British sporting journalist, Simon K. Barr heads to Karamoja, a north eastern region of Uganda in pursuit of buffalo, with an exclusive rifle created by John Rigby & Co.
Walking ancient paths which were likely the very same ones used by the iconic hunter Karamojo Bell, I’d occasionally feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I was in Karamoja, north eastern Uganda, to hunt with a very special magazine rifle and open sights built to Bell’s own specification and manufactured by John Rigby & Co., the gunmaker that had made his rifle. Bell hunted elephant here, and while these majestic beasts are no longer present in the PiaNupe Wildlife Reserve, the aim is to see them return.
Karamojo Bell, or William Dalrymple Maitland Bell, is a name that should resonate with modern-day hunters. “He was a gentleman, a selective hunter,” Robin Hurt, himself a renowned PH, told me. Robin had come at the invitation of Prince Albrecht Oettingen-Spielberg, who took on the concession in 2009 by express consent of the Ugandan government and created Karamojong Overland Safaris in 2012, working tirelessly with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) to restore the wildlife in the area.
It was a chance to see the progress that had been made, having last visited 52 years ago. “There weren’t elephants then, either. After Bell’s time, indiscriminate ivory hunters came and took the heart out of the population,” Robin explained.
Cattle grazing and a growing human population decimated numbers of many species before the Reserve was created. “But what I see happening here now is unbelievable,” Robin told me. “There are more animals now than then, showing that controlled hunting and local cooperation restores wildlife in less than a decade.”
I was fortunate enough to hunt with PHs Gareth Lecluse and Ade Langley, who guided me with tremendous skill, placing us in the right areas, and due to my quest of only using open sights, getting incredibly close. Using this slow but rewarding method, we tracked down an old Jackson’s Hartebeest bull on the fourth day of our safari, coming to within 120m.
I had two invaluable tools to aid my open sight shooting: Leica’s handheld compact CRF 2800.COM rangefinder and shooting sticks. I could accurately gauge distances and be completely stable, making only the most ethical shots with the 140gr Hornady soft point bullets. Hunting with open sights is not dissimilar to hunting with a bow, with similar fieldcraft and stealth required to get closer to animals. Nothing beats the thrill of nestling the bead of the foresight in the notch of the rear, then aligning with your intended mark on the target.
Two days later, we came across a suitable old male Bohor reedbuck – a diminutive creature, but beautiful and delicate. We managed to stalk within 130m of it, close enough for my now increasing understanding of open sight hunting. My final hunt was for a Defassa waterbuck. We got stalking early and found a bushy area beside a drying riverbed. The cover meant we approached undetected to within 20 metres of a fine old buck, the closest shot of the week. Some hunters go to Africa and shoot dangerous game at close quarters with open sights, I would argue the challenge of hunting smaller animals with a “sweet little Rigby rifle,” as Bell described it, is as rewarding as you can get.
The evenings chatting to Robin, Ade, who runs Karamojong Overland Safaris on the ground, and Prince Albrecht were fascinating. We also hosted Frederiko Kizza, Chief Warden for Mt. Elgon Conservation Area and a great supporter of the Karamojong project, who was clear: “We’ve had 10 years of sport hunting in the PiaNupe reserve, and we are seeing bigger numbers and more species. It is directly related. Poaching was a terrible problem, but now locals point out poachers, which leads to a lot of arrests.”
Ade added: “We work closely with the locals and 75% of the trophy fees go to them, along with the bulk of the carcasses. There was large-scale human encroachment, but our work and presence here have succeeded to make the villages our allies.”
As we enjoyed the last setting sun of my Ugandan trip, I quizzed Robin about his time here 52 years ago: “There weren’t elephants here then, but Frederiko told me that they are now moving back into old territories so there is hope. When I was a boy, there were islands of people surrounded by wildlife. Today, islands of wildlife are surrounded by people.”
The last word must go to Prince Albrecht, whose vision has been the catalyst and driving force for such a successful project.
“Reading Bell’s books, you might think that there were elephants around every corner, but Bell was highly selective, walking for days, weeks or months to track them. It’s clear he succeeded only because he was good at making the locals his allies. I like the fact that we are doing the same – forming local partnerships and working towards a better form of management with their help.”
To visit Karamoja and PiaNupe Wildlife Reserve, visit: ugandaprohunts.com
What a memorable safari this must have been. I can only dream of visiting Karamoja – the name alone sends tingles up my spine.
Doing the safari with a Rigby would be the cream and cherries on the top.