Bounce. Pronk. Spring – Bok!
By Wayne van Zwoll
Nobody visits Africa just to see or shoot a springbok. Then again, rhinos were once vermin!
We’d pushed through scrub and across barren pans, ever on tracks. The sun grew red, our shadows twice our height. Karen stayed close behind the tracker as he picked up the pace. Falling back to glass a corridor, splitting a copse of thorn, I saw the rams.
White bellies spotlighted against a pale wash of sourgrass to the east, they were poised to fight. My 8×32 brought the horns into focus just as they lunged, dust boiling. In and out of the bush they dashed. Then they were out of sight. But sometimes you must play a hunch. Though my companions had walked well ahead, I whistled them back. Crouching, I kept my eye on where the rams had vanished. A wink of action confirmed they were still there.
“That’s a very fine springbok,” I hissed as Karen and Harold knelt beside me. “The ram to the right.” Only its nose was visible now, at two hundred metres.
“Sun’s behind us,” I whispered. “Wait till you can’t see his face, then make for that bush. Keep low.” As if on cue, the animal dipped its head. We heard the scuffle, saw the dust and scurried ahead. Both rams came clear in the corridor as Karen settled her 7mm on the sticks.
“Shoot as soon as you can.” I had sensed her hesitation. A springbok is so, well, small. And cute. Gemsbok are heavy, raw-boned and wild, intimidating with those rapier horns. Even a big springbok is dainty enough to delay a shot.
“On the shoulder.” The rifle jumped. A blink, and both animals were gone. In the stillness after the explosion, Karen cycled the bolt, steadied the rifle again. Stay until you’re sure. A minute later we eased ahead.
“It’s very pretty.” She knelt. The ridge of long white hair on the ram’s back had risen, a silent requiem. Reverently, she stroked it. I would tell her later this springbok was the best I had ever seen shot.
Mercifully, age has dimmed memories of countless blunders afield. But still raw is my failure to take a springbok with an arrow. I’ve never loosed one at a ram, because I’ve not yet stalked close enough.
“I used to sit by a tree on that pan,” said a PH who’d shot some with a .22. He pointed to a sourgrass plain dotted with clumps of thorn and the occasional acacia. “Be patient, and you’ll get a shot inside 30 yards.”
But I’m not patient. Also, ambushing game, though widely accepted as both ethical and sporting, is less appealing to me than stalking, which requires more skill, entails more risk of discovery. So I haven’t sat for springbok. Repeatedly I’ve muffed chances – or been beaten by a fickle wind, a cruising ostrich, even the random wanderings of the ram.
Even with centerfire rifles, you must take care on the approach.
“Are you with us?” Jamy, Tamar and I were 250 metres from a fine springbok alone in a strip of grass. The ground in front of us was bald as a buzzard’s pate. Behind the ram, an occasional flick of white in deeper cover indicated more springbok. The only option was to crawl. I wanted to crawl. The excitement of a stalk is an intoxicant. But…
“I’ll stay.” It was a painful sacrifice. Over the next half hour I watched my friends inch, lizardlike, across the pan. They parted the grass strip a rifle-shot to the right of the ram. Tense minutes later, the animal vanished. The flat crack of the .308 followed immediately.
When stalking springbok, you’re smart to shed baggage and companions. Once, under evening clouds, two other hunters and I spied springbok ghosting between thickets a kilometre off. The number of animals and their non-stop movements made a sneak difficult, and daylight was fast slipping away. As often happens, windows into the thorn closed as we got near. When I asked to proceed alone, there was no argument – only the offer of a scoped rifle. I declined, content to lose the contest with my open sights rather than kill at distance with optics.
The ram had long since disappeared as I dropped to my knees, crawling on a path I hoped would intercept his. Then, a flash of white! Now on my belly, I angled toward a corridor, the Mauser cradled in elbows sandpapered with each movement. The springbok walked into the corridor. I steadied the bead. No pause. There’d be no other chance. I shoved the sight forward and pressed the trigger, and the ram crumpled. Close and proper, that 70-metre shot was still twice as long as I could have made with an arrow.
The ubiquity of springbok in many areas of South Africa belies the limited range of the animal. I saw no springbok at all on my first sub-Saharan trip in 1985. Other game abounded; springbok remained a southern exotic, like bongo to the north. The range of the springbok is spotty. Despite its catholic diet, it thrives only in a specific habitat.
Long ago on a hunt in the middle of springbok nirvana, I accompanied a pal on his quest for an outstanding ram. A quick and easy task, I thought, planning thereafter to look for a big kudu. We glassed hundreds of springbok wherever we looked. Alas, this horn of plenty proved my undoing. My friend found it impossible to fire.
“That’s a great ram,” he’d say. “But we haven’t seen them all.” What if the next herd held a bigger set of horns? There was an endless supply. If we committed the entire week to the search, he’d still have a last-hour poke at a mature springbok. “We can always get one like that. Let’s keep looking for the ram.” So my chance to find a worthy kudu evaporated.
Later, helping new hunters on their first safaris, I came to see springbok as he had. Reluctant to end the chase, I’d discourage shooting at ordinary rams – “We can probably do better.” And we often did. Actually, I just wanted to keep looking at springbok. On the American prairie, I sift many pronghorns before even chambering a cartridge and, likewise, I combed springbok herds because I could. Prowling through bush in search of a stand-out kudu – or impala or eland – was instead to spool out hours of looking without much seeing. And any shot declined might indeed be the last opportunity of the trip.
