In Search Of Dik-Diks

In case you were wondering, the odd name comes from Somalia, a simple version of this tiny antelope’s alarm call that, according to our SCI record book, sounds like “zhik-zhik.” Dik-dik is pretty close! The smaller races of dik-dik are almost the smallest animals with hooves and horns; only the tiny royal antelope of the West African forests is consistently smaller. But even the largest, Namibia’s Damara dik-dik, is a tiny, dainty antelope weighing possibly 15 pounds, and that’s twice the size of some of the smaller races in the Horn of Africa!

Uganda is a long way to go for a seven-pound antelope, but Guenther’s dik-dik was one of Boddington’s primary goals on a recent safari. All the dik-diks are similar, grizzled appearance, pre-orbital glands and small horns partly hidden by the forehead tuft. Guenther’s is a small race with a distinctively outsized nose.

Dik-diks are part of the tribe of pygmy antelopes. Add these and the many duikers together and there are several dozen “small antelopes” across Africa. As I’ve written before, for most of us the little guys are an acquired taste. They are usually not of great interest on one’s early safaris, but they grow on you, especially after you’ve tried to hunt some of them on purpose! The good news: They don’t take up much space in your trophy room! The bad news: No one can hunt them all! Several varieties only occur in areas not open to hunting; others are protected.

That applies to the dik-diks as well as the duikers and the other pygmy antelopes. You can’t hunt them all, but they’re pretty little antelopes, an important part of the African scene, and hunting those that can be hunted will take you to some interesting places!

Dik-diks are creatures of dry thornbush. They need security cover, but do not require surface water, thus are often found in dry areas holding few other species. A shy and secretive animal, they are also extremely nervous. A dik-dik will usually offer a quick look, then give its alarm call and dash off in a zig-zag pattern. Where they occur, they are often plentiful and are readily seen in the early morning and late afternoon. But here’s a chief difficulty in hunting them; dik-diks have a prominent tuft of hair on their foreheads, slanting back between the ears. Horn size varies with body size, but only males have horns and three-inch horns are always big. Even big dik-dik horns are partly concealed by that tuft! Judgment is thus difficult, and requires time to get binoculars up, focused and steady.

Dik-diks don’t often wait around, but here’s more good news. Usually seen in pairs, they are highly territorial and have relatively small home ranges. If a good male is identified but dashes off before a shot is possible, you can back off, find a vantage point and be patient. Give it an hour or so and there’s a good chance he’ll come tiptoeing back. Alternatively, mark that location and try again on another day.

With one exception, all the dik-diks are found from central Tanzania up through the Horn of Africa and west to Sudan. That one exception is the Damara dik-dik, separated from all others by many hundreds of miles. When I first hunted Namibia, then Southwest Africa, the Damara dik-dik was completely protected. Today, although permits are limited, it is probably the most available and accessible of the group.

The rest are creatures of East Africa and the Horn. Much of their range is inhospitable and some of it is dangerous. Appearances are generally similar. Races and subspecies bump into one another and, in some of their range, it is isn’t always clear which dik-dik we’re talking about. It is difficult to keep them straight, but our record book committee has worked hard at it. The dik-diks offer a good example of how our system has evolved. I looked at an edition from less than 20 years ago and we had categories for fully 10 dik-diks—not all of which contained entries. Today, this is reduced to a half-dozen. However, with hunting currently closed in Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan, not all are available and may or may not be again.

That doesn’t bother me too much. Big or small, no one has hunted all the African antelopes and I’m not such a long-gone fanatic that I covet a complete collection of dik-diks. But they are interesting and beautiful, and I’ve hunted them as I could. I took a very good Kirk’s dik-dik in Kenya 40 years ago. This dik-dik is still common in northern Tanzania, thus available. It was nearly 25 years ago when I got a dik-dik in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression; at that time called Cordeaux’s dik-dik. And it was nearly 15 years ago when I got a Damara dik-dik in Namibia. So I haven’t been a dik-dik freak—but I wanted one when I first hunted Uganda six years ago.

That’s Guenther’s dik-dik — a smaller dik-dik with a distinctively huge nose, widespread in the region but only found in Uganda’s northeast corner. Near the end of that safari, I had a cardiac event—a nice euphemism for heart attack—and we never quite got there. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I returned to Uganda just for Guenther’s dik-dik, but, this time, in April 2017, I didn’t want to leave again without one!

Their primary known habitat was a long drive from camp — done in the wee hours — and we didn’t get one that day. We saw dozens, but it was unusually windy and these usually nervous little animals were really spooky. We identified several males. The best view of the horns is when they turn and run away, which they all did long before a shot was possible. The ones that stood still were females. It was frustrating and seemed hopeless, but we tried again the next day — same long drive.

Dawn was cool, clear and calm and this time we knew where we’d seen males zig-zagging away. I’d like to think that helped, but perhaps we just got lucky! The sun was barely up when we saw a fine male not 50 yards from where we’d seen the first one the day before. He dashed away, as usual, but stopped behind a tree at about 100 yards. When he stepped out, I could clearly see his horns. For me it was the end of a perfect safari: At long last, I got a Guenther’s dik-dik…and I didn’t have another heart attack in the process!–Craig Boddington

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