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Hunting Eland - Richard Kostkas

Nuanetsi Ranch in Zimbabwe's Lowveld.
Nuanetsi Ranch in Zimbabwe's Lowveld.

September of 1997, once again placed me in Zimbabwe, primarily for lion, but subconsciously, also lusting for eland. Unfortunately, we were not in an eland area. The lion hunting, as is so often the case, wasn’t going well. Our bait monitoring would continue in our absence, as we prepared to head south to the lowveld for a few days of eland hunting. By radio, we would check on the status of our fifty miles of baited trees. Now with the monotony of cat hunting behind me, my thoughts turned once again to “Taurotragus oryx”, the eland’s scientific name, known in Shona as “Mhofu”, and in Ndebele as “Impofu”.

The male carries a noticeable dewlap on the throat, a distinct shoulder hump, and also sports a crown of black tufted hair on the top of his head. The horns are spiral in configuration, and a Livingstone eland measuring over thirty inches in length is considered very good, and anything in excess of thirty-five... is outstanding. His sleek tan coat is embellished with faint white vertical stripes, and altogether, both male and female, are beautiful animals. They have been successfully domesticated, and their meat is unparalleled as wild game goes, for texture and taste. Temperamentally, they are docile and good natured, co-existing well with other animals. As I witnessed, it is not uncommon to see other individual animals such as wildebeest, grazing and lying down with small groups of eland.

These animals were found in herds of up to one hundred and fifty at the time of the famed hunter, Selous, and as noted in his journals. Unfortunately, the eland is absent today in many parts of Zimbabwe and indeed Africa. I suppose they were taken for their life-sustaining meat by early settlers (Boers), and the demand for agricultural land has taken its toll of habitat, the bane of all wildlife requiring undisturbed natural terrain and bush. The good news is that eland can survive where domestic cattle could not, in that they can flourish on a variety of flora, reputed to be as many as fifty species.

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The presence of eland can be readily determined by their bovine shaped tracks and droppings, and also by the distinctive habit they have of breaking branches with their horns to access them for browse. By examining the breaks, an experienced bush tracker can readily determine how recent they had passed through an area. Of course the wetness of their droppings additionally substantiates this assessment. When actually hunting them, you will almost likely be in single file with the trackers on the spoor, or ranging out on the flanks searching for the new direction the prey has taken, and often it is necessary to determine this, especially when arid conditions prevail or over rough ground. When closing on the individual or herd, the adrenalin will flow, all is in slow motion as the tracker’s excitement visible in their eyes now, motion back and forth to their professional hunter of the impending sighting. Since you are dealing with more than one animal, the problems are compounded.

How to pick out the best bull in perhaps seconds as the animals may or will spook immediately on sighting our group. If only the winds holds, that is now comfortably caressing our faces. You are quietly instructed to now chamber a round in your favourite eland thumper, and at the same time you again check the scope setting for the twentieth time. On your knees now, you progress forward with the P.H., and the trackers stay in place to give you your way. Will this be the moment you have been thinking on these past four safaris? The trackers again check the wind with the ash bags. Everything seems right. But wait... there is a thundering of hooves, and again the pernicious air currents have betrayed. In the heat of the afternoon, the shifting of wind is more problematic, and occurs more as the winter is near its end, with the day temperatures rising each passing hour.

This is hunting in its purest form. It is not an ambush from a tree or ground blind, nor baiting, nor happenstance as when you luckily cross paths with an eland while pursuing other game. One could watch water holes during the dry season, but the hunt loses the implicit challenge of tracking a free ranging animal on its own turf.

We arrived late in the day after a long ten hour or more drive from Tsholotsho communal land flanking the south-western border of Hwange Park located in north-western Zimbabwe, to our hunting area known as Naunetsi Ranch. This is a very large private land holding, and we would be hunting in one section covering approximately one hundred thousand acres that had, before independence, functioned as a commercial cattle operation. It was here in 1996, that our six days of challenging but unsuccessful hunting transpired with the eland.

The habitat in this region is near perfect for grazers, and the eland were plentiful, with some very good trophies being taken the last few years. In 1996, late rains and unusually bad weather scattered the game, and deciduous trees and bushes retained their foliage until late in the season. This quirk of nature made the hunting more difficult as vegetation limited visibility. There were times that you could hear and smell the eland, but the intervening brush placed them out of harm’s way.

We were at the fire ring before dawn taking the welcome warmth, and sipping a hot beverage of choice. I wolfed down several pieces of toast loaded with jam as insurance, as my stomach had not forgotten the last episode on the eland track, ten hours of virtually a forced march with only water to imbibe. With our head tracker sitting on the hood of the Toyota to better spot the fresh tracks made this morning, we began driving the dirt trails traversing the squares that divided up each section of the ranch. An effective technique much used in ranch country when roads surround the perimeter, is to locate the bull tracks, and then drive to the opposite side of the square to see if the animals are still within the specific area and have not crossed over to a new section. This aid is of immense value, in time saved when tracking as opposed to hunting this way in pure bush devoid of key landmarks or boundaries as such.

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You might be a big game hunter if you spend more for premium hunting bullets than you do for dress clothes. ~ Richard D'Angelo
African Hunter Vol.5 No.4 August 1999
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