Well over 30 years ago, I was invited by a friend to acquire a minority stake in a Botswana safari outfitter. We flew up to inspect the main concession in the Okavango Swamps – my first visit to the country – and I was immediately captivated by what I came to think of as the eighth wonder of the world. As we flew low over the vast expanse of horizon stretching water and land, I saw reddish tan antelopes fleeing from the plane with halos of spray rainbowing around their bodies. Lechwe! Red lechwe! I was captivated from the start. Company inspection and due diligence be blowed. I wanted to hunt a lechwe. Right away!
It was not as simple as that. I was young, inexperienced and still coming to grips with my new Brno .375, substantially bigger than my usual 30-06 Musgrave carry gun. I had also not discovered bipods and this was only my second hunt outside of South Africa. Although my lechwe dreams eventually came true, it was not without its ups and downs and I discovered, although they were not that difficult to hunt given their numbers, self-belief in the safety of their watery habitat and the failure to come to grips with modern ballistics, as opposed to the arrows and spears they had confronted for thousands of years, they were extremely tough animals.
Today, the real difficulty in hunting red lechwe is occasioned by politics. Despite the positive examples of hunting led conservation in both Namibia and South Africa on its doorstep, Botswana has incomprehensibly followed the failed example of Kenya, which has lost some 80% of its game since it closed hunting in 1977 and, the only place left to hunt them, is in Zambia. Here too hunting has been used as a basis for bribery and corruption over many years resulting, most recently, in hunting being closed for two years until it re-opened a few weeks ago.
Now many of us hunters have heard of William Cornwallis Harris, the first recreational hunter to visit Southern Africa in 1834 on his 10 month long safari and one of his immediate successors, Roualeyn Gordon Cumming, the larger than life Scotsman, who often hunted in a shirt and very little else and who went on to become the first white man to describe the sable or Harrisbuck, as it was originally known, for science. But comparatively few people know about the Englishman, William Cotton Oswell who, less than 15 years after Cornwallis Harris left Southern Africa, "discovered" the Zouga (now Botletlie) River and Lake Ngami in Botswana although, given his retiring and modest nature, he allowed David Livingstone (who accompanied him along with Murray as his guests), to take credit for the discovery.
It was on this selfsame trip that Oswell’s good friend, Frank Vardon (after whom the puku was originally named), wrote to him on 25 March, 1850, and asked, "What about the lichè. Is there such a buck? Did you fall in with him or not?" In a lengthy reply later that year, which dealt more with the discoveries referred to above, Oswell mentions almost in passing that, "Piet (my wagon driver) shot the first, Livingstone the second, Murray the third. The horns of the lèchè are very much the same as a male waterbuck’s, and his habits are precisely similar."
His biography, written by his son, not only contains an illustration of a head of a "lèchè", which leaves no doubt that this was the animal we know today as the red lechwe (Kobus leche leche) but, after leaving the lake and descending the valley of the Zouga River, Oswell later added to his letter and wrote, "We discovered an entirely new species of antelope, called lechè or "lechwi". It is a beautiful water-antelope of a light brownish yellow colour. Its horns – exactly like those of the Aigoceros ellipsiprymnus, the waterbuck, or "tumoga" of the Bechuanas – rise from the head with a slight bend backwards, then curve forwards at the points. The chest, belly, and orbits are nearly white, the front of the legs and ankles deep brown. From the horns, along the nape of the withers, the male has a small mane of the same yellowish colour with the rest of the skin, and the tail has a tuft of black hair. "
Oswell sent a specimen of the newly found antelope to Vardon and it is referred to in the minute book of the Zoological Society of London on 11 June 1850 and was included in Gray’s "Synopsis of Antelope and Strepsiceres", which was read on the same evening. Of course, Dr. Gray played a role in the naming of another lechwe, the Nile or Mrs. Gray’s lechwe, the latin name of which was at one time Kobus leche maria, Maria being his wife’s christian name.
