Gemsbok in Kalahari desert

The Desert Oryx: Gemsbok and Gemsbok Hunting

There is nothing as visually striking as a Gemsbok basking in morning sunlight on the red Kalahari sand dunes or feeding on a carpet of colour and vitality in the Namaqualand Desert during the flower season.

Gemsbuck in a field of flowers
Namaqualand Gemsbok

Both sexes of this desert adapted species carry impressive long, sharp, spear-like horns protruding from a black and white masked face. They have solid muscular shoulders, and their body is covered with coarse grey brittle hair, that looks like quills rather than fur, underlined by a black belly stripe.

Hunting Gemsbok in their natural habitat is the true epitome of a desert hunt.   

HISTORICAL DISTRIBUTION

Gemsbok, or Gemsbuck, or the Giant Oryx (Oryx gazelle) originally occurred in the arid and semi-arid regions of the south western tip of the African continent. Extending from Namibia, through to the central regions of Botswana and southwards towards the western regions of South Africa.   

The closely related Beisa and Fringe-eared Oryx may be hunted further north in Ethiopia and Tanzania, respectively.

WHERE TO HUNT GEMSBOK

Without doubt, the best place to hunt Gemsbok is in the Kalahari Desert which encompasses three countries, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

Free range hunting is available in Botswana and Namibia. However, due to the low carrying capacity the high fenced desert properties in Namibia and South Africa are substantially huge in size and can easily be classified as free range. 

Gemsbok can be hunted throughout Namibia, most of Botswana and the drier regions of South Africa. This species is now widely distributed across many game farms from the Western and Eastern Cape, Free State, Northern Cape, North West to Limpopo Province in the north of South Africa. 

Gemsbok over blue skies

Their introduction as a game farming species in the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces is limited to areas with good drainage and sandy soils. These two provinces receive higher rainfall than the rest of the country and this makes Gemsbuck susceptible to “Foot Rot” causing the animals to go lame and eventually die of starvation.  

HABITS

Gemsbok is a gregarious species which often congregates in herds of up to 10 – 40 animals in the wild, or sometimes over a hundred or more, depending on the season. Bulls may be found in the herds at any time of the year, or in bachelor groups, and in many cases may live alone.  

The Gemsbok are nomadic animals, and spend most of their time following the rains wandering around looking for food. Being a water independent species they graze at night and early morning when plants hold the most moisture, and this is enough to sustain them until they can enjoy a good thirst quenching drink. Gemsbok supplement their moisture intake with bulbs, succulents, wild Tsama melons and will drink when water is available.

They are readily drawn to mineral and salt-licks, a good starting place to look when setting out on a hunt. They have extremely keen eyesight, always on the lookout for danger even when resting in the shade during the heat of the day.

HOW TO HUNT GEMSBOK

RIFLE HUNTING

Dune Hunting in the Desert

Hunting in the wide open desert country normally entails the use of a lightweight 4×4 vehicle that can handle the desert sand. Trying to walk down a Gemsbok on a walk and stalk requires some luck, good walking boots and is for the super fit able to operate in these extremely hot, dry and sandy conditions.

The norm is to use a vehicle cresting each sand dune very carefully so that once a Gemsbok is sighted, the professional hunter can move back down the dune out of sight. The animals will then be glassed at a distance and once it is established that there is a suitable trophy in the herd, then the hunt will commence.

Hunting in this open desert environment often requires a long shot but prior to that happening a well-planned walk and stalk will be required.

Bushveld Hunting

Similarly, when hunting the bushveld a vehicle will be used to enable the hunting party to cover as much ground as possible. Hunting Gemsbok in the bushveld is probably more difficult than in the open grasslands or desert.

These animals generally stick to the tree line and disappear at the first sign of any disturbance. Often the best tactic is to find high ground early in the morning and glass the area for grazing animals or animals sunning themselves in the early morning sun.

Plan your approach carefully and hope the animal is still in the vicinity when you get to the area where you last saw it before starting your stalk. 

Gemsbok bulls
Gemsbok bulls

BOWHUNTING  

Bow hunting Gemsbok is a patience game. Being a water independent species means hunting over water is not going to be your most successful approach. Gemsbuck do drink, but very erratically and therefore difficult to pattern; they will drink water when readily available but unlike most other species this does not guarantee that they will grace you with their presence.  

Most Outfitters use mineral blocks and salt licks to entice Gemsbok to permanent blinds that are normally strategically placed near water. These animals often approach the blind from an unconventional angle as compared to the other game species. Make sure you remain concealed, wait patiently, moving slowly and carefully even inside the blind so as not to be detected. Gemsbok will bolt at the slightest irregular movement and will not return to the site. 

BEST SEASON TO HUNT GEMSBOK

Gemsbok may be hunted year round especially in the open desert regions. However, due to more pleasant hunting conditions most hunters select to hunt this species in the cooler winter months. The days may not be as long as summer but conditions are far more conducive for an enjoyable hunt. 

