[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In the Eye of the Beholder
By Ken Bailey
Kudu were not on my “want” list. But they invariably become part of conversation whenever you’re in kudu country, for these regal spiral-horned antelope have a way of capturing the imagination like few others. And so it was, that Aru Game Lodge’s PH Stephan Joubert and I talked kudu as we sat high on a hill glassing the vast bushveld below, while searching the thorn bush for eland!
The truth is that I had no intention of shooting a kudu. Having taken a respectable bull on a hunt years earlier in South Africa, on this Namibian hunt I was focused on the kudu’s big brother, the eland. (Also high on my list were springbok, steenbok and caracal – the ubiquitous lynx-like cat found across much of Africa, although given how few caracals I’ve seen over several safaris, I am not convinced that they’re as widely distributed as the range maps suggest.)
The icons of hunting writing that popularized kudu wrote about their experiences in East Africa, largely in what is now Tanzania. Perhaps it was Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa that jump-started the kudu mystique, or maybe it was Jack O’Connor’s assertion that the kudu was the Dark Continent’s top trophy, and his coining of the term “the grey ghost” that inspired all those who followed in his footsteps. At that time, kudu were decidedly uncommon, undoubtedly contributing to their reputation as a trophy in high demand. Today, however, kudu are thriving, particularly in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
From our hilltop vista, Stephan and I carefully and methodically identified a great diversity and abundance of game. A mixed herd of zebra and blue wildebeest, two separate groups of gemsbok, clusters of red hartebeest, numerous springbok and a sprinkling of warthogs, ostriches, waterbuck and steenbok. But – no eland. So, we settled back more firmly against the rocks and began to sweep the landscape all over again.
Ten minutes later, in the typically understated manner of all African PHs, Stephan leaned over and said, casually, “There’s a pretty decent kudu bull down there. He only has a horn and a half, but the intact side looks pretty good. Maybe 55 inches. Are you interested?”
Decision time. I’d arrived with little interest in taking a kudu, but 55-inch bulls don’t grow on trees, especially in this part of Namibia where kudu, especially the bulls, had been hit hard by an epizootic outbreak of rabies, and the population was only then beginning to rebound. However, this was a one-horned kudu, irrespective of the length. Not generally a trophy animal.
“Let me give it some thought,” and we both settled back to continue glassing.
The whole notion of what constitutes a trophy has been undergoing a metamorphosis in recent years. In an effort to ensure that hunters are targeting only the oldest animals as a means to help ensure the health and sustainability of populations, there have been numerous biological and social initiatives aimed at educating hunters and the professional hunting community alike. In 2006, sponsored in part by Conservation Force and the Dallas Safari Club, a paper on ageing lions was released describing how various traits, including facial pigmentation, could be used to select older, post-breeding animals. A few years ago, and championed by noted veterinarian, author and PH Kevin Robertson, the importance of selecting past-their-prime Cape buffalo bulls was reinforced. Hunters were encouraged to choose the oldest and ugliest bulls. Today, what should count is age, not size.
I considered this as I continued to scan the Namibian veld, returning repeatedly to scrutinize the lone kudu bull browsing in the camel thorn. He was alone, not a herd bull, as one might expect of a breeding-aged animal. Given the length of his one intact horn, he had some years on his hooves. He definitely appeared old.
I pondered my own hunting ethics together with where the hunting community is headed in defining trophy quality.
“Let’s do it.” Without another word the two of us, along with our two trackers and Stephan’s constant companion, a friendly Rhodesian Ridgeback, made our way down the little mountain.
Height is a strategic advantage in pinpointing game. By the time we’d made it down and onto the flat veld, we found our perspective had disappeared with the altitude. We were now staring at a sea of thorn bush and although we’d identified a landmark or two, it was difficult to know exactly where the bull had wandered out of our sight.
Stephan sent one of the trackers up a fortuitously positioned windmill to see if he could spot the bull. Five minutes after scaling the rickety structure the tracker signaled that he’d spied our kudu. After scrambling down he excitedly relayed its location – only a few hundred yards distant among the scrub. A quick confab between the three of us to discuss tactics, and we were on the hunt.
From the direction we knew the bull to be heading, Stephan guessed that it was feeding towards a watering hole, so we set out on a trajectory that would intercept the bull along his path. Keeping the wind in our faces, we hunched over and began quickly duck-walking, always wary of the needle-sharp spines of the camel thorn and black thorn trees along the path. Eventually Stephan and the trackers got right down into a catcher’s-stance waddle. Too many years of basketball has left me with knees that have all the flexibility of rebar, so I was on my hands and knees, scurrying along behind as best as I could.
A hand raised is the universal sign that game has been spotted – at Stephan’s signal we all froze. Staring intently to where he pointed, I eventually made out the bull moving slowly through the dense cover, feeding as he went. He was headed toward a clearing, and I got into position to be ready for when he stepped out.
Breaking into the open, the bull did as he was hard-wired to do – stopping to check that the coast was clear. That hesitation was all I needed, and at the shot he was down in his tracks.
It’s always a bittersweet moment when you first approach a downed animal, and that feeling was only amplified when we realized what an ancient warrior this kudu truly was. In many places his hair was abnormally thin or worn away, and he had obvious cataracts in both eyes. His “good” horn was broken, battered and splintered, and stretched the tape to just shy of 54 inches. The wear on the stub side made it obvious he’d been handicapped for quite some time, likely from having performed double duty, given that the other horn was little more than an 18-inch remnant.
Stephan estimated the bull to be 13 years old, well past his prime and considerably older than the eight- and nine-year-old bulls that are typically taken. With his poor overall health and impairments, it was unlikely he’d have lived another season – more probably destined to become dinner for one of the local leopards.
Despite folks having asked several times why I’d willingly shoot a kudu with only one horn, when I look back on this hunt, it’s without a smidgen of hunter’s remorse. In fact, it is just the opposite. Among the many animals I’ve been fortunate to take over the years, this bull is among those I’m most proud of.
Rather than only evaluating physical attributes, age should be an important consideration when defining what constitutes a trophy. My one-horned kudu more than meets trophy standards by any measurement.
Ken Bailey is an outdoors writer from Canada. When not hunting big game or birds, or fly-fishing, he’s writing about his experiences. And when the bills need to be paid, he is a consultant in the wildlife conservation industry.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_gallery type=”image_grid” images=”12671,12672,12673,12674,12675″][/vc_column][/vc_row]