Uganda Sitatunga

I never thought I would hunt in Uganda, but when the country opened its arms to hunting again, I couldn’t resist. After discussing this trip for three years with Charl Watts of Watts Safaris, my wife Cathy and I joined him.

The Katanga Wildlife Preserve is an Everglades-like area inhabited by the East African sitatunga known locally as a water antelope. Two species of sitatunga were my priorities on this trip and we spent the next week searching for nice specimens and spent many hours glassing the area. No sooner would we spot an outline of an animal and it would vanish.

As we glassed the papyrus brush later that first day, we did see a lone female out feeding on tender shoots of grass.  The mosquitoes were terrible from first light and they were the biggest and meanest I have ever seen or felt! Grass and weeds ranged from two to five feet in height and seemed to continue forever, seemingly hiding everything. Next morning, we hunted the same area, but the fog was quite heavy and made viewing through the binoculars useless. We then climbed into a 25-foot-high machan; a platform built in a tree used to locate animals from above the grass. The weeds and thickets were too high to see through or walk in unelevated, but there was nothing in sight.

In view of the difficulty in locating sitatunga, the trackers and guides decided on a new approach for the following day of three different groups heading in three different directions. I headed out early the next morning with Charl, Alex and Vic. The other two groups spread out to cover as much area as possible. We made our way to a different machan located on the edge of a marsh.

Alex was first up and saw something in the reeds. He climbed down and we followed a water-covered path further along the edge of the marsh to get a better look. We located a dark outline, but it was not positively identifiable as a sitatunga. As we stalked closer, we could clearly identify it as a male sitatunga.

As it stepped out from behind a bush, I squeezed the trigger. The animal hunched up into the air, landed, made a hard left turn into the papyrus and was out of sight. Not ten feet farther, the hunt was over for the sitatunga.

At camp we gathered our belongings and headed for Entebbe to spend a few nights at the Entebbe Palm Hotel before continuing to Ssese Island for the Ssese sitatunga, another elusive marsh animal that resides in the papyrus and low wet thickets along Lake Victoria. The drive took us to a small unnamed village that straddled the equator where we had lunch.

After lunch we stopped at a small store that had three funnel-shaped pans. The first one was located north of the equator. The second was located on the equator, the third was located south of the equator. A young man charged us SN 10,000 shillings (about USD $3) to demonstrate the effects of the equator and the earth rotation. He poured water in the first pan south of the equator, plugged the bottom and put a small white flower on the water. He removed the plug and, as the water ran out, the flower on top of the water rotated counter-clockwise. He next poured water into the plugged pan on the equator and placed the white flower again on top of the water. He removed the plug and this time the water went straight down with little directional spin in either direction. He finally poured the water into the last pan north of the equator, added the white flower and removed the plug. As the water ran out the flower rotated clockwise. Science in the bush!

It was an hour drive to Sesse Island and the Sesse Island sitatunga. There we met up with Bruce Martin, the owner of Lake Albert Safaris and my guide for the Sesse sitatunga. Bruce had made arrangements for a small boat to ferry us to Sesse Island. Thank goodness it had stopped raining. The boat ride was only about 15 minutes, but it was too late to go looking for the sitatunga that afternoon, so the hunt started early the next morning. Rain kept moving in and out.

Bruce took me to an area where we took up a stationary position while trackers with small dogs pushed through the brush in hopes of driving sitatunga to our location. The trackers tried very hard, but all that materialized were a few females. The males had managed to slip by and return to the thickets.

The rains continued into the next day. It seemed like we were always soaking wet and moving around by boat was inevitable.

We tried another drive in a different area with the same results and returned to camp for an early lunch.

Trackers were always looking for fresh sitatunga tracks and partway through lunch, Bruce received a call from his tracker Moses that they had found fresh tracks on a peninsula projecting out into Lake Victoria called Bugala Island.

We planned a new drive and took a boat ride to the narrowest part of the peninsula where the trackers cleared the area of tall brush so both sides of the water could be seen. The trackers got back into the boat and traveled to the very end of the peninsula with their dogs to start another drive.

The cleared area gave us the opportunity to determine the sex and size of any animal crossing. A lone female crossed the clearing half an hour after the drive started and the sun appeared for the first time since I arrived on the island. It was nice to feel warm.

Suddenly, and without warning, a male sitatunga burst from the brush twenty yards in front of me. Bruce had loaned me his 12-gauge Beretta shotgun for the sitatunga due to the dense brush and thicket. Startled as I was, I managed to raise the shotgun to my shoulder, fired twice and missed twice. Knowing how hard it is to even find a good male to shoot, I kind a thought my hunt was done, but we waited and not 30 minutes later there was movement in front of us in the bushes.

Bruce warned me to get ready and I was. I saw the animal’s head and shot it in the brisket and on the front right shoulder. It ducked back into the bushes and started to move to my right. I was moving to the right when it stopped and started off to its left. It burst out of the bush in the open to my right. This time I swung faster and just ahead of the fleeing sitatunga, squeezing the second barrel trigger.

The animal stumbled as it rounded the corner. I lost sight as I reloaded the shotgun but we immediately picked up the blood trail without any problem. It had traveled about 20 yards before collapsing in the thicket. What an exciting, and far from easy, hunt.

All of the trackers arrived in no time, singing enjobe (sitatunga) over and over and smiling from ear to ear. I didn’t know who was happier, me or them. When I got a chance, I thanked each and every one of the trackers and shook their hand. There must have been a dozen trackers and at least four dogs. I knew that Livingston, Moses, Kasusi, Lusa and Tony were there. The Sesse sitatunga was a very nice animal and thought to be 17 years old. The horns were silver tipped and worn down with age and fighting. The measurement on the horns was recorded at 73 2/8. We rested one day and depart on the ferry boat to Entebbe where we would spend the night.

The next morning we flew to Kihihi to view the mountain gorillas that live in Bwindi Forest National Park. Kihihi is located on the edge of the Great Rift Valley and coincided with the most diverse forest In Uganda. The area is home to 120 mammals, 345 species of butterflies and 160 species of trees. The park contains almost one half of the world’s population of the endangered mountain gorilla, making it an extremely valuable conservation site.

The mountain gorilla is extremely rare with only 880 remaining in the wild. According to the governing regulations, you are only allowed one hour’s contact with the primates in the rain forest at any time. The group size is restricted to six people along with the guides, and the difficulty of the walk is tailored to the age of the observers.

Our trek for the gorillas left base camp just after 10:00 a.m. after an introductory talk. The first part of the climb was up the mountain on a trail that wandered back and forth until we reached the summit, and then descended down and along a steep drop off. The climb at times was quite demanding as we fought mud, vines and red ants.

Before we started out, we tucked our pants into our socks and put a pair of gators over everything to prevent the ants from climbing up our legs. After two hours, we located the gorillas and had the opportunity to photograph the group for one hour. It was fantastic to be within ten feet at times, watching them eat berries and vegetation before our time ran out.

What a fantastic way to end a fantastic adventure! We will remember Uganda, our old and new friends there, and the special animals taken there forever!–Bob DuHadaway

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