Black Wildebeest: Clowns of the Plains
Above: Black wildebeest on the Bedford plains on Woodlands Game Ranch in the eastern Cape. The Winterberg mountains form the backdrop (Photo credit Keith Gradwell).
A trophy black wildebeest will either make you work, or weep. Particularly so if you’re a purist and leave the hunting rig a few clicks away. They’re a really challenging trophy animal where an ethical fair-chase hunt can either translate into quick success, or a gruelling exercise. And that's exactly how it should be.
Black wildebeest might look stupid when being observed out in the field. Their somewhat comical nervous disposition can also raise a smile. However, they certainly aren’t dumb. All of their leaping, leg kicking, and tail thrashing body language is a mere charade. While you stand watching, mesmerised, they subtly increase the distance between themselves and the perceived threat. One of those early African amateur sport hunters’, the celebrated artist and traveller John Guille Millais (1829–1896) in his A Breath From The Veldt described trying to shoot a black wildebeest thus, 'Again, and again, as we came fresh on the different troops that wandered over Piet Terblans’s country, fair shots at the cows presented themselves, but the bulls took such uncommonly good care to preserve a whole skin that their destruction was no easy matter. Millais’s 1800s observation applies as much now as it did back then. Wherever possible, a trophy black wildebeest will try to preserve his whole skin! Millais also mentioned attempting shots from 450 yards to 600 yards at black wildebeest. This was during the era of black powder so the results must’ve been depressing.
Above: A bachelor group of black wildebeest running along the skyline.
Black wildebeest are an iconic, true South African plains game species. Together with the other high plains’ denizens, blesbok and hartebeest, they’re well worth considering as a bucket list trophy on a South African hunt. I always found hunting black wildebeest far more challenging than hunting blue wildebeest, although both are worthy trophies. During more recent times they’ve been described variously as looking like they were put together by a committee. Or that they’re actually sick animals and as each bullet hits them, they feel better. This latter view will certainly ring true with anyone who’s had the misfortune of wounding a black wildebeest. Taking the hunter on an extended run around is probably the most apt description of how the hunt would've ended.
Above: A big herd of black wildebeest on the Bedford plains. Trying to select a trophy from a milling mass like this is an exercise in futility. The joining up of numerous groups is seemingly a defensive measure. Fun to watch though!
Back in 1986 I had an elderly Austrian gentleman wound a black wildebeest. He was certainly using enough gun. An 8x68S. In acknowledgement of the bullet, the wildebeest went to his knees, shook his head, and then leapt up and took off with his tail wind milling. Like all optimistic hunters’ we stood and watched. Fully expecting the wildebeest to slow down, become unsteady, and then fall over. It didn't happen. So, after instructing my elderly Austrian client to rest in a shady spot under an acacia, my tracker and I took off in pursuit of the by then far distant wildebeest. Closure only came after we’d crossed the open plains, and then climbed a mountain. The wildebeest having gone up the mountain at speed. We eventually found it lying glaring at us wild-eyed, from inside a thicket. Lurching to its feet it suddenly charged determinedly from about 15m away. It was a first for me as I’d never witnessed a wildebeest display this kind of aggression when wounded. After shutting it down we had a lengthy hike back to the client, and from there to the vehicle. By the time we’d recovered the dead wildebeest it was 21hr00. It’d initially been wounded at 08hr30.
Above: The abundance of termite mounds in some areas where black wildebeest are hunted may not be very high, however, they afford adequate cover for a seated hunter, and the top of the mound covered with a hat, jacket, or daypack makes an ideal rest to use when shooting.
A popular way of securing a black wildebeest trophy is to sit down behind a decent sized termite mound. The easiest way to do this is to just slip out of the vehicle alongside the chosen termite mound and let the driver depart. Rest assured though, the wildebeest herds, and territorial bulls out on the plains will all be watching this activity from afar, with keen interest. Their body language will indicate to you whether they’re suspicious or not. When nervous they’ll frolic continuously. Kicking their heels in the air, before suddenly stopping and staring your way. Or snorting and pawing the ground while vigorously lashing themselves with their conspicuous white tails. Their tails always look disproportionately long relative to their body size. If the wind is in your favour, you might also hear their mournful sounding ge-noo, ge-noo. The Khoikhoi name gnu, is said to come from this distinctive snorting. Their common name, black wildebeest, originates from the early Dutch name swartwildbees which translates to black wild ox. As a denizen of the plains, and just like blesbok, black wildebeest, also known as white-tailed gnu are truly South African.
Definitely the clowns of the veld, a herd of black wildebeest galloping along the skyline or across the plains are an amusing spectacle. Their seemingly uncoordinated and confused rushing round in circles with tails windmilling as they constantly change direction, at times even colliding with each other, holds one mesmerised and that’s exactly what it’s meant to do. Any natural predator stalking the herd is unable to lock on to an individual animal, and by the time the swirling mass of wildebeest has again come to a halt, their clownish antics have carried them well beyond the threat. Even for the hunter it’s extremely difficult to keep tabs on a particular animal during this wild melee.
Captain William Cornwallis Harris (later knighted) was an Englishman who was passionate about hunting. He arrived in South Africa in 1836 and thereafter spent two years travelling and hunting in the interior. In his book, Wild Sports of Southern Africa published in 1852, he described his first encounter with the black wildebeest thus; 'The glass at 7 A. M. had sunk to 18 degrees, yet the cold to the feeling was neither intense nor disagreeable. Here, for the first time, we saw large troops of those eccentric animals the Gnoos, three of which we killed, having hemmed a herd into a valley, and obliged them to run the gauntlet. Of all the quadrupeds, the gnoo is probably the most awkward and grotesque. Nature doubtless formed him in one of her freaks, and it is scarcely possible to contemplate his ungainly figure without laughter. Cornwallis Harris hunted his first black wildebeest in the vicinity of Graaff Reinet.