Selous also provided a full mount of the red lechwe shot by him along the Chobe River in 1881 to the British Museum, although he referred to it as a "Leegwee" antelope. This was almost certainly the world record entered in Rowland Ward measuring 35 inches and a good three inches bigger than the number two shot nearly 100 hundred years later by Tjaard du Plessis also in Botswana. In Selous’ paper on the Antelopes of Central South Africa, he wrote that, "this Antelope is first met in the marshes of the Botletlie river, and is very numerous in the open grazing plains which are always more or less inundated by the Tamalakan, Mababe, Machabe, Sunta and Chobe Rivers. It is also common along the upper Zambezi in the swamps of the Lukanga River about 150 miles to the south west of Lake Bangweulu, which I visited in 1878. There I found the Leegwe Antelope in large herds.
After Spekè’s Antelope (sitatunga)* the Lechee is the most water-loving antelope with which I am acquainted, and is usually to be seen standing knee deep, or even up to its belly, in water, cropping the tops of the grass that appear above the surface or else lying just at the water’s edge. As is the case with Tragalephus spekii (sitatunga)*, the backs of the feet are devoid of hair between the hoof and the dew-claws, whilst in the Pookoo, as with all other Antelopes, this part is covered with hair. In some parts of the country Leegwee Antelopes are very tame, in others, where they are persecuted by the natives, they are excessively wild. When they first make up their minds to run they stretch out their noses, the males laying their horns flat along their sides, and trot; but on being pressed they break into a springing gallop, now and then bounding high into the air. Even when in water up to their necks, they do not swim, but get along by a succession of bounds, and make a tremendous splashing. Of course, when the water becomes too deep for them to bottom, they are forced to swim, which they do well and strongly, although not as fast as the natives can paddle; and when the country is flooded, great numbers are driven into deep water and speared."
Let me quote from my story about that first red lechwe all those years ago:
"I slowly sat down, wrapped the broad, khaki webbing sling from my .375 around my left bicep and forearm, rested my elbows on my knees and sighted through the standard, fixed 4 x Bushnell Scope.
Only some 80 metres separated me from the bull and I could clearly make out the course, reddish hairs on the bull’s shoulder. Through the scope, I felt as if I could reach out and touch the handsome animal.
Yes, I was a little uncomfortable about taking the shot with the animal lying down as I was not sure what the bull’s posture would do to the positioning of the internal organs. Nevertheless, the ground was almost bare between the lechwe and me and, instinctively, I found the crosshairs glued low on the bull’s shoulder. The opportunity was too good to pass up. For the last two weeks whenever we had found a good lechwe bull it was invariably standing in water, over 300 yards away, with no prospect of us getting any closer. Besides, I had just bought the .375 and had not learnt its limitations, nor mine, for that matter. I mean, this was a rifle that the pros used to shoot buffalo and elephant. Provided I put the bullet there or thereabouts, I felt sure it was bound to do the job. All these thoughts rattled around my head in less time than it takes to read these few sentences and, before I knew it, I found my right forefinger tightening almost involuntarily and curling itself around the two and a half pound Timney trigger.
As I recovered from the recoil, expecting to see a dead lechwe stretched out on the ground, I was in time to see the bull leap to its feet and gaze steadfastly in the direction in which it had been originally lying. Before the crack of the 270 grain Winchester Power Point bullet breaking the sound barrier had fully dissipated, I ejected the empty cartridge case and replaced it with another shiny, bright, brass replica. At the second shot, the bull leapt convulsively forward and vanished into the thick curtain of surrounding reeds."
To interrupt for a moment, there are two basic kinds of lechwe. The first, the common lechwe, is separated into three sub-species, namely, red lechwe described by Oswell and Selous (Kobus leche leche) from Botswana; black lechwe (Kobus leche smithemani) of Lake Bangweulu and, lastly, Kafue lechwe (Kobus leche kafuensis), which is the intermediate sub-species situated geographically between the two others.
The second member of the species, Nile or Mrs. Gray’s lechwe (Kobus megaceros), is completely separate from the other types of common lechwe and is found in the southern Sudan and adjacent marshlands in the Gambella region of western Ethiopia.
