A lesser known and rarely hunted species the Bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas) is in itself a glowing example that stern conservation principles and sustainable hunting practice is a success, as without these two it would have not been able to bring the Bontebok back from the very brink of extinction. It is as such that tribute be paid to Mr. P.V van der Byl, his son, Mr. A. van der Byl, and the van Breda and Albertyn families, for without their recognition of the perilous situation of the species they might well have become extinct. The van der Byls took steps in 1837 to set aside a portion of their farm “Nacht Wacht” near Bredasdorp as a reserve for some 27 individuals. This example was followed by adjoining landowners on the farms De Groote Eiland, Bushy Park and Zoetendals Vallei and In 1931 the first Bontebok National Park was proclaimed on an area near Swellendam and 84 Bontebok were moved to it by truck. By 1969 it was estimated that the numbers had grown to around 800.
Since then the National Parks Board of Trustees have made available their surplus stock to farmers and reserves in the Cape Province and by these measures have ensured the survival of the species for the future. Bontebok, nevertheless, remain the least common antelope in the Southern African Sub region. Safari Club International recognizes three variations of the Damaliscus Dorcas family, namely the Common or Brown Blesbuck (Damaliscus dorcas phillipsi), the White Blesbuck (regarded a colour variation of the common and also Damaliscus dorcas phillipsi) and lastly the Bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas).
The latter being listed as the largest of the three in physical stature, although that is open to speculation as many regards the Common Blesbuck as being more stoutly built. Now although comparatively similar at first glance, it is when one looks closely at their general appearance that one notices that the Blesbuck and Bontebok differ quite extensively from one another. Most people agree that there are by and large a number of distinct differences between the two, namely the following:
Blesbuck have a drab reddish brown overall colouring whereas the Bontebok has a rich dark brown colour along the flanks that almost has a purple sheen, the rump of the Blesbuck is generally the same colour as the overall antelope where the Bontebok has a large, pure white patch over the rump, this snow white colouring is also visible on the lower legs of the Bontebok while the Blesbuck has a simple brown colour. The facial blaze is also described as one of the main features to look for as Bontebok should have a clean, untainted and unbroken white blaze on the face while the Blesbuck’s facial blaze is often broken by a brown band between the eyes and generally tainted by the preorbital glands on the face. (It is however important to note that this is not always the rule as I have come across a fair number of pure bred Bontebok which exhibited a broken white blaze on the face.)
The horns are generally a much more reliable source when differentiating between the two species, the Blesbuck has distinct straw coloured rings on the ridges throughout the length of the horns while the Bontebok has coal black horns without any discolouration, the latter also features ridges that wrap, unbroken, around the horn while the Blesbuck often displays spit ridges that peter out toward the back of the horn.
Although these differences are a great help in distinguishing between these two antelope one needs to make sure that the outfitter and/or property owner has a certificate from Cape Nature Conservation stating that the particular herd of Bontebok on the property are indeed pure bred, something that can only be ensured after DNA samples have been taken of the animals in question and tested, it is also important to note that one may not under any circumstances keep both Bontebok and Blesbuck on the same property as they can and will interbreed, subsequently changing the DNA of the Bontebok and therefore rendering it to be classified as a Bontebok/Blesbuck crossbreed.
This was one of my main concerns when I started doing the research for my Bontebok hunt, whether the particular animals on the given property were indeed pure bred and certified as such by Cape Nature Conservation, as well as if they exhibited the distinct overall rich colouring evident for the species.
It was after countless calls and emails that I got in touch with Jonathan Pepler which owns Roydon Private Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Queenstown. A beautiful 1,500 hectare mixed bushveld property with and wide assortment of animals, from Impala, Springbuck, Black Wildebeest, Kudu, Zebra, Giraffe and of course Bontebok. Although not primarily a hunting property Roydon mainly concentrates on hosting school tours as well as international tourists, but do take off an allotted number of game each year under guidance of resident professional hunter Jason Carol, a friendly young man with a pleasant disposition and a sharp eye. Although a hunt for Bontebok isn’t regarded as one of the biggest challenges when hunting South African game, because of the sheer lack of hunting pressure they receive they often come across as “tame” and one is often capable of approaching them rather easily in game viewing vehicles but hunt them by fair chase, on foot by walk and stalk and they are as challenging as any other and this is exactly the method that suited me and the only way I intended to hunt my ram.
We arrived early on a Thursday morning and after exchanging pleasantries and offloading our gear we headed to the range to ensure that all the bows were still shooting where we were aiming, accompanying me on this trip were my two long time hunting buddies who were after Springbuck and Kudu while I was on a mission to take a mature Bontebok ram. I was slightly “over gunned” for this hunt as the bow I was using at the time was my 93# Hoyt Maxxis 35 in preparation for an upcoming safari in Mozambique where I would be hunting Hippo and Buffalo, I must confess that I was actually surprised as to how smoothly the bow drew and shot and together with its custom Winners Choice Strings and Tightspot quiver it would put my 540gr Muzzy tipped arrows on the money each and every time, a deadly combination and I was totally confidant in my set-up.
