Hunting on high

When Jens Kjær Knudsen first went to Turkey to hunt the Anatolian chamois, he didn’t succeed. Thomas Nissen joins him to document the second attempt

We spot the chamois on a grass slope between two ridges that descend from the mountaintop a few hundred metres further up. The beast is on steep terrain and still too far for Jens Kjær Knudsen to even consider taking a shot. He must get closer, but everything is in his favour for the approach. The chamois is not aware of the human presence in the valley, and Jens’s Turkish guide Kamil Liligum has radio contact with another guide, Zeki Celik, on the opposite ridge. Zeki tells us the chamois is moving downwards towards less steep terrain.

Right now, the hunt looks like it might even be easy, but in truth it’s been going on for some time. In fact, it started last March, when Jens made his first trip to this location. Then, on the first day of five, he got into a male chamois – but since it was a young animal, he decided to not to take it. He had many hunting days left, so surely he would find an older one.

One of 10 subspecies, the Anatolian chamois is hunted only in Turkey

At the end of that day he experienced at close range two avalanches in the melting snow of the winter’s end. One avalanche thundered down the mountain, where he had been 20 minutes before, and the other ran down the mountain a few hundred metres below him. The following days of the trip were in a blizzard, and when it finally cleared up, the authorities closed the mountains for hunting because of avalanche danger. There was 60cm of new snow on top of the old ‘rotten’ snow, and it was highly unstable.

So Jens and his guide descended in an almost hopeless attempt to find chamois in low-lying forested areas. All they saw was the fresh tracks of a bear that had just left its hibernation, but not the bear itself.

Today, winter is on its way again and the situation looks quite different. Jens and Kamil just need to climb about 200 metres higher and slightly to the left to be within range of the chamois. If the female, which is watching from her seat on the rock, moves down behind the ridge to the other animals in the herd, it will be possible to get within 50-100 metres of them – a scenario unheard of in normal mountain hunting circumstances.

Making slow progress through the snow before the final ascent

But in an instant, things get a lot more ‘typical’. The wind whips up, the female chamois on the rock senses that humans are present and whistles a single warning signal. Within a short time Zeki, through the crackling radio, tells us the animals are heading to the highest pass. The hunt now seems excruciatingly difficult.

Kamil knows that the chamois often stop by a small lake to graze on the other side of the peaks. In the ensuing hours, Jens follows his guide through the excruciatingly steep mountain passages and up ridges strewn with rocks and stones. In places, the partially melted snow is up to their knees. They have to press their boots right down in the snow while their balance is held by the indispensable walking stick. Losing one’s concentration and skidding through the snow may well have disastrous consequences.

Gradually they approach the location where Kamil hopes their quarry will be. By now they’re at over three kilometres altitude, and the Danish hunter is suffering under the thin air’s influence on oxygen uptake. But finally Kamil gets eye on the herd. He guides Jens around the last and highest peak in the massif, and they are in position. A strenuous trip has reached its climax.

This search for the Anatolian chamois, which is one of ten subspecies of chamois, takes place in the Kaçkar Mountains in northeastern Turkey near the border with Georgia. Freely translated, Kaçkar means mountains where snow runs, or even more freely translated (and appropriately enough given what happened on the last hunt), Avalanche Mountains. During the hunt, guides and hunters live in a 100-year-old cottage, which today is still used and frequented by shepherds during the summer.

Hunting in the mountains often offers only long shots. The first chance on the second trip
was so long that Jens ultimately turned it down

Jens slept well in the cottage the night before, and he is not yet tired despite the long climb. And what chamois hunter would be tired when the herd of chamois is just about 180 meters below?

Somewhere in the snow just over the chamois herd, a few young males fight a playful battle for the females. At the moment, the game is considered childish play, but when they mature, it will eventually become serious and formidable. Rut fights among the old males are spectacular and often brutal. But right now, there are no visible signs that the approaching rut is affecting the herd, except that a single buck has joined them.

Both male and female chamois have horns, so it can be difficult to distinguish them from each other. Kamil doesn’t speak any language other than Turkish, so it is up to Jens himself to gain the confidence to select the right animal to take. He spends some time identifying the male, which to begin with is hidden under the rocks. Without warning the buck comes out of the shadows and reveals himself. The time has come – if Jens is going to take the shot, it must be now.

The boys are on top of the world, in more than one sense

The sound of the shot echoes, the chamois falls to the ground and rolls a short way down the mountain, while the herd disperses throughout the steep slopes around the shot site. Jens has his Anatolian chamois at 3,200 metres above sea level after an intense hunt, which went from being a little too easy to very challenging in the space of a few minutes.

The next step is for Zeki to climb the same route as Jens. It took the Danish hunter nearly five hours, but the skinny 46-year-old Zeki completes it in just one hour. Zeki takes over from Kamil, who single-handedly carried the 45kg chamois from the valley back up to the shooting position. The trio start the long walk down, which itself is no walkover but a big challenge. No part of this chamois hunt has been easy.

It is a tired mountain hunter with a smile on his face who follows the guides down from the mountains. They are heading for their reward: chamois stew with garlic, cooked over the old stove in the cottage in the same way hardworking mountain shepherds and mountain hunters have done for last 100 years.

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