It was my second visit to the 10,000 hectare game and cattle farm near Ellisras in the old Transvaal. The four of us hunters stood with our backs to the white washed wall on the broad veranda of the well-kept, traditional, old farmhouse with its red, corrugated iron roof, sheltered from the nippy early morning breeze by a quadruple row of blue glue gum trees.
Steam swirled away off the top of my cup of black coffee as I clasped it in one hand and a thick, homemade mosbolletjie, smelling of aniseed, in the other and watched as the stocky, wizened, old farmer addressed a newcomer to our group. Phillip had not been able to make the trip but suggested we allow a friend of his, let’s call him Brian, to take his place.
The old man, in his usual courteous, almost courtly, old world away, warned Brian (who was looking for a big kudu bull) that, in the area he was to hunt, there was a big Brahman bull. Hardly had the words been uttered when Brian went sputtering off like a Roman Catharine Wheel firecracker.
"I’m sick and tired of you bloody Afrikaners thinking you are the only people that know anything about hunting and wildlife. Do think I’ve come all the way from Cape Town to hunt here and I don’t know the difference between damned cattle and kudu?" In the stunned silence that followed this unexpected outburst, he spun on his heel, clattered down the stone steps leading from the veranda and stormed off in the direction of our camp.
The kindly old man looked as if he’d been hit against the side of the head by a newly caught, heavy, wet Cape salmon. His mouth half open, he looked, in turn, at each one of us. I was embarrassed and look down at my feet. I was not going to apologise for a man I had only met the evening before. Maybe there was more where that came from. In a hesitant, half baffled voice he said, "I only wanted to tell him that, if he saw that Brahman bull, he should shoot it. It’s a mad thing. It chases the staff and damages the fences."
The conversation was awkward after that and my two friends soon left, leaving me alone with the old man. "Oom,(Uncle)" I said, "I have never hunted hartebeest and the last time I was here I saw that Oom had quite a few up in the north eastern corner. I was wondering if Oom would let me hunt one and give me some advice on how to go about it?"
He had been gazing off into the middle distance and, at my question, seemed to half shrug and then turned towards me, his eyes becoming alive again. "Certainly, son. You can take one. I’ll send Philemon with you. He knows where there is a good bull." He paused and thought for a moment. "You know, the thing to remember about hartebeest is that they are very curious. I’ve never done it but then I’m not much of the hunter. A bit of biltong, a bit of meat and that’s enough for me. But now my Dad, well, he was a horse of a different colour. He lived to hunt. I remember as a boy, yes, he would tie a white cloth to a bush in the clearing where the hartebeest would graze and then seek a hiding place about 100 yards away. He used to say that the hartebeest could not resist it. They would have to satisfy their curiosity and come and inspect the cloth."
If I’d been a bit older and a bit more experienced, I might not have listened to the weather beaten 70 year old. But I wasn’t and his sincerity and simple words convinced me. He seemed as old as Methuselah and as wise as Solomon.
Off I pottered with Philemon. By mid-afternoon, however, we had not been able to locate a single herd of Cape or red hartebeest as they are also known. Philemon was old school and didn’t believe in unnecessary chatter. In fact, he didn’t believe in chat of any kind. I only asked him once where he thought the hartebeest were. He dealt a terminal blow to further conversation when he answered briefly, "Hulle es waar hulle es.(They are where they are)"
Moving through a stretch of mopane trees, I picked up a line of heart shaped tracks, which I thought belonged to waterbuck. Philemon soon contradicted my brief comment of "Waterbuck" as I nonchalantly wobbled my open hand, palm down, over the tracks with a, "Nee, hartebeest. (No, Hartebeest)"
"How do you know these are not waterbuck tracks?" I asked, a little put out by the summary way in which my statement had been dismissed. "Daar es nie waterbok by hierdie plek,(There are no waterbuck at this place)" Philemon replied with a pitying look. Two to Philemon, nil to me. Shut up, Flack. Just walk.
As the meagre thicket of mopane thinned, we entered an open patch of grey, soft soil covered in tufts of pale yellow grass, interspersed with thorny, knee length shrubs, giving the area a moth eaten, untidy look. Hartebeest tracks crisscrossed the area and pellets of their dung were liberally sprinkled throughout. They were clearly regulars here. Possibly they returned to graze, rest or spend the hours of darkness in the relative safety of the open place. At any rate, I decided to put the old man’s advice to the test.
