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trophy hunting

Most of us rely heavily on our eyesight just to get through the day.

Unsurprisingly, having good eyesight is highly appreciated by hunters. Hunters search for game – mostly, but not exclusively – with their eyes.

Some people – and some hunters – have much better vision than the average person. With superior vision, they tend to quickly see a heck of a lot of stuff that others can’t see without considerable difficulty.

Most of us are familiar with vision that’s rated as ‘20/20′. Someone who has 20/20 vision generally doesn’t require corrective lenses. What 20/20 doesn’t say, but tends to imply, is that having 20/20 vision means having great vision. With corrective lenses, my eyesight is 20/20.

Put simply, all 20/20 vision really means is that if you have it, you can see clearly at 20 feet what should normally be seen at that distance.

Some have much higher rated and better vision than 20/20.

For example, those who have 20/15 vision – not that uncommon – can see things clearly at 20 feet that someone with 20/20 vision needs to be 15 feet away to see clearly.

Having 20/20 vision and being able to see clearly what one should ‘normally see’ doesn’t add up to much. People with extra-ordinarily good eyesight have other attributes that provides them with eyesight that’s superior to the average. They might have better peripheral vision (they can spot things off to the side of what they are focused on), better depth perception (everything’s clear in 3D), colours are brighter, crisper, clearer and so on.

Most people have reasonably good vision. But, some have it (much) better than others. Regardless of how good – or poor – your vision is, your vision is generally better when you are young. As one ages, eyesight tends to fade. That’s no big surprise.

Obviously, it’s a boon to have great vision if one is a hunter.

But ‘search image’ is also important. Search image is the ability to spot what it is you are looking for – in Africa it was any number of antelope, birds like sand grouse – really a myriad of birds and animals – wherever they might be. Hunters with a great search image can spot their quarry hiding in the shadows, sitting in the sand or slinking through the forest; those without a good search image often miss out.

Put excellent eyesight and a great search image together and you have the makings of someone who can be, at the least, an extraordinary game spotter.

Unlike vision, which is what it is – unless modified with surgery or with corrective lenses – developing a search image takes time and effort.

On my recent trip to South Africa and then Namibia, I had the luck to hunt with PH’s who had fantastic eyesight and absolutely astounding search image capabilities (PH stands for Professional Hunter: these are accredited hunters and foreigners MUST hunt with a PH in these countries).

Wik and Colin, the PH’s I hunted with in South Africa (https://www.game4africa.co.za/), were in their 20’s and could spot game like there was no tomorrow.

As described in a recent post of mine, Wik found me a once-in-a-lifetime bushbuck, which I (eventually) shot. One thing that really struck me was that I had a really hard time seeing it when I was trying to find it in the scope. A couple of times I had to look again with my binos – I could see it well with the binos – but looking through the scope I initially couldn’t pick it out.

The problem wasn’t the scope – it was a high end Swarovski – it was the fact I was reduced to using one eye at 230 m. which didn’t provide me with the depth perception – 3D – the binos did. Everything looked flat and the bushbuck faded into the scene. Just in time I finally got my eye to focus and things worked out. I had not experienced that problem before and took it as another sign of my eyes, like the rest of me, are ageing and can’t do things near as well as was the case 20 years ago.

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A day later we went on a hunt for mountain rhebuck. Once again, Wik showed off his astounding sighting abilities.

“There’s a good-sized group over there”, he told me, pointing to some cover several hundred meters away.

I couldn’t see anything.

“I can see their ears,” he explained.

All in all, there were about 20 animals in the group.

At some point the group spooked. As we tracked after them, they broke off in different directions and, lucky for me, a mature ram made a mistake and came to within about 130 m of us and stopped broadside to stare. That one, even with my old eyes, I could see clearly; I made sure the Sako 7MM mag did its job.

Back at the lodge, the phrase “I can see their ears” was repeated often that evening as we lounged by the fire.

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Wik – “I can see their ears”

One nice touch at the lodge was the large cleared fields out front. A ‘no hunting’ zone, one didn’t need great vision to watch the animals come and go. Zebra, eland, wart hogs, monkeys and guinea fowl were regular visitors. One evening, a large group of Cape buffalo came out to graze. What a sight!

A few days later we were in Namibia in pursuit of eland with Westfalen (http://www.westfalenhuntnamibia.com) and Onduri Hunting Safaris  (http://www.onduri.com/). It was dry dry dry and the animals seemed very spooky.

On the 2nd day, Helmut, one of the PHs, spotted eland at about 800 m, on the far side of a savannah. NiCoo, out tracker, said there were several animals in the group. Neither were using binos when they spotted the animals.

