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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Aristocrats of the Semi Desert Wastes

Above: A herd of gemsbok are an attractive species when seen out on the plains.

There’s a timelessness to the Karoo. As far as the eye can see, it is a landscape washed in earthy pastel hues. While lingering over an early morning cup of coffee, with the sun washed colours in the far distance more vivid, I always liked to sit quietly and enjoy the brief solitude of early morning while thinking through the day’s hunt plans. Checking rifles for zeroing would have already taken place the previous afternoon. Shortly after our arrival in camp.

On the drive in we would have invariably seen in the far distance a glimpse of yellow ochre bodies, underlined by flashes of white belly. They belonged to scattered groups of South Africa’s iconic springbok dotting the rolling scrubland. Periodically too, gangly looking ostriches took off across the veld. Running from nothing. They are a stalker’s nightmare. Whenever I glimpse them, I curse although in jest.

On this safari, our quest was a gemsbok. Undoubtedly one of Africa’s most aristocratic antelope, although beyond southern Africa they are more commonly known as oryx. It was South Africa’s early Dutch settlers who called them gemsbok. Seemingly, the arrival at the name is obscure for the word gems is applicable to Europe’s chamois (Rupicara rupicara) which is in no way similar to the gemsbok. The oryx hunted in South Africa is the common Kalahari Gemsbok Oryx gazella gazelle. Native to much of Namibia, the extreme western tip of Zimbabwe (where they cannot be hunted), the Kalahari Desert region of Botswana, and South Africa.

Above: A gemsbok male's horns are normally shorter than those of a female gemsbok, but thicker, and more heavily ringed at the bases.

Probably one of Africa’s most striking antelope, and trophy hunters aside, gemsbok are also a favourite with artists and photographers. They are also popular with meat hunters because the venison is superb. The lengthy straight horns and distinctive markings on their faces, knees, and rump, finished off with their long horse like tail make them impossible to mistake. The black and white of the face, short black mane, and black spinal stripe plus the white and black knees and white belly bounded by the dark lower flank colouring, all help give contrast to the rest of their fawn coloured bodies. Gemsbok males stand at about 1.2 m at the shoulder and have a live mass of about 240 kg.

Primarily a semi-desert and arid country dweller, they are an incredibly adaptive species and have an interesting ecology. Research has shown how well their metabolism allows them to conserve moisture. When subjected to high temperatures their body temperature also increases, and after three to four hours they begin to lose excess heat by radiation because ambient temperatures in arid regions drop rapidly after sunset. This means gemsbok are able to get through the hottest part of the day without using moisture for evaporative cooling. Thus, and while under severe heat load, they are able to save large amounts of moisture.

Conserving moisture is probably the single most important factor allowing them to survive in desert regions, coupled to the fact their kidneys are able to handle low percentages of brackish water. In addition, they have a natural mechanism which allows the temperature of blood circulating to the brain to remain substantially lower than their body temperature. Panting, which gemsbok will readily do if stressed and/or subject to extreme heat, also increases the airflow over the capillaries in the nasal veins thus helping achieve a cooling effect.

While essentially grazers’, gemsbok are classed as dry-region roughage eaters and if in areas where the grass coverage dwindles or disappears, they will revert to browsing. And, they’ll readily take to digging for succulent bulbs and roots. Young are born throughout the year and new born calves are hidden by the mothers who then visit the calf to nurse it.

Concealment sites are changed frequently and this practice may continue for up to six weeks after which the mother and calf will join a nursery herd or a mixed herd. Because of the female’s habit of nursing a hidden calf, hunters should be extremely wary of shooting a nursing mother. Unfortunately, this does happen, because in most areas and if numbers are robust enough female gemsbok are also allowed to be shot as trophies. The female gemsboks’ horns are invariably longer than those of the male, although not as heavily ringed on the lower third. It’s not uncommon to hear a sport hunter say he shot an old gemsbok cow that had been kicked out of the herd, or had left the herd. Sadly, and as a result, a young suckling calf is often then doomed to starvation.