Taking a crumpled and less than spotlessly clean, whitish handkerchief from my pocket, I removed an orange glucose sweet that had stuck to it. I popped the sweet into my dry mouth – I had not eaten or drunk since my early morning coffee – tied the hankie to the top of a small vaalbos, about four feet in height and retired downwind about 70 metres to a welcoming, leafy shrub on the fringe of the tree line. The sun would set over my left shoulder and the wind, such as it was, chased after the sun. The setup was as good as it was going to get.
Philemon and I sat side by side. Soon, the late afternoon sun on my back, the long drive of the day before, the previous late night, the early morning and my low blood sugar level, took their toll. I lowered my baseball cap clad head onto my forearms, on top of my bare knees and closed my eyes.
There was something prodding my bicep. I opened an eye and, from a distance of about nine inches, had a close-up view of a gnarled, callused and cracked brown forefinger, complete with black rimmed, grimy fingernail. I look up into Philemon’s yellow stained, rheumy eyes and, as we made contact, he flicked them to the right.
There, on the far side of the clearing, was a small herd of eight Cape hartebeest grazing in an extended line towards us. My heart lurched in my chest. All weariness evaporated. My eyes cracked wide open and I tightened my grip on my new Musgrave 30-06, loaded with 180 grain PMP softs.
Slowly. Ever so slowly, I eased my rifle up and onto my knees. I looked through the fixed x4 Bushnell scope. Yes, the largest animal in front and to the right of the line was a bull. As I watched, it jerked its head up and seemed to gaze off to my left. To my left, where my hankie fluttered in desultory fashion from its vaalbos anchor.
Could it be? Could it work? Led by the bull, the hartebeest would graze and saunter, saunter and graze. With each step they narrowed the gap to my handkerchief. With each step I felt a quiet sense of satisfaction that, between the old man, Philemon and me, we had somehow got it right.
By the time the bull was standing facing directly toward me, some 10 paces from the flopping, off-white cloth, my pulse rate had returned to something approaching normal. I had stapled the crosshairs of my scope to its chest for the last 50 metres or so and the shot seem to flow from my rifle without conscious thought on my part.
I was in time to see the bull hook its horns up off its hooves and set off in a hell bent, surging sprint straight at me! I was too dumbfounded to do anything. All I remember was gaping, mouth open, like a stunned mullet, not moving a muscle and yet trying to shrink into the soft grey earth at the same time.
The bull never saw us as it hurtled past a dozen paces to my left in a thudding, dust flying, tail flinging rush of red brown colour. There was a shattering, tearing crash of twigs and branches, then silence. Perfect silence. Not a bird piped, not an insect hummed. The kind of silence in a school hall when the headmaster has announced there has been a theft from the changing rooms and every schoolboy, no matter how innocent, thinks that the headmaster is looking suspiciously at him.
When I looked for Philemon, he was gone. I found him standing looking down at a good, representative, 22½ inch hartebeest bull. The shot had hit the beast in the middle of the chest and clipped the arteries over the heart. A thin stream of bright red blood arched out of the neat hole staining the sand a metre away. As I watched, the stream became intermittent and then dribbled into the bull’s chest. The well-bled meat subsequently made excellent biltong and even better venison and, after putting it to the taste test, I vowed this would not be my last hartebeest.
Oh, and as for Brian of Ellisras fame, we were quite worried when he did not show up at camp that evening. We kept the home fires burning bright. We fired a shot in the air every so often but less so as the evening wore on. As my memory serves me, he arrived at about 20h00. He hadn’t found his kudu but the Brahman bull had found him. Found him and chased him up a tree. Make that many trees. It had been a very, very long day for Brian.
The bull would eventually lose interest and wander off and then it would be down tree, sprint and up the next tree, as the bull charged back. It had been nerve wracking. Brian was a dishevelled, distraught wreck. His clothes were ripped and dirty. His arms, legs and face bore testimony to his close encounters with many a tree trunk, including one or two knobthorns. He was convinced that the Brahman was a much prized, stud animal and that, if he shot it, he would be charged a king’s ransom. After all, the farmer had warned him about the beast. To compound matters, as we enlightened him about what the farmer had tried to tell him and his tale of woe and lament gathered momentum, our initial worried concern changed. The corner of a mouth twitched here and there was the suggestion of a smile over there. Then a grin, then a suppressed giggle and, finally, bottom-of-the-belly guffaws. Brian was not amused. For myself, I wondered how the old farmer would greet the news.
