Song of the Eland

Kevin Thomas answers the siren call of southern Africa’s largest antelope, the eland

When we first caught a glimpse of them they were standing far above us. It was a freezing mid-winter morning in the Eastern Cape’s Camdeboo Conservancy, and the group of eland bulls were standing immediately below the sheer cliffs of the Toorberg Mountains. There were eight of them. Motionless, ochre/grey blobs strung out amongst the islands of dense bush covering the steeply inclining mountainside. While glassing them, we could see they weren’t browsing; they were standing in patches of sunlight, trying to get warm after a below zero July night.

It was my American client, Darrel Stoller’s fourth day of hunting and an eland ranked high on his plains-game bucket list. Over the previous days 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 trophy bulls, with tinged blue to slate grey colouring, and dark mops on their foreheads. Seen through my binoculars they all seemed to have heavy horns with pronounced spiral ridging. Although we were too far away to confirm it, I was also hoping one or two sets of horns would have ivory tips pointing outwards.

If hunted in an ethical fair chase manner, an eland trophy certainly isn’t a walk over. They’re a worthy and extremely wily trophy, and I’ve often ranked them alongside kudu when it comes to the ‘grey ghost of the bush’ moniker. Despite having the smallest ears of our large antelope, their hearing is phenomenal, as is their eyesight.

In the Eastern Cape, and due to the mountainous terrain and habitat preferences of the species, we’ve always found that glassing followed by a slow stalk is the most productive way of hunting them. They’re either at high elevation above you, or way below you in a kloof or valley. Either way it will invariably call for a fairly long shot with a well constructed bullet. If the stalk is 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.

Mountainous Eastern Cape terrain – ideal habitat for Cape eland, which like to wander between the deep valleys and higher elevations

Camdeboo Conservancy is owned by a number of stakeholders and we were hunting through Gary Tonks’s operation and staying at his lodge. Darrel’s son Ron was being guided by Gary, and once done with the Eastern Cape plains game, the Stollers and I were flying to Zambia for buffalo and other sundry species. So, from a hunt perspective we had a fairly tight and spread out schedule.
By the time we’d finished carefully glassing our far-off quarry, the entire mountain slope was sun-washed and the cold edge to the morn had been blunted. Taking one Camdeboo tracker, Kata, we began the steeply inclined 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 7.30am, we purposefully moved slowly – ensuring at all times we stayed well out of the sunlight, thus avoiding reflection off our clothes and in Darrel’s and my case, white faces. Our progress was a slow upward zigzag, moving from the deep shadow of one thicket to the next. At all times we avoided kicking loose noisy stones, of which there were plenty. Fortunately, the wind remained constant, allowing us to use it to full effect. The chill factor, however, caused our cheeks to tingle despite our exertion.

Frequently, we rested, glassed, and listened. At times we lost sight of the eland altogether, but knew they were still there. Once, when we rested we watched a majestic Black-Eagle wing his way swiftly along the sheer cliff face, obviously hoping to surprise an early morning dassie seeking sunlit warmth.

As we climbed higher, the vehicle and remaining hunt crew diminished in size until they were a mere speck far below us. The eland, meanwhile, had become clearly discernible and even to the naked eye there were some big bulls among the group. They’d stopped sun basking and had 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. After sitting and watching for a few minutes longer and trying to place each individual eland, an almost impossible task given the bush density and rugged terrain, I decided to leave Kata in the dark shadow and safety of a thicket.

Cutting in to recover Gary York’s eland took nearly as long as it did to track it

Darrel and I then quietly moved on, constantly snaking 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 loud warning. He’d undoubtedly been watching our every move. Fortunately though, he was too far away and despite the reverberating echo, the feeding eland paid no heed to the boisterous barks.

Eventually, at about 80m from the loosely spread out eland, Darrel and I stopped and cautiously inched our way around the edge of a thicket. Immediately to our front we saw the neck and head of a superb trophy bull framed between two bushes, his mouth full of leaf matter. Although he 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 into the fray.

We could have 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, 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 itself for a clean killing shot.

With the sound of the .300 Winchester Magnum shot still reverberating in amplified mode along the cliffs, the eland went down hard, the 200gn Nosler Partition having driven home. However, he quickly recovered, spun 180 degrees and stumbled off downhill. Darrel wasted no time and running another shell into the chamber managed an angled shot in behind the ribs. The bull crumbled, his massive form falling hard, legs kicking, and head flailing. Eventually though, and as we silently watched, 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 into Zimbabwe, hunting the Livingstone’s eland is equally, if not more challenging. Despite their size, in areas where hunted they are true will of the wisps. Enormous fleeting ghosts of the miombo woodland and mopane forests they live in. There is little difference between the Cape eland and Livingstone’s eland aside from the latter having white flank stripes.

The late Gary York from Denver US wanted a Livingstone’s eland amongst his trophy mix during his Zimbabwe safari. It meant a change of areas, taking us from Matetsi to Amandundamela Forest, belonging to Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission. The area is typically western Matabeleland; teak forests and heavy sand, a mix 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. Eland love to browse and roam this vast landmass.

After six hours of tracking in the gusu, the late Gary York from the US rests against his Livingstone eland trophy

Seldom, will you ever see an eland lingering in forest like this. If lucky, perhaps a quick glimpse as one caught by surprise moves off at an instant gallop before reverting to their 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 considered stealthy tracking – preferably with only one experienced tracker, the client, and PH.
Gary and I did this, using skilled forestry tracker Robbie. We found fresh spoor early in the morning, eland droppings lay scattered across the track, still glistening with a light mucous covering. Just in from the road edge, freshly broken branches hung limply at shoulder height, leaves stripped. Spoor, with hoof 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, Robbie took up the spoor with us in his wake, 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 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 at about 30m a bull crossed our front, then another, they were relaxed and browsing. Gary moved up alongside me and brought his rifle into 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 satisfying closure to a hunt worthy of this most challenging but humble antelope species – Southern Africa’s majestic eland.

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