When hunting Giant Eland in Central Africa the indigenous people have a unique respect and reverence for this majestic animal. It’s called yamoussa in Fulfulde (northern Cameroon – southern Chad), bosobo in Sango (Central African Republic), Éland de Derby for francophones–the giant or Lord Derby eland–was named after its discoverer, a 19th century British naturalist. It is in no way to be compared with his distant cousins, the Cape eland (southern Africa) or the Livingstone eland (eastern Africa), whose habits and behavior are quite different. The Cape eland easily bear captivity–even domestication. Some have been seen harnessed to plows, something totally inconceivable for the shy and untameable giant eland!
Though present in the old days in Senegal and Nigeria, the western variety unfortunately survives nowadays in very few reserves such as the one at Niokolo-Koba, Senegal. Important populations of this magnificent antelope still survive in Central Africa where they once took up vast territories: south of Chad, west of Sudan, north of Congo, Central African Republic, North-Cameroon, especially in the northern regions of the CAR and Cameroon, between the 7th and 9th parallels.
The giant eland belong to the family of African antelope I consider to be the most prestigious: the Tragelaphinae, which includes the common nyala, mythical mountain nyala, greater kudu, lesser kudu, sitatunga, various bushbucks, and the prince of the rain forest, bongo. This dream of all big game enthusiasts is by far the most impressive of all African antelope. Adult males can easily weigh up to one ton. Several years ago, I took one such specimen largely exceeding that weight. That enormous male had only one horn, the other having been broken maybe in a fight with another male opponent. The one horn had meant for him some kind of life insurance, as no hunter (except myself!) wished to show such a trophy in his trophy room.
It is most moving for me to come across a huge herd of these mysterious animals, often after grueling, seemingly endless hikes. Some groups can be up to a hundred head strong, moving apparently aimlessly on the vast Central African half-barren plateaus.
Surrounded most of the time by the old cows of his security guard, the leading bull, majestic with his long charcoal-dark neck and his heavy white-flecked dewlap, moves serenely, seldom leaving the center of his protecting group. His impressive, massive, twisted trophy sticks out from the forest of the cows’ spindly horns.
Their large size and extremely peaceful temper could have been a deadly liability for this specie’s survival hadn’t Mother Nature granted these heavyweights the keenest senses: very sharp eyesight, highly developed sense of smell, and particularly fine hearing.
More than all other creatures in the African savannah, the giant eland is fitted with all necessary assets to get away from its predators, among whom man and his never meat-replete tribes are the most dangerous. The giant eland’s only weak point is its proportionally small hoofs that leave, even on firm grounds, deeper footmarks than those from other animals, (buffalo for instance). That distinction smoothes the way for trackers on their trace, trying to capture them.
Its assets, combined with an unlimited capacity for fast moves over long distances, make the giant eland fantastic game, unrivalled on the continent apart from elephant. They’re always on the move all over the wooded savannah in search of tree species such as isoberlinia, annona, or terminalia, their most favoured food. Using powerful twisted horns as pincers, they can break tree trunks the size of a man’s arm and more than seven feet above the ground with a disconcerting easiness. Quite choosy, they only eat the tender young leaves at the stem tips. In the very early morning silence, a few hundred yards away from the animals we were after, I often heard the sharp cracks caused by that activity.
Aiming at the best big male within a fifty or more head herd is no easy thing. When they realize they are being followed, they become highly cautious. Closely grouped giant eland move along rapidly, led by the constantly watchful old cows who, at the slightest threat, send out strange guttural warning sounds, causing the whole herd to run away immediately with an indescribable racket of broken branches and clanking rocks. In most cases, it will be impossible to catch up with them due to their capacity to vanish into nature–the reason why Anglo-Saxons nicknamed eland “the ghost!”
In spite of all odds against it, lengthy efforts and a piece of luck will finally help with catching up to eland again one day or another when they stop for a few moments to drink or to allow the youngest to recover some strength. But it’s no use trying too soon to come close to the herd, as well-positioned sentries will spot you immediately.
The best course is maintaining a goodly distance, downwind, and patiently observing. Often I take advantage of such forced stops to have something to eat, and to take a nap on a hastily prepared leaves bed, leaving it up to the trackers to keep an eye on the sequence of events.
After some time–rarely more than two hours–the animals start stirring. One after another, those that had been lying in the dry grass slowly stand up on their long legs, preparing to get in line to resume their endless peregrinations. At that moment, when among the herd there is some wavering, some scattering–sometimes over several hundred yards—and some hesitation as to which direction to go, is the right moment for the seasoned hunter to take his chance and shoot–even from a considerable distance–at one of these finally unconcealed lords.
The giant eland is an easy target. He rapidly surrenders when hit. This superb machine is so sophisticated that it doesn’t bear the least damage. If he is wounded, he will quickly get away from the herd and wait for death with dignity and resignation, not showing any aggressiveness towards those who just hit him fatally.
The eyes are said to be the mirror of the soul. I often noticed that the bravest animals, when dying or even in death, continue to stare at you as if to make you feel guilty. I had it hard sometimes to withstand that stare while getting ready to give the coup de grace. It is a custom among the CAR trackers to throw some earth into the eyes of a dying eland. They explained to me that they do it so the bosobo does not recognize them when they meet him “on the other side of the world”–the hereafter!
I witnessed three or four times that when a lead bull falls under the hunter’s bullets, the whole group gathers around the body ignoring the deep fear they felt about men a short time earlier. They seem to keep watch over their dead leader for a few minutes before resolving to abandon him on the burned savannah ground before moving again towards a mysterious destination known only to them.
Such unforgettable occurrences explain the legends and superstitions about bosobo spread among the central African tribes. In the CAR, some groups spare the animal. They are convinced that people eating eland meat will suffer from leprosy. Others strongly believe the souls of passed away ancestors travel with the eland throughout their Africa.
Hunting rogue eland is hardly easier, contrary to what one might suppose. Conscious that they can no longer depend on their fellow creatures for protection, they are constantly moving, unpredictable in their shifting, and permanently on the alert. They feed only at night or early in the morning, staying clear from overly busy water holes. It is most difficult to come close to them, and if you are lucky enough, you might often discover that their trophy is a poor, timeworn thing. Out of about twenty eland I have taken, only two or three were rogue.
A giant eland trophy is at its best when the animal is about twelve years old. Later, it slowly wears out. A good trophy must be long, with a thick base. Its “V” shape must be as wide and open as possible. With horns about 47 to 49 inches long measured according to the Safari Club International method by following the horn’s longest spiral, such a trophy would be considered excellent and would be granted a silver medal.
Apart from man, the only big danger threatening the giant eland was Rind rinderpest to which he is much more susceptible than the other large antelope. He paid a heavy toll about thirty years ago, and it took two decades for the giant eland to recover a satisfying population level. Lion and hyena only attack youngsters or sick adults. They are no menace for the species.
Giant eland flesh is the best ever as he eats only the upper tender shrub leaves. He is not plagued by any parasites, and the flesh has a very nice light red, tantalising color. It is very tasty, and not strong like the buffalo’s, for example. Africans are crazy about it. The way they carve out this mountain of flesh by the rules of their ancestral practice is an astonishing show. They never leave anything for the lions, hyenas or vultures!
Back in camp, the Africans burst with ardour into the victory chant they saved for special occasions. And the death of the yamoussa is such an occasion for these hunters from the first days of the world.– Edouard-Pierre Decoster