In search of impala

The impala is more than a budding African hunter’s ‘starter species’ – it presents a real safari challenge, says Kevin Thomas

In southern Africa, the three most common antelope species that young hunters are blooded on are impala, southern mountain reedbuck and blesbok. The common or bush duiker probably ranks highly too, though its habit of ducking, diving and jinking doesn’t make it an easy target. (The name ‘duiker’ derives from the early Dutch meaning ‘diver’.) Also, unlike the other species, duiker are by nature solitary animals, and normally fairly wary, though a male and female are often seen together. When I was a kid, most of our duiker were lamped and shot for venison.

Obviously too, geographic location plays a part. You don’t get blesbok or southern mountain reedbuck in South Africa’s extreme northern Transvaal, or anywhere in Zimbabwe or further north.

Impala, however, are without doubt the most prolific of all, and they have the widest distribution across southern, central and eastern Africa. Often referred to as goats of the bushveld, they’re an extremely important predator-prey species. A mature male with his lyre-shaped, heavily ringed horns is impressive, and impala certainly hold their own as a trophy species. Budget-wise, they’re value for money, and when still a professional hunter I always recommended that each time a safari client came to Africa, he should collect another impala.

Only the males have the beautiful lyre-shaped horns, with distinct ridging that becomes more pronounced with age. Impala have a poetic grace about them too, a mix of pride, nervous energy and pure Africa. They’re good to look at and fun to hunt, and if prepared correctly, the venison will pass muster as table fare in camp.

Only male impala have horns. Here, a group of females huddle in the midday shade

Normally found in herds of about 20-25 animals, a dominant territorial ram keeps a close watch on his harem of nimble-hoofed and nervy females. These dominant herd rams are invariably of good trophy quality. However, killing one is deemed unethical, and bad from a management perspective. Put simply, their genetics are needed to ensure the continuation of trophy quality.

Impala males also form bachelor herds, which average about 8-12 individuals, though the numbers vary. Solitary mature territorial males also occur, particularly during the rut, which is from January to April. Ideally, you should hunt a trophy from a bachelor herd, or endeavour to take a solitary territorial male. During the rut, shooting an impala ram isn’t too difficult, and much like hunting a fallow in the rut. Outside of the rut, though, impala can become skittish and wary, particularly on hunting concessions.

I recall shooting my first impala in colonial Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when I was a youngster. Using my late dad’s 7x57mm Mauser, and under his watchful eye, I managed a clean kill on a representative impala ram. In those far-off days venison was the priority and horn length meant little. However, I proudly displayed the horns (among a mix of others collected as time passed) on my bedroom wall until I departed school in 1967.

Early in many safaris, shortly after the obligatory visit to the zeroing range, most PHs will steer their client towards a nice impala trophy. I know I usually did. During this familiarisation time on day one of driving round glassing and looking, and especially if you’re hunting a well-managed wildlife concession or property, you will invariably see plenty of impala.

Once, during a 2009 safari, my American client Chuck Bulson and I had a challenging impala experience. He’d arrived with a single priority trophy in mind: an above average impala. In our pre-safari correspondence this fact had been heavily emphasised to me.

Trying to find and identify a particular impala trophy in 35,000 acres of dense brush was easier said than done

We first saw the impala ram in question on our third day of hunting. He was one of five males 250 metres out and standing in the middle of a group staring straight at us. He stood braced for flight, tense and alert, with nostrils flared. His four companions were all youngsters, but the standout trophy was a truly magnificent impala.

He didn’t linger, though, and as I sat glassing him he gave a contemptuous nasal blast before nimbly leading his younger colleagues away in a series of explosive leaps, into the brush thickets lining the road, where they were all immediately lost to sight.

Without even glassing him, Chuck had also seen just how impressive the ram was, so we bailed out of the truck, Chuck with his Ruger .308 Winchester and me the shooting sticks. Without lingering, we made our way down the track to where the impala had disappeared.

Then, even with the wind in our favour and despite tiptoeing inside the thicket, we couldn’t find them again. Ambling back to the rig, I told Chuck that we’d seen the one we wanted, and all we now had to do was find him again. Easier said than done on 35,000 acres of rugged South African Eastern Cape bushveld.

After a long search, the tram found a more defined spread out blood trail leading steadily downhill

As the days went by, we hunted hard, and the other plains game species Chuck was after soon piled up in the salt. We also frequently saw impala, but couldn’t find our standout one again. Then, during a late afternoon hunt, we were sat on a ridge glassing. To our front and below us were some undulating scrub-covered flats. Suddenly, tracker Tami pointed towards the southern boundary. Far out in the fading afternoon light were four bachelor males, mature, proud and browsing undisturbed. They all looked good, so we moved down off the ridgeline and carried out a stalk.

When we eventually got within range of them, a sudden freakish storm blew in from the north, throwing our world into temporary darkness. And then when the sunlight managed to punch through the gloom, the bush and flats around us were bathed in an eerie yellow-orange hue.

Our impala, so relaxed minutes before as we wound our way from cover to cover towards them, immediately became skittish and took off to the west, not to be seen again. With heavy raindrops causing dust strikes on the parched ground around us, we made our way back to the rig.

Eventually, and with three days left, we began to get more frequent glimpses of our big impala. However, he was always with the same group of four younger males, which meant more eyes, ears and noses. Each time we tried to stalk them, they’d duck into an impenetrable thicket and literally disappear. I was sure he’d been shot at before, because he was ultra-alert and didn’t linger once his suspicions were aroused.

We tried to close with the elusive impala on at least three more occasions, but always came away empty-handed and frustrated. On the last day we decided we’d look for any impala that went a minimum of 23 inches.

First light saw us moving slowly as we glassed the forward slopes and open areas lying to the south. We hadn’t gone far when to our front in an open patch we saw the sought-after impala brotherhood. Our standout trophy impala glared defiantly in our direction. The early morning sun reflected off his magnificent lyre-shaped horns. Then, with a loud warning snort, he led his colleagues off the spur and down into the shadow of a deep cliff to our right.

With the wind in our favour, we let them go, and quietly moved towards the edge of the drop-off where we again glassed the area below us. Seeing nothing, we moved to a slightly lower elevation, and after once more glassing whispered in unison: “There, to the right: impala!”

Croatian Ivica Katavic’s 24in impala shows the kind of typical outward horn flare at the tips

A young ram stood on the fringe of the thicket, alert. He was staring upwards in our direction, but the sun warm on our backs shone directly into his eyes. As we watched, the big one came into view, impatiently barrelling his way out of the thicket to see what was going on. The other three young rams, curiosity driven, came into view behind him.

Slowly, holding my breath, I opened the shooting sticks. Equally slowly, Chuck eased onto them. Both of us willed our quarry to hold still. It was a long shot, not far short of 300 metres, but Chuck and I were confident.

As the noise of the .308 Winchester shattered the morning stillness, Chuck’s impala reared backwards, nearly went down, then lurched back into the brush and was gone. After Tami arrived, we made our way downhill to where the impala had been standing, and casting wider, we eventually found three spots of blood: adequate proof that he was hit.

Thereafter followed a painstakingly slow search. In the thick bush we kept losing what little blood sign there was. We eventually found a more defined spread- out blood trail leading steadily downhill, so I let Bounce, my Jack Russell, off his leash. He tore off in the direction we were moving only to pull up short in the scrub 100 metres to our front and start to worry something. It was Chuck’s dead impala – a magnificent trophy, which when we put the tape to the horns, went a fraction over 25in. A great end to a punishing hunt for a worthy trophy species.

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