Hot hunt for a Damara springbok

The real adventure begins after the shot for Mike Arnold in Africa

The Namibian summer sun smote down as we weaved our way through the leafless mopane scrubland. And as I grew up in west Texas, trust me that I can recognise a smiting, summer sun.

The 100-plus degrees temperature scorched our brains through our large-brimmed hats and our lungs as we breathed in the super-heated air. Professional Hunter, Kabous Grünschloss, of Jamy Traut Hunting Safaris, and I were out in the brilliant sunshine of the Kaokoland region of Namibia, chasing after a beautiful old Damara springbok ram and his ewes. We spotted the group at 300 yards as we drove along in Kabous’ LandCruiser. It didn’t take my PH long to confirm through his binoculars what he already knew with his unaided eyes – the ram was a great trophy. We grabbed the 4StableSticks rest, my MG Arms Ultra-Light in 7mm Remington Magnum, and headed towards the quickly disappearing springbok backsides.

As we progressed, we kept losing sight of the ram and his harem as they wound in and out of the head-high vegetation and through the shallow spurs that dotted the landscape. There were no leaves on the mopane trees and the ochre-coloured ground was bare and hard-packed. Clipped off by the goats of Herero squatters, there were neither mopane leaves low enough to reach, nor blades of grass to cause the springboks to hesitate in their wandering.

Instead of slowly browsing, they were single-mindedly heading from somewhere-to-somewhere-else and that resulted in them outdistancing us. We finally gave up on the stalk after not seeing their wiggling tails for 15 minutes or so.

We made our way back to the truck – seemingly having to shoulder aside the heatwaves radiating upwards. As I crawled back into the still running and blessedly air-conditioned truck, I chuckled and said that we would probably see the springboks run across the road as we headed back towards camp. The words were hardly out of my mouth when across the track in front of us streaked the ram and his eight ewes. Again, we bailed out of the LandCruiser and started weaving our way through the heat, dust and aromatic vegetation.

On this side of the track, the springboks were finding some limited leaves to munch on the trees, causing them to be slower and a bit less aware of their pursuers. We made it to within about 80 yards of the group, but they were behind a screen of mopane trees. The ewes were in front of the ram and eventually they began to file through a break between the trees that was the length of two springboks.

Kabous spread out the legs of my rest and I settled in with the riflescope trained on the opening. He called out the progression of animals and finally whispered: “The ram is next. I’ll try and stop him with a whistle.” The ram entered the field of view of my scope and just as he reached halfway, Kabous let out a whistle. The ram either didn’t hear or chose to ignore the foreign sound. I was expecting some hesitation and so my shot was a bit far back, but the effect was immediate and the animal went down for the count.

Kabous had warned me as we headed out on our first stalk that, if we were successful, we would need to be careful about how we handled the ram once he was down. Even in the sparse shade of the mopane trees, it was well over 100 degrees. He knew that the heat could cause hair slippage – the hair could fall out later from rampant bacterial growth, releasing individual hairs from their follicles. An experienced PH, Kabous also recognised that the extreme heat could cause the skin to blister when it encountered the super-heated ground.

When we reached the ram, Kabous and our tracker, Kapetja, pointed out the ram’s opossum-like ‘pouch’ which had now opened to reveal the ridge of long, luxurious, snow-white hair along its back. There is a scent gland buried in this ridge that releases a smell similar to cotton candy when the hair rises skywards.

The photography session took only a few minutes. As soon as we finished, they grabbed the springbok’s legs and jogged back to the waiting LandCruiser. This is when the trophy triage really kicked off. They gently laid the ram on the ground and Kabous reached into the bed of his truck to lift out a carboy full of water. He began to pour the water over the entire animal, paying particular attention to the thin and delicate ears. Once the ram’s hair was saturated, Kabous and Kapetja placed him in the back of the LandCruiser on a soft bed made of cloths.

We hopped in and headed towards camp, interrupting our trip twice on the way back. Kabous stopped first in order to again wet the ram’s coat and ears. It did not take long for exposure to the extreme heat and wind in the open bed to begin the drying process. The second halt occurred when we entered an area that had obviously received recent rain showers. Unlike where we collected my trophy, the mopane scrub in this region wore a thick coat of leaves.

Kabous and Kapetja wanted the leafy branches for a covering over the ram’s body. After again wetting the ram, they headed out into the surrounding scrub with their machete-like pangas. It only needed five minutes to collect the branches and weave them into a green roof. Kabous reached for the water carboy one last time, directing the liquid over the leafy roof. My experience in growing up in hot, dry regions of North America made me realise that Kabous and Kapetja were taking advantage of the low humidity and wind passing across the wet leaves to create evaporative air-conditioning.

It was another 45 minutes before we reached camp, but when we arrived the entire springbok, including its sensitive ears, was still damp and thanks to the evaporation from the wet leaves, cool to the touch. After placing the trophy onto the pad used for skinning, Kabous grabbed a water hose from a large tank, giving the ram one last dousing.

Then our skinner, Alfons, took over. Like Kabous and Kapetja before him, Alfons wasted no time in order to protect the delicate hide and hair from the oppressive heat. Alfons used great skill in making the incisions. His artistry belied his ‘disability’ from a congenital defect that left him with only two fingers and a thumb on his right hand.

From beginning to end, the caping process took 25 minutes. Because of Alfons’ care and skill, at the end of the time not only was the cape separated from the skull and horns, but the hide was free of meat and fat. This prevented the need for additional fleshing of the hide, allowing its immediate burial in the bed of salt inside the comparative coolness of the shed next to the concrete skinning pad.

After the triage

Nine months after the safari in Namibia’s Kaokoland the report from my taxidermist is that the work on my springbok by Kabous, Kapetja and Alfons was more than effective. The hide and skull are in great shape despite the conditions they encountered.

The crucial steps were keeping the animal from remaining in the extreme heat without continual wetting and protection from the intense sun and wind. The other key was speed and efficiency, not letting any individual step in the processing of the springbok take more than a few minutes to one half-hour.

From my shot at the trophy ram until the hide ended up in the salt bed, spanned only two hours. That is why the springbok skin and skull, according to the taxidermist, are in excellent shape for his part in this story. The final step, seeing the beautiful ram on the wall of my trophy room, cannot come soon enough.

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