a small herd of springbok

Good Times, Bad Times: Springbok hunting in Gordon-Cumming’s “Five Years in South Africa” and today

I soon perceived herds of springbok in every direction, which, on my following at a hard gallop, continued to join one another until the whole plain seemed alive with them. Upon our crossing a sort of ridge on the plain, I beheld the whole country, as far as my eye could reach, actually white with springboks, with here and there a herd of black gnoos or wildebeest, prancing and capering in every direction, whirling and lashing their white tails as they started off in long files on our approach.

The quote is from Five Years of a Hunter’s Life in the Far Interior of South Africa by Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming, one of the first Europeans who in 1843-1848 came to South Africa with the sole intention to hunt it for sport. Back then uncountable herds of this small, graceful antelope, that looks not too dissimilar from the American pronghorn, covered the plains of the southern tip of the Dark Continent, including the territories of the modern South Africa, Namibia and Botswana.

What is springbok?

The springbok is so termed by the colonists on account of its peculiar habit of springing or taking extraordinary bounds, rising to an incredible height in the air, when pursued. The extraordinary manner in which springboks are capable of springing is best seen when they are chased by a dog. On these occasions, away start the herd, with a succession of strange perpendicular bounds, rising with curved loins high into the air, and at the same time elevating the snowy folds of long white hair on their haunches and along their back, which imparts to them a peculiar fairy-like appearance, different from any other animal.

They bound to the height often of twelve feet, with the elasticity of an India-rubber ball, clearing at each spring from twelve to fifteen feet of ground, without apparently the slightest exertion. In performing the spring, they appear for an instant as if suspended in the air, when down come all four feet again together, and, striking the plain, away they soar again, as if about to take flight. The herd only adopt this motion for a few hundred yards, when they subside into a light elastic trot, arching their graceful necks and lowering their noses to the ground, as if in sportive mood. Presently pulling up, they face about, and reconnoiter the object of their alarm.

In crossing any path or wagon-road on which men have lately trod, the springbok invariably clears it by a single surprising bound; and when a herd of perhaps many thousands have to cross a track of the sort, it is extremely beautiful to see how each antelope performs this feat, so suspicious are they of the ground on which their enemy, man, has trodden. They bound in a similar manner when passing to leeward of a lion, or any other animal of which they entertain an instinctive dread.

springbok pronkingThe springbok has a characteristic color, with yellowish back, wide horizontal stripes running along the body, and white underbelly with snow-white hairs reaching high on the sides and the haunch. A peculiar feature of ist appearance is a skin flap, shaped like a pocket and containing an aromatic gland, on its back. The underside of the ‘pocket’ is white; the animal can raise it when it’s excited and, together with the white of the haunch, the flashing white rear end serves (much like with the white-tailed deer) as an escape signal for other animals. Thus the reference to “white with springbok” in Gordon-Cumming’s passage.

In a similar way to yet another North American creature, the black bear, the springbok comes in many color phases. The most common of them is when the underside is not white, but of the same color as the top (sometimes the whole animal is of a solid dark brown color), known as “copper springbok”. Pure white springboks, and melanistic black springbok, are also common, especially on South African game farms who sometimes practice selective breeding to improve the probability of the occurrence of rare and desirable color phases. The color variants are more common among the common, or Cape springbok. Two more subspecies are recognized: the Angola and the western, a.k.a Kalahari, springbok. The SCI trophy books also have separate categories for South African (common) and Southern or Cape springbok.

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“Trek-bokken”

Springbok is a social animal that lives in herds, and, like many other species of the African plains game, tend to gather in bigger herds if alarmed or during migration. The annual migration of the springbok, known as “trek-bokken”, became legendary. This is how Gordon-Cumming describes it:

