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Light In The Forest

Jul 25, 2016

Yellow Backed Duiker
Yellow Backed Duiker

One of the greatest things about Africa is the incredible variety! There are more than a hundred varieties of antelope alone and they come in all sizes from the 2,000-pound eland down to the pygmy antelope. The little guys are a very large group. Our SCI Record Book, always a fantastic reference, lists some 45 different varieties of pygmy antelope! No one has successfully hunted all of them and, because several are found in areas not open to hunting, no one ever will.
Even so, it is possible to take several varieties of pygmy antelope over the course of a few safaris. Some of the more common species are often taken in chance encounters…and should be when you have the chance. The problem is that, in the early stages of one’s African career, the larger animals are usually more interesting…but it’s a mistake to overlook the pygmy antelope. While almost any animal might be taken easily in a chance encounter, specifically hunting for almost any of the pygmy antelopes can be very difficult!
As I’ve written before, the pygmy antelopes are sort of an acquired taste. I’m fortunate in that, from the very beginning, I took opportunities as they arose. So, over time, I took several varieties…but I still never expected to see myself mount a safari with pygmy antelopes as the main goal. Never say never! Now I’ve done it three times, Ghana in 2011 and Liberia in 2013 and again this March of 2016.
Throughout Africa’s huge forest zone range a wide variety of forest duikers, and of course I’ve hunted them along the way while hunting bongo and such. But these specialized hunts—for royal antelope in Ghana and for a half-dozen forest duikers in Liberia—are quite a bit different. Of course it’s hot and sweaty and conditions can be rough, but many of the small forest antelopes are almost entirely nocturnal. So, basically, you hunt them at night. There are two ways to do it. First is simply walking forest trails with headlamps, hoping to pick up eyes; second is to do the same, but stopping occasionally to call, making that strange nasal mewling that the local hunters do. You call in total darkness, listening, and when a faint scuffle in the leaves is heard the light comes on and you see what’s there.

 

Blue Duiker
Blue Duiker

I am aware that night hunting is controversial. Personally, I support any legal hunting situation. No matter where you are, local hunting laws generally develop based on techniques that work. In much of wild Africa, for instance, it is illegal to hunt leopard at night, and in wild country it’s very possible to get a leopard to make a daylight appearance on bait. In ranch country, leopards are much more nocturnal…and night hunting is often legal.
Similarly, in both Ghana and Liberia night hunting is normal…that’s the way the locals do it, and is the local guides’ preference. Of course, we intrepid gung-ho visitors insist on daylight hunting as well, so they humor us. In Ghana, the primary animal is the tiny royal antelope, almost entirely nocturnal. It’s considered almost impossible to get one in the daylight, and if anyone ever has, I’d be really interested in hearing about it. But, among the forest duikers in the West African forest, the attractive black duiker is probably the most diurnal. In Ghana, we hunted them hard in daylight, and actually saw one…but he came in behind us and I couldn’t get around in time.
In Liberia in 2013, we hunted both day and night, a very rough pace to keep. One afternoon we jumped a black duiker bedded at the base of a big tree…but he was gone into thick stuff in a flash, no chance for a shot. The primary prizes in Liberia, at least to me, are the water chevrotain (actually a deer, not an antelope); and of course, the gorgeous zebra duiker. Water chevrotains were present; several were taken that season, but I never saw one. Zebra duikers were not present in that area; none were taken. There was, however, a lot of game: Plenty of Maxwell’s and bay duikers. Despite a fair amount of daylight calling, all animals my partner, Ralf Schneider, and I shot were taken at night.

 

Zebra Duiker
Zebra Duiker

By 2016, post-Ebola, Morris Dougba’s Liberia Rainforest Safaris was in a new area, the Bella Forest in central Liberia. Zebra duikers were said to be not just present but common, so I had to try again. My partner, Mike Adams, and I signed on for a full 14 days. I think we were the fourth group in; so far they were nearly a hundred percent on zebra duiker and black duiker, but only two water chevrotain had been taken. This time I wised up a bit, and when Mike and I got to camp, we asked a key question: Have any animals so far this season been taken in daylight? Guide and camp manager Tony Henry gave us an honest answer: They’d tried but, no, so far all animals had been taken at night.
So we didn’t try. Some mornings we looked for buffalo and pig tracks. Most mornings we worked on trophy care. Most afternoons, despite the heat, we napped. And we hunted at night for 14 days straight. Mike and I traded victories. Early on I got an Ogilby duiker, the first for the season…but Mike got one the next night (how unlikely is that?). Mike got a water chevrotain, which I figured meant I wasn’t going to get one…but I got one the next night. I got the first zebra duiker…but he got one the next night. Our only mutual failure was that, despite much effort, he never got a black duiker, and I got a monster.
So for 14 nights, we walked the forest. It’s a surreal experience, me following Tony Henry, my headlamp on low so as not to interfere with his, watching the small pool of light at my feet for roots, sharp saplings cut off while making trails, and of course Gabon vipers. (Liberia has a full complement of poisonous serpents but, honest, in two safaris I never saw a single snake.) This is a faith-based hunt. The local hunters see much more than we will. Based on eyes and movement patterns, they even know what they’re seeing. Today, leveraging technology, the guides often carry laser pointers. This is shotgun hunting; 30 yards is far. There is no opportunity for discussion. If the red dot settles, you shoot. Your guide knows what you are shooting, but you do not. Maybe you see a dim outline, maybe you see eyes, sometimes you see nothing, but only rarely will you be absolutely certain what you are shooting at. So, faith.

 

Zebra Duiker
Boddington and guide Tony Henry with the Holy Grail from the West African forest, the incredibly beautiful zebra duiker.

The system works…if you believe in it. You walk for hours in darkness, just a tiny pool of light at your feet. Beyond, at the edge of vision, your guide’s headlamp constantly scans the dark woods. Then the light stops and the body language changes. Now it’s a stalk, move a few yards, something is out there. The red dot gives the signal. In the duiker world, the zebra duiker is the Holy Grail. We weren’t a half-mile from camp when I shot mine, and I freely admit I never saw it…but I acted on faith. The second part of the drill is the shooter remains stationary, marking a spot, while the guide dashes forward.
Tony dashed forward and quickly shouted, “You got it! Do you know what you have?”
I was afraid to say, and more afraid to think, so I copped out: “What is it?”
“You have your zebra duiker.” And I did.

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