Every continent has its “small big game.” We have brockets, Asia has muntjacs and mouse deer, Europe has roebuck, and so forth, but no continent is so enriched as Africa with its profusion of pygmy antelopes.
Whether currently huntable or not, SCI’s record system recognizes and provides a very complete reference on the full group of pygmy antelopes. It’s worth looking because it’s simply fascinating to see how many there are and how diverse the group is.
At the outset of one’s African hunting career, relatively few hunters find the pygmy antelope enticing. Large antelope such as kudu and gemsbok will probably be near the top of the wish list, and although some variety of pygmy antelope (usually two or three) exists in almost every hunting area, these may not make the wish list at all.
That is a mistake. Some of these animals will probably be seen and might be easily taken in a chance encounter. Fail to do that and, down the road, hunting specifically for them can be extremely difficult. That’s why I like the concept of the “Tiny Ten of Southern Africa.” Most of us today start our African hunting in one of the southern countries, and while there are many more pygmy antelope to the north, there are ten distinct varieties in the southern countries. The Tiny Ten thus establishes a goal, and it’s an attainable goal—but, depending on your luck, it ain’t that easy.
The ten southern antelope that make up this group are, alphabetically: Blue duiker, Cape grysbok, Damara dik dik, grey (common or southern bush) duiker, klipspringer, Livingstone’s suni, Natal red duiker, oribi, Sharpe’s grysbok and steenbok.
As with larger antelopes, several of these animals are best hunted by standard spot-and-stalk tactics. This may mean a chance encounter, where you’re cruising along looking for a big kudu or buffalo tracks, and there’s an oribi or even a Sharpe’s grysbok. Take the shot if you can! It also might mean glassing in specific habitat, such as brushy valleys for grey duiker or rocky hills for klipspringer, then planning a stalk.
In either case, this probably means using the rifle you have in your hands. A powerful centerfire is probably not the ideal tool for any of the pygmy antelope. If one were hunting them specifically, then a mild .22 centerfire such as a .222 or .223 might be better. Some hunters carry non-expanding bullets “just in case,” obviously to reduce damage to these small animals. These might be solids intended for dangerous game or, in years gone by, I’ve actually carried a few full metal jacket match bullets for whatever .30-caliber rifle I was using.
I’ve long since given up on this for two reasons: First, if a chance encounter develops it’s just too complicated and takes too much fumbling to try to switch out loads. Second, the smaller the animal the more important accuracy becomes, and it’s fairly unusual for two different bullets to shoot to the exact same point of impact. On an animal the size of a buffalo the difference won’t be enough to matter. On a steenbok or klipspringer, it can matter a great deal. Also, it isn’t usually a big problem if you’re careful. Most of us use fairly tough bullets for African plains game simply because of the huge variety in size of game. A bullet ideal for a zebra or kudu shouldn’t expand much on an animal one-twentieth the size. Just try to stay off the shoulder, avoiding heavy bones as much as possible. By the way, this is not only to reduce skin damage. The little guys are really tender and flavorful, an incredible treat on the safari table!
Several of these animals occupy Namibia. Numbers and permits are restricted in Namibia, but “klippies” are found discontinuously in good habitat. This means you go looking for them on purpose. Few of us will bring along a very specific light rifle for the little guys, but in a lot of hunting camps, there might be a .17 HMR or .22 Hornet that’s just perfect. However, combining both very small size and extremely thick habitat, some are best hunted with a shotgun. This works great for me since I grew up hunting birds—but I’ve seen this cause a lot of challenges for hunters who have never done any shotgunning.
Ask your PH, and if a shotgun is the preferred tool for some of the little guys, get out to a range. It isn’t at all necessary to learn how to shoot flying targets, and in fact, wingshooting may be counter-productive. Instead, learn how to point at a target with a shotgun, meaning without sights. With the shotgun’s pattern, precision isn’t required, but the shotgun must be pointed correctly.