However, due to the lack of nutrients and minerals found in fresh grass, the Gemsbok more readily seek out salt and mineral blocks during the dry winter months (June – September) which may improve your chances of success while hunting with a bow. 

TROPHY QUALITY

Both the Safari Club International and Rowland Ward measuring systems favour horn length as opposed to mass. For this reason the top world record Gemsbok horns over the years have all been cows.

The bulls have thicker bases and used to sex these animals while in the field. Bull’s constantly grind and sharpen their battle ready horns whilst cows horns tend to grow out. Estimating a Gemsbok’s horn length can very daunting if you are not an experienced hunter. Some hunters say that if the horns are as tall as the animal’s shoulder when grazing, it’s a good trophy whilst others say if its horns can reach its rump, you know it’s a good trophy.   

The world record horn length for a Gemsbok is 49 4/8”. Any bull that measures 34 – 36” or more is a good trophy and anything over 40” is an exceptional trophy. Horns are measured from the base along the front of the horn to the tip.

QUALIFYING MEASUREMENTS

Qualifying measurements for the SCI and Rowland Ward record books are:

 

 GEMSBUCK (ORYX) (GEMSBOK, SOUTHERN OR KALAHARI GEMSBUCK) Oryx gazella
Safari Club International Record Book Rowland Ward Record Book
Archery Min.

Inches

Rifle Min.

Inches

Record

Score

Measuring Method Minimum

Inches

Record

Inches

Measuring Method
79 88 111 5/8 1 40 49 4/8 7-a

BREEDING PROJECTS

Gemsbok are not commonly bred for horn length in the numerous breeding projects throughout South Africa and to a lesser degree in Namibia. 

Golden Gemsbok
Golden Gemsbok

Golden and the lesser common Red Gemsbok, both genetic mutations are being bred by game breeders in South Africa. As their numbers increase, game breeders are selling their progeny off to other breeders with the final market being destined for the trophy hunters.

A few years ago these colour variants sold for exorbitant prices during the big hype that this was the future of trophy hunting. However, the demand from trophy hunters never materialised and the prices tanked. The prices for these colour variant species continues its downward spiral due to the lack of demand from the marketplace, so if you are looking for something different you should be able to find a good deal.

FENCES

Gemsbok are easily retained by a conventional stock fence and do not require any form of high fencing to retain the species. They are creepers so you need to ensure the bottom stands do not allow a Gemsbok to poke its head under the fence or else it will continue with its walkabout.

However in order to protect a landowners investment into this species, most territories in South Africa are high-fenced in order to lay claim to the animals on your ranch. This is important for a hunting operator, because claiming the animals as your own enables you to file stock theft charges (which carry hefty fines and jail time) against would-be poachers found on your property.

Red Gemsbuck
Red Gemsbok

High fenced properties with exemption permits may also hunt year round which also makes for good business sense. This has led to a fencing boom in South Africa, a trend being followed in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and even Mozambique to a lesser degree (read more on evolution of high fences).

CONSERVATION THREATS

Habitat destruction and fragmentation are the biggest threats to this species. In places like Botswana more and more semi-arid land is fenced for cattle ranching to meet the demands for the export of beef to the European Union. Furthermore, miles and miles of stock disease prevention fences now criss-cross the country inhibiting the free movement and migration of animals in search of better grazing and access to water.

Gemsbok are listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. 

HUNTING TIPS

  •         Use a flat shooting rifle with a good scope, accurate over a distance of 300 – 400 yards.
  •         A common mistake is to shoot too high on the body. As is the case with all African game, never shoot above the horizontal midline. Be careful not to aim higher than a third of the way up on the humped shoulder of a Gemsbok. 
  •         Hunt early in the morning when Gemsbok are grazing as this is when they are most vulnerable and can be caught off guard.
  •         Mornings in the desert can be extremely cold and the days can be warm to hot even during the winter months. Dress in layers, so that you can peel excess clothing off during the day but as soon as the sun dips below the horizon you will be reaching for your warm gear. 
  •         Tall trees and windmills can come in very handy as vantage points when hunting the flat open scrubby country where you cannot see over the trees. Take you time to plan your approach in these areas and look for landmarks that can be used during the stalk.
  •         Take plenty of water, sun block and practical headgear as you never know how long the walk and stalk may take or how far you may need to follow a wounded animal.
  •          Gemsbok are extremely dangerous and aggressive when injured, wounded or cornered. Always approach from the back and at all times stay clear of those menacing rapier sharp horns used to defend themselves from predators as big as Lions, Leopards and Hyenas. Make sure it is dead before you start admiring the horns.  

VENISON

Gemsbok is rated as one of the most delicious venisons on the continent. Meat from animals hunted in Africa may not be legally imported into countries like the United States, Australia or the European Union. So if you are not a local Southern African hunter you really need to try this meat rated by most as much better than Elk. This fantastic meat needs to be cooked rare to medium rare and served with a glass of good red wine.

By Peter Ruddle

 

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