Estes in his book, "The Behavioural Guide of African Mammals" states that "The mature male Nile lechwe is tied with the white-eared kob for the gaudiest member of the tribe. It turns a dark chocolate brown with a broad white saddle on neck and shoulders as well as white neck, face, and leg markings. This species remains unstudied. "
Lechwe do not occur naturally in SA and I have often been asked where the introduced lechwe come from that are now common in the country. Many years ago when I was hunting one with Rob Hockley on his property in the Eastern Cape, he told me that, in 1954, his neighbour had been given two Kafue lechwe cows and a bull by a zoo. Rob first made the acquaintance of their progeny when the selfsame neighbour asked him to come and cull his "rooi bokke" (the Afrikaans colloquial name for impala). Using his staff on horseback, the old farmer drove the lechwe towards Rob and would not accept Rob’s explanation that these were not rooi bokke and should not be culled. Shortly thereafter, the old man apparently dropped his fences and chased the animals out of his farm onto a neighbouring property and, from there, they have spread throughout the Eastern Cape. I have since been told that this story is apocryphal and the stuff of rural legend but I have no reason to doubt the truth of Rob’s story. I know one game rancher in the area who sells an average of 200 live Kafue lechwe a year, has been doing so for over 30 years and makes a good living from it, all apparently derived from the original three zoo escapees.
Rowland Ward’s Record of Big Game states that the overall colouration of the Kafue lechwe is similar to the red lechwe but the upper parts are of a richer, reddish hue, the fore parts on the shoulders are blackish, and the horns are considerably longer. This can be seen by the fact that the minimum entry into "The Book" is 29 7/8 inches in the case of Kafue lechwe; 26 inches in the case of red lechwe and only 21 7/8 inches in the case of black lechwe. Some cynics argue that this is why some game ranchers claim that the lechwe they have introduced are red and not Kafue lechwe, because the trophy standards are less demanding for the red. The biggest Kafue lechwe ever shot and recorded in Rowland Ward was taken by Mr. Snider, in 1980, in Zambia, and measured a massive 37 inches.
The story of my first red lechwe hunt continued as follows: "The tracks now clearly showed the bull running hell for leather for the nearest water. My hunting companion, Derek, took off running hard in a wide circle to cut the bull off from the water and, with the now fresh, widely splayed, long "V" tracks clearly distinguishable from the surrounding spoor, we also set off in hot pursuit. Amazingly, within less than 50 yards, the lechwe seemed to slow to a walk and headed off into the thickest part of the reeds. Tracking once again became painfully slow.
We had to part the reeds by hand and force our way through. It was difficult to see the ground through the inter-twined, finger thick reeds. Suddenly, from up ahead, I heard a strange sound, "Wha!" and then silence. We stood stock still and listened. There it was again. "Wha! Wha!" The sound was coming closer. I climbed onto a nearby earth mound to try and trace the source of the sound.
Soon I could make out the clatter of reed on reed. Then my old friend emerged. He did not see me at first. He was holding his rifle in front of him and using it to part the reeds while, every now and then, making the weird noise we had heard. He started when I called out to him, "What in heaven’s name do you think you are doing?" Well," he replied "ever since that puffadder crawled onto your jacket, I am not taking any chances and this is my snake warning shout. In snake language, it means get out of the way, there is a big thing coming. "
At any rate, Derek’s arrival both lifted my spirits and changed our luck. Not 40 metres from where he bumped into us we found the lechwe as dead as the proverbial dodo. The two .375 rounds had hit within a finger’s breadth on the point of the big bull’s shoulder. Amazingly, neither bullet had exited, nor was there any blood from the bullet wounds. This was my very first lechwe and I mentally took my hat off to the tough, proud animal and promised myself, from that day forward, to treat them with the same respect, from a toughness point of view, as sable and wildebeest. In other words, nothing less than a well aimed .375 bullet would do. "
I find all lechwe to be extremely attractive, tough animals. In the case of Mrs. Gray’s lechwe, however, I think they are one of the most beautiful of all the beautiful animals our African continent has produced and are top contenders for "Male Model of the Year", along with sable. On the other hand, because they are not particularly wary, no lechwe are that difficult to hunt except, as SCI points out, when they are deep within a swamp. As such, there is not the same degree of romance attached to hunting them as, for example, species such as bongo, mountain nyala or even sitatunga. As the SCI Record Book of Trophy Animals goes on to state, "it is often possible to drive or walk to within moderate rifle range with no attempt at concealment. When dealing with a herd of lechwe, the hunter’s principle problem is to evaluate horns (and keep track of them) in the milling mob of animals, and to make a clear shot at the one closest without hitting others."
*The author’s parentheses