Mention is first made of the Cape or red hartebeest (Alcelaphus caama) in South African literature by Jan van Riebeeck in his Daghregister for 1659 to 1662, where he wrote that, "Meester Pieter ein hartebeest geschooten hadde" near Paarl in the Western Cape. The name hartebeest is one of the many misnomers perpetrated by the early Dutch settlers, who used the word, "hart" supposedly because they thought the animal resembled a stag. It would be hard to imagine anything less like a stag except for the colour but, I suppose, if you can call an oryx a "gems", which is Dutch for a chamois, then anything is possible.
All in all, Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game identifies 10 subspecies of hartebeest, of which the bubal, or Alcelaphus buselaphus buselaphus of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, is no more, the last one having been eaten in or about 1920. Two kinds, Hunter’s hartebeest (also called hirola) and Senegal hartebeest (also called korrigum), are actually part of the Damaliscus family of which our blesbok is also one. Two further kinds, Tora and Swayne’s hartebeest, are essentially the same. Tora are mostly confined to Ethiopia, while Swayne’s, also present in Ethiopia, used to be numerous in Eritrea and Somalia but are now thought to be extinct there. It has been years since anyone has reported seeing a Tora and there are less than 800 Swayne’s left in three small protected areas in Ethiopia. Neither is huntable today. This leaves Cape, Lichtenstein’s, Coke’s, Lelwel’s and Western available on licence for the modern hunter.
On the other hand, the SCI All-Time Record Book of Trophy Animals added another two subspecies – the Kenya highland hartebeest (although there are only five entries in the record book covering the period from 1960 to 1977) and Neumann’s hartebeest. According to SCI, the former is a hybrid between Coke’s and Lelwel’s hartebeest. The Neumann’s hartebeest (of which there are some 80 entries, the earliest being 1985), is described as a hybrid between Swayne’s and Lelwel’s hartebeest. In this latter case, SCI points out that Neumann’s hartebeest has been regarded, at various times, as a full species, a subspecies of Coke’s hartebeest or a subspecies of Swayne’s hartebeest.
It is all rather confusing especially if you believe, as I do, having studied and shot Neumann’s hartebeest, that it is identical to the Lelwel’s and even Jason and Nassos Roussos, who account for the vast majority of the entries in the SCI record book, battled to point out any difference between the animals to me. And I am not alone in my opinion. Major H.C. Maydon’s classic, Big Game Shooting in Africa, despite its detailed analysis of hunting on the continent, makes no mention of any of these hybrids. James Mellon, in his book, African Hunter, which to all intents and purposes replaced Maydon’s book as the African hunter’s bible, refers to Lelwel’s hartebeest of the Kenya race and Lelwel’s hartebeest of the Jackson’s race but takes the issue no further than mere reference to these animals. Interestingly enough, in his chapter entitled, African Game Animals – A Hunter’s Classification, under the heading, True Hartebeest, he refers to only seven subspecies: Coke’s, Lelwel’s, Swayne’s, Tora, Western, Lichtenstein’s and Cape. I could find no reference in either book to Neuman’s hartebeest.
Many animal subspecies intergrade where they meet, take eland and bushbuck, for example, to name but two species and no reputable scientist tries to create new subspecies of these intergrading animals. In fact, the matter has been decided, as far as I am concerned by the publication of the brilliant, six volume work, Mammals of Africa by Kingdon et al in 2013 by Bloomsbury, who confirmed Maydon’s and Mellon’s Hunter’s Classification. This leaves five genuine hartebeest subspecies available to be hunted on licence to in Africa today, namely, the seven mentioned by Mellon above less Swayne’s and Tora.
A good Lichtenstein’s hartebeest (named after W.H.C. Lichtenstein who travelled extensively throughout Southern Africa from 1803 to 1806 and developed a substantial reputation as a naturalist) followed some six years later. Shot in the kuiltjie – where the neck meets the chest, as it faced me through a tangle of twigs in the dry depression in Western Tanzania. It fought its way into the record book and, at 19 inches, made it by half an inch. It had been a simple and straightforward hunt and, from start to finish, probably lasted no more than 15 minutes. We drove, we saw, we stopped, we stalked, we shot.
