Ghost of the Papyrus
Ghost of the Papyrus
By: Tim Herald
The sitatunga is one of the most unique animals in the world, and a very specialized hunt is required for these elusive antelope.
The sitatunga is a medium sized spiral horned antelope that mainly inhabits marshes and swamps throughout Africa. There are 3 subspecies, the southern sitatunga that inhabits swamps of southern Africa like Zambia and Botswana, the forest sitatunga found in west and central Africa like Cameroon, Congo, etc., and the East African or Nile sitatunga found in the Nile watershed of Uganda, South Sudan, etc.
The East African sitatunga generally lives in large papyrus swamps where it spends it’s time on the reed mat that is basically floating all over the swamp. There are small islands as well, but the sitatunga has evolved to have very elongated hooves that spread its weight (which can be up to 275 pounds) on the reed mats and keep it walking on top of the floating vegetation. Of course, they also wade and swim in their very watery environment.
The challenge to hunting sitatunga is seeing them at all. Generally a papyrus swamp has tall papyrus and reeds that are from 6-12 feet tall basically covering the entire swamp outside of channels and small isolated islands. Sitatunga can walk anywhere in this dense vegetation and have trails and tunnels throughout. They simply live and exist where we cannot follow.
This being the case, the common practice for hunting sitatunga is to utilize machans, or home-made shooting platforms that elevate the hunter for better visibility in areas that are more clear. I recently returned from a hunt in Uganda for East Africa Sitatunga with an outfitter that is phenomenal success. They put a ton of effort into preparation of their hunt areas and scouting, and it pays off with incredible success.
Not only do they have dozens of machans, they also make “sitatunga plots” by each machan. What I mean by this is they go out and chop the papyrus down to just a couple inches high in plots that are generally 200-250 yards long and 75 yards wide. By chopping the papyrus, it stimulates growth of new shoots, and the sitatunga love to eat this tender new growth. Obviously, visibility is much improved where the almost impenetrable papyrus has been cut. Each machan has 2-3 plots that it overlooks, and that is a huge amount of labor to keep these plots in shape.
Scouting is also key to success. The outfitter will have 8-12 staff sitting in different machans during mornings and evenings watching to see which plots are being frequented by sitatunga. Trail cameras won’t do much good in these situations, so human eyes are the best scouting tools.
When Trijicon’s John Trull and I got to sitatunga camp in the Kafu River basin of Uganda, the sitatunga movement had been slow due to a full moon but was picking up a bit as we moved toward a new moon. We had planned our hunt around the dark moon phase, so we were excited to hear that the action was getting better daily.
The first afternoon I went out, I saw a female and baby, but no males. The next morning, we decided to go across the big swamp to the far side machans where some of the scouts had been seeing bulls off and on. My first couple of hunts on that side did not produce any sightings at all. It seemed whichever machan we chose did not produce, while bulls would be seen by scouts in other locations.
On the afternoon of our third day, we were in a machan and an hour or so before dark a small bull emerged and fed in front of us at just 60 yards. We were on high alert as a small bull with a big bull had been sighted there a few times. Thirty minutes later, a scout showed up at the base of our machan and told us that a big bull had been seen in one of the cuts at the next machan to the west that was only about 600 yards away.
We grabbed our gear and hot-footed it as fast as we could to the other machan. I must admit our progress was not too fast as I had had surgery on my knee two weeks before and I was in a large leg brace and using a walking stick. When we got to the other machan, the scout there showed us where he had seen the bull and the direction he was moving toward another of our plots, so we hoped he would emerge. It was not to be as darkness overtook the swamp and we had not gotten so much as a glimpse of the bull.
My old friend and PH, Charl Von Rooyen, and I talked that night and decided that we needed to quit hopping around to different machans and pick one that was having decent movement and wait it out. John and his PH Christian Weth had been doing the same, and it seemed that every time any of us switched machans, a bull would show up at the one we had previously sat in.
The next morning, we crossed the swamp in a dugout canoe well before daylight hoping to not be capsized by hippos and made our way to the same machans we had gotten to the evening before where the bull had been seen. We had decided we would sit in that hide until we found a good bull or time on our hunt ran out.
There was a heavy fog enveloping the swamp that morning, and just after dawn, I saw movement in the papyrus. It took some time for me to pick out the female sitatunga feeding at 125 yards as she was in and out of taller reeds and just occasionally in an opening. I watched her for about 45 minutes, and then she disappeared into the wall of tall papyrus.
About thirty minutes later, I was starting to daydream about having breakfast on our return to camp when Charl grabbed my arm and said excitedly, “Get your gun and get ready, there is our bull!” I asked where, and he told me to look in the same area where the female had been. When I raised my binos, I immediately saw wet shiny horns, so I grabbed my rifle.
I cranked my Trijicon Ten Mile scope up to 16-power, and when I quickly found the bull, it was a sight that will be burned into my memory forever. The big bull was quartering toward me, his head up, and his wet polished horns glistening. I could see he had very good mass, nice ivory tips, and the flaring shape that I had hoped for. As he took a step forward, I trained the crosshair of the Ten Mile on his shoulder and squeezed off a 300PRC load that found its mark and dropped him on the spot. Things had happened really fast, but the image of the bull standing there on that misty morning is as clear to me as anything.
With my leg brace, I couldn’t attempt to go out into the swamp and recover him, but when our trackers recovered him for us, I couldn’t have been more pleased. He was a super old bull whose horns were polished almost white from years of walking through the tall papyrus. He had a beautiful lyre shape and was truly the bull of my dreams. The ride back across the swamp with the big bull in the front of the canoe was another life memory. To sit there and just appreciate the time spent in such a wild place pursuing such a special animal as we glided almost silently through the swamp was almost as good as the hunt itself.
That afternoon Christian and John went to a machan that had been having a bull sighted about every other sit, so they decided they would sit there for the next four hunt sessions and wait the bull out. It didn’t take long as at 4pm, two hours before most sitatunga move, a huge bull stepped into an opening a mere 90 yards in front of them feeding on papyrus and completely relaxed.
John made a good shot and dropped his bull, so we had two wonderful sitatunga in the salt in one day. John’s bull was 28.5” long, and comparing that to a whitetail, it would equate as a 180” buck to give some reference. He was an incredible bull with the same beautiful shape as mine, just longer. We were two happy hunters for sure.
Sitatunga hunting is specialized and probably not for the first time African hunter, but they are gorgeous and unique animals that are worthy of the time and effort it takes to hunt them. John and I were numbers 48 and 49 successful hunters in a row out of Christian and Charl’s sitatunga camp, and a few days later they hit 50 in a row which is quite a feat. A great area with a quality outfitter and lots of preparation are key to success on the ghost of the papyrus.
For this hunt I decided to bring my most accurate rifle as I knew that shots could be up to 300 yards out of a machan that may or may not be very stable. I wanted to stack the odds in my favor as you generally hope to get one shot at a good bull.
I brought my Fierce CT Edge in 300PRC topped with a 4.5x30x56 Trijicon Ten Mile scope. I knew I would not need 30-power, but I did want to be able to dial in my yardage with this ultra-accurate combination, and the 56mm objective and 35mm tube would provide incredible light gathering during the early morning and late evening minutes when darkness is close and sitatunga seem to move the most.
The combination served me well on the entire safari and I was able to take sitatunga, bushbuck, Uganda kob and a super nice waterbuck bull on the safari at ranges from 40-300 yards with no problem.