A Poor Man’s Buffalo? Wildebeest and Wildebeest Hunting

Wildebeest, or Gnu

Who hasn’t seen, at least on TV or in an illustrated magazine, the breathtaking scene of uncountable herds of this antelope during their annual migration? The stubborn-looking, hump-backed antelope with short, curving horns, that provides this incredible footage, is probably either an Eastern or a Western White-Bearded Wildebeest, one of the many subspecies of Wildebeest, or Gnu. And while Wildebeest didn’t make the Top 5 of the most popular animals to hunt in South Africa, it’s somewhat clumsy appearance (said to be assembled by God out of leftover parts after He made all other animals) is one of the most recognizable images of Africa.

Black Wildebeest

As the Dutch colonists began to explore the African continent, among the animals they discovered was a dark-colored, stubborn-looking, hump-backed antelope. They called it Wildebeest, because its looks reminded them of their domestic cattle. An alternative name, Gnu, was borrowed from one of the local languages; the sound is supposed to resemble the alarm call of the animals. Black, or white-tailed Wildebeest, as it is called today to distinguish it from the other species found further on to the North of the continent, has since become one of the most popular game animals in South Africa, and has also been introduced to game farms in Namibia and Botswana

With its dark brown (rather than actually black) skin, and characteristic horns that curl forward, the Black Wildebeest is an iconic South African hunting quarry. The indigenous hunters-gatherers track and stalk it or sit over waterholes with their primitive bows and arrows. Long journeys in teams of friends to hunt Wildebeest for biltong has become a tradition deeply rooted in South Africa. Wildebeest biltong is highly prized, although when fresh the Wildebeest venison is said to be tough and dry. The skin is the source for high-quality leather, and the long, flowing tail of the black wildebeest is used for traditional fly-whisks.

Blue Wildebeest

Blue Wildebeest, a.k.a. Common Wildebeest, a.k.a. Brindled Gnu, is the other of the two species of Gnu. The herds of this antelope dwell in the savannas and open spaces of Eastern and Southern Africa, from Tanzania to Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and RSA. It’s the uncountable herds of this antelope during their annual migration that make a striking sight that is a favorite with TV channels and illustrated magazines, and attract thousands of wildlife viewers who want to see it with their own eyes.

The Blue Wildebeest is further divided into five subspecies: the Eastern and Western White-Bearded, Cookson’s Wildebeest, Nyasa Wildebeest, and Blue Wildebeest proper. The Blue Wildebeest is easy to distinguish from the Black Wildebeest by characteristic shape of the horns and the silvery shade of its short-haired skin. Well, at least unless we’re talking about rare color phase variants, such as Golden Wildebeest, that are found on some South African and Namibian game farms. The “Blue Wildebeest proper” – that is,  the Common Gnu that is not classified as White-Bearded, Cookson’s, Nyasa, or a color variant, can be hunted in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana. The other subspecies will be discussed below.

Golden Wildebeest

Whatever some people may say, the Golden Wildebeest was not “artificially bred” by South African game farmers. It’s a natural color phase that has been well documented both by early European settlers and in the aboriginal folklore. It’s not so much “golden” as red or light brown, but it makes for a truly unusual color, adding greatly to the strange ugly-to-the-point-of-beautiful attractiveness of the Common Gnou.

White-Bearded Wildebeest

The White-Bearded Wildebeest is divided into Eastern and Western. Both inhabit the savannahs of East Africa, the former to the East, and the latter to the West of the Gregory Rift Valley. The Eastern variety is said to differ from the Western by somewhat lighter color and longer horns, however, the differences are minimal and it would take an expert to tell one from the other. In fact, some trophy books list both subspecies in the same category. This is the variety of Wildebeest that most often graces magazine covers and TV screens, and attracts thousands of tourist who want to see the magnificent migration with their own eyes. Hunting opportunities for this subspecies exist in Tanzania.   

Nyasa Wildebeest

The distinguishing feature of the Nyasa Wildebeest is a white stripe across the muzzle. However, in some individuals this feature is not so clearly pronounced as in others. As follows from the name, the Nyasa Wildebeest is common to the region of Nyasaland. Hunting opportunities for this animal exist in parts of Tanzania.

Cookson’s Wildebeest

Cookson’s Wildebeest is said to be bigger and lighter colored than other subspecies of Gnu. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this subspecies of the Blue Wildebeest is the area it inhabits: the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, often called “Africa’s best kept secret”. With almost no human population, and an abundant supply of water, the valley features outstanding natural diversity and animal numbers. Trophy hunting helps finance the conservation of this exceptional area. Think about it when you’re looking at the trophy fees for Cookson’s Wildebeest: it greatly exceeds the antelope’s value in meat and skin, and the money is used to finance anti-poaching measures, and generally to keep the valley from being taken over for farms, etc.

Wildebeest Conservation

Both the Blue and the Black Wildebeest are listed as Least Concern. In Namibia and South Africa they are mostly found on game farms and ranches, where they are considered the property of the landowner. A permit is required to hunt free-ranging populations of the Black Wildebeest in South Africa. In many other African nations Wildebeest hunting is also permit-based; permits are usually readily available for outfitters and their clients, but the hunter mostly has to make up the mind what animals he or she intends to harvest well in advance of the hunt.

