Many young hunters open their hunting account with a blesbuck, which is usually considered to be easy hunting. This often rings true as this past hunting season I found myself back at camp for skinning within two hours after sunrise. In a previous season, however, I stalked a herd for almost 6 hours before the opportunity to take aim presented itself, so hunting blesbuck can also be very challenging at times. The blesbuck (Damaliscus pygargus phillisi) is endemic to southern Africa and restricted to the area south of the Zambezi and today share their habitat with agricultural development on South Africa’s central inland plateau. It is estimated that 95% of the population exists only on privately owned properties. This is a clear indication that the species have been saved through conservation by connecting a commercial value to them. During the 1900’s numbers were assessed to be round only 2000, today that number is between 200 000 and 300 000.
The blesbuck is a medium sized plains antelope with shoulders higher than the hind quarters resulting in a sloping back, typically a body profile of the Alcelaphinae or hartebeest-, wildebeest- family. Standing at 80 to 95cm at the shoulder they can weigh anything between 60 to 80kg. The popular name blesbuck refers to the distinct white blaze on the forehead and muzzle divided by a brown band. The remainder of the coat usually varies from a light to dark reddish-brown but lacks the dark purple coat gloss shading that distinguishes the blesbuck from its cousin, the bontebok. The rump patch is generally not white like the bontebok. The saddle and the rear of the buttocks are a dull yellow-brown with the underside of the body and part of the lower legs a dirty white. The ridged horns carried by both genders curve backward and outward with tips slightly forward. The male’s horns are thicker, accented by straw-colour on the upper surfaces of the rings.
Preferred habitat is higher altitude grassland plains. Blesbuck are dependent on surface water and must drink 3 litres daily. They are predominantly a social species, however, bodily contact between individuals is rare. Being daytime grazers they are most active in the early morning and evening and lying up during the heat of the day. They exclusively graze on short grass smaller than 6 cm, which is grazed down to 0.5 cm above ground. When moving to feeding sites, water or a resting place, a herd will string out in a long single file.
During the rut, males display aggressive territorial behaviour. To woo a female, a territorial male will use a method where he approaches her with his muzzle pointed forward, horns laid back and tail curled up. Adult ewes form large harem herds which are attended by territorial rams, occupying territories ranging from 5 to 30 ha during the rut. Males mark these territories by inserting a grass stem into a preorbital gland to smear it with a secretion, or by wiping the glands across vegetation. The blesbuck is unique in transferring this glandular secretion from grass to the base of the horn by stroking the horns across the grass in a sideways movement of the head. This secretion can then accumulate between the horn ridges in layers of up to 3mm thick. Territorial males create dung middens in which they lie when resting.
Ewes become sexually mature at an age of 28 to 30 months and the rams at the age of 28 months, but rams only breed when they become territorial, between 4-8 years. The rut occurs from March to May and rutting outside this period is unlikely. A territorial ram herds a harem herd of up to 34 adult ewes and will defend them against other rams. The gestation period lasts some 240 days and most lambs are born within a few weeks of each other after the first summer rains (beginning November till end of January) when nutrition is adequate for lactation and growth. The longevity of a blesbuck can be as much as 22 years but averages round 11 years.
While blesbuck scarcely receive mention amongst avid hunters they are as much part of hunting in South Africa as the springbuck, impala or kudu. It does appear that blesbuck lose condition very quickly at the onset of winter so one is advised to hunt them early in the season.
They primarily prefer open spaces and are therefore not very difficult to spot from a distance, hence the perception exists that they are somewhat foolish and easy to shoot. This also leads to the opinion that they are not actually being ‘hunted’. Blesbuck are in fact wary and blessed with great vision and as such long shots are the norm. Once disturbed they don’t easily settle down and will often continue to move the entire day.
To hunt blesbuck, the easiest would be to find high ground (if possible/available) and to search by glassing. Once spotted, an approach route should be planned. Use small shrubs and rocky ridges as cover and make use of contours and ditches to get into shooting distance, keeping the wind in mind. With excellent eyesight and the fact that they live in herds, more eyes make it that much harder to get up close. Lone rams are therefore much easier to hunt. During walk-and-stalk, it is best to spot your ram before he (or the rest of the heard) is aware of your presence. Only move closer while they feed. Freeze the instant they look up.
Some believe that the tactic of approaching the herd diagonally, creating the impression that you will pass them by instead of approaching them head-on, could bring you close to an easy shooting distance. Others “graze” on their hands and knees to hide their human silhouette on the horizon and capitalise on the blesbuck’s curiosity. Personally, the latter is still the most successful. Remember to wear proper gloves, kneepads and thick trousers depending on your hunting terrain. Once an intruder has been spotted they will stare attentively at the hunter, utter nasal snorts and stamp their feet. If the hunter gets too close for comfort, which could easily be as far as 300 – 350m out, the herd will flee.
Head and neck shots are not the preferred target areas as the blesbuck tends to shake or drop its head randomly. These shots at distances of over 200m are irresponsible and risky. The size of the brain is 5.5cm by 11cm while the vital heart-lung area is 22cm by 27cm, thus making the vitals a more certain target area.
Flat-trajectory rifles are usually preferred as shots are commonly taken between 200 to 250m on open plains. The .243 Win loaded with a 100gr, or similar would be ideal. Calibres shooting lower grains at higher speeds would not just be too small but at distances less than 200m would cause too much meat damage. Where shots are taken closer than 200m, slower options like the .308 or 30-06 would work just as well. Remember that their grassland habitats often tend to be windy.
Always try to count the number of animals in the herd. This can help to determine if the animal fell out of sight after the shot was taken. Be ready with follow-up shots and quick reaction, because if they don’t drop immediately and run off with the herd, chances are slim of finding them again.
Meat & Trophy
The slaughtered carcass represents 53% which is between 32 to 42kg. Several years ago, I hunted a sizeable 39,15kg ram in the Free State. Not necessarily a fact, but my personal records do show that blesbuck from the Free State weigh roughly 2kg more than those I’ve hunted in Limpopo and North West. Rowland Ward minimum horn length is 16 1/2 inches with the South African Method minimum also set at 16 1/2 inches. SCI trophies register at 39 points.
Fritz is an avid hunter, writer and student of wildlife & outdoors.
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