African Hunter Magazine

Hunting Bushbuck

'Bushbuck - The Pugnacious Spiral Horn'
by Kevin Thomas

"In the forest the bushbuck ram has all the advantages. But, if you have the time, the patience, the determination and the skill - and if you are not afraid of humiliation - you can nab him there. And when you do - if you do - only then will you be able to say that you have hunted the bushbuck - and really mean it." Bruce Truter

During the course of a safari some years ago it took a PH colleague and I nearly ten days of a fourteen day hunt to educate his client into using the correct term of reference when talking about bushbuck...he kept calling it a brushbuck. This niggled, for if any of our southern African antelope are worthy of recognition beyond the norm, it is this most noble little antelope. The smallest of Africa's spiral horns, relative to size it certainly has more metal than most of the others. Like the old saying, 'It is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog'. Bushbuck when cornered, wounded or pressured have a tenacity that is enviable.

After a challenging stalk the client in question killed a magnificent Cape bushbuck on about the twelfth day of the safari and spent most of the remaining days in an almost hallucinatory state about what he considered to be the best of all the species that he had hunted on that particular safari, the stalk itself was as fine a bit of hunting as he had ever experienced. He also finally began to correctly call it a bushbuck without the need for prompting from us - fitting tribute to this pugnacious little antelope.

Bushbuck Hunting Image
These horns went 171/2" but it was the horn mass that really impressed.

Bushbuck Hunting
Cape bushbuck taken at midday.

Cape Bushbuck
A Cape bushbuck taken in the dune forests adjacent to the Indian Ocean.

Rowland Ward's Records Of Big Game lists eight species of bushbuck in Africa, as does SCI. For southern Africa, Rowland Ward list two species, namely the Chobe bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus ornatus) and the South African bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus sylvaticus). SCI, whilst acknowledging that from a taxonomic point of view more than 45 subspecies of bushbuck have been described, the differences in the main, based on colouration and the varying patterns of spots and stripes, recognize the eight species in a traditional hunting context. In southern Africa, SCI recognizes the following bushbuck: Chobe bushbuck (T. s. ornatus) Limpopo bushbuck (T. s. roualeyni) and the Cape bushbuck (T. s. sylvaticus). For classification purposes Rowland Ward combines both the Limpopo and Cape bushbuck, referring to them jointly as the South African bushbuck.

If we look at the zoning of bushbuck in the southern African sub-region, the most northerly subspecies, the Chobe bushbuck, is found throughout northeastern Namibia, the Caprivi Strip, northern Botswana and Zambia. Within Zimbabwe all bushbuck found in the country's northern and north eastern Zambezi river drainage system, and into adjacent northern Mozambique, are classified Chobe bushbuck. The Limpopo bushbuck is the subspecies found within the drainage of the south flowing Limpopo river, from eastern Botswana eastwards through south and south eastern Zimbabwe to the Save river drainage, and adjacent parts of southern Mozambique, including South Africa's Transvaal lowveld and north eastern Zululand. Cape bushbuck are found throughout South Africa, except for the Transvaal lowveld and north eastern Zululand.

Bushbuck average from about 70 to 140 pounds in weight and a mature male's shoulder height is about 37 inches. Only the male of the species has horns that are smooth, roughly triangular in section at the base with clearly definable keels on the front and rear edges. They spiral upwards from the head rising parallel to each other. Research in the Eastern Cape (T. Allen-Rowlandson 1980) indicates that the Cape bushbuck (T. s. sylvaticus) is considerably heavier and larger (from 20 - 30%) than other southern African subspecies. Research found that horn growth in the Cape bushbuck was also initiated later than other subspecies with the horn buds first appearing at 14 months (about the same time that the hair on the upper part of the legs begins to darken). At 21 months of age the horn length equates to ear length when the hair on the neck and flanks darkens. The transition to the dark chocolate adult coat does not come until about two and a half years of age (30 months) and by then the males horns are approximately one-and-a-half times the length of the ears. As with body mass, the horns continue to grow throughout the animal's life and despite obvious wear it is normally the oldest individuals that possess the longest horns.

