginous buds in the skin but become bony and eventually attach to the skull and, in older giraffes, a third one can grow in the middle of the forehead.
One of the books I always consult when researching an animal I have never hunted before is Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game but there were no entries for giraffe. I think this is a bad omission. As a hunter, I believe implicitly that the most important aspect in ensuring a wild animal’s survival, is to encourage people to hunt it sustainably. The record books certainly help serve this function but none of them have a category for giraffe and yet it would be so easy to accommodate giraffe, either by measuring their skulls or the bony protuberances on their heads. I found this a particularly strange omission especially when one of the major record books has gone so far recently as to include a rodent.
Like many a well planned and executed hunt, there was nothing much to report about the hunt Rodney had arranged for me. A good stalk, a good shot (if I say so myself) and the hunt, more of a culling expedition than anything else, was over by mid-morning. But, as anyone who has hunted giraffe will tell you, that is the easy part. It is the recovery operation that is tricky and, unless your planning is spot on, you have access to a number of well trained staff and, preferably, a front end loader – the skin weighs about 500 kilograms – you are in for a very long and very tiring day and the chances of the skin being spoilt, are somewhere between good and inevitable.
Cornwallis Harris’s hunt in 1836 was much more exciting. In his wonderfully descriptive prose, he wrote as follows: "To the sportsman, the most thrilling passage in my adventures is now to be recounted. In my own breast, it awakens a renewal of past impressions, more lively than any written description can render intelligible; and far abler pens than mine, dipped in more glowing tints, would still fall short of the reality, and leave much to be supplied by the imagination. Three hundred gigantic elephants, browsing in majestic tranquillity amidst the wild magnificence of an African landscape, and a wide stretching plain, darkened, far as the eye can reach, with a moving phalanx of gnoos and quaggas, whose numbers literally baffle computation, are sights but rarely to be witnessed; but who amongst our brother Nimrods shall hear of riding familiarly by the side of a troop of colossal giraffes, and not feel his spirit stirred within him? He that would behold so marvellous a sight must leave the haunts of man, and dive, as we did, into pathless wilds, traversed only by the brute creation – into wide wastes, where the grim lion prowls, monarch of all he surveys, and where the gaunt hyena and wild dog fearlessly pursue their prey.
Many days had now elapsed since we had even seen the cameleopard – and then only in small numbers, and under the most unfavourable circumstances. The blood coursed through my veins like quicksilver, therefore, as on the morning of the 19 th, from the back of Breslar, my most trusty steed, with a firm wooded plain before me, I counted thirty-two of these animals, industriously stretching their peacock necks to crop the tiny leaves which fluttered above their heads, in a mimosa grove that beautified the scenery. They were within a hundred yards of me, but having previously determined to try the boarding system, I reserved my fire … Our stealthy approach was soon opposed by an ill-tempered rhinoceros, which, with her ugly calf, stood directly in the path; and the twinkling of her bright little eyes, accompanied by a restless rolling of the body, giving earnest of her intention to charge, I directed Piet to salute her with a broadside, at the same moment putting spurs to my horse. At the report of the gun, and the sudden clattering of hooves, away bounded the giraffes in grotesque confusion, clearing the ground by a succession of frog-like hops, and soon leaving me far in the rear. Twice were their towering forms concealed from view by a park of trees, which we entered almost at the same instant; and twice, on emerging from the labyrinth, did I perceive them tilting over an eminence immeasurably in advance. A white turban, that I wore around my hunting cap, being dragged off by a projecting bough, was instantly charged by three rhinoceroses; and looking over my shoulder, I could see them long afterwards fagging themselves to overtake me. In the course of five minutes, the fugitives arrived at a small river, the treacherous sands of which received their long legs, their flight was greatly retarded; and after floundering to the opposite side, and scrambling to the top of the bank, I perceived that their race was run. Patting the steaming neck of my good steed, I urged him again to his utmost, and instantly found myself by the side of the herd. The stately bull, being readily distinguishable from the rest by his dark chestnut robe, and superior stature, I applied the muzzle of my rifle behind his dappled shoulder, with the right hand, and drew both triggers; but he still continued to shuffle along, and being afraid of losing him, should I dismount, among the extensive mimosa groves, with which the landscape was now obscured, I sat in my saddle, loading and firing behind the elbow … and at the seventeenth discharge from the deadly grooved bore, bowing his graceful head from the skies, his proud form was prostrate in the dust. Never shall I forget the tingling excitement of that moment! Alone, in the wild wood, I hurraed with bursting exaltation, and unsaddling my steed, sank exhausted beside the noble prize I had won.
When I leisurely contemplated the massive frame before me, seeming as though it had been caste in a mould of brass, and protected by a hide of an inch and a half inch thickness, it was no longer matter of astonishment that a bullet discharged from a distance of 80 or 90 yards should have been attended with little effect upon such amazing strength. The extreme height from the crown of the elegantly moulded head to the hoof of this magnificent animal, was 18 feet; the whole being equally divided into neck, body, and leg … I cut off the tail, which exceeded five feet in length, and was measurelessly the most estimable trophy I had gained;".
There are, however, not one but two members of the giraffidae family. The second is Okapia johnstoni. I saw my first life size okapi in London’s Natural History Museum in one of the three fabulous dioramas prepared by Mr. Rowland Ward many years ago. I was absolutely stunned by the dramatic beauty of this unusual animal and, assuming there was ever an opportunity to legally and ethically hunt a free range animal in its natural environment, just like William Cornwallis Harris before me, I would "leave the haunts of man, and dive … into the pathless wilds" for the chance to do just that. Proof, yet again, if it was ever needed, that hunting is truly the most subjective of passions.