On the Spoor of the Spiral-horned Kudu
By Simon K Barr
If I were going to take a shot at the kudu we’d been tracking all day, it would have to be now.
And it was going to be like threading a needle. There was no way of getting closer – swirling wind and, after cover, open ground. I’d have no choice but to find a path for my bullet through the dense scrub. Time was not on our side: the area was teeming with wildlife, and at any moment we’d be scented. We had already heard a large group of buffalo bounce around to our immediate east, just 100 yards away beyond the cover where we were. Moving slowly and silently, I identified what I thought would be a good enough window through the arid mess of vegetation not unlike a roll of barbed wire. I could see the animal clearly, and steadied the rifle forend on sticks. As I did so, the kudu, though still unaware of our presence, turned to walk away. It was now or never.
Of all the spiral-horned species, the kudu is one I’ve longed to hunt, and I was fortunate enough to be with the MD of Rigby, Marc Newton, in the Savé Valley Conservancy in East Zimbabwe, where the wildlife has free range over a total of 800,000 acres. This extraordinary place, my veteran PH Butch Coates explained, is a product of the late 1980s, when 18 landowners decided to pull down the cattle fences and make the change from farming to safaris: “They realized it was vital to the wildlife and the ecosystem, but also that it would be more profitable. When the area was farmed for cattle, the wild animals were persecuted. Not only did they take up resources by grazing, but there was foot and mouth disease that they were spreading. So they had to be shot to maintain healthy cattle herds.” Zebra and wildebeest were both targeted, and buffalo were wiped out in the region. Kudu, eland and impala remained, though in smaller numbers than today, and of course predators were also trapped, shot or poisoned. The latter, Butch said, made an astonishingly fast recovery, and the Conservancy now has to ensure that they do not become too many in number, as that will affect prey species.
Butch works at various reserves in the valley as a freelance PH, but often hunts with clients from Sango. Sango Lodge, at 160,000 acres is the largest property in the conservancy. Butch makes no bones about the fact that the lodge is a business, so has to make money: “The lodge takes a lot of investment to run, with over 100 people directly employed, but in the end, if we don’t have healthy, sustainable numbers of game animals, there would be no business, so it’s in our interest to maintain a healthy population. There are anti-poaching units on each property, as well as a specific rhino anti-poaching unit, which is run independently. The rhino unit can go anywhere on the Conservancy. They also protect elephants from ivory poachers.” Poaching, it seems, is still an issue, but, Butch says, it is more for meat, and varies from year to year: “This year we had poor rains, so locals are struggling to get by, which means the bushmeat poaching is higher.”
The Conservancy is still suffering from the effects of the notorious “Cecil” incident, despite the fact that both the hunter and the PH were found innocent in court of any wrongdoing. Today, every lion, leopard or elephant hunt in Zimbabwe has to be accompanied by a National Park Ranger, the expense of which is passed on to the hunter. The Conservancy works on a strict quota for certain game species. Six elephants a year, six lions and 23 leopards can be hunted over the entire area, with the individual property’s size dictating their share of this.
Marc and I were also shooting bait for leopard for another member of our hunting party who had booked to shoot leopard, elephant, buffalo, crocodile and hippo, all of which are totally free-range in the Savé valley. Sango is responsible for providing the entire Conservancy with leopard bait.
“Zebra is by far the best,” Butch explained. “There are plenty of them, and it’s fat, soft meat.” Meanwhile, another party of hunters were out hanging bait that Marc and I had shot with Butch’s colleague Thierry Labat. While doing the rounds, the group had spotted a huge old warhorse of a kudu bull, the likes of which are very rarely seen in the wild. The call came on the radio: “Butch, he’s a giant, 57 inches at least. If you want a decent kudu come now!”
The decision was easy, despite knowing that the tracking would not be, for we were at least two hours’ drive away from Thierry’s position. With a piece of white tissue on a thornbush, so we would have a starting point, Thierry had marked the place he’d seen it disappear into cover. But it would need to be a masterclass in tracking. A good two hours after the bull had been seen, we locked in on the tissue, and the challenge ahead of us. Luckily, our tracker Ringisai or Ringi, was one of the most skilled I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing at work. Ringi was immediately able to read sign that was visible only to him and not to my unpracticed eyes. There were no snapped branches, no tracks, turned stones or rocks at all as far as I could see, but he kept on intently following the spoor.
