Hunting the Common Waterbuck

To Ernest Hemingway, an avid hunter, there was ‘no more ruggedly handsome animal in all of Africa’ than the Waterbuck, with its long lyre-shaped forward sweeping horns. This is the largest of the Kob antelope and now scientifically divided into two species, the bigger of the two species being the Common Waterbuck (or Ringed Waterbuck) Kobus ellipsiprymnus which are known by their trademark white ring around its rump. The slightly smaller of the two species is the ringless Defassa Waterbuck which has a darker complexion. Even though classified as separate species they hybridise. Photos showing the difference between the two. 

Defassa Waterbuck
Defassa Waterbuck.


Waterbuck have a fairly sparse long shaggy coat covered in a greasy, unpleasant musky smelling substance. This secretion deters predators and waterproofs the animal’s body. The bulls can be extremely aggressive towards each other. Threat displays, dung and urine scent marking are used to demarcate their territories, but when that doesn’t work, Waterbucks will literally fight to the death,  and are often killed from wounds inflicted during territorial combat. 


The Waterbuck was described in 1833 from a specimen shot near Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. Their range extends from Eastern Botswana, eastwards towards the Indian Ocean, from northern South Africa, through Zimbabwe, Eastern Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, to Eastern Ethiopia and Somalia.    


Records indicate that the best trophy hunting is in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Hunting permits are readily available in the following countries: Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania, as well as Cameroon and Ethiopia.  

By far, the majority of Waterbuck hunts take place in South Africa, primarily in the Northern and Eastern Limpopo Province. Good free-range hunting is also available in the Caprivi (Namibia), Zimbabwe, Luangwa Valley (Zambia), Mozambique and Tanzania.  

Waterbuck have been introduced to many game ranches extending their historical distribution range across South Africa and parts of Namibia where they are now commonly hunted animals.

Common Waterbuck male
Commmon Waterbuck



Waterbuck are categorised as bulk grazers, feeding on tall grass with a high fibre content. They prefer to graze the more palatable sweet grasses of the savannas, scrublands, rocky hills, floodplains and reedbeds. These are the areas you need to check first thing in the morning and late afternoon.

They are often sighted from a vantage point or at a distance from a vehicle. Although they have good eyesight and excellent hearing they may be easily approached except in areas where they are heavily hunted where they may become more nocturnal and hide out during the day. They enjoy the early morning sun after a chilly night so make sure to glass the area over.    

Another favourite grazing area is recently burnt areas. This flushing green grass has a high nutritional value and will attract animals from all around.


Although Waterbuck do not readily take to water they are a water dependent species and always found near water. As soon as the day warms up they will be driven to water to quench their thirst.

Most bow hunting ranches or concessions have permanent blinds set-up at various water points. With the aid of modern day technology, camera traps can be used to pattern and judge the trophy quality of the animals visiting these waterholes.

Something to keep in mind is Waterbuck are solid animals with a heavy  substantial bone structure that can easily deflect an arrow. Therefore ensure you only take a quartering away or towards shot to ensure your arrow path and penetration is not deflected or obstructed by a rib or shoulder blade.     


Waterbuck are gregarious animals, forming small to medium sized family groups. Larger groups may be found during the wet season when food is more readily available or animals are attracted to a food fest like a green flush during the winter months. These herds may be dominated by a territorial bull which in some circumstances will tolerate satellite bulls.

Common Waterbuck Cow and Calf
Common Waterbuck Cow and Calf

When chased out the herd, young bulls will form bachelor groups. Dominant territorial bulls in most instances will not tolerate other mature bulls and will pursue other bulls relentlessly. Should these bulls be unable to escape, especially on smaller game fenced properties, it is not uncommon for the weaker of the bulls to be killed by the dominant male. 

Another interesting fact is that most wildlife experts agree that the white circle around a Waterbuck’s hindquarters serves to assist other animals in the group to navigate while fleeing from danger or a predator. This is used as a ‘follow me sign’ and not as a target for a desperate hunter taking a “Texas heart shot”.