So after finishing on the range we set out afield and soon came across the first clusters of Bontebok, which we took time to admire through the binoculars as they are truly striking when seen up close and in person. One group in particular spotted on a low plateau warranted a closer look as the herd ram stood out, beautifully coloured with a remarkable set of perfectly symmetrical horns he peeked my interest straight away. It would however be rather tricky to get close enough for a shot at the ram as apart from a handful of scattered thorn trees the plateau was devoid of any other substantial cover, add to that the fact that there was six other Bontebok as well as an ever alert Springbuck to contend with and to top it all off there was a rather strong ice cold wind which was going to force me to get uncomfortably close to ensure an accurate shot as any long range shot was going to affected by the gusting south-westerly.
I quickly made a mental note of the general layout of the plateau as well as where all the animals were located so as not to bump into any one of them on my approach back and asked that Jason drop me off a couple hundred meters downwind. Giving the vehicle time to fade into the background Andries, who would be trying to capture the hunt on film, and I slowly set off in the direction of where we had spotted the trophy ram. Murphy soon made his presence felt when seemingly out of the blue an entire herd of Giraffe came thundering past heading directly where we were heading, what had spooked them no one knows suffice to say that it had done a good job!
I gave the rather large group some time to calm down as they disappeared into the bush to my left and altered my course so as to give them a wide berth, and slowly continued on toward the Bontebok. To my disgust the Giraffe soon came walking back toward Andries and I with necks craned, obviously having branded us as the cause of their alarm. This did not bode well as their uneasiness would undoubtedly alert the Bontebok of a hidden danger and closing in on a bunch of agitated animals is always very difficult. But we slowly inched our way forward regardless of being kept a close eye on by the entire Giraffe herd, not good. I wasn’t at all surprised when I finally got close enough to the open area to catch sight of the Bontebok only to find that they all were up on their feet and restlessly walking around, the Giraffes suspicious behaviour had obviously agitated them.
Huddled behind a small tree and some brush I was hoping that the strong wind and the available cover would conceal my approach as I dropped to my belly for a long anguishing crawl to the next clump of brush, roughly 30 yards ahead of me, once there I estimated that I had another 40 yards or so to go to my last possible piece of cover, a small sparsely leafed thorn tree that had some shrubbery around its base. It was by no means perfect but it was my only option, I was just hoping that the Bontebok would stick around long enough for me to close the distance and get within shooting distance.
I was just starting to make good ground when a Giraffe cow came walking straight toward me, stopping ever so often to stare down at the odd looking camouflaged creature on the ground before taking another few deliberate steps toward me, I was starting to wonder if it was mere curiosity on the cow’s part or if the interest she was showing was laced with malicious intent as there were young calves in the herd and she might be trying to protect them from the perceived threat. Giraffe might look unassuming and graceful but that belies a deadly ability to easily kill predators threatening their young, so stuck between a rock and a hard place I had no other option but to try and scare the cow off, but do it discreetly enough so as not to alert the already nervous Bontebok.
Removing my facemask and cap I tried to draw her attention to the fact that I was human and no threat to her or her calves, it must have worked because she seemed to lose interest after a few tense minutes and summarily turned around and walked off. A quick glance with my Leica’s confirmed that the Bontebok too had somewhat calmed down, the ram was in fact now lying down, so I cautiously made my way to the next bit of cover before taking a reading with my rangefinder, the Bontebok ram was now just short of 100 yards away which would give me 50 odd yard shot if I could get to that spindly little thorn tree. Ever so slowly I got back to cautiously belly crawling forward, only moving when I was sure no eyes were pointed in my direction and relatively quickly reached my final destination. Giving Andries my cameraman time to catch up I took the time to have another distance reading at the ram which was still lying down amongst his ewes, broadside on and facing away from me, 54 yards. Perfect.
As soon as Andries got to me I nocked an arrow and gave him the thumbs up to start filming, I slowly rose to my feet whilst trying to use every bit of the cover in front of me to remain unseen, yet an ewe must have spotted something as the whole group suddenly milled around causing the ram to stand up, still perfectly broadside on I waited for a brief break in the gusting wind before settling my tiny 60 yard pin low on the shoulder and dead even with the front leg and touched the trigger, a mere second later the arrow disappeared with a muted thud right on the money. As the arrow passed through him effortlessly the mortally wounded Bontebok half reared up before taking off in a mad dash so typical of a heart shot animal, but before he disappeared from sight some 60 yards further I could already see his legs faltering. I was ecstatic with what had been a thrilling and eventful stalk culminating in a perfect shot in very testing conditions.
Walking in the general direction of where the ram had run we were joined by Jason who had watched the whole stalk and hunt unfold from some distance away, the blood trail was quite prolific and I soon spotted the downed ram a dozen or so yards from where I had previously lost sight of him, as I picked the rams head up out of the grass I immediately became aware of the fact that he was noticeably longer than my first estimation, perfectly symmetrical horns measuring a hairs breadth short of 16 inches and huge bases giving the horns uncanny mass throughout their length, a tremendous Bontebok in anybody’s book. What was also equally striking to me was the rich colour and bright sheen of the rams coat, which certainly must make the Bontebok one of the prettiest antelope in South Africa and one we would not have had the pleasure to admire hadn’t it been for some staunch conservation principles and sustainable utilization, a true conservation success story.