• Kev Thomas Writes

Eland Challenge

Above: Typically mountainous Eastern Cape terrain, ideal habitat for Cape eland which like to wander between the deep valleys and higher elevations, often making glassing with binoculars or a spotting scope an essential ingredient for a successful Cape eland hunt.

We had our first look at the bachelor group of eight Cape eland bulls on a freezing mid-winter morning. They were standing motionless, strung out amongst the islands of dense bush far above us, and immediately below the sheer cliffs of the Toorberg range. It was on a steeply inclining mountainside, and while glassing them, we could see they weren’t browsing. Instead, they were standing in patches of sunlight, trying to get warm after a freezing Eastern Cape July night.

Darrel and I were into his fourth day of hunting, and an eland ranked high on his plains game want list. Since the safari’s onset, we’d seen a few groups of females, a nursery group of youngsters, and one or two young bulls. However, this was our first sighting of what we wanted. Mature, big bulls, with tinged blue to slate grey colouring, and dark mops on their foreheads, giving way to heavy horns with pronounced spiral ridging, and hopefully ivory tips pointing outwards. When hunted under truly fair chase conditions, an eland is a worthy, and extremely wily trophy, and I’ve often ranked them alongside kudu when it comes to the grey ghost of the bush stakes, because although eland have the smallest of our large antelope ears, their hearing is phenomenal, as is their eyesight.

In the Eastern Cape and due to the mountainous terrain and habitat preferences of the species, I’ve always found glassing followed by a slow stalk is the most productive way of hunting an eland. They’re either high above you, or way below you in a kloof or valley. Either way, it’ll invariably call for a fairly long shot with a well constructed bullet. However, they’re a challenging species to stalk, and if done correctly, one can close with them undetected although the slightest noise or error on behalf of the hunter(s) will lead to compromise, and probable failure.

Camdeboo Conservancy is owned by a number of stakeholders and we were staying at one of the lodges. Darrel’s son was being guided by the lodge owner, and once done with the Eastern Cape plains game, Darrel, his son and myself were scheduled to fly to Zambia for buffalo and other sundry species. From a safari perspective we had a fairly tight and spread-out program.

By the time we’d finished carefully glassing our far-off high altitude lingering quarry, the entire mountain slope was sun-washed and the cold edge to the morn had dissipated. Taking one tracker, Kata, we began the steeply inclined slow laborious climb carrying only our rifles, the shooting sticks, binoculars, and a day pack containing our cameras and a few full water bottles. From the onset at about 0730hrs we moved slowly. Ensuring at all times we stayed well out of the sunlight, thus avoiding reflection off our clothes and in Darrel and my case, our white faces. Progress was a slow upward zigzag, moving from the deep shadow of one clump of bushes to the next, and at all times we avoided kicking loose, noisy stones, of which there were plenty. Fortunately, the wind remained constant and, in our favour, the chill factor causing our cheeks to tingle despite our exertion. Frequently too, we rested, glassed, and listened. At times losing sight of the eland altogether, but knowing they were still there. Once, while we rested, we watched a majestic Black-Eagle wing its way swiftly along the sheer cliff face, obviously hoping to surprise an early morning dassie (hyrax) seeking sunlit warmth.

Gradually, as we climbed higher, the vehicle and remaining hunt crew diminished in size until they were a mere speck far below us. The eland meantime, had become clearly discernible and even to the naked eye, there were some big bulls amongst the group. They’d stopped sun basking, and started to spread out below the cliff face, browsing, and breaking branches with a quick twist of their horns – in order to reach the higher-level leaves.

Soon, we were only about 150m below them and still, they had no inkling we were there. So, after sitting watching for a few minutes longer, and trying to place each individual, an almost impossible task given the bush density and rugged terrain, we left Kata in the dark shadow of a thicket, and then Darrel and I quietly moved on. We made our way closer to the shaking bushes and sound of clinking hooves against pebbles. Far off across the amphitheatre formed by the mountain cliffs, and at our level, a dog baboon suddenly barked a warning. No doubt he’d been watching our every move, fortunately, he was too far away and the feeding eland paid no heed.