There is no doubt that Lichtenstein’s hartebeest form a separate subspecies, in fact, for many years, some taxidermists felt it was a separate species altogether – Sigmoceros – but that has since been debunked. Their horns are completely different from all other kinds of hartebeest. I will not try to describe them but will leave that to the accompanying photograph. From this you will note that the pedicle from which the horns sprout, is both short and wide, while the horns themselves are flat and thick at the base.
Lichtenstein’s are found throughout south eastern Africa, including South Africa where 18 were reintroduced to Kruger National Park from Malawi in 1985; Zimbabwe, where they were reintroduced more recently by Lisa Hywood-Barnard acting under the auspices of the Tikki Hywood Trust; Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania.
Apart from their manifest physical differences, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest are roughly the same height and weight as a Cape hartebeest and Rowland Ward notes that, "It has a curious habit of forming a kind of lair in long grass. It usually lives in small troops of up to a dozen and often joins up with the herds of gnu and impala."
Like most hunters, I have never found any hartebeest especially difficult to hunt provided I was patient, knew the approximate distance to the animal, was properly armed and created a comfortable shooting position. Having said that, circumstances beyond my control sent me home empty handed after my first hunt in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley for Neumann’s hartebeest, as they failed to emigrate from Mago National Park as they customarily did, probably due to an outbreak of anthrax through the region. As if to make up for my previous disappointment, Diana smiled on me and, on my next attempt, I shot a superb bull along the Sala River in south western Ethiopia, with Nassos and Jason Roussos, which still ranks as number 13 in SCI.
Alcelaphus bubalus major or Western hartebeest are also clearly a separate subspecies and their rather attractive, white, highwayman’s mask is their most distinctive feature. I made a special trip to Benin, no, not just for Western hartebeest but also for nagor reedbuck and West African buffalo. It was an interesting safari to this tiny, slim, West African country squashed like its westerly companion, Togo, between its much bigger and more powerful Ghanaian and Nigerian neighbours.
Unfortunately, I will remember the hunt more for the fact that my credit card details were stolen on the one and only time I used it – to settle my hotel bill in the capitol, Cotonou – and I subsequently was debited with an amount of R148,000 for hotel accommodation in Paris! The best part of the hunt, however, was the new friends I made there and, although I was successful in my quest for the animals on my bucket list, neither of the two Western hartebeest I shot were anything to write home about.
Looking back over the years, I seem to have had more than my fair share of luck with hartebeest. I remember my very first hunting morning in the Central African Republic. The main reason for being there was to hunt that most elusive and elite of all African mammals, bongo but, as the novelty of returning empty handed from hunts for Africa’s more difficult game was wearing off, I decided to gamble a week of my 21 day hunt on trying to obtain representative specimens of the more readily available savannah game.
We were hunting in the far south eastern corner of the Central African Republic, close to the borders with Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was April or spring – just before the rainy season – and the area was scenically the most beautiful in which I had ever hunted. The broccoli green of the high, full canopy rain forest – home to bongo, giant forest hog and yellow-backed duiker, to name but a few of the fascinating and exotic animals of the region – gave way abruptly to the drier browns, beiges and paler greens of the rolling hilled, tree savannah. It was like hunting on a well-groomed golf course.
You knew you were in Africa but everything was just that little bit different. The buffalo were Central Africa. The eland were Lord Derby’s. The bushbuck were harnessed. There were no zebra, wildebeest, giraffe or impala but there were western kob. And the hartebeest? The hartebeest were Lelwel’s, the biggest of all the subspecies. Apart from size, Lelwel’s also have a very long, narrow head, while the horn pedicle and horns were very similar to those of red hartebeest. Rowland Ward describes their colour as reddish brown but all those I saw had a uniformly dull, butterscotch yellow colour.
We set off that morning for Pabou, a small, attractive, grass walled fly camp on the banks of the Ouarrou River. The sky was a glowering, dark grey mass of cumulonimbus clouds arguing with one another in the loud, rumbling growls. I thought we were in for a wetting. Luckily, I was wrong.
