A small Antelope with a big reputation ...

The Vaal(Grey)Rhebuck: some notes and facts about the hunted and the hunter

By Fred Steynberg (published in the African Adventure magazine, Oct 2013)

South Africa has been and still is the country that offers the most diverse and exciting hunting opportunities on the planet. One of the species thatoffers a truly challenging walk and stalk hunt in the right environment is Vaal Rhebuck(Peleacapreolus). This species is unique to South Africa and because it is relatively rare it has become a sought after trophy among national and international hunters alike. Hunting a Vaal Rhebuck on footamong inhospitable mountains 2000m above sea level in an area where their movement is not restricted by game fences,where there is no planted grazing that may louver them in winter, where temperatures often reach double figures below zeroposes a real challenge. This challenge requires a hunter to have more ‘arrows in his quiver’ than your average ‘bakkie’ or ‘brandy & coke’ hunter.If luck is not at stake and an experienced professional hunter is not leading the hunt, then fitness, stealth, the ability to shoot long shots and an in-depth knowledge of this wily adversary will be an advantage and add to the success of the hunt.

INCREDIBLE EYESIGHT

A Vaalie (as it is commonly called) in its natural environment is one of the most vigilant antelope around and there are many reasons for this. They have an incredibly strong instinct to protect their young, which are most vulnerableduring the first couple of weeks after birth. Obviously,their young can run short distances almost immediately after birth but they are no match, at that age, for predators, such as jackal, that have stamina and are quick and sure footed in the mountains. Dogs that are used for game or vermin hunting purposes in some areasinvariably hunt and chase any wild animal. Vaal Rhebuck could fall victim and there is nothing that will make a herd of Vaalies more alert than the potential danger of a hunting dog pack in the area, often accompanied by humans. ‘Wild’ Vaalies will then unusually not stopbefore they reach a safe distance of 500m or more. Once alerted, they often stay alert for long periods thereafter. Unlike many other antelope,Vaalies do not run over the hill to avoid danger, they will run over the hill and up the other side so that they can easier detect whether they are been pursued and by what.

Scanning Rhodes mountians for Rhebuck

Thus, the best defence the herd has is their eyesight. They have incredible vision and members of the herd make turns to scan the horizon for any unnatural movement, colour or shape. Herds of 6 – 10+ individuals often have the advantage of includingexperienced old females that oftenlie down while the rest of the herd feed and stare at areas where they could expect danger. These old ladies can be identified by their lighter grey appearance and they often have their long ears drawn slightly backwards as theychew their cut and concentrateon detecting danger. Old female Vaalies will also lead the herd and have frustrated many a hunter as they have learned with years of experience where and when to be looking and how to stay out of harm’s way . The detection of a careless hunter by one of the herd members will result in a duck-like snort that will immediately send the herd fleeing or place them all on full alert.

One of the biggest mistakes that trophy Vaalie hunters make is to misjudge thisanimal’s eyesight. When stalking Vaalies I often look back to see whether my client is low enough and if he is keeping his head down when crawling or sailing on hisbelly to a vantage point. Camo clothing, buffs to cover a white face and hiding bling (such as watches, sunglasses, shiny gun barrels...) are prerequisites and can help to achieve success. If it is in any way possible to compare the eyesight of two antelope that share the same habitat, then there is absolutely no comparison between the eyesight of a Vaal Rhebuck and a Mountain Reedbuck. It is difficult for a Mountain Reedbuck to detect danger beyond 300 – 400m but the Vaal Rhebuck canand will often react at potential sighted danger beyond 800 – 1000m.

SCENT AND THE WIND

It is not always possible to work the wind in the mountains and Vaalies will often spook at the slightest scent that is blown their way - it is, thus, important to work on a plan to avoid wind detection before the stalk.

Spotting a Vaal Rhebuck trophy at a distance and working out that there is a way to get within range without been seen is one thing but the wind may have other ideas. A gentle wind that turns and swirls can make for a disappointing result after a hard stalk, but a strong steady blow will ensure a predictable, concentrated scent direction. Vaalies, like many other mountain game, have a serious dislike for a heath wind and will move to the lee side of the mountain or hill to avoid it.  They seem to becomedistracted by a strong wind and appear less alert. I have often found that hunting in strong wind, although uncomfortable, enables me to stalk to within 100m from herds of usually alert animals.

6TH SENSE AND OTHER GAME

Maybe Vaalies don’t have a 6th sense for potential danger but it often seems as if they do. I can recall on numerous hunts, while lying flat on my stomach, completely out of sight,  inspecting a trophy buck, that after a couple of minutes one of the herd (often an old female) will stand up and without warning move the herd in a hurry. In all these cases, the wind was not an issue and they did not see me, so what stirred them?