Despite their name, Waterbucks do not like to enter the water if they have a choice.  However, they are strong swimmers, and when chased by predators they unhesitatingly take to the water to evade certain death.


The drier the season, the better your chances are of a successful hunt. Lack of access to quality grazing and water during the winter months and early spring before the rains begin, mean the animals will be more mobile in search of adequate food and water. The more the animals have to move the more chance you have of bumping into them.

This is particularly applicable in the large free-range hunting concessions where hunting in the early season may be more difficult when water is abundant after good rains. Later is the season when the temporary watering points and pools have dried out, the Waterbuck will concentrate along the rivers, around dams and to areas where water is pumped to manmade waterholes.    

Bowhunters should for this reason always opt to hunt later in the season rather than take a chance of hunting too early in the year. Obviously, some habitats make for easier bow hunting, such as desert or semi-arid country hunts as opposed to well watered high rainfall mountainous areas.  


The benchmark for a good quality Waterbuck is 28 inches and anything from 30 inches or more is out the top draw. Unfortunately, many young bulls are hunted prior to reaching their prime and therefore lack any decent horn mass. Older bulls have thicker bases and more pronounced ridges along its horn length but you may lose a little on the length due to years of wear and tear. Photo of a waterbucks head close up showing the rings on the horns.      


The qualifying measurements for the record books are:

Waterbuck (Common)

Safari Club International Record Book Rowland Ward Record Book
Archery Min. Rifle Min. Record Measuring Method Minimum Record Measuring Method
63” 70″ 93 7/8″ 1 28″ 39 3/8″ 7-a


This is not a popular game breeding project species. However, free roaming Waterbuck are regularly sold on catalogue at game auctions where they are captured by using a game capture boma (coral) or passive capture site and delivered directly to the buyer’s property.   

Common waterback male
Common Waterbuck. This picture gives a plain view of horn ridges.


One would expect Waterbuck to be great jumpers but they are in fact fence creepers. They would rather seek out a hole in the fence and slide that big body under the fence. On release, the first thing a Waterbuck will do is a boundary fence patrol in search of any weak spots to escape (learn more about evolution of high fence operations in South Africa).

One game farmer said to me, “If you want to keep a Waterbuck on your property, the best is to release it on your neighbour’s farm and rest assured they will break into your farm and be happy to stay.”  


Habitat loss caused by human encroachment, the construction of roads, development of new settlements and clearing of land for agricultural crops all lead to the fragmentation of precious wildlife habitat which impacts on all wildlife.

In some marginal Waterbuck habitat areas they can become very prone to excessive tick loads especially during extended dry weather patterns. This may lead to anaemia and eventual death.  


These big, bulky solid animals should be treated with respect and never hunted with any rifle less than a 300 calibre. Many professional hunters would go so far as to recommend a .375 calibre if the option was available. Familiarity with your rifle or bow and good marksmanship always play a major role in the success of your hunt.

Wounded Waterbuck are difficult to track as the thick shaggy coat tends to absorb the blood making it very difficult to follow or even find a blood spoor. Should you ever be in such an unfortunate situation, stop and listen on a regular basis as Waterbuck are very heavy on their hooves compared to other antelope. Their noisy, somewhat clumsy movement often leads to them dislodging small stones and giving away their position. 

Never underestimate a Waterbuck’s aggression when wounded. An associate of mine has been charged and chased round and round a tree on more than one occasion. Always be ready for the unexpected.        


For many years the venison from a Waterbuck has been regarded as not really palatable. This fallacy probably arose from the smelly oily secretion found on the animal’s hair. This unpleasant greasy substance with a musky odour reputedly taints the meat.   

For some the jury is still out and many will not touch this meat. The secret is to ensure that the fur does not touch the meat while skinning. If special precautions are taken while skinning the animal, this meat can be sold for human consumption and nobody will be none the wiser regarding the taste of this venison. Waterbuck venison is now packaged and sold accordingly and no longer sold or disguised as salami (cured sausage), in homemade boerewors (farmer sausage) or biltong (a type of salted jerky).   

By Peter Ruddle


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