“What do you think?” Janie hadn’t yet shot a springbok. And this mature ram was certainly bigger than average for the area. I considered the alternative – hunting springbok to the exclusion of other species that, if less plentiful, would give her other memorable experiences in the coming days. We started crawling.This day, fortune favored us. A wall of thorn shielded our movements from the right; a bush just big enough hid us from the ram. Knees raw, we reached the bush and rested behind it – a hundred metres. “You can fire from here. Take your time.” She eased behind sticks. The blast from her .270 sent the animal into a final sprint. We waited, then approached – a beautiful ram. Janie was quiet, touching the horns, watching the white crest rise, then fall.
“What a marvelous little animal,” she said at last. END
Wayne van Zwoll lives near the Cascade Range in the northwestern U.S. He’s published 16 books and 3,000 magazine articles on hunting and shooting, and earned a doctorate in wildlife science. Since 1985 Wayne has traveled often in Africa, where he hosts annual safaris to introduce people to hunting’s role in conservation.
BOX Esther: (If the box is too long for the mag, just do the above for the mag, and then the whole article to be in the WEB including the box below, if Richard agrees)
Like the pronghorn antelope in North America, the springbok is plentiful and visible in its native habitat, but not widely distributed across the continent. Unlike the pronghorn, which is not a true antelope but a taxonomic loner with no close relatives, Antidorcas marsupialis belongs to Gazellinae, a subfamily with a dozen African species. Like other gazelles, it has a lithe body and ringed horns that vary from S-shaped, to hooked, to almost straight. The lyre-like horns of springbok appear on both sexes but are shorter and more slender on the female. Ewes weigh 15 to 20% less than rams, which can exceed 55 kg but average closer to 40. Rams stand as high as 90 cm at the shoulder, but again, average less – about 75. There’s regional variation in the size of these animals and their horns. The largest occur in Namibia.
Springbok are distinctive with their white face, belly and rump. Buff to cinnamon color on the upper ribs contrasts with a broad chocolate side-stripe, slanted as if in race-car crouch. Dark face stripes run from the temples through the eyes to the corners of the mouth. From its dark-tipped tail halfway to the shoulder, a white crest of long hair lies folded in a slender pouch on the back. That hair stands erect during pronking displays and, briefly, at death. It hides yellow glands that emit a sweet odor. Springbok have preorbital (eye) and digital (hoof) glands too, but no metatarsal (leg) glands. Hooves measure 4 to 5 cm in length, with slender toes and rounded heels.
A springbok ewe carries a single lamb about 170 days. Twins are very rare. Lambing most places in South Africa and Namibia peaks in September and October to take advantage of early summer rains. In southwest Angola, northern Namibia and the Kalahari, most lambs drop in the wet months of December and January. Springbok in Namaqualand lamb into July’s winter rain. The young are precocious, grazing at two weeks of age. They’re weaned at two months. Females are fertile at seven months, but males don’t reach sexual maturity until 16 months. The rams breed only after securing territories at 30 months or so. These they mark with dung middens. Territorial fights between mature males are fierce, sometimes fatal.
Ready travelers, rams may defend areas as big as 70 hectares, as small as a 300-meter section of riverbed.
Social otherwise, springbok also seem to have formed mutual protection pacts with other plains creatures: “You watch for me; I’ll watch for you!” Partners vary by region, but in places I’ve hunted, the most problematic are ostriches and gemsbok. They’ve scuttled as many of my springbok hunts as have the springbok themselves!
Opportunistic eaters, springbok graze, browse, even dig up bulbs and roots. They drink regularly but can thrive without water for days. They relish mineral licks and evidently have some tolerance for salt water in their diet. While in small groups these animals seldom strain local plant communities, large herds can defoliate places stressed by drought. Mass springbok migrations on record were probably caused by food shortages. Reports of hundreds of thousands to millions of springbok moving as a great tide predated sub-Saharan fencing and farming. The last such event occurred in 1896, when a rippling sea of springbok covered an area 220 km long and 25 km wide!
Farmers know that when forage permits, the prolific springbok can overpopulate its range. Lean seasons that follow then put great pressure on the habitat and on all species that share it with this little gazelle. Its numbers have also prompted commercial harvest for meat markets.
A delicacy in hunting camps and at market, springbok meat is also prized by predators. While not easy to catch (the dainty creatures can sprint at 85km/hour!), springbok are much easier to kill than are the wildebeest, gemsbok and hartebeest that share their habitat. Besides the big cats, springbok fall to caracals and jackals and hyenas. Martial eagles take lambs. The cheetah’s speed and hunting style make it deadly. On the Kalahari, studies found 87% of cheetah kills were springbok, in Etosha NP, 97 per cent! It’s little wonder springbok prefer areas of short grass, with firm, not sandy footing!
Pronking is signature springbok behavior. Four feet leaving earth at once, the animal launches forward, high into the air, tucking (and often shaking) its head. The pronk is a visible sign of health and vitality, signaling predators looking for easy prey to look elsewhere. It can also warn herdmates of a threat.