I have read with interest, numerous articles on Vaal Rhebuck and Mountain Reedbuck and some reports on their behaviour are very general. One example is of writers mentioning that Mountain Reedbuck and Vaal Rhebuck do not share the same territory because Vaalies are tooaggressive and would often chase off the Mountain Reedbuck. This may be partly true with large,establishedVaalie herds wheremany of the individuals are mature. Small groups of Vaal Rhebuck, without the guidance of a mature female or dominant ram, will often adopt a herd of Mountain Reedbuck and they often graze and rest together. This is almost a symbiotic association as the Vaalies feel that there is protection within a larger herd and the Mountain Reedbuck are comfortable in using the Vaal Rhebucks‘ sharp senses to alert them to danger. Young bachelor Vaalies will often hang around Mountain Reedbuck herds until they are mature enough to confront a dominant, aging ram that has a harem.

Vaal Rhebuck in the natural environment will almost always avoid farm livestock. I am not too sure whether it is the association with man, dog or potentialdisease but I have never encountered a Vaal Rhebuck herd in a heath environment, within daylight hours, closer than a couple of hundred yards from livestock.On more than one occasion,while stalking Vaal Rhebuck, I almost crept straight into a troop of Baboons that were foraging around and among a Vaal Rhebuck herd. Both groups seemed to rely upon each other to do the watch but neither seemed alert at all.

HUNTING AND STALKING VAAL RHEBUCK TROPHIES

Before talking a little about hunting trophy Vaal Rhebuck, it might be a good idea to mention that many ethical walk and stalk hunters will absolute cringe at the thought of pursuing this legendary trophy in any other way. Shooting a trophy specimen from a vehicle, at night, and/or in a cultivated green field can only be described as extremely unethical.

Ethical hunting of a Trophy Vaal Rhebuck as already mentioned, requires fitness, stealth and an in-depth knowledge of this species and its environment. In our fast, money dependent society, where everything needs to be done quicker and better, money can almost acquire anything in hunting terms that a hunter can really be proud of. But, what can be a more exciting part of the hunt than preparing for the adventure -practicing at the shooting range, sighting the weapon for long distance shots and understanding precisely where every shot will hit and at what distance, walking or running every day to improve your fitness level,and packing for any extremity.

Ethical Vaal Rhebuckhunting should be done from first light and in winter (the legal hunting season). On the cold frosty mornings,herds of 3 to 10 individuals can often be found where the sun finds the mountain first and from there they will later feed or move down to favourable areas. Early morning is often the best time of day, as stalking with the sun from behind, if possible, can be an advantage as it isdifficult for animals to detect approaching danger looking straight into a low, early morning sun. Vaalies often graze during these early morning hours, are spotted easier and are less alert.

Stalking Vaalies on or over any horizon must be considered a potential giveaway unless done with the utmost stealth. Vaalies know their horizons with every bush and every rock on it and will scan these as they know that nothing will go unseen when crossing the line between sky and earth.For a hunter this could be a good vantage point to spot and stalk from but the stalk should start way before reaching the perimeter. I often leave my client behind and sail to the edge on my own to inspect a potential hot spot or to suss out a trophy. Once there, I ensure that I have camouflaged my shiny white face before slowly lifting my head until I can see what I need to see. The hunter joins me later in the same way and with the same stealth if a trophy has presented itself. Pushing the gun into the direction of the quarry before moving into positionbehind it, might buy time when detected and is definitely the better approach. This tactic also works well after a good stalk or leopard crawl to a closer vantage point over rocks, bushes and long grass.

Vaal Rhebuck will regularly lie down between 11am till about 3pm, especially on warm days. These herds are often surprised by hunters that did not detect them(Vaalies are hard to spot when they lie down in long grass) and that have almost walked over them. In some instances, if the hunter sits down immediately, the herd will stop for a quick look back at what had frightened them before running to a safer distance. These couple of seconds can provide a prepared hunter with a small window of opportunity for a quick seated shot if the target is within range.

In the mountains, it can be important to range the target whenever possible to ensure the best bullet placement. Vaalies are not the toughest antelope on earth and will succumb quickly to a shot on the vital organs, but if wounded, can be very difficult to follow and find - three legged trophies are often never retrieved.

To write about all that I have experienced while hunting Trophy Vaal Rheebuckover the past 20 years will fill many more pages and many more could be filled with each passing hunting season. The meat of a Vaal Rhebuck smells herby and wild(because of their diet) and is by no means tasty. It is ,however, not the meat but the everlasting sweet spot that is left in the memory of anethical hunter’s mind after a well earned hunt of an antelope small in stature but with a big reputation.