On the 28th I had the satisfaction of beholding, for the first time, what I had often heard the Boers allude to — viz., a “trek-bokken,” or grand migration of springboks. This was, I think, the most extraordinary and striking scene, as connected with beasts of the chase, that I have ever beheld. For about two hours before the day dawned I had been lying awake in my wagon, listening to the grunting of the bucks within two hundred yards of me, imagining that some large herd of springboks was feeding beside my camp ; but on my rising when it was clear, and looking about me; I beheld the ground to the northward of my camp actually covered with a dense living mass of springboks, marching slowly and steadily along, extending from an opening in a long range of hills on the west, through which they continued pouring, like the flood of some great river, to a ridge about a mile to the northeast, over which they disappeared. The breadth of the ground they covered might have been somewhere about half a mile. I stood upon the fore-chest of my wagon for nearly two hours, lost in wonder at the novel and wonderful scene which was passing before me, and had some difficulty in convincing myself that it was reality which I beheld, and not the wild and exaggerated picture of a hunter’s dream. During this time their vast legions continued streaming through the neck in the hills in one unbroken compact phalanx. <…>

Vast and surprising as was the herd of springboks which I had that morning witnessed, it was infinitely surpassed by what I beheld on the march from my vley to old Sweirs’s camp; for, on our clearing the low range of hills through which the springboks had been pouring, I beheld the boundless plains, and even the hill sides which stretched away on every side of me, thickly covered, not with” herds,” but with ” one vast herd” of springboks; far as the eye could strain the landscape was alive with them, until they softened down into a dim red mass of living creatures.

And yet, in spite of these unimaginable quantities, even in Gorgon-Cumming time the springbok began to disappear from many areas in South Africa, and a few decades later countless herds of springbok existed only in old timers’ tales. Only a few scattered herds of the animals remained on the outskirts of the country. Today springbok is safe from extinction, and its population enjoys stable growth. But it’s herds are mostly found on game farms, hunting concessions, national parks and protected areas, and the impressive “trek-bokken” today is but a memory of times gone by.

a herd of springbok

Springbok hunting in the old days

Hunters usually get the blame for such sad incidents. Indeed, the European colonists and sportsmen in South Africa pursued the springbok with vigor.

I saddled up, and rode into the middle of them with my rifle and after-riders, and fired into the ranks until fourteen had fallen, when I cried “Enough.”

– writes Gordon-Cumming about one of his daily hunts.

Not all of them were just as successful, though. Until Martini-Henry and other long-range “Express” type rifles found their way to South Africa, it was very difficult to approach herds of springbok within the range of a Dutch “roer” smoothbore ball gun, or even a rifled muzzleloader. Hunters used different methods to overcome this problem. The most common method was “jagging”, or galloping after a herd on a fast horse, firing form the saddle at every opportunity. To quote Gordon-Cumming,

in hunting on that system an immense amount of ammunition was expended with little profit”.

Hunters who wanted to save ammo pursued springbok with greyhounds, or practiced driven hunts, with a few African servants gently pushing a herd towards the gunner. Yet another way was to wait in a blind at night near a waterhole, although firing “by feel” into a dark mass of nearly indistinguishable silhouettes also resulted in many cripples, and on one occasion Gordon-Cumming discovered that the “zebra” he killed was actually his host’s stray horse!

Apparent abundance of game and imperfection of weapons provoked behavior that is, by modern standards, totally irresponsible:

As we cantered along the flats, Strydom, tempted by a herd of springboks, which were drawn up together in a compact body, jumped off his horse, and, giving his ivory sight an elevation of several feet, let drive at them, the distance being about five hundred yards. As the troop bounded away, we could distinguish a light-colored object lying in the short heath, which he pronounced to be a springbok, and on going up we found one fine old doe lying dead, shot through the spine.

Constant practice of this kind was how the Boers acquired their legendary long-range marksmanship, but they probably wounded and lost five antelopes for each one they bagged, and disturbed and harassed a hundred.

a herd of springbokAnd yet, would simply all that killing be able to influence the springbok numbers in such a dramatic way? From the perspective of modern wildlife management, the real reason behind the plunge in springbok numbers was probably a combination of numerous factors. One of them could be disturbance, not just by hunters, but by all humans and domestic animals, especially near sources of water. Once the animals began to associate people and horses with danger, just the mere presence of a farmer near a herd could impact their normal behavior, and possibly led to higher mortality and less successful reproduction.

Another alternative would be the introduction of new viruses and bacteria, to which the local springbok had no immunity, with domestic animals and other sources. Even today mixing springbok from northern and southern South Africa in one preserve leads to increased mortality, because they carry ticks that transmit diseases that one are immune from, and the other isn’t. Gordon-Cumming writes:

every day since I arrived at these flats, I was astonished at the number of skeletons and well-bleached skulls with which the plains were covered. Thousands of skulls of springbok and wildebeest were strewed around wherever the hunter turned his eye”.

