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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Bushbuck Memories

Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique is a scenic mountainous area. A world of deep gorges, boulder strewn icy streams, and steep, forest-shrouded slopes. Scattered amongst the tracts of almost impenetrable forest are verdant sun dabbled glades. Often, in the early mornings there is ground hugging guti (pronounced ‘gooti’), a peculiar cocktail of thick fog and drizzle. It blows in from the not too far distant Indian Ocean. During part of the early colonial Rhodesian era circa 1950s, the Government Demonstration Farm my dad managed was situated close to the Mozambique border. The mountain forests with their guti-shrouded slopes rising imposingly above our cattle pastures, and crops, were the habitat of a majestic, albeit shy, yet pugnacious antelope. The noble bushbuck.

Dwelling beneath impressive broad-leafed trees, bound by tangled lianas, with waist high bracken at ground level. And damp dank smelling leaf matter underfoot. The elusive bushbuck seldom ventures out from his dark shadowy forest refuge. He’s equally at home in mountain forest, as is he in coastal dune forest, and any other dense impenetrable thickets found across his distribution range. A mature bushbuck ram is dark Bournemouth chocolate in colour. His chest, flanks, rump, and knees spotted and streaked in brilliant white markings. His large eyes nature’s gift for maximum resolution in the reduced forest light. And atop his head the most magnificent bark stained spiralled horns. Often flaring out, before terminating in stiletto sharp tips. Bushbuck may not be up there amongst Africa’s biggest, but believe me of all our Southern African antelope, and pound for pound, if pushed, they’re without doubt our most pugnacious, quite simply because defensive tenacity is programmed into their genes.

Above: PH Russ Field's Irish terrier 'Blue' shows the scarring on his flank after a joust with a wounded bushbuck in South Africa's Eastern Cape.

Throughout historical time bushbuck rams have made short work of dogs. And they continue to do so with vigour. I once saw PH Russ Field’s fine Irish terrier Blue, a dog trained to follow the blood trail of wounded game, with his rib cage shorn of hair and protruding nylon sutures still holding the horn puncture marks closed. The result of a joust with a bushbuck. Back in 1983 I was hunting on a relative’s ranch in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. At the time I was carrying a .338 Winchester Magnum loaded with 250 grain bullets and wanted to shoot a kudu for venison. With me was my yellow Labrador cross, Shandy. While we sat resting, and glassing, on a hillside, an old representative bushbuck ram stepped out of a thorn thicket below us, and wandered into the open.

It was a long shot but after holding high on the buck’s shoulder, and using a handy deadfall as a rest, I put pin to primer. With the sound of the shot still reverberating across the valley the bushbuck leapt sideways. And then bounded back into the dense thicket barking loudly. As it disappeared, I could clearly see a shattered right front leg swinging freely. My bullet had dropped at least 14” and left me chastising myself for having risked the shot in the first place. After quickly running another shell into the chamber I slipped and slid down the steep-sided hill, and with an eager Shandy at heel, made my way across to where the luckless bushbuck had been standing. With a whispered ‘Seek him up’ I sent the streetwise Lab into the dark shadows within the tangled brush.

Above: My Labrador cross Doberman, Shandy. Over the years on safari, he located numerous wounded and lost animals.

He wasn’t long gone before he began to bark excitedly, his own barks soon being challenged by those of an angry bushbuck. The noise gave me something to home in on, so on hands and knees I slowly made my way towards the noise. When I reached the scene, the bushbuck was on his front knees. He had his hindquarters tucked into a thorn bush, and his stiletto sharp horns parrying and thrusting at a determined Shandy. Calling the dog off I put an end to the tenacious buck’s suffering, and then spent a few minutes respectfully admiring his fallen form. Further qualification of a bushbuck’s tenacity despite their size (70-170lbs) is that bushbuck research has shown they suffer greater mortality in rivalry fights over females than any other antelope species.

Above: Probably the most effective way of locating a bushbuck is to first glass, and then stalk. Here, gun and hunting writer, John Barsness, glasses for a bushbuck in South Africa's Eastern Cape.