As we drove smoothly across country up what could easily have been the dogleg par five of the 16th fairway of the Central African Republic country club, Martin’s cheerful face appeared upside down through the open window of the olive green Land Cruiser. Martin or to give in his full name, Martin Voungouessy Tito, was the heir apparent to the local Zande chief. Zandes are recognized as the top poisoners in Africa and, rumour had it, they still ate Pygmies. In fact, I was told that a law had been passed that year in CAR which simply declared Pygmies to be human beings. In other words, for the first time, killing a Pygmy officially constituted murder. All this I was to learn later, when Martin patiently explained to me why a group of innocent, honey gathering Pygmies had dropped their meagre goods and chattels and run screaming into the forest when unexpectedly confronted by our hunting party. I was also to learn that Martin had been accused of being an Omkeiman – someone who could turn himself into a crocodile at night – and had been chased from the district two years previously by the terrified locals who had banded together and threatened to kill him.
More importantly, given the task at hand, I was to learn that he was a highly intelligent, brilliant, intuitive hunter, blessed with fantastic bush eyes and unbelievable tracking skills. So good were they that, in the beginning, there were times I thought he had lost the tracks as I could see no hint of them on the ground through the thick grass cover. I soon became a believer, however, as Martin, in answer to my questions, would point out a scuffed leaf, a bent grass stem, a nibbled twig or some other miniscule sign of the animal’s passage. And then, as we crossed a bare patch of ground, there would be the hoof prints. He really was quite extraordinary and I still rate him as the best tracker I have ever had the privilege to hunt with. To top it off, he was a nice man, half crocodile or not. He had a good sense of humour, was a hard worker and an avid hunter himself.
Martin thought there might be hartebeest up ahead on an open plain beyond the sheltering trees to our front. Maybe we should stop the truck, walk forward and take a look. At least that was how I interpreted the conversation in French given my elementary understanding of the language.
As the trees thinned, a wide, open plain was revealed, dotted with quaint, grey, toadstool shaped anthills about 18 inches in height. In the distance, I could make out five butterscotch blobs, which seemed to glow dully against the glossy, bright green of the new grass shoots sprouting from the fertile soil after the recent burn. The largest shape, which through my 10×25 Leica pocket binoculars turned out to be a bull, had its forefeet on an elevated mound of earth – a classic hartebeest pose to help make it look bigger and more impressive to its rivals and females as well as serving as a look out point – and was gazing off to our left. The rest of the herd grazed so eagerly on the fresh, six inch high, tender, new grass shoots that, in my imagination, I could hear the grrrrip, grrrrip sound they made as they chomped their way forward. In a few months, the selfsame grass would be the head high and as thick as my pinkie. But right now the hartebeest were so engrossed – just like the Cookie Monster – shoving in as much as possible, as quickly as possible, that the bull was the only one vaguely alert.
As I puzzled about how to approach the herd across some 500 yards of clear, open space, my PH lent encouragement to my dawdling thoughts. "That’s the biggest hartebeest I have ever seen," he muttered, half to himself, half in amazement. Right, I thought. Pull yourself towards yourself, Flack and do something.
Half way to the hartebeest, a low, foot high ridge of elevated, grey ground supported a thin fringe of blackened twigs left over from the December burn. It might just provide enough cover to close the gap to the unsuspecting group of antelopes – if you were a slinky, slippery, little, green grass snake, that is.
You better do this by the book, I thought. I knew how important first shots could be on a safari. If you hunted and shot well from the start, it motivated the hunting team. They were prepared to work hard for you, sometimes above and beyond the call of duty, knowing their efforts would be rewarded in more ways than one. It also made for a happy and successful safari.
Off I set – not exactly like a snake but at least like a reptile of sorts -a large, ungainly leguaan, in all likelihood. As I crawled to close the gap, I became more cautious and stopped when one or more of the group looked up. At last, sweating bullets and breathing and like an old fashioned puffing billy, I ground to a halt behind the burnt out remains of the old thicket. Sand and grass stems had been forced into my shirt and trousers. I was wet through – a combination of perspiration and early morning dew.