This looks more like the result of an epidemic than of hunters’ harvest, especially with such a small animal as springbok, who were usually taken to the camp whole and processed there. But perhaps the greatest factor that contributed to decimation of the African game animals was competition with domestic cattle for food, grazing areas, and water.

Springbok hunting now

Hunting in South Africa has come a long way since 1848. Whatever way we look at it, we’re looking at two different worlds. Modern hunting methods are far less harmful for the herds of springbok and other animals than what the hunters used in the old days. Spot-and-stalk is the method of choice today. The hunt starts with cruising the area in vehicles or on foot, looking for a herd or an animal that contains a suitable trophy.

a springbok trophyTrophy identification in the case of springbok is harder than for other species of antelope. Both sexes carry horns, and the springbok have an unusual in the mammal world case of sexual dimorphism, with females larger than males. A female’s horns are not as long as the males, and are thinner in the bases, so you would be looking for a smaller animal with larger horns. For a good springbok trophy, look for solid bases. With such a relatively small animal – a springbok seldom grows bigger than 50 pounds (or 22,5 kg) – such fine details are hard to see even through a powerful spotting scope.

Fortunately, hunters are accompanied by a PH, who doesn’t only notice such details with his trained eye, but also makes sure the hunter takes only clean, careful shots. And in case of the cripple, a tracker will follow the blood trail, to make sure the animal isn’t wantonly wasted. When the PH and the hunter have identified a suitable animal, a stalk begins. Both before and during the stalk, the hunters try to move as secretly as possible, and reduce disturbance to the minimum. Harvest of females and juvenile animals, even if legal, is not usually tolerated, although a limited number of females without offspring may be harvested to ensure better sex ratio in the herd.

A springbok is every bit as difficult a target as in the old days. In most cases you will have to connect with a tiny vitals of this dweller of the open place from a considerable distance, typically 250 to 350 yard shots are common. High-power optics and laser rangefinders make long-range shooting easier than ever before, but still it’s a good idea to select an accurate rifle for a cartridge with a flat trajectory for springbok hunting. The antelopes  will often move as you’re preparing to take the shot, and you might not have the time to measure the distance again. In this situation, a flat-shooting rifle will give you more margin for making a clean, ethical shot at an effectively unknown range.

Good times or bad times?

In the XIX century hunting was often the means to “clear the land” for cattle and farms. Today, the situation is totally opposite. Hunting concessions and game farms often use the land that formerly housed pastures and fields, rewilding it to the ecosystem that existed before European colonization. The process is financed totally by hunters’ dollars, and so killing a few individuals helps bring the “trek-bokken” back into the picture.  

And the best part of modern South African hunting today is that the opportunity is open for almost everyone. Gordon-Cumming came from one of the richest families of the kingdom. He went to South Africa as an officer assigned to a local regiment, with relocation costs covered by the Crown (talk about going hunting and the Queen footing the bill!), and he made a small fortune on ivory during his travels. And yet, on return to Britain with all his trophies, he was a thousand pounds in the red. Averaging different methods of calculating historic currency value, in modern money his safari cost him about 1.5 million USD!

springbok maleA lot of hunters would think the money was well spent. On the other hand, African hunting today is affordable enough to be a middle-class occupation, not just something for the very rich. Most modern hunters would, in a heartbeat, choose to harvest one animal in a way that benefits wildlife and ecosystems, rather than partake in environmentally questionable old-style hunting. All things considered, from the springbok hunting perspective, the good times are now!

If you haven’t yet hunted Africa, have a look at the African hunting offers on BookYourHunt.com. This will be an unforgettable experience, and you don’t need a span of oxen, a fast horse, or a two-groove rifle, to relate to the following Gordon-Cumming’s words:

As I rode along in the intense and maddening excitement of the chase, I felt a glad feeling of unrestrained freedom, which was common to me during my career in Africa, and which I had seldom so fully experienced; and notwithstanding the many thorns which surrounded my roses during the many days and nights of toil and hardship which I afterward encountered, I shall ever refer to those times as by far the brightest and happiest of my life.

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