Of the three southern African subspecies, the Cape bushbuck is the darkest in colouration but they lack the white transverse lines on the back that are so conspicuous in the Chobe bushbuck and do not have the pronounced white flank spotting that the Chobe bushbuck has although, they may have a few white spots on the belly and thighs. Males are much darker than the females and in the older rams the hair on the neck tends to be rubbed off leaving a sparsely haired gray-brown collar of nearly bare skin at the base of the neck. Chobe bushbuck too, is dark red with distinctive white spots and stripes as against the deeper chocolate colouring of their southern cousins.

Male bushbuck have a distinctive crest of white or yellowish-white hair extending along their backs from the shoulder to their tails. The upper side of the tail is the normal corresponding body colour but the underneath is pure white. Ears are rounded, white inside and dark brown on the back. Bushbuck have a white patch or 'bib' on the throat and another white band lower down at the base of the neck. Their lower and upper lips and chin are white, and they have a white spot just below and behind the eyes, and another above this towards the base of the ears. In mature bushbuck the upper limbs are dark whilst the lower limbs above the hooves are tinged light brownish with white, the insides of their upper forelegs are white with dark banding. The Limpopo bushbuck, which occupies that zone between the Chobe and the Cape bushbuck, does not have the bright colouration of the Chobe nor the pronounced white spots and lines, but neither is it as dark as the Cape bushbuck.

By way of cryptic colouration they are ideally suited for their dark forested environment, with body colouration that is a contrasting mix of light and shadow as it filters through the forest canopy. These wily denizens of the dense bush, if motionless, can remain unseen from the sharpest of eyes, a truly magnificent animal. Bushbuck are in the main selective browsers and will seldom eat grass although they have been observed doing so. Their bodies have a distinctively hunched over shape and whilst they are strong swimmers they seem to have an almost clumsy gait when out in the open. Throughout their wide distributional range bushbuck are associated closely with riverine or other types of dense underbrush in close proximity to permanent water supplies. Cover and water availability are the two most important habitat requirements for this antelope species.

Bushbuck Antelope
A hard-of-hearing Cape bushbuck.

Hunt Bushbuck
Excellent Cape bushbuck taken on the Bushman's river.

Spiral Horned Bushbuck
Gwayi Valley Chobe bushbuck.
Note the white transverse lines on its back.

Bushbuck Hunting
It was a hard sell to get him to shoot the bushbuck.

Whilst bushbuck are considered to be solitary animals, it is not uncommon to see a male and female feeding together, or to see small family groupings of up to three or more, normally a female with a sub-adult and a younger fawn. Males too, may at times be seen together in loose bachelor groups but this is not a common trait. I have often been seated on a suitable vantage point in the Eastern Cape and glassed a number of different individuals of both sexes feeding in the same area, although they all seem to maintain their individuality. Their days are generally spent lying up in the densest of bush and only venturing out to feed during the late afternoon or early mornings. This however, is not always the case, and I have had clients take good bushbuck in the midday heat whilst the animal moves to water. In areas where they are not disturbed they may also become active on cool overcast days.

Whilst shy and retiring, they have acute senses of smell, hearing and sight, senses that coupled to their habitat have allowed them to survive on the very fringes of human development, as they have done in parts of the Eastern Cape. When cornered or wounded the bushbuck has a legendary reputation for aggressive tenacity and researchers have found that in rivalry fights over females, bushbuck have a higher mortality rate than any other antelope. Both sexes have a loud staccato bark as a warning call, that of the male being deeper and harsher. Adult bushbuck are subject to predation by lion, leopard, hyena, wild dogs and caracal. Python predate on young bushbuck and, in areas where these natural predators no longer exist, the greatest threat to bushbuck are habitat destruction and snaring, as well as illegal hunting with dogs.

In South Africa's Eastern Cape, bushbuck have been actively hunted since the arrival of the British 1820 Settlers. They most likely found that the only way they could hope to succeed against this elusive quarry in the dense succulent valley bush and coastal dune forests, was with the use of dogs. Early records show that dogs were often an integral part of the hunt. From those far off days, it would seem, evolved the tradition that carries on in this day and age of the driven bushbuck hunt using beaters and dogs. The late Lew Wood, doyen of bushbuck hunting with hounds, advised that on a drive of 400 hectares or more, 12 trained hounds and about eight beaters were required. In fact, amongst the hound lovers in this neck of the woods, the old Biblical adage, "Thou shalt not covet another man's wife", extends to his hounds as well. Rumour has it, that more than one of these intrepid houndsmen actually turn around three times before they lie down!