Eventually, at about 80m Darrel and I stopped and very carefully inched our way around the edge of a thicket. We immediately saw the neck and head of a superb bull framed between two bushes; his mouth full of leaf matter. Although the eland hadn’t yet seen us, it was as if in slow motion that I carefully opened the shooting sticks, and grasping Darrel by his forearm slowly pulled him forward. We could’ve opted for an offhand shot, however, I wanted to wait for the bull’s shoulder to appear in the leafy frame rather than take an iffy neck shot. It didn’t take long, for Darrel had hardly settled on the sticks when the eland pushed further into the thicket, his massive head reaching up towards more browse, his broad shoulder presenting for a killing shot.

Above: Darrel with his excellent Cape eland bull taken high up against the sheer Toorberg Mountain cliffs after a lengthy uphill stalk.

With the sound of the .300 Winchester Magnum shot still reverberating in amplified mode along the cliffs, the eland went down hard, the 200gr Nosler Partition having driven home, but then he recovered, spinning through 180º before stumbling downhill. Without wasting time, Darrel ran another shell into the chamber before slipping in an oblique shot behind the ribs. It crumbled the bull. His massive form falling hard, legs kicking, and head flailing, until eventually the darkness of death overcame his huge noble form, leaving us awed and humbled by what we’d been given. It’d been a physically challenging, and exceedingly rewarding stalk, although recovery took hours because of the inaccessibility of the terrain to vehicles.

Moving north, hunting the Livingstone’s eland in Zimbabwe is equally, if not more challenging, and despite their size, in areas where they’re hunted, they’re true will of the wisps. Enormous fleeting ghosts of the miombo woodland and mopane forests they live in. There’s little difference between the Cape eland and Livingstone’s eland aside from the latter having white flank stripes. The blue bull description used for both comes from the loss of hair due to age, leaving the dark skin to show through.

Above: The teak forests in western Zimbabwe afford ideal habitat for Livingstone's eland.

The late Gary York out of Denver wanted a Livingstone’s eland amongst his trophy mix during his Zimbabwe safari, so we changed areas and moved to Amandundamela Forest, belonging to the Zimbabwe Forestry Commission. The area is typically western Matabeleland teak forests and heavy sand, this mix being referred to as gusu by the Ndebele people. Visibility is limited due to dense woodland and even on the vast blocks where selective logging has taken place, the thick secondary growth is almost impenetrable in places, and eland love to browse and roam these vast blocks.

Seldom, will you ever see an eland lingering in forest like this, and if lucky, perhaps a quick glimpse as one caught by surprise moves off at an instant gallop before reverting to that all too familiar distance consuming trot. The sandy management tracks are narrow meandering strips, and although eland spoor and droppings can be plentiful, the throaty growl of a low gear diesel engine sends sage old eland away long before the hunter is anywhere near. In this forest environment, there is only one way to close with your quarry. Careful and extremely stealthy tracking. Preferably with only one experienced tracker, the client, and PH.

Above: Gary lucked out with a Livingstone's eland after a lengthy six-hours of tracking.

Gary and I did this, using skilled forestry tracker Robbie. We found fresh spoor early in the morning. Eland droppings lay scattered, still glistening with a light mucous covering, and just in from the management track, freshly broken branches hung limply at shoulder height, leaves stripped. Eland tracks, their imprints marked clearly in the sand, the front hoof distinctly larger than the hind, led off into the green wall to our front. After a quick flick of the ash bag, and with us in his wake, Robbie took up the spoor. We were all stepping quietly, and staying focused on our front.

We tracked the small group of bulls for a solid six hours. Periodically, Robbie shinnied up a convenient tree and scanned the bush to our front. We also stopped frequently, and standing motionless, listened. Eventually, and with the day having warmed considerably, Robbie suddenly froze before very slowly sinking to his knees. We immediately followed suit. Peering intently into the green/grey tangle to our front, we soon detected slight movement. Much closer than expected. And then suddenly, at about 30m a bull crossed our front, then another, they were browsing intently and were totally relaxed.

Gary quietly rose to his feet, rifle hard in his shoulder. There was no time for sticks and as soon as the third bull stepped into the window to our front, a quick glance had me whisper, ‘Take him!’ The .450 Watts roared, and leaping high before lurching forward, the bull noisily crashed to the ground, bringing closure to a hunt worthy of this challenging but humble species. Southern Africa’s eland.

Above: Cutting our way in to recover Gary's eland. In western Zimbabwe's teak forests this part of a day's hunting may often take hours.

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