Above: A female gemsbok also makes for an attractive trophy.

Gemsbok in South Africa are mainly hunted under game ranch conditions where they can become a wily quarry indeed. In the Karoo there are a number of extremely vast sheep ranches, although the landowners also maintain good numbers of game such as springbok, hartebeest, blesbok, black wildebeest and gemsbok. Hunting across some of these adjoining spreads which are in excess of 100,000 acres, and without high game fences can be a challenging hunt experience because the wildlife is able to free range. On big game ranches and despite the high wire surrounding the whole, the unfenced interior also makes for a truly fair chase hunt. Provided the gemsbok are on properties in areas where they existed historically.

There is nothing more disheartening for a discerning sport hunter than hunting a gemsbok in areas such as the mopane woodland belts in South Africa’s northern provinces where gemsbok have never existed historically. Put simply, they don’t belong. Calibre wise, the 300s and the larger of the 7mm family all perform adequately, as will any well constructed bullet, combined with a flat shooting calibre. A hunter’s ability to shoot accurately out to 350m plus, is also important when it comes to putting a gemsbok into the salt. If luck prevails, a gemsbok is often shot well inside the 350m mark. Over the years I have had clients take some excellent trophy gemsbok, with most being shot after a hard or challenging stalk. Closing with gemsbok out in the open is not that easy because the herd is normally wide awake, and they like to keep distance between themselves and any potential threat to their well being.

Judging a trophy gemsbok can also be tricky due to the varying body size on individuals of differing ages. Their horns are proportionate to age and body size. If a group of young gemsbok are glassed and one sees an individual in the group scratch it’s rump with a horn tip, those horns soon begin to look enormous! If all the others in the group are of similar age and size, there is nothing else to compare the horn length to. If you then shoot the biggest in the group, by the time you get to it an incredible amount of ground shrinkage has taken place. Be wary too, of trying to judge a solitary gemsbok because once shot it may turn out to be a lot smaller than you'd originally thought.

As mentioned previously, if the population allows, gemsbok females are also shot as trophies. This is usually done as part of a reduction exercise, and there is no stigma attached to shooting a female gemsbok as a trophy. Although their horns are normally not as thick, or as heavily ringed as those of the male, they are usually longer than those of the male. On the question of females, PHs need be careful and ensure they and the client are on the same hymn sheet regards the sex of the trophy. Back in the late 1980s I had a learner PH with me and left him to guide the client, while I climbed onto some high ground to observe the stalk unfold.

After the gemsbok had been shot, I made my way down onto the plains where they were standing silently round the felled form. The mood was sombre and when I offered my compliments to the client on a trophy well taken, he harrumphed loudly, and then rolling his eyes towards the blue sky yelled, ‘Goldang how can I do a life size mount of a thing with teats – what will my buddies think!’ Being the tutor PH to the young learner, the error was of my own making. I should have ascertained the client’s wants well before the gunning exercise. Fortunately, late season untaken quota allowed the client another gemsbok to stop offset his unhappiness.

On another occasion, when I was guiding a client out of Seattle, we were high up on a steep slope and spotted a gemsbok directly below us in a kloof thicket. Only the horn tips were protruding, so we sat and waited for over an hour to try and sex the gemsbok, but it didn’t budge. Eventually, and impatient, I flipped a stone into the thicket. The gemsbok burst out of there at a gallop, and then 25m on pulled up and looked back. It was a respectable trophy male so my client shot it.

Gemsbok are tough animals. If the shot is not placed correctly, they may end up adrenaline charged, and they are able to absorb a lot of lead before succumbing. On one occasion I had a client drop a shot on a gemsbok, and gut-shot, the wounded antelope took off for the high ground leading us on a merry go round up hill, and down dale, for most of the day. During late afternoon, we finally accounted for it, by which time we were both pretty knackered from our excursions. Not to mention the gemsbok’s suffering. Messy.

Above: Gemsbok are a majestic, noble, and challenging species to hunt. A Coloradan friend, and the writer pose with his well-earned trophy.

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