I am of direct 1820 British Settler stock from both sides of my family and although Zimbabwean born and bred, as far back as I can remember, my many relatives, all farmers, held traditional driven bushbuck hunts on their land, and some still do to this day. These hunts are by invitation only, each farmer plays host to his many guests whilst the whole exercise is governed by etiquette and adherence to certain ethics. It is a fairly festive affair and the day's closure can become quite a party. The liver from killed bushbuck grilled on the barbeque coals considered a delicacy, and if badly scorched or half raw, the intake of good whisky, beer and wine offsets the taste.

There are normally a number of drives done at various places around the farm or ranch. The guns are placed at suitable viewpoints along a ridge line, and ideally look down into a valley, or they cover the width of a cut line between dense blocks of bush. Shots vary in distance but can stretch out to about 350 yards although usually much closer. As the beaters and dogs move slowly through the bush down the length of the valley from one end to the other, the guns perched on high, at a right angle to them, will monitor the drive. If a mature bushbuck ram appears, the gun nearest it, or whoever first observed it, will attempt to shoot it. Once a drive has passed a particular gun, he will drop out of the action and wait for the next drive, there are normally about six to eight guns on a bushbuck hunt of this nature. That is the theory anyway - the reality is sometimes different because the Eastern Cape farmer is a breed unto himself and also only recognizes two seasons, hunting season and cricket season!

For some unknown reason there are those in the Eastern Cape who believe that so long as an animal is visible and still in an upright position, one must keep lead in the air, what could be termed 'Lead In The Air Syndrome'. On a driven hunt this affliction can become infectious and rapidly spreads along the ridge like wildfire, more so if all the guns can see the same bushbuck ram. It then becomes a rather noisy and dangerous affair as everyone tries his or her damndest to keep lead in the air. There have been times when this near hysterical frenzy requires the host to take on the demeanor of a drill sergeant, cupping his hands around his mouth, face down the line of guns shouting as loudly as possible, 'CEEEASE FIRE!' This instruction may have to be shouted more than once, because during 'Lead In The Air Syndrome' those afflicted quite often go deaf. Eventually as the shooting slacks off and smoke swirls from overheated barrels, the valley where the beat took place looks like there has been an infantry battle - fallen leaf matter, de-barked trees, split rocks, shattered twigs, piles of empty brass along the ridge and beaters crawling out of ant bear holes or lying under cover behind termite mounds. Those hunts have a history of incidents. A diary from about 1830 lists the bag as: "5 bushbuck, 2 bluebuck (blue duiker), 1 porcupine, 3 hares, 1 bustard and 1 beater (accidental)".

Invariably the intended target escapes unscathed and lives to see another drive.

Strangely, and right up until recent times, it was considered a grave and unforgivable error to shoot a female bushbuck or a very young ram. The unwritten rule on males is "only males with horns longer than the ears". Shooting a female meant you were never invited back to a driven hunt on that property and even at the post hunt party you would get unfriendly stares cast your way, limited access to the whisky bottle, and probably passed by when the plate of coal-grilled liver got handed round. With all of those friendly social signals being thrown your way, it was probably best to head to your vehicle.

This erroneous belief that it was unethical to shoot females was a strange one. Reasons given for it were often along the lines that females are less wary than males and therefore easier targets, or because females bear young, any shot will deprive the landowner of a few juveniles the following year, or that one male may mate with several females, so fewer males are required in the population. Whilst I am not going to go into the management of the species, research and modern game ranching practices have changed this outdated way of thinking.

Before I move on to hunting bushbuck with clients, I must mention one other incident that has become urban legend with reference to Eastern Cape driven bushbuck hunts. It concerns two city slicker friends who were reputedly invited by a local farmer to participate in a bushbuck hunt, probably his attorney and bank manager. Campfire legend has it that these two erstwhile gents were placed on a ridge line about 450 yards apart. Seated with one of them was an old Xhosa herdsman who worked on the ranch. He had been instructed to sit with the city slicker to act as his 'minder' and 'eyes' because the rancher did not want any livestock shot in error. The other city boy sitting out on his own (probably because he was a bit more experienced) decided to climb into a tree for a better view so clambered up into a leafy cussonia. Bored to tears at the slowness of the drive, the guy sitting with the old herdsman, soon tired of flicking pebbles and wiping his sweating brow stood up to stretch and look around. What he saw in the distance was a dark blob poking out of the top of a leafy tree; nudging the old Xhosa he pointed towards it and asked what it was. The Xhosa was myopic, but with a leathery hand shading his tired eyes from the fierce sun, looked in the direction indicated, then after a short pause muttered "Imfene...sula!" ("Baboon...wipe it!").