Above: South Africa's undulating grassed plains form ideal black wildebeest habitat.
Where there are healthy populations of black wildebeest my preferred method of hunting was obviously to first have a good look at all of the territorial bulls and bachelor groupings, before even trying to look at breeding bulls with the herds. When I was still active as a PH I normally hunted black wildebeest on Woodlands Game Ranch in the Eastern Cape, where on the high ground, there are large undulating grassed plains dotted with low termite mounds which afford good cover. Alternatively, the odd small island of acacia scrub also provides cover, as long as you stay in the shadow. Hiding in dead ground also works. The trick though, is to get into cover without the wildebeest observing you doing so. The best way to do this is to quickly hop off the vehicle on the opposite side to your intended quarry, and immediately go to ground before letting the vehicle move off slowly. More often than not though by the time you’ve debussed in the middle of the plains, the wildebeest, blesbok, and springbok will have all decamped in a fast-moving kaleidoscope of black, brown, white, and tan. All you’re left looking at is seemingly uninhabited undulating grassland.
After letting the fleeing animals settle for a while, the driver then very slowly drives in a circuitous manner to the furthest point away from the hidden hunters, ensuring he doesn’t travel too quickly or in a threatening manner directly towards the various wildebeest groupings. Once beyond them he then slowly drives at an oblique angle towards them, to chivvy them along. Stopping immediately each time they start milling. This slow ‘pushing’ can also be done by a tracker or colleague on foot. Due to the landmass we hunted on, this method is time consuming and can also be frustrating. It often also means the client and PH may have have to be picked up and dropped off elsewhere. Eventually though, the wildebeest will move within range, and because they’re constantly watching the vehicle in the far distance, one has ample time to select and shoot a stationary trophy. Despite the fact a vehicle may be used periodically in the far background to chivvy the wildebeest along, it’s a far better method of hunting than using a vehicle as a shooting platform, and careering all over the veld blazing away from an elevated seat behind the cab. A distasteful method of coursing game that certainly cannot be termed sport hunting.
Above: Chuck's excellent black wildebeest trophy suddenly appeared from in dead ground behind us. It was part of a bachelor herd of seven individuals that were walking directly towards us.
Often too, a suitable wildebeest bull may seemingly appear from out of nowhere and unknowingly move directly towards the hidden hunters. A number of years ago I was hunkered down under a small acacia bush with my client. Hearing a noise directly behind us we slowly swivelled round and observed a bachelor group of seven good bulls walking directly towards us. They’d appeared over the skyline to our rear and from start to finish the hunt took about twenty minutes. The client put pin to primer when they were about 75m away from us. We were lucky. Most shots at black wildebeest reach out to 300m. Hunters should be mindful of the fact a wounded black wildebeest can be a glutton for punishment.
Back in the mid-80s I guided the late Jack Lott, innovator of the .458 Lott. He was a pleasant but rather stubborn client. Elderly at the time, and set in his ways. Jack was using a new .375 H&H load he’d come up with and ignoring my disquiet insisted on using a neck shot on his wildebeest. I’m not a neck shot fan for a variety of reasons, unless management culling of smaller species like springbok and impala etc for the venison market, where a clean carcass is required. Jack wasn’t at all familiar with black wildebeest anatomy, and his attempted neck shot went in high above the spine causing the wildebeest to immediately drop. Momentarily stunned. It then rolled over onto its back, kicked its legs vigorously in the air, and as quick as lightning regained its feet and took off.
Above: At times a handy acacia tree and some camouflage net make for an ideal hide when hunting any of the plains game species.
From 07h30 until 17hr00 we chased it by vehicle and on foot. Uphill and down dale, until in a torrential late afternoon thunderstorm we lost it amongst a herd it’d joined, when the blood on the neck wound was washed away. Jack left the next day without his black wildebeest and bemoaning the fact he’d used a neck shot. One year later to the month, I had a German client shoot the same wildebeest bull high up on a mountain plateau. Where Jack’s bullet had gone through, halfway along the neck from the head, there was healed scar tissue on both sides below where the mane hair grows out of the neck. Jack’s .375H&H soft point had ploughed straight through the muscle.
In 2000 I hosted two American clients on Naas Vermaak’s property near Hofmeyr. PH Ian Henry was guiding one client, while I guided the other. My client and I were given a run around by his black wildebeest in its determination to preserve its whole skin. With time running short, Naas joined us to try and help get the wily wildebeest trophy (who was in a herd) to co-operate. Eventually, my client felled it to a killing shot and it proved to be a magnificent trophy.
I’ve hunted many places across southern Africa, but it was there on the plains near Hofmeyr that I learned another Eastern Cape tradition. As we stood admiring the fallen trophy and even before photographs were taken, PH Ian Henry stood staring at it and then said, ‘Naasi it’s a helluva thing!’ Naas then went to the blunt end of the black wildebeest trophy and after staring at it for a minute or two, said, ‘Ian…it’s a helluva thing!’ This verbal exchange happened about five times. No other words were said, while Naas and Ian, opposite each other, kept circling the wildebeest. Twenty years on, whenever I think of black wildebeest out on the plains, I can’t help but say to myself – ‘It’s a helluva thing!’
Above: It was 'A helluva thing!'