Sweet Sahara Safari….in Texas

There’s a fine art to being a good observer. As a hunter, I want to participate, but keen observers need to recognize when they need to keep their mouths shut and stay out of the way. This was one of those times! A big herd, perhaps 50 animals, was feeding slowly along a linear clearing. We’d made four approaches, two from each side. Despite tricky wind, we’d avoided spooking them, but they’d gone on high alert and the big bull we’d spotted among them hadn’t offered a shot.

Now they were calm again, with a few animals lying down. A little finger of trees gave us some cover. If we could get to the edge and if our bull was visible, we might have a shot. It was time for hands-and-knees and time for me to keep out of the way! I hung back 40 yards while Adam and Lala Biondich and guide Houston Erskine crawled slowly forward. Crouched under an oak, I could see pale animals out in the clearing beyond them, but had no idea if they could see the bull.    

We were on Tom Hammond’s Record Buck Ranch in the Texas Hill Country, accompanying my buddy Adam and his young daughter Lala, on an auction hunt he’d purchased for her. Amazingly, the bull we were after was the closest animal, bedded about 200 yards out, but I couldn’t see him. Trying to be a good observer, I didn’t want to move, so I watched, having no idea what they could see, while Lala snugged her rifle into a convenient tree fork, just right for a sitting position.

Through earmuffs, I heard the shot and the impact and then there were animals running everywhere. I still had no idea what had happened, but there was some back-slapping. Then we walked out into the clearing to admire a gorgeous scimitar oryx bull with long, thick, curving horns. Lala’s bullet had taken him down through the on-shoulder and into the chest cavity. The bull had never risen from his bed, taken perfectly with a very tricky shot.

One of my few regrets is that I missed the great desert hunting in Chad, ended by civil war in the 1970s. The scimitar oryx is one of three great antelope prizes from the Sahara region, together with the addax and Dama gazelle. Peter Barrett’s collection, A Treasury of African Hunting (Winchester Press, 1979) contains one of the best accounts, Sweet Sahara Safari by Roger Fawcett, hunting scimitar oryx and addax with the great French outfitter Claude Vasselet. As a youngster in the L.A. Chapter in about 1980, I remember admiring Dr. Ed Chatwell’s scimitar oryx in his trophy room. By then both the opportunity and the animals were nearly gone, and the Sahara sands were reclaiming the French Foreign Legion outpost at Oum Chalouba.

In early 2001 Chris Kinsey and I did a long safari in Chad with Alain Lefol. We saw the ruins of Oum Chalouba and we saw the wild melons in the sahel where thousands of scimitar oryx once roamed. There were still many of the small Dorcas gazelle, but the scimitar oryx were long gone. Vulnerable in that open ground, they were massacred to feed competing factions during Chad’s long civil war, remnants probably lost during the Libyan invasion in 1978. The sahel is a big place, but the last native scimitar oryx was gone from Africa before 2000.

Hunters in TexasAddax and Dama gazelle have also been reported extinct in their native range. Apparently (and fortunately) this was never true. Twist-horned Addax live much deeper in the desert and were less vulnerable than oryx. In 2001 tribesmen assured us there were still addax in deep wadis near the Libyan border. There may still be and apparently a few still remain in Niger and perhaps Mauritania. The long-legged Dama is the largest of all gazelles, dark red back and neck, white underparts. Like the addax, the Dama gazelle is considered critically endangered in the wild, but a few hundred persist in pockets in Mali, Niger and Chad.

The good news is all three antelopes have been reintroduced successfully into African parks and reserves where they can be protected: Addax into Morocco and Tunisia; Dama into Senegal and Tunisia. The scimitar oryx has been reintroduced into the wild in Chad, and there are also captive breeding programs in Tunisia, Morocco, and Senegal.

There is almost no chance that these three great desert antelopes will ever again be hunted on their native range, but equally no chance these magnificent species can be lost. There are captive populations in zoos and parks outside of Africa and all three occur in breeding populations in Texas. Not so long ago they were uncommon in Texas, present but sometimes termed “super exotics,” found on few ranches. There are many more today, although populations vary.

The Dama gazelle is the least plentiful of the three, with breeding stock costly and uncommon. Scimitar oryx are the most plentiful, naturally forming into large herds (a single herd of 10,000 was reported in the sahel in 1936). Of the three, the scimitar oryx is the most prolific and probably easiest to breed and manage. They are not found on all ranches, but there are thousands of scimitar oryx in Texas. Addax are in the middle. They form into small mixed-sex family groups and roam widely to find favored forage. Few ranches have large numbers of addax, but they are not uncommon.

There can never be another sweet Sahara safari like the Sixties and Seventies, but Texas has a vast reservoir of these three unique animals, often called the “three amigos” because they hail from the same part of Africa and all are perilously endangered in native range. When we drove into Record Buck Ranch from the San Antonio Airport, the first animal we saw was a beautiful Dama gazelle ram, an animal Lala had never seen. Around the bend and long before we reached the lodge, we saw a bachelor group of awesome addax bulls. Scimitar oryx we did not see until we went looking for them, but there are plenty, in big herds. Counting all reintroductions and remnant wild animals, there are many more of all “three amigos” in Texas than in North Africa.

The reason they exist is because they have value. Trust me, this value isn’t established just by hunters. Regardless of what you’re raising, ranching is a business. The three amigos have value to hunters, but have equal (and often greater) value to other ranchers who want to start or expand their own herds. These are the dynamics behind the game ranching industry worldwide, and the unique Texas situation that harbors, nurtures and fosters dozens of species that are scarce on their home turf. This was sorely tested just a few years ago when, because of their critically endangered status in native range, it appeared that it might be impossible for Texas ranchers to hunt, sell, or move the “three amigos” without special permits. This would remove all value, meaning that the forage they might consume should be diverted to more profitable livestock.

Even the threat of reduced value caused a fire sale, with some ranchers quickly divesting themselves of all three species at very low prices. For a time, Texas populations dropped. Fortunately, the problem was quickly resolved. Subject to regulations for all wildlife and livestock, the three amigos can be traded, sold and hunted without special permit. Values are again high and while a sweet Sahara safari is out of the question, the great Sahara game is plentiful—and huntable—in Texas.–Craig Boddington

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