The hunt rapidly reached closure when the guy perched in the tree suddenly had a fist sized chunk of his one butt cheek torn out by a '06 round fired by his friend. Luckily his friend was a poor shot and also excited at the chance of collecting a big baboon. Nevertheless the guy in the tree plummeted to the ground yodelling, executed quite a neat little two-step then went down. Due to the ruggedness of the terrain the beaters became stretcher-bearers and the sorry little group headed to the nearest hospital, the injured hunter laying on his stomach, buttocks raised and a bunched shirt pressed in the wound to try and stem the bleeding. Hearsay has it that the friendship was strained forever thereafter and the guy with a chunk out his butt developed an aversion to climbing trees.

In the context of collecting a trophy bushbuck there is really only one way to hunt them and that is by stalking. Glassing plays a huge part in bushbuck hunting and a good set of binoculars is essential. My preferred method is to sit quietly with my client on high ground and glass likely feeding areas, either from middle afternoon to last light, or from first light, although, I have had clients take good quality bushbuck during the heat of the day.

Bushbuck venture out of their daytime refuge and browse along the fringes or further out in more open scrub but, the slightest disturbance will see them bound back into cover and be completely lost to sight. At best, when this happens, you may hear his harsh throaty bark from deep inside the cover. You will not see him.

Bushbuck Habitat
Typical Eastern Cape bushbuck habitat.

bushbuck country
Cover and water availability are the two most important habitat requirements for bushbuck.

Stealth and unhurried movement are essential disciplines in successfully stalking a bushbuck, as is wind direction. Once a worthy trophy has been spotted, the hunters move very slowly, Indian file, towards the target, making maximum use of every vestige of cover and, wherever possible, endeavour to remain in the shade in order to cut down the risk of light reflection. Throughout the stalk I make constant use of the ash bag to monitor wind direction, and if the intended trophy looks up from feeding we freeze, remaining motionless until it commences feeding once again. If there is more than one bushbuck feeding, it is important to monitor all of them, because if anyone of them sees you, or senses your presence, they will give the alarm. With a single choreographed bound they will all head back into cover, the stalk will be over.

If wounded, a bushbuck ram often vocalizes with loud throaty barks of alarm. Back in 1983 I was hunting alone on a family property and had with me one of the finest dogs I have ever owned. He was a yellow Labrador with a dash of Doberman in his ancestry, yet looked every bit a Lab although a touch darker and a bit long in the leg. Shandy hailed from Namibia's East Caprivi and when I was hunting there, had been given to me as a six week-old pup; he was a fine hunting companion and true gentleman. We were sitting on the side of a hill and I was glassing the dense scrub below us when a bushbuck ram appeared. At the time I was carrying a .338 Winchester topped by a fixed x 4 'scope and shooting 250grn bullets - a bit over gunned for a bushbuck, but I was carrying it on the off chance of bumping a kudu.

Taking the fairly long shot, I hashed it and wounded the bushbuck .Vocalizing loudly it disappeared into a dense thicket. Once inside he continued to bark, Shandy and I made our way down to the thicket. Not being able to see the wounded ram, I asked Shandy to get inside there and see what was going on. Knowing just how dangerous a wounded bushbuck ram can be when it comes to dogs I wasn't too worried because Shandy was streetwise. He found the bushbuck and a noisy joust commenced, allowing me to crawl in on hands and knees and make my way to the scene. The bushbuck had its hindquarters pushed into a bush and on its knees was tenaciously facing Shandy who was noisily bouncing left and right just beyond horn reach. With each bound the ram would try to stick him with stiletto sharp horns. I was able to dispatch it and, with the dog offering assistance, we dragged it out of the thicket.

Bushbuck Hunting Image
A fine hunting companion and true gentleman.