It’s not hunting, however, that is the biggest threat for the species, but human encroachment. Fences across migration routes spell big problems, and habitat fragmentation works against big herds (it’s been proven that calf survival rates in Wildebeest are positively correlated to the size of the herd). Hunting concessions play an important part in conservation of the species, and game ranches, whatever anyone can say about them, play an important part in Wildebeest conservation, both by keeping a reserve stock and protecting habitat.

The Best Time for Wildebeest Hunting

Generally speaking, Wildebeest hunting opportunities exist year round. This, however, mostly refers to game ranches in South Africa. Elsewhere, hunting opportunities are limited either by law or by climate. December to February, however, are usually too hot for many African countries, and it’s not surprising that in Zimbabwe the months of January and February are closed for hunting anyway. In Tanzania precipitation is more important for planning a safari than temperature, as some areas are difficult to access and hunt during the rain season, which starts in November. Hunting season in Tanzania runs from July 1 to December 31. In Zambia the season is open from late June or early July, and runs to the late October.

As is the case with most ungulates, the best time for hunting is the rut. Wildebeest bulls select a small mating territory, where they make their displays, and fight with other bulls over the territories and/or cows. The rut usually happens in May to July. Apart from the rut, the consensus is that the dry season usually works better for Wildebeest hunting than the wet season: the animals are easier to see in low grass, and easier to find as they concentrate over sources of water. However, it’s best to ask your outfitter (for example, using the BookYourHunt.com chat feature). Africa is big, and conditions often vary as day and night in different parts of the same country!

How to Hunt Wildebeest

Wildebeest is a creature of the savannah, a habitat perfectly suited for spot-and-stalk hunting, as it is often just open enough to allow easy identification of animals, and provides just enough cover for quiet approach. The hunter and the PH begin with covering ground, on foot or in vehicles, from one good observation point to another, and glass the area for herds of suitable animals. If the hunter goes after the Wildebeest in the course of a combination hunt, typical for Tanzania and Zambia, the search is often done opportunistically. That is, the hunter and the PH keep both eyes open when laying bait for Leopard or Lion, or looking for Buffalo and Hippo, and shift gears if they see a good Wildebeest.

You don’t want to find the million-animal herd from that National Geographic show, however: fooling a thousand eyes and ears can be a great challenge. So is keeping track of that once-in-a-lifetime record bull, as it can change places with a different animal as the herd moves about. A small herd or bachelor group would perhaps work better.  The Wildebeest have a well-developed communication system, and an alarm sounded by one animal will be immediately taken to consideration by others. That is to say, all the herd will vanish in a cloud of dust before you can take the shot. And by the way it may not be a good idea to shoot them running…

Wildebeest: Shoot to Kill

Wildebeest is often called “a poor man’s Buffalo”. This saying is well justified in many ways. First, in the appearance of the beasts. A Wildebeest does resemble bovines, including Cape Buffalo, in appearance, including the shape of horns. In older bulls the bases get wider until they resemble the ‘boss’ of the Buffalo, and, while they never actually join together, the distance between the bases is important for trophy estimation. The more mature the animal, the smaller the space between the horns.  

Another similarity is that both are notoriously hard to kill. Another saying one often hears is that the Gnu is born sick, but feels better with every lead pill you give him. You don’t need an elephant gun to hunt Wildebeest – most PHs recommend something in the 7 mm – .300 Magnum class to hunt it – but the antelope hardly ever drops down in its tracks, even if the shot is well placed. It often doesn’t – confused by the hump on the shoulder, many hunters that are new to Wildebeest hunting aim too high. Last but not the least, a wounded Wildebeest is as eager to charge, as the buff, so take care when approaching a cripple.

The Delicate Issue of Money

You can find a cull Wildebeest hunt for under $1,000. However, in most cases the trophy fees (with permits) for a Blue Wildebeest run at about $1,000-$1,200, for the Black Wildebeest – $1,000-2,000, and for the rarer kinds. A trophy fee for Golden Wildebeest, for instance, can run into $2,300-$2,500 range, and Cookson’s Wildebeest in Zambia is as expensive as $3,000-$3,500. Few hunters travel as far as Africa to hunt just one antelope; most prefer to pursue five to seven “plains game” species in the course of a 5 to 10 day hunt. Such “plains game packages” usually start at $3,000.

The most expensive Wildebeest hunts are combination hunts and old-school safaris in Tanzania. Wildebeest permit can be had on a ten-day license there, but add daily rates for the relevant number of days and you’ll have a hunt that runs well into five figures. A similar situation exists in Zambia, where Cookson’s Wildebeest hunting is usually done as a side-runner to Lion, Leopard, Buffalo or Hippo hunting. In such places, you will only get a good value if you hunt for a decent list of trophies. But, given that such hunts take you following the trails of the classic safari writers, a lot of hunters consider it money well spent.

To Sum it Up

Wildebeest is the classic quarry of “plains game” hunting. The indigenous hunters-gatherers track and stalk it or sit over waterholes with their primitive bows and arrows, and long journeys in teams of friends to hunt them for biltong is an old tradition of South Africans. The meat of wildebeest is said to be tough and dry when fresh but a delicacy when converted to biltong. The skin is the source for high-quality leather, and the tail of the black wildebeest, long and flowing, is used for traditional fly-whisks. And the horns, for the international hunter, will be a long-lasting memento of the outlandish experience of hunting in Africa, and a material reminder of the moment when the yellow pages and TV shows came alive before your eyes!

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