• Kev Thomas Writes

Steeped in Tradition: An Eastern Cape Bushbuck Hunt

Above: A panoramic view of part of Gifford’s Bush from the Grahamstown road.

When it comes to our Southern African antelope the bushbuck (Tragelaphus sylvaticus) needs no introduction as one of the wariest. Deemed by many, myself included, to be one of the noblest. This tenacious antelope is always a worthy challenge for the hunter. Respected hunter and writer Peter Flack has referred to it as The Little Big Buck, a worthy description. In South Africa’s Eastern Cape, the 1820 British Settlers must have torn their hair out in frustration, when trying to hunt this elusive denizen of the dense succulent valley bushveld thickets and sunlight starved deep shadow. During that far off era too, the old black powder guns probably didn’t help the equation much either. Trying to hunt a bushbuck in a virtually impenetrable forest, using a muzzle loader, probably had more than one frustrated hunter seeking solace in the bottle.

Above: It didn't take long before those innovative 1820 British Settlers began to use hounds to chivy bushbuck along in the impenetrable thickets. A tradition still used in this day and age.

Hunting frustrations aside, those hardy British settlers were also innovative. It didn’t take long before they began to use hounds to chivy the reluctant bushbuck along. Forcing it out into the open and affording them a decent killing shot. This ‘drive’ or ‘beat’ using hounds was always accompanied by African beaters working their way through the thickets, controlling the hounds, and creating a verbal din by way of loud shouting, normally as encouragement to the hounds. The ‘guns’ are placed ahead of, and along the flanks of the drive, and sited overlooking tracks and other openings in the thickets. Being placed in these advantageous positions allows for a quick shot in the event of a bushbuck ram suddenly appearing within range, while fleeing the hounds and beaters.

If we fast forward to the present, most of the bushbuck hunting now being done in the Eastern Cape is by visiting international clientele, who’ve booked their hunt through a registered safari operator, and are guided by a PH. My own bushbuck hunting experiences have always been confined to guiding a client, or to periodically hunting one myself in the age-old manner of glass and stalk. Despite this modern commercialization of a species due to its trophy value, there are a few properties in the Eastern Cape where a bushbuck hunt is still steeped in tradition, and harks back to how it evolved during those distant 1820s. The driven hunt.

One Saturday during the 2014 winter, I was invited to participate in a traditional bushbuck hunt. However, and not wanting to miss a golden opportunity I chose to go as a scribe and photographer because I sensed a story in the making. And not just your normal safari story.

Above: At the day's start, the drives are each carefully planned and the format to be followed discussed in detail.

Craig & Shelley Handley, own Gifford’s Bush farm in the Bathurst district, not far from Port Alfred. The farm has been in the Handley family for 70 years, and they host one traditional bushbuck hunt each year. Typically, the hunt is for invited guests only, and in this case, it was set for Saturday 21 June. Gifford’s Bush is 1600 hectares and although in the main a pineapple growing and Bonsmara cattle stud, there are vast tracts of almost impenetrable thickets covering valleys, gorges, and steep hillsides. All ideal bushbuck habitat.

Above: A bushbuck track sculpted into the ground at the edge of a thicket, obviously made during the rain of a few days prior.

To digress slightly, the Bathurst/Port Alfred farming community has of recent experienced a huge surge in commercial poaching (linked directly to high unemployment), and numbers of bushbuck, duiker, the threatened oribi, and other species have fallen prey to these unscrupulous poaching gangs who springboard out of the townships bordering Port Alfred and Bathurst. The Handley’s haven’t been immune to this poaching. However, Craig (not being a hunter himself), has a unique arrangement with a few local sport hunters and one man in particular, Arno Strohm, a local businessman, and his two sons Jason and Byron, who actively patrol and monitor the wildlife on Gifford’s Bush. This in turn frees up Craig to get on with farming.

Above: Arno Strohm and his son Jason stand next to poachers snares they’ve found on Gifford’s Bush.

Arno and his sons (with other friends periodically assisting) first started monitoring the wildlife dispositions on Gifford’s Bush some sixteen years ago. At that time there was very little sign of wildlife on the property due to snaring. However, in the last sixteen years they’ve recovered a conservative 900 cable and wire snares. Sadly, however, clearing snares is an ongoing exercise. Any form of hunting has to be based on a sustainable yield concept because in a nutshell it’s the cornerstone of sound consumptive wildlife utilization. The hard, and ongoing work that’s been put into keeping Gifford’s Bush free of snares has seen a huge increase in bushbuck numbers. The population at present can at best be described as robust.

Given the farm isn’t game fenced, and borders the main Bathurst to Grahamstown road, and in addition is in close proximity to Bathurst’s Nolukhanyo location, the wildlife numbers on the farm certainly reflect a conservation success story. Granted, there are invasive species such as warthog, but with the emphasis being on bushbuck (and other endemic species like duiker); the proof of snare removal being critical to their survival is evidenced in the number of bushbuck now being seen on a regular basis.

Traditional Eastern Cape bushbuck hunting is governed by age old ethics and only male bushbuck are allowed to be shot. Although a sickly female would obviously be taken out. During the bygone era, if an individual shot a female bushbuck in error, he was never invited back to a shoot. It must also have been acutely embarrassing at day’s end to be amongst maybe another twelve hunters knowing you had shot a female! Eastern Cape humour wouldn’t let you forget that one too quickly. Ethics and traditions aside, it’s a fun day for all, and kicks off to an early start with coffee and biscuits being enjoyed at the host’s house. As the hunters arrive at the farm a lot of banter and light hearted teasing takes place. Shooting skills are questioned, caliber choice, and much else. Much of it tongue in cheek.