My preferred method of hunting a bushbuck trophy is to glass and stalk, also called still hunting. The old adage of ‘make your glasses do the walking’ certainly holds true with bushbuck hunting. Merely shooting an animal may confirm an individual’s marksmanship skills. However, stalking an animal successfully also indicates the person knows something about hunting, as does skinning the animal, and working the meat afterwards.

Because of a bushbuck’s addiction to the rays of warm sunlight on a cold winter morning, they can normally be spotted along the very edge of their forest habitat. And although they tend to be solitary animals, if the hunter can glass from a high vantage point, a number of different trophy bushbuck can often be spotted and monitored. Well spread out. Standing enjoying the sunlight or feeding. Bushbuck have good senses of smell, eyesight, and hearing, and as with any form of hunting wind direction is important. A hunter cannot effectively approach a bushbuck from upwind. It’s an exercise in futility.

Once I’ve decided upon a particular bushbuck trophy, I commence the stalk. Moving extremely slowly from downwind. And from cover to cover. At all times trying to avoid standing or moving in bright sunlight. Think; shape, shine, silhouette, sound, and add to that movement. Each time the bushbuck raises its head if feeding, I freeze and remain motionless preferably while on my haunches. When he looks away or starts browsing again, I move forward. It may take time, but time is an integral part of hunting. And no predator rushes a stalk. On occasions like this my client and I are the predators. The bushbuck our prey. We move Indian file and not line abreast, because a wider uncoordinated front offers a greater chance of compromise.

If you compromise the stalk, with a bound or two the bushbuck will disappear back into his safe forest haven. And no matter how hard you may try he’ll be lost from view and impossible to see. Granted, you may well hear him giving his throaty dog like staccato bark of alarm, but I can assure you it’ll only add to your frustrations. Inside his dark world of shadow, only occasionally pierced by light rays as the sun moves overhead a bushbuck’s dark chocolate pelage, flecked with vivid white dots and streaks, affords one of nature’s finest camouflages. Everything inside that quiet twilight patch of forest works for the bushbuck. And not for the hunter. To succeed when hunting a trophy bushbuck, your first stalk should ideally be your only stalk.

Above: An Alaskan client with an excellent Limpopo bushbuck taken in Natal.

Both Rowland Ward and Safari Club International list eight species of bushbuck in Africa, however, due to the considerable variation in bushbuck colouration and size - across their wide range - more than 40 races have been described. Different races are mainly distinguished by their degree of spotting, striping, and other distinctive intensity of colouration. I’m only familiar with the southern form Tragelaphus sylvaticus and allies; these being the Cape Bushbuck, Chobe Bushbuck, and Limpopo Bushbuck.

Above: A UK sport hunter with a magnificent Chobe bushbuck taken in Zimbabwe's Gokwe North.

Hunters in Africa who are familiar with the species, revere bushbuck. As a retired professional hunter, I can truly say there are three species I never tired of guiding on. The Cape buffalo, the bushbuck, and the southern greater kudu. In the case of the former, initially by tracking and then finally stalking close in for the killing shot. In the case of the bushbuck and kudu, by glassing, selecting, and then stalking.

Calibre wise for bushbuck, I prefer a well-constructed bullet that may be called upon to hold its own in fairly dense undergrowth. In my experience, the .308 Winchester, 30-06 Springfield, 7x57mm Mauser, .270 Winchester and similar calibres all perform perfectly. While the .243 Winchester is more than adequate in the open, if a bushbuck is inadvertently wounded and gets back into the thick stuff, problems may arise. A hunter preferably needs a steady stream of blood to follow in the dark thickets. You don’t always have a trusty dog present, and a .243 bullet wound channel may not give you the blood you need. Spotting a healthy bushbuck in his normal habitat is nigh impossible. Trying to locate a wounded one who isn’t leaving any blood sign would be about the same.

Despite my having attempted to give a somewhat compressed overview of bushbuck hunting as I’ve experienced it, be sure, even the most careful of stalks on a bushbuck can leave a hunter gnashing his teeth and threatening suicide. On a number of occasions over the years, a good trophy bushbuck has shown me the finger before decamping with a flash of his tail’s white underside. And a series of barks bordering on what I assume must be bushbuck hysteria at my failed stalk!

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