If I was going to take a shot at the kudu we’d been tracking all day, it would have to be now. And it was going to be like threading a needle – there was no way of getting closer. Time was not on our side: the area was teeming with wildlife, and at any moment we’d be scented.
Moving slowly and silently, I identified what I thought would be a good enough window through the arid mess of vegetation not unlike a roll of barbed wire. I could see the animal clearly and steadied the rifle fore end on sticks. As I did so, the kudu, though still unaware of our presence, turned to walk away. It was now or never.
Of all the spiral-horned species, the kudu is one I’ve longed to hunt and I was fortunate enough to be in the Savé Valley Conservancy in East Zimbabwe with Marc Newton, MD of Rigby, where the wildlife has free range over a total of 800,000 acres. This extraordinary place, my veteran PH Butch Coates explained, is a product of the late 1980s, when 18 landowners decided to pull down the cattle fences and make the change from farming to safaris.
Butch works at various reserves in the valley as a freelance PH but often hunts with clients from Sango. Sango Lodge, which at 160,000 acres is the largest property in the conservancy. Butch makes no bones about the fact that the lodge is a business, so has to make money: “The lodge takes a lot of investment to run with over 100 directly people employed to run it, but in the end, if we don’t have healthy, sustainable numbers of game animals, there would be no business, so it’s in our interests to maintain a healthy population. There are anti-poaching units on each property, as well as a specific rhino anti-poaching unit, which is run independently. The rhino unit can go anywhere on the Conservancy. They also protect elephants from ivory poachers.”
The Conservancy works on a strict quota for certain game species. Six elephants a year, six lions and 23 leopards can be hunted over the entire area, with the individual property’s size dictating their share of this.
Marc and I were also shooting bait for leopard for another member of our hunting party who had booked to shoot, leopard, elephant, buffalo, crocodile and hippo, all of which are totally free range and wild in the Savé valley. Sango is responsible for providing the entire Conservancy with leopard bait. Zebra, Butch explained, was by far the best: “It’s fat, soft meat, and there are plenty of them.” Meanwhile, another party of hunters were out hanging bait that Marc and I had shot with Butch’s colleague Thierry Labat. Whilst doing the rounds, the group had spotted a huge old warhorse of a kudu bull, the likes of which are very rare to be seen in the wild. The call came on the radio: “Butch he’s a giant, 57 inches at least. If you want a decent kudu come now!”
The decision was easy, despite knowing that the tracking wouldn’t be, for we were at least two hours’ drive away from Thierry’s position. Thierry had marked the place he’d seen it disappear into cover with a piece of white tissue on a thornbush so we would have a start point. Be that as it may, it was going to need to be a masterclass in tracking. A good two hours after the bull had been seen, we locked in on the tissue and the challenge ahead of us. Luckily, our tracker Ringisai or Ringi, was one of the most skillful I’ve ever had the pleasure to see at work.
Initially, we covered the ground fairly fast, and it was clear the wind was in our favour, but it was also clear that we had a lot of catching up to do. “It’s in a group,” Ringi said, “They’re feeding.” It seemed to me like some sort of magic trick, as we worked our way through thick bush in pursuit of an animal we hadn’t yet laid eyes on.
Two-and-a-half hours of following an unseen quarry in an area that carries a high density of dangerous game takes its toll on the nerves, so when we first spotted the kudu, a behemoth of a bull, my heart pounded in my chest. At 200m away, we were in thick brush, and the kudu was below us, in a patch where the ground opened up a bit more. We’d need to get closer for a shot with the open sights. Creeping through the brush, trying to be as silent as possible to get within range. At 150m, I knew the shot was going to be on very soon.
Finding a gap through which to shoot was no easy task, and to complicate matters even more, the animal was now facing away but lower than us, its back and spine the only real target I could see. The bull started to move off. I focused, taking the best shot I could muster, dropping the bull on the spot. The .416 Hornady 400 grain DGX punched though the cover and landed between the spine and scapula between the shoulders instantly disabling this magnificent creature. We wasted no time in the approach. He was huge, and old. The front of his horns were worn smooth, almost to ivory, and the “bell” which is formed by the first curl at the bottom of the horns was enormous. Butch thumped me on the back, estimating the age at eleven years, well past breeding age.
Marc and I waited by the kudu, Butch leaving his rifle with us – this was predator country, after all. Butch warned us it might be an hour or two before he came back: “I’ll have to cut a path to get the bakkie here, so sit tight.” While the wait for Butch’s return was tense, and every crack or sound set my mind leaping, it also gave me time to reflect on the day. A pure masterclass in tracking, but also to experience the extraordinary evidence of conservation at its best, that culminated in a kudu bull of a lifetime which was something I’d not forget in a hurry.