Above: The beaters and hounds make their way down into a valley, whilst the ‘guns’ deploy to their allotted areas.

Next, a more serious discussion takes place as Craig, Arno, and the hound owners discuss and decide where each drive will be. On average they do about four drives in a day’s hunting on Gifford’s Bush, and on this occasion, it was to be no different. We’d been lucky because the preceding three days had seen horrendous gale force winds, cold, and drizzle. Saturday however, proved to be ‘A pearl of a day’ this in the words of one of the houndsmen, said to me as he stood alongside his truck, in the back of which his hounds eagerly waited.

Above: Good radio communications are integral to the drive being a success; here Giles Phillips-Page keeps abreast of activities.

Once everything had been discussed, coffee drunk, and the shooters’ sorted out, the hunt commenced. This type of hunt calls for patience, quietness, and the ability to shoot fairly quickly and above all, accurately. It also calls for an extremely high degree of self-discipline. Historically, shooting accidents have not been unheard of as the guns that take stand across these blocks of thickets bordered by pineapple fields, begin to shoot at fleeting glimpses of bushbuck. By the same token, a fair amount of urban legend has grown out of these Eastern Cape bushbuck hunts.

It was at this particular hunt that I saw for the first time in South Africa, individuals wearing distinctive Day-Glo coloured caps, either in fluorescent orange or lime green. Perhaps a bit American, however, it’s a wise move and goes a long way to avoiding an unnecessary, and possibly tragic accident. Youngsters are often introduced to this type of traditional hunting at an early age, and over excitement can lead to problems. Positive identification of each gun’s position is a must. Like all types of hunting, once a hunter commits himself to firing a shot, he can’t call the bullet back.

Above: Regular use of two-way radios is integral to the success of the drives.

Another important aid to the success of the drives was the maximum use made of two-way radios. Radio communications is Arno’s business, so that side of the hunt was in good hands. Given the size of some blocks hunted, a lack of communications would have led to chaos. On this occasion, each drive was exceedingly well-planned and ran like clockwork.

Throughout a drive the crack and thump of rifle fire ebbs and flows. In between is the sound of hounds giving tongue, music to any dog lovers ears. And then mixed in with the hound speak are the guttural shouts of encouragement made by the Xhosa beaters as they urge the hounds on. From on high at the edge of a pineapple block, one might only catch the odd glimpse of white, black, or tan in the thickets below, as the hounds crisscross in search of viable scent. Suddenly a radio crackles into life and across the ether a voice is heard passing information on to a waiting gun. A nice bushbuck ram is headed his way and, the voice on the radio signs off with the words,’ ‘Stand by for a possible shot at it.

Above: From left, Jannie Malan, Jason Strohm and Giles Phillips Page monitor the proceedings of a drive across from their position.

At midday the hunters, beaters, and hounds break for lunch. At this time too, wives and kids may also link up and everyone enjoys the pleasure of being out in the countryside, cooler boxes with picnic lunches and refreshments come out, and as is to be expected, the topic of conversation is invariably bushbuck hunting.

Above: Hunters, beaters and hounds break for lunch.

My interest too, lay in what the eleven hunters were using for the gunning side of the exercise. Interestingly, the calibre mix was as follows; 3 x .308 Winchester, 1 x .300 Winchester Magnum, 1 x .222 Remington, 3 x .270 Winchester, 1 x .243 Winchester, 1 x 7x64mm Brenneke and 1 x .303 British. Two of the hunters used iron sights, and bullet weights varied between 130gr and 160gr. All perfectly suited to the task in hand.

Above: A well used .308 Lever Action Sako belonging to Giles Phillips-Page.

By lunchtime, 4 bushbuck males were in the bag, 3 being old mature males and one younger one, the longest horn length went 14” with a nice spiral and flare. Another bushbuck had been wounded but was later found with the aid of the hounds, bringing the total for the day to 5. The annual Gifford’s Bush shoot normally averages 3 bushbuck males only. My focus through sheer habit as a PH (now retired) is to look at trophy quality. However, those intrepid Eastern Cape hunters talk dressed carcass weight, and the average weight of bushbuck taken on Gifford’s Bush over the years has been 83lb although 88lb-92lb is not uncommon. The biggest bushbuck to date was shot by Giles Phillips-Page and dressed out at 101lb with 16½” horns.

Above: The end of a successful day's traditional driven bushbuck hunt in the Eastern Cape. The fifth bushbuck was shot during a drive after this photo was taken.

One drive was done after the lunch break with the hounds getting onto a huge caracal (African lynx) and giving chase, but to no avail. Aside from the 5-bushbuck accounted for, at least another 14 of different sexes were seen. Important too, from a conservation aspect is the fact that each block is only hunted during alternate years, thus ensuring a lengthy undisturbed period. As one of the hunters remarked at day’s end, ‘You don’t have to shoot anything on the day it’s all about being in the outdoors and having fun’. A truism indeed.

Above: A .308 bullet of unknown brand recovered from a bushbuck.

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