Depending on the animal and the situation, there are specialized tactics. Some of the little guys—definitely blue and red duiker and suni, and perhaps the grysboks—are typically found in very close cover. A stand over an artificial waterhole gives a chance to properly judge them and get a clear shot, reducing the risk of miscalling the animal, and also reducing the risk of a wounding shot. There’s one more advantage. These small antelopes tend to have very small home ranges, so use of trail cameras in conjunction with watering points can identify the presence of large males. Proper identification remains necessary.
Calling can also be effective for the majority of the small antelopes. It’s unclear exactly why that works and, like all calling, it doesn’t work all the time. However, a distress call can bring in almost any of the pygmy antelopes. Over the years, and in numerous parts of Africa, I’ve had bush duikers, blue duikers, red duikers and other forest duikers (including the large yellowback duiker) come to calls. In the forest zone, the pygmy hunters are extremely skilled at doing this by mouth, but it works in Southern Africa as well. Two cautions on calling: First, the animal needs to be identified properly, and there isn’t always time for that. Second, you never know what might come. I was sitting with a .22 calling for a blue duiker when a very large leopard came in. Fortunately he smelled a rat and dashed away before he jumped on his intended dinner!
In the Eastern Cape, specially trained dogs are often used for blue duiker. Farmer Adrian Ford, near Port Alfred in ideal blue duiker habitat, has a fantastic pack of little terriers that only run blue duikers. It’s an exciting hunt, and I took a huge blue duiker ram that way. Honestly, however, that was pure luck. The problem with hound hunting is that it’s very difficult to sex and judge an animal like a blue duiker, so I’m much in favor of the “new” waterhole trick.
NOTES ON THE TINY TEN
Grey (common or southern bush) duiker: Easily the most widespread, found in thornbush habitat throughout most of Southern Africa. For most hunters, either the grey duiker or the steenbok will be the first Tiny Ten because of distribution and plentitude. Grey duikers are often simply encountered or glassed while hunting other species, or simply hunting in general. Special techniques are generally not required, but if you’re looking for one, glass for them early in the morning and very late in the afternoon along the edges of thick cover.
Steenbok: There is just one race of steenbok, widely distributed across much of Africa. They are primarily creatures of open plains and grasslands, and are probably most common in semi-arid areas. As with grey duiker, they are most often taken as a target of opportunity. Since they prefer more open country, an accurate rifle is essential. A dainty little antelope with long black horns, the steenbok, though plentiful, is one of the most beautiful of the group.
Oribi: At first glance the oribi looks much like a steenbok, but is heavier in build, more reddish and has thicker horns. Creatures of open grasslands, oribi have a wide range clear up through Central Africa—but are extremely discontinuous. In Southern Africa, oribi are found in the Eastern Cape’s narrow coastal plain, here and there in Zimbabwe’s Midlands, here and there in Zambia and in coastal Mozambique. They are not especially difficult to hunt—but you have to go where they are found! Because they thrive in open country, glassing and stalking with an accurate centerfire is the only sensible option.
Klipspringer: The name, in Afrikaans, means “rock jumper,” perfect! The “klippie” also occupies a broad range across much of Africa, from the Cape to Ethiopia—but is also extremely discontinuous. You’ll find them in rocky hills and canyons, and they are thus among Africa’s few genuine mountain species. They are found in many of South Africa’s hills and mountains, in Zimbabwe’s kopjes, and in certain areas in Namibia. In order to get a klipspringer you will usually glass and climb, and you’ll want an accurate and well-scoped centerfire. One thing, however: The klipspringer is extremely susceptible to calling! So instead of hiking the canyons, think about setting up in rimrock where klippies are known to occur and trying a varmint call.
Damara dik dik: Although just one of several varieties, the Damara dik dik is the only dik dik in southern Africa, and removed by several thousand miles from their closest cousins. They are found only in sort of the northern half of Namibia and are a limited-permit animal. Both combine to make them a specialized hunt: You have to go where they are, and make sure a permit is available. Combine those factors, and in the right places they’re fairly common, which is why I don’t rate them higher in difficulty.