Over the years it has always been a pleasure during the course of the safari, once the big stuff is in the salt, to get around to hunting bushbuck. It is surprising how few sport hunters actually place any form of priority on a bushbuck when looking at their plains game options. In my book bushbuck rank way up the list, true aristocrats of the antelope world. In Zimbabwe I was hunting on Nottingham Estates with the late Mr Smitherman. Whilst trying for a baboon he wanted quite badly, a magnificent Limpopo bushbuck stepped out of the deep shadows. Because we already had a baboon troop around us (we were in a blind), it was a hard sell to get him to shoot the bushbuck but, when he did, he was euphoric. Whilst we hunted on the Eastern Cape Bushman's river, Ms Wagner shot at and missed a bushbuck, her first shot going a bit high. The old ram did not even lift its head so intent was it on browsing, and her second shot dropped it. We decided it must have been hard of hearing. To bag his bushbuck, outdoor writer, John Barsness, and I, had what I would call a stroll, more than a stalk, it all just came together, and I guess each hunt has its own special memories.

Probably one of the most successful bushbuck hunts that I have ever guided was some years ago with Bob from Spokane, he came to me via Worldwide Hunting. He was in search of a quality bushbuck, and after a careful bit of research we found the ideal venue. A large family-owned agricultural operation that combined cattle, citrus and game, the game free ranging with no high game fences - a refreshing change from the norm in South Africa where everything seems to be behind high wire.

Bob took two bushbuck, but the second was his Huckleberry. The landowner took us to where he had previously spotted a big ram high up on a slope above a cultivated field. Upon arrival, and after a quick glassing, we spotted the ram and ewe feeding high up on the hillside. Leaving the rig we tried a stalk, but the incline made it impossible, as they would have seen us approach, plus the wind was not exactly in our favour. Bob was a good shot, so having got as close as we dared without chasing the trophy, an enormous animal with horn mass that was hard to believe, I set him up on the shooting sticks, it was a long shot and the rangefinder indicated in excess of 300 yards. I cannot remember the exact distance or the calibre he was using, although it was the lighter of the two rifles that he had brought on safari. Steadying himself, and after some controlled breathing, he squeezed the shot off.

With the noise of the shot reverberating off the cliff face to our front, the bushbuck barked loudly, went down, and then leapt up and ran into a clump of bush, vocalizing the whole time. The hunt then turned into an endurance course as we fought our way up through the thick bush in energy sapping humidity. Bob managed to get in another shot, but between the trackers, and my Jack Russell walking with them on a tight leash, the badly wounded ram kept moving downhill until, close to death, rolled over a sheer cliff and lodged against the trunk of a huge tree. Twane my skinner had to climb down to free the dead trophy, which tumbled to the base of the cliff. By then, Bob and I were rather tired, it had been a hard grunt, stooped over whilst growling at each other we clambered back down through the clinging scrub. It was one of the finest specimens of a bushbuck that I have ever seen and went 171/2" but it was the horn mass that really impressed. Once it was skinned out we kept bringing the skull to the campfire so that we could admire it whilst reliving the hunt.

Well-known Eastern Cape bushbuck guide, angler and outdoor writer Bruce Truter once wrote in an article, and I quote, "In the forest the bushbuck ram has all the advantages. But, if you have the time, the patience, the determination and the skill - and if you are not afraid of humiliation - you can nab him there. And when you do - if you do - only then will you be able to say that you have hunted the bushbuck - and really mean it." That, in a nutshell says it all about this truly aristocratic antelope of the deep forest and shadowy glades.

Bushbuck Distribution
Due to their specialised habitat requirements bushbuck only occur within the limits indicated where there is suitable habitat. Except where they have been exterminated locally or their habitat destroyed, their overall distribution is very similar to what it was in historical times.

Sources: Pelea No 4 1985; The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion, New Addition (J D Skinner and R H N Smithers) University of Pretoria 1990; SCI Record Book of Trophy Animals Edition X, Vol. 1 AFRICA Field Edition; Rowland Ward’s Sportsman’s Handbook XIII Edition.

About The Author: Kevin Thomas, a native Zimbabwean is part of that unique breed of African whose life and exploits, experience and input has formed the backbone of African conservation and hunting as we know it. Kevin served with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, the military and then turned to professional hunting, a career that has taken him over most of Southern Africa. He and his wife Brenda currently reside in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. His life and encounters with Africa and her flora and fauna are the subject of his book 'Shadows In An African Twilight'.

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