Initially, we covered the ground fairly fast, and it was clear the wind was in our favor, but it was also clear that we had a lot of catching up to do.
“It’s in a group,” Ringi said. “They’re feeding.” It seemed to me like some sort of magic as we worked our way through thick bush in pursuit of an animal we hadn’t yet laid eyes on. The area was the real deal. True, Big Five country, with elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard all in residence, and all of which could jeopardize not just the hunt, but our lives as well. The thickness of the bush meant that we might not realize danger was upon us until it was too late. At one point, the sounds from nearby told us we were in close proximity to a herd of buffalo, one of the most dangerous of animals. Tensions rose, as not only were we worried about being charged, but also that the animals might spook the bull.
Two-and-a-half hours of following an unseen quarry in an area that carried a high density of dangerous game takes its toll on the nerves, so when we first spotted the kudu, a behemoth of a bull, my heart pounded in my chest. At 200m away, we were in thick brush, and the kudu was below us in a patch where the ground opened up a bit more. We needed to get closer for a shot with the open sights, and crept through the brush to get within range, trying to be as silent as possible. At 150m, I knew it would be very soon.
Finding a gap through which to shoot was no easy task, and to complicate matters even more, the animal was now facing away but lower than us, its back and spine the only real target I could see. The bull started to move off. I focused, trying to push the intensity of the moment to one side and not think about all the effort that had gone into tracking, or the kudu’s daunting size. Taking the best shot I could manage, I dropped the bull on the spot – it was one of the best I can remember taking under pressure. The 400-grain DGX had punched though the cover and landed between the spine and scapula. We wasted no time in approaching the awesome creature. He was huge, and old. The front of his horns were worn smooth, almost to ivory, and the “bell” which is formed by the first curl at the bottom of the horns was enormous. Butch thumped me on the back. He estimated the bull at eleven years, well past breeding age.
Marc and I waited by the kudu. Butch also left his rifle with us – this was predator country, after all. He warned that it might be an hour or two before he came back.
“I’ll have to cut a path to get the bakkie here, so sit tight.” While the wait for Butch’s return was tense, and every crack or sound set my mind leaping, it also gave me time to reflect on the day: A pure masterclass in tracking, and the experience of conservation at its best that had culminated in a kudu bull of a lifetime – something I’d not forget in a hurry.
Simon K. Barr has been a photojournalist since 2005. His fascination for wild places and heady adventure has taken him from the peaks of the Himalaya to the thickets of the African bush. He is now the CEO of global communications agency Tweed Media International, which he founded a decade ago with his wife, Selena. Simon is a dedicated outdoorsman and conservationist. When not involved in business or sport, he enjoys spending time outdoors with his daughters, Ptarmigan and Skye. Simon now lives with his family in the Scottish borders, where he can indulge his lifelong passion for fishing whenever time permits
Tragelaphus strepsiceros, or greater kudu is listed as of “least concern” on the International Concern for Conservation of Nature, unlike its cousin, the lesser kudu of Tragelaphus imberbis, which is “near threatened”. With an estimated population of 480,000 occurring in eastern and southern Africa, the kudu is currently rising in numbers, particularly on conservancies and private land. Classified as an antelope, Tragos is the Greek for “he-goat” and elaphos the word for deer. Strephis is the word for twisting and keras for horn, which is where the scientific name comes from.
As with many of the antelope species the males tend to be solitary, though they can live in bachelor groups. Males only join the females during the mating season. Calves grow quickly, and are almost independent of their mothers at just six months. The bulls tend to be much larger than the cows, and are very vocal, using grunts, clucks and gasps. The horns start to grow when the bull reaches six to 12 months old, producing one twist at two years old and the full two-and-a-half twists at six years old. Very occasionally, they will have three full twists to their horns. One of the largest species of antelope, bulls can weigh up to 270kg or more, and can be 160cm tall at the shoulder, while cows are much smaller at around 100cm high at the shoulder, and are hornless. Also, the cows don’t possess the white strip across the nose that bulls have. Like all antelope, kudu are extremely hardy, but unlike many antelope do not have the speed or stamina to escape predators in open country. They are athletic and nimble, however, and can leap over shrubs or bush to avoid being caught – hence a favored habitat being thick bush.
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