They like arid thornbush, and are often found around the bases of rocky hills. Although the Damara variety is the largest of the dik diks, they are tiny, and the country they live in is generally too open to use a shotgun. An accurate .22 rimfire is adequate. One thing about the dik dik--they are very territorial, and are usually found in pairs. So if you see a good ram and don’t get a shot, just fade into cover and sit still for an hour. Chances are the ram will come back.
Natal red duiker: This animal is actually a forest duiker, together with the blue duiker these two are the only forest duikers found in Southern Africa. That means they prefer heavy cover, if not actual forest. They are found in KwaZulu-Natal, but are uncommon and extremely difficult to hunt there. If you insist on hunting them in South Africa, move them much farther up the difficulty scale!
In coastal Mozambique they are extremely common. Unlike the suni, they are not confined to the densest habitat, but are widely distributed throughout the miombo forest. They will come to calls, and will also frequent man-made waterholes. However, in the Marromeu complex they are plentiful enough that, over the course of a hunt, a nice red duiker is almost certain to make an appearance. I have taken them with shotgun while hunting suni, but they’re a stocky little antelope and, as a target of opportunity, the rifle you’re carrying will work just fine.
Livingstone’s suni: The suni is a beautiful little antelope, with long, sharp horns all out of proportion to its diminutive size. They occur sparsely in KwaZulu-Natal and if you hunt them there, they are extremely difficult. The saying in South Africa is, “I’m going looney looking for a suni.” They are widespread, although discontinuous, through much of Mozambique, but in the dense “suni forest” of coastal Mozambique they are extremely common.
The hunting is very specialized--the cover is very dense, visibility rarely more than 25 yards, so a shotgun is by far the best tool. Like many of the small antelopes, they are territorial, so one can set up on a termite mound in an area where a big male has been seen. The artificial waterholes are also a good option, especially in areas where sunis aren’t common. However, realistically, in coastal Mozambique today sunis are so plentiful that simply walking slowly through core habitat, stopping frequently, is almost certain to yield a shot.
Blue duiker: The blue duiker is an oddity, having perhaps the largest range of any forest duiker—but extremely discontinuous. They are plentiful in the thick coastal bush of the Eastern Cape, but are also found in the suni forests of coastal Mozambique and in northern Zambia and then on through Central Africa’s forest zone all the way to Cameroon. Nowhere are they easy to hunt. They are somewhat nocturnal, but the major difficulty in hunting them is the thick cover and the fact that both males and females have horns. The males have obviously thicker horns, but in heavy cover and deep shadow making the call isn’t easy. Calling works, likewise dogs with specialized training, and in areas where there are lots of them they can be hunted like sunis--still-hunting very slowly. However, because of the difficulty of judging them, I have become convinced that the artificial waterhole trick, developed by Carl van Zyl in the Eastern Cape, is the very best. However they are hunted, the shotgun is the only sensible tool.
Cape grysbok: There aren’t a lot of options here. The Cape grysbok is found in the Eastern Cape—and discontinuous in this region. The best area is a relatively small area north of Port Elizabeth and without question some of the better operators are looking after this specialized animal. Unlike most of the Tiny Ten, the Cape grysbok is extremely nocturnal, only coming out of heavy cover at night, so a lot of them are taken at night, but they can be hunted by careful glassing and stalking along the edges of thick habitat at first and last light. A scoped rifle is the only sensible option, and while you don’t need power, you want to be able to take any sensible shot.
Sharpe’s grysbok: I rate this as the toughest one, but it depends on your luck. Moving slowly through good habitat is the only way I know to hunt them. Sharpe’s grysbok is found in very spotty distribution in northern South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and the Zambezi corridor of Mozambique. So far as I know, nowhere are they plentiful, and nowhere are they easy. If I needed a Sharpe’s grysbok to complete the Tiny Ten today I don’t know exactly where the best place might be, so I rate this one the most difficult of the Tiny Ten—by far!--Craig Boddington
This article originally appeared in March/April 2017 issue of Safari Magazine.