The last 50 yards or so had been a mission and I had bulled my way blindly forward. Now I was half afraid to lift my head. Would all the effort have been wasted? Would I look back and see the crew hiding grins at the sight of my big bum blundering forward towards the backs of a bunch of departing hartebeest? I raised my forage cap clad head an inch or two. Still there! Thank Heavens! As my breathing settled, I inched my Brno .375 H&H forward. If I really scrunched down, I could use the little sandy ridge as a rest. With my pulse pounding and fluttering the crosshairs like a butterfly, I took aim over the back of the big, broadside on bull. No good. I breathed deeply. To the bottom of my diaphragm. And slowly out. Again. I struggled to stop the wobbles. Patience. Wait. Rather let the hartebeest run off than muff my first shot in earnest on safari. I rested my head on my left forearm and let my muscles relax. Seconds ticked by. I look up. The bull had turned its back to me. I was now ready but it was not.
As the bull turned broadside again, there was a noticeable delay between the crack of the cartridge and the dull sshhtupp of the bullet connecting with the beast. It dropped in its tracks. The high shoulder shot had obliterated its spinal column. There were handshakes and smiles all around. Back at the skinning shed it measured 23 ½ inches and beat the Rowland Ward minimum by half an inch. In 1993, it was voted the best savannah game animal of the year by the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association and today resides in the Iziko Museums of South Africa in Cape Town.
Although as I said earlier, I have never battled to hunt hartebeest, Coke’s was the one that gave me the most trouble. On this particular safari, I was camped in Masailand at Ngusmet, which meant the place with water underground in the local language. It was October, 1998. The whole region was hot, dry and dusty. What grass there was left had been scorched by the sun and lay in lifeless fields of intertwined, flaxen stubble.
I had been hunting lesser kudu for eight consecutive days without success and had taken the morning off to shoot a young, butter yellow Patterson’s eland bull. We had no fresh meat in camp and, that day, my wife, Jane and two friends were due to arrive to share my camp for a week. As the host, I could not let them eat tinned food on their first night on safari. Having lost half a day already, I decided to devote the rest of it to looking for a representative Coke’s – named after Colonel Coke, who shot one in Tanzania in 1818. I had tried for one two years before but had not set eyes on a single specimen. I hoped I would have better luck this trip but, thus far, luck had been conspicuous by its absence.
And the afternoon turned out true to form. We stalked one herd but found no satisfactory head. Nicky Blunt, my veteran professional hunter, in his understated, British way, felt that, "We can probably do a little better." I blew the stalk on the second herd by not noticing a young female hidden behind a tall, tan coloured anthill on my left. We found a third herd against the side of a long, gently sloping hill but could not close with it. The hartebeest were alert to our every move and the sparse hillside cover limited our options. Eventually, in the clear evening light, Nicky picked out a bull on the left of the herd as it paused to watch the rest bustle off into the sheltering bush. "Do you think you might be able to make that shot?" he asked in his normal, mild mannered, polite way. "It is a trifle far," he added with a touch of concern. Translated into South African, this meant, "You’d better shoot this bull right here, right now and don’t, for Heaven’s sake, miss or wound it!"
It was silly of me. I allowed the last eight fruitless lesser kudu hunting days to get the better of me. Even the hartebeest were giving me the run around. Well, not this one, I thought. Another time, another place, I might have passed up the shot. In the mood I was in, this was not an option.
The straight tree trunk against which I was resting was too large to hold. The smooth bark provided no purchase. Fiddling around, I found a crack on the left hand side of the trunk. I hate this, I thought. If I jam my fingers into the crack, the recoil is going to take the skin off them. But I was determined that this bull was not going to follow the rest of the herd into the bush and duly stuffed my fingers into the crack, rested the .375 in the cup of my left hand and took aim level with the beast’s back. It was no "gimme" to use a golfing term. At 272 metres my Federals, loaded with 300 grain, soft nosed Nosler Partitions, would drop over 20 inches.
I was not as comfortable or steady as I would have liked. I was sweaty, dusty, thirsty, frustrated, irritable and tired. It was a ragged, ill-made, ill-conceived shot and neither Nicky (I suspect) nor I was that surprised when the bull showed no signs of being hit but merely cantered off to join its mates. There had also been no sound of a bullet strike which, at this distance, should have been unmistakeable. To make doubly sure, we checked the ground where the bull had stood and followed its tracks for 50 metres or so. No blood. It was a clean miss. We headed back to the vehicle with me wrapping my handkerchief around my shredded, bleeding, middle finger. Happiness!
