Most tahr hunters head to New Zealand, where the species was introduced in 1904. Instead, Jens Kjaer Knudsen travels to where the species has always resided: the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal. Thomas Nissen reports…
They have been walking for several days. It has been laborious and challenging, both physically and mentally. But finally they find themselves in the crucial area where they expect tahr to be found.
Actually, Jens Kjaer Knudsen and the 22 Sherpa guides have, as the crow flies, made it about 15-20 kilometres on this day. And since tahr live in mountainous regions, much of this has been covered over steep inclines.
Around here there isn’t a single flat space of ground, so some of the Sherpas are in the process of shovelling gravel and stones away to create a relatively comfortable camp. They work at a pace that highlights the strong stuff they are made of – many of them are capable of carrying more than their own weight in baskets on their backs or in a kind of headband.
Before long, the camp is established. Jens and his two guides, Man Pun Magar and Jug Bahadur Budhamagar, climb the mountain to spot tahr ahead of the next day’s hunt.
Jens, equipped with some of the world’s best optics, immediately begins glassing the terrain. Jug’s gear is almost comically at the other end of the spectrum: ancient binos that resemble the tiny binoculars people take to the opera.
Jug was once a poacher. Now, thanks to money supplied to the area from trophy hunting, he’s gainfully employed guiding foreign hunters. He knows every mountaintop, and is quick to spot four bulls in a small group far away. A minute later, he sees three more in another spot.
Beyond the tahr, they also see the elusive blue sheep, and some goral, an Asian kind of chamois.
A JOURNEY BACK IN TIME
Thousands of hunters have visited New Zealand’s mountains over the years to hunt tahr, and among European hunters in particular, this destination has become very popular in recent years.
Jens has visited New Zealand twice previously, and on both trips managed to take home tahr trophies, but as the planning of a blue sheep hunt in Nepal progressed, he also got the idea to shoot the tahr in its original habitat.
Unlike tahr hunts in New Zealand, which can be managed within the average European budget, hunting experiences in Nepal are costly. This is due to a range of factors: the unique logistical challenges, and the many Sherpas attached, as well as taxes to the state. The tax to shoot one tahr is $1,500, while a blue sheep commands a fee of $2,000. These fees go to local areas where hunting takes place, and are used for the construction and operation of schools. In a country like Nepal – which is among the poorest in the world – it goes a long way.
Trophy hunting in general helps provide value to game and ensure the survival of the species and their biotope conservation all over the world. Jens considers this return on his hobby as one of the best forms, if not the best, in which foreign aid can be given.
In a poor country like Nepal, many people still learn survival skills most Europeans forgot generations ago. Jens is in no doubt that if you open more areas up for trophy hunting in Nepal, this will help many more local residents, wildlife and habitats. But at the time of writing, the only place in Nepal visitors can hunt is a reserve called Dhorpatan. Here, it is possible to hunt species like the Himalayan tahr, blue sheep (Tibetan Bharal), Indian muntjac deer and wild boar. Species like goral and Himalayan serow are numerous in the area, but are protected and therefore seen in the eyes of local people as without value.
There is no doubt that Jens’s decision to chase the tahr, on a ‘time travel’ in an area where locals live as they did before the tahr were introduced to New Zealand in 1904, could ultimately help to ensure the species’ survival in its original habitat.
After a good night’s sleep in the primitive tent, the guides wake Jens. They would like to begin the ascent before it gets light.
They are ready on the mountain at first light, with spotting scope, binoculars, supervising eyes and stiff resolve. Jug is again the first to spot a tahr, while Jens – as is common when hunting new species in new habitats – takes longer to spot the animals.
Jug tries, in his stilted English, to verbally guide Jens in the direction of where the animal is located, but without success. But using the spotting scope to ‘glide’ over the hillside, first on the far side of the valley, then closer, Jens manages to locate the tahr. They are in a completely different place than he had thought – and they are closer than expected, definitely within shooting range.
Silently he climbs to the edge of a gently sloping rock, extends the bipod, ranges the distance and gets ready to make his shots.
The distance is 344 metres. Jens has trained countless shots at all distances from 100 out to 400 metres, and knows his rifle, ammunition and ballistics incredibly well. He is comfortable with taking the shot. He cocks the rifle and keeps his finger on the trigger. But at the same second the animal jumps 30 metres further up the hillside and disappears in a rhododendron thicket.
For several minutes Jens faces the animal, but he is only able to see the top of the horns in the shrub. Just as he starts to believe the chance is wasted, the animal moves again. If it keeps going just 40 metres further in the same direction, it will clear the bushes and get up into the open – where he could take a shot.
A hunt like this can without exaggeration be categorised as one of the toughest in the world. Just to get to the hunting area is a tough enough struggle. A hunting trip like this can easily last up to three weeks. In the first instance this is because the roads to the hunting area are sharply climbing and almost impassable at times – the approach may be a combination of long detours in a four-wheel-drive and, ultimately, walking.
If you don’t have three weeks available, the hunt can be done in two if the first part of the trip is made by helicopter. This is very expensive though, costing about $5,000 on top of what you were spending already.
In fact, Jens did go for the helicopter option. But don’t think that makes this easy. He has to be in very good physical shape and ready for many days of hiking the steep mountain sides, both during hunts and when the camp is moved around depending on what species is on the cards and where in the area they are most numerous.
The hunt takes place at altitudes where the oxygen quantity in the atmosphere is very low – something we all noticed during the helicopter ride into the mountains. On that flight, the pilot with fumbling fingers installed an oxygen tube under his nose. The GPS showed we were at 3,500 metres above sea level. Jens was fumbling almost as much with his fingers, though this was just to keep them crossed in a superstitious hope that the pilot would not get ill.
While Jens waiting for the tahr to come right up to the edge to stand free and offer a chance, he had time to enjoy the view of the sublimely beautiful mountains. It’s one thing seeing them from a helicopter, zipping over them at 300 km/hour, but on the ground they seem even more gorgeous.
Despite the height of the Himalayan Mountains, there are still rhododendron and bamboo forest here, which grows well above where the tree line would be in the European Alps.
NOTHING FOR GRANTED
Finally, the tahr comes clear of cover, presenting his shoulder for a shot. Jens aims, but needs a few more seconds to get on the right point of aim.
He ‘locks’ the crosshair on the brown, long-haired shoulder of the tahr. Then he curves his finger and takes the 7mm Rem Mag’s recoil. It pushes his head back a little, and he loses his sight picture through the lens. When he gets back on target he cannot see the animal, as it is neither lying on the shot site nor running over the mountain in a death run. Where is it?
Then Jens senses a movement. The tahr is running at full speed out of rhododendron bushes. Through the binoculars he can see that this is a death run, as blood from the tahr’s lungs is coming out of its nostrils. Nevertheless, Jug advises giving it another shot to stop it going further down the mountain. The only problem is that it’s become exceedingly difficult to pick out the animal, which has run into cover again.
Jens is about to panic, as the animal appears for a fleeting second then disappears again. Then Jug nudges Jens over a little to the right, and suddenly he’s got a bead directly on the target.
The animal is no longer running and appears about to fall on the spot. But following instructions, the experienced big game hunter gives it another good bullet – this time in the neck.
In many ways this hunt took Jens about 120 years back in time in search of a species, which at that time only existed here. He experienced the hunt with people who for a long time have been living with the same traditions and in the same way as back then. What for these people is a normal life was for Jens an experience beyond compare – a hunting challenge that unfortunately is not affordable or achievable for all of us.