The Allure Of African Specialized Game

Scanning mountains in Ethiopia

Recovery and therapy to repair the muscle tear would have to wait. Because at this moment about 400 yards ahead along the saddle and to the left back into the canyon was something rarely seen in the safari world. I knew it was extraordinary because the trackers were climbing to such great heights for me to get a shot.

Ethiopia/Damaro Concession | King of the Mountain

Never once, not even for a second, did I question the motivation for this stalk. The pain on a scale from 1 to 10 was a 10 from the tear of my right hamstring. I had wrapped it tightly with an Ace bandage prior to the climb, and as I looked down the face of the mountain, I could feel that butterfly flutter reaction one gets in the pit of the stomach when at a high altitude. Leg pain, elevation, fatigue and exhaustion were all there; excuses just waiting to be activated if I missed this shot. That trigger pull is but a split second of the entire hunt. In my book, everything that leads up to that moment is interconnected and equally important.

Seven days earlier that November, my hunting partner/cameraman Emaneul “Kappie” Kapp and I had chartered from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, meeting with Professional Hunter Jason Roussos to embark on safari. Plans were to launch in his Damaro concession for the mythical mountain nyala. Damaro is southeast of Addis (the capital, which is located in central Ethiopia.)

This actually would be the second leg in my quest for specialized game. I had been introduced to African specialized game one year earlier by PH Andre Roux. I had taken two giant (Lord Derby) eland with him in Central African Republic. Specialized game refers to the hunting of animals that aren’t readily available in a multitude of African countries. Such species are hunted in remote areas of African existence. The mountain nyala, giant eland and bongo comprise this elite triumvirate. For a hunter who has taken any of these big three, that hunt can hold an even more special memory to any of the dangerous seven. Just ask Flack about his bongo or Boddington about his Lord Derby. Now, back to this story of the mountain nyala.

We broke camp the next morning to set out on the hunt when it was still dark. A PH will structure a safari relative to his client’s physical limitations. I had told Jason that I can go anywhere. Straight up the mountain, tracker’s pace, any elevation. Many mountain nyalas are taken as hunters are staked out short distances from crossings or game trails at lower elevations. On Day One we did see a bull not far from camp. The slow climb provided me a chance to get my feet underneath me, as well as get acclimated to oxygen levels in the mid-highlands of Ethiopia. It was much harder than I had anticipated. There are no big herds of mountain nyala to speak of. We’d only seen solitary bulls and pairs so far after Day Three. Maybe sometimes you’ll see three at a time. The mountain nyala compared to the common nyala is a completely different animal. A totally different species in fact. He’s extremely more wary, ghostlike and quiet, hiding out in thick foliage in his native mountainous habitat.

Safari Hunting Graduate School | The Allure

on the trail

The day we arrived I gathered the trackers together for a meeting and drew the number “42” in the sand, telling them I had come to Ethiopia to shoot a 42-inch mountain nyala. Having done extensive research about this species prior to arriving in Ethiopia, I was convinced a 42-incher existed somewhere although no one, except for Jason’s father, PH Nassos Roussos, had ever shot one that big. Nassos holds the world record with the freakish 48-inch bull he took in 1984. Managing expectations is important in hunting specialized game! I’ve been called a lot of things over the years, but I try not to underwhelm. Upon interpreting the quizzical looks on the trackers faces as they looked at the “42,” I’m sure they thought I was crazy. But I'm not. This was a two-week mixed bag safari with the mountain nyala as priority one.

Aside from the limited countries that define the pursuits of specialized game, these hunts will challenge you physically and mentally. Your selectivity will be tested. You must be prepared at the start to head back home at the safari’s end with the possibility that you failed. The amenities back at camp skew on the side of being more rustic. The PH and tracker team might be slightly less forgiving when you miss a shot. Specialized game further sets itself apart because there is almost no room for error on stalk, which is so motivating because it draws out the best in you as a hunter.

You’ll notice specific tracker skills that distinguish them from the very best trackers you’ve hunted with in other countries. Instead of just that sixth sense, they might even possess a seventh. They’re completely unfazed by tsetse flies, mopane flies and bees. And they display a comfort to limited oxygen at higher elevation, while you’re sucking for air and begging for a water break. Meaning no disparagement to others I’ve hunted with, specialized game PHs might be slightly more adept at problem solving, which of course designates this as high praise, because all P’s are good at solving problems. All of the above are based on my experiences. Difficulty level can be directly related to how hard you're pushed on a hunt. Your skillsets and mental toughness also impact the satisfaction you might derive from these hunts. In addition, be mindful on safari there are exceptions to any rules. I've certainly broken a handful of them.

If common plains game is your Bachelor’s degree, and dangerous game your Master’s, then specialized game is your PhD. Four days of writing this thesis had brought no results. I’d told Jason politely that I didn’t want to hunt for anything else right now. The Menelik’s bushbuck, bush pig and hyena on license, all could wait. It was mountain nyala first, so I could maintain focus and maximize time. The other trophies could come later.

sunset in Ethiopia

We were also slated to hunt at their Omo River Valley concession on the back part of this trip. Day Five brought promise at mid-day as I found myself in the prone position, 82 yards away from a 36-inch lyre shape-horned mountain nyala. Respectable? Yes. But not what I had come here for. It turned out to be a video footage moment for Kappie, while Jason and I went over shot placement. I utilized the opportunity also to control my jitters and breathing for that eventual moment; training the brain and heart so the crosshairs don’t wiggle.

Four hours later, we were all rewarded for that decision to pass on the 36-incher, when Jason and one of the trackers, Mohammed, spotted an enormous specimen high atop a peak embedded within a valley called Mokennon Awash. It was only the sixth mountain nyala I had ever laid eyes on, and I could barely see it with my binos, through the late afternoon mountain fog that passed through. Judging from their expressions however, I could tell this was a big one. It takes a lot to wow an Ethiopian tracker, and at this moment all four of them looked aghast! Jason could also see one other bull, alongside the big one. With daylight fading the most we could do now was make a plan for tomorrow morning.

“Marc those two nyala are in a canyon that I’ve never taken a client up to before. But if we can get a shot at the big one, it’ll be worth it”, Jason explained to me. So we marched down the mountain back to camp and the decision was made to get a fresh start extra early in the morning, in hopes of finding him tomorrow still somewhere up in that distant canyon. I had also been warned the climb up might get a little dicey.–Marc L. Watts

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