The Shifty One

_Erongo-Nyala-021116Sundown on a cloudy afternoon, light fading quickly, crouched low; J.P. Kleinhans led us down the steep ridge. At about 200 yards, we ran out of cover so he spread the sticks low and daughter Caroline slid in behind them, resting her 7mm-08. Now we had to figure out which one. This was not a simple task because more than a dozen dark nyala bulls and a few reddish females fed on the flat below, shifting back and forth and blending into scattered bushes. It was an amazing sight, the largest gatherings of nyala bulls I’ve ever seen.

Most were young and easily discounted, but three or four were mature bulls, similar at first glance. J.P. and I both keyed in on one bull that appeared the best, and then a bigger bull showed up. Now it was my job to keep my mouth shut while, calmly and carefully, J.P. got Caroline onto the correct nyala. A lesser bull masked him for several seconds, and then he stepped clear and stood broadside. She got the shot off, a perfect hit. Nyala scattered everywhere, but this one spun away and went down. We watched for a minute, and then walked down in the dusk to admire her nyala bull.

So, which is Africa’s most beautiful antelope? Many would choose the sable and I’m sure the greater kudu would gather a few votes. Me, I think honors go to the nyala bull. He is certainly one of Africa’s most colorful antelope, with long, silky chocolate hair offset by white side-stripes, spots and a tall dorsal crest. He has the white nose chevron of the Tragelaphus clan, and the legs are yellow, almost burnt-orange. The nyala’s horns cannot match the corkscrew horns of the greater kudu or the majestic sweep of the sable’s scimitars, but the in-and-out lyre shape is wonderfully attractive and the horns are in perfect harmony with the rest. Oddly, unlike the rest of the spiral-horned antelope, the nyala female is quite different from the male, very red in color with a harness of white stripes; the difference between nyala males and females is one of the most striking in the entire animal kingdom.

J.P. Kleinhans and Caroline Boddington with a nice nyala bull, the animal that gets her dad’s vote as Africa’s most beautiful antelope.
J.P. Kleinhans and Caroline Boddington with a nice nyala bull, the animal that gets her dad’s vote as Africa’s most beautiful antelope.

Despite its long hair, the nyala is native to the warm climate of KwaZulu-Natal and central Mozambique, with their natural range extending up through Malawi and extreme southeastern Zimbabwe. Today they have been widely introduced throughout South Africa and much of Namibia, and in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley. The name comes from the Zulu inyala, which means “the shifty one.” If that evening at J.P.’s had been Caroline’s only experience with nyala she might have thought the animal not so “shifty” at all. We’d only been at J.P.’s farm for a few hours, and were really just looking around when we spotted that amazing group of bulls! But, hunting at Frontier Safaris with Scot Burchell, we’d been sort of looking for nyala at least part of the previous ten days, and we’d stalked nice bulls that just plain disappeared on us.

The nyala is actually a shy and secretive animal that loves heavy cover and can be extremely difficult to hunt. When Frederic Selous prepared to leave southern Africa after the Second Matabele War (1896-1897), the one major animal he hadn’t taken was the nyala. He traveled to Zululand specifically to hunt them and took a fine bull before departing for England. In the latter days of the 19th Century, nyala were already scarce in South Africa and this was a major mission. Nyala remained difficult to obtain in South Africa until her outfitting and game ranching industries blossomed in the late 1970s, but the opening of Mozambique in 1959 made this majestic antelope more available than ever before.

Nyala were plentiful in Mozambique, and a good bull was a normal part of the bag until her long civil war erupted in the mid-1970s. Hunting resumed in the late 1980s, but like most of Mozambique’s wildlife, nyala had become scarce and had retreated to the deepest thickets. For a time it wasn’t clear if any remained, but they were still there and, with protection, numbers have rebuilt, especially in the big Coutadas (hunting areas) surrounding the Marromeu Reserve. I had a project to take a really big nyala bull there. The country is generally flat woodland and in the thick stuff I found nyala almost impossible to hunt. The only saving grace is the pans, slightly low clearings where water collects and new grass comes up. All wildlife is drawn to these pans, and especially late in the season nyala drift out of the heavy cover.

I’ve actually taken several nyala in Mozambique–all of them in pans, either by stalking to the openings or sitting over them–not much different from stand-hunting for whitetails. On the day I got my biggest one, I saw 35 different bulls singly and in small groups. That’s a pile of nyala, evidence they’ve made a wonderful comeback in that region.

Thanks to game ranching, South Africa also has lots of nyala today–not only in their native range but also throughout much of the country. The terrain is often hilly, so it’s more common to glass for them and then execute a stalk. As always, success depends on your luck. Hunting at Frontier Safaris, Caroline had plenty of luck, but not with nyala. They were certainly there; two big bulls came into the skinning shed while we were there. We saw good bulls, too, but by the time we got within range, they’d slipped into the thick stuff. And then we saw the biggest group of nyala bulls I’ve ever seen and she took a dandy almost like it was easy, but nyala rarely are.–Craig Boddington

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