Halfway down the hill we met the waiting truck. As I stopped next to it, I unloaded my rifle. The first round I extracted from the magazine was a solid. Then the penny dropped. When I had given the big eland bull the coup de grace that morning, I had loaded the magazine with solids to fire through the screen of twigs behind which he was hiding. I had not changed the remaining three rounds in the magazine for this afternoon’s hunt.
In my experience, a hit from a solid often does not make the same the telltale sound as a soft point. What if I had wounded the hartebeest? It was unlikely and Nicky looked dubious but I just had to make sure. And we did not have a whole lot of time. Africa’s notoriously short twilight was slithering down the slope from the top of the hill like someone drawing a blanket over the face of a corpse. Reverently. Reluctantly. Slowly at first but with a quick, final flourish.
How I knew I will never know but I had the clearest impression, perception, sense – call it what you will – that the hartebeest was heading back to the open, grass covered, glade-come-gap in the bush near the rounded crest of the hill where we had first spotted them. In retrospect, I probably felt subconsciously that, if I were a hunted hartebeest, I would want to be able to watch my back tracks and make sure no one could sneak up on me. What better than a well-known, open place at my back, with the prevailing breeze in my face?
There was no time to quibble. No time for debate. I led off for the glade as fast as I could walk with Stephen, our tall, friendly, sharp eyed Masai guide, a step or two behind and Nicky, with his much shorter paces, trailing in our wake. Matted grasses tugged and tangled themselves around the metal hooks holding my boot laces in place. Grasses stems whipped and slapped against my trouser legs. I banged my leg against a dead branch hidden in the undergrowth but barely felt the sharp pain against my shin.
Thank heavens for my Zeiss Diavari Z low light scope. It was becoming more than grey. It was darkening. But I could still see clearly through the scope. For now. We blundered out of the bush and into the beasts. Both groups were momentarily nonplussed. I focused on the hartebeest to my front. Suddenly, Stephen grabbed my left bicep and silently turned me to my left. Three hartebeest stood about 120 metres away, frozen and flattened by the dusk into two dimensional cardboard cutouts. "Which one?" I asked. "The one on the right, he’s been shot through the forelegs," Nicky whispered softly into my right ear. How he could tell I still have not the faintest idea but I didn’t question him.
I knelt instantly and rested my left elbow on my raised left kneecap. I battled to find the animal in my scope and, like a novice, panned the scope from left to right trying desperately to find the bull in the sight picture. Where was it? Had it run off? Oh no!
I was too far left. Nicky gave me the line. I kept my head up and focused on the bull, remounted my rifle and locked it into my shoulder. As I should have done before, I brought the eyepiece of the scope up to meet my face and did not make the mistake of dropping my head to meet the rifle. Hey presto! There it was. As I picked the bull up in the scope, I let the shot go immediately the crosshairs fixed themselves to its shoulder. The 300 grain soft nosed Nosler Partition (with which I had reloaded my rifle), poleaxed the hartebeest and superglued it to the ground.
As darkness set solid, we took photos, using the flash, of a good, representative Coke’s hartebeest. It was a mediocre bull by trophy standards but one I have been increasingly happy I shot as, despite shooting a much better one on the slopes of Simangore Mountain some years later, I have begun to realize that, given the relentless poaching pressure prevalent in Tanzania today, the once plentiful hartebeest are now an increasingly endangered species.
In fact, as Kingdon pointed out in his brilliant, six volume magnum opus, Mammals of Africa, published by Bloomsbury in 2013, hartebeest are in major decline everywhere due to habitat loss and bushmeat poaching except Southern Africa. He stated that, "Hartebeest will not survive in the medium term. Their meat is highly regarded and they will be poached to extinction except where tangible economic benefits for entire communities outweigh the individuals short-term need or taste of food." Only the situation of the Cape or red hartebeest is different and Kingdon went on to write, "An important exception to the pattern of decline is the Red Hartebeest in southern Africa, which is important for various forms of sustained use such as trophy hunting. The latter case is a remarkable example of the success of the southern African approach to wildlife conservation, which involves the transfer of ownership of wildlife and thus any financial profit from its use to the landowner. So long as such practices continue on a rational basis, Red Hartebeest populations will remain secure; indeed its numbers are expanding."
Why is this so hard for animal rightists to understand? Why is it, with the single exceptions of Namibia and South Africa, that no one other African country can understand let alone implement a similar system? Are the two linked in any way?