At first, I didn’t see any. But eland are huge, and finally I did see a couple of spots, which I could confirm as eland with the help of my binos.

Our stalk was successful and I took a very large, old bull eland.

My hunts were successful, but I owe a lot to young eyes that were coupled with a great search image.

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Left to Right, top: Black-faced Impala, Rocky Mtn Elk; White-tailed Deer; Dr. Vince Crichton and the Tom Degare Buck (#2 Ontario non-typical from NW Ontario, taken in 1945); Middle: Pronghorn Antelope with one sheath removed; elk antler, showing pedicle which protrudes somewhat like a flat horn; Kudu; Sable (top); White-tailed Deer in velvet; Moose, chewing on velvet

First, as an aside, I have noticed that some of the buck white-tailed deer in the City of Kenora still have their antlers. Normally, deer drop their antlers in December in this part of the world, but the good conditions in the city (snow-cleared roads and walkways and handouts from people) have delayed shedding. Also, since my last post, it has snowed quite a bit more here in northwestern Ontario. Looks like another hard winter as far as the deer are concerned. I will continue to post updates as the winter progresses.

The following is an article I recently had published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. This is the unedited version, with bonus photos!

Antlers fascinate hunters and have since time immemorial.  Antlers of huge stags have adorned the walls of medieval castles and European hunting lodges for centuries.

Antlers are commonly called racks. They can also be called bones, crowns and some call them horns. But horns and antlers are not the same.

According to the late Dr. Tony Bubenik, the evolution of antlers can be traced back about 40 million years.  They’ve been different from horns for a long time.

Today, antlers are found only on deer. There are many kinds of deer all around the world; all are in the family Cervidae. There are fallow deer, axis deer, a group of deer called the muntjacs and others.

Here in Ontario, there are four species of deer; the white-tailed deer, moose, elk and caribou. All are native, although elk were extirpated in the 1800s, and have been re-introduced. Like deer everywhere, all Ontario deer species grow antlers.

Over the centuries, humans have done a lot of introductions of deer to areas where they never existed. People tend to like deer – it helps that they taste good and can be trophies to hunters – and so as people moved around the world, they brought with them their favourite deer.

Antlers are grown – and shed – on an annual basis.  Unlike antlers, horns are permanent structures that aren’t shed, ever.

Horns occur in a large group of animals. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and forms. Typically, horns don’t show any branching. Its common that both males and females grow horns.

Sheep, goats, antelope, bison and domestic cattle, collectively known as Bovoids, all have horns.

Other groups of animals, like rhinos and giraffes, also grow horns.

Antlers are most commonly found only on males; with some exceptions (caribou females sometimes grow antlers).

During the growth phase, antlers are one of the fastest growing cellular structures in the animal kingdom.  New growth can often be seen on a daily basis.

Antlers grow from knobby protuberances on the skull called pedicles. Normally, there are two pedicles, one on each side of the head.

Growing antlers are covered in a skin covering called velvet, which is extremely sensitive. On moose and caribou, there can be vivid stripes of colour in the velvet, called ‘marbling’. In velvet, antlers are warm to the touch, as they are highly vascularized (full of blood vessels) and, if damaged, can bleed profusely.

The end of the antler growing period is a time of mineralizing and hardening of the spongy antler. Once the velvet is gone, what’s left is hardened antler made of bone.

In Ontario, all deer species begin to grow their antlers in late spring. By late August and into September, the velvet is shed. It falls off quickly, usually aided by thrashing trees and shrubs. Velvet is nutritious; I once watched a moose swing its head to catch dangling strips of velvet to eat. Antlers are shed sometime during the winter or into spring.

In general, healthy, mature male deer have the largest antlers.

Antlers are often described as palmated – think moose – or cervicorn, as found on elk, whitetails and caribou. Cervicorn antlers have an obvious main beam with points.

One of the largest racks ever was found on the extinct Irish elk, an animal that ranged across Eurasia. It was about 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) tall at the shoulders, a little bit taller than a big bull moose.

It had a spectacular rack. Some Irish elk had crowns measuring over 3.6 m (12 ft) from tip to tip that weighed up to 40 kg (88 lb).  The species went extinct less than 8,000 years ago, coincident with a die-off of many deer species, including a number of moose ancestors, some of which had racks that were more than 8 feet across. No moose today have a rack like that.

Climate change is thought to have been a major factor in this multi deer species die-off.

The moose, elk and caribou that roam parts of Ontario today might not have the massive bones of bygone deer, but deer racks today can be pretty darn impressive.

An Ontario moose can grow wide, palmated racks with a spread of over 4’ and weighing more than 40 lbs. The main beam of home-grown elk and caribou antlers can exceed 4’ with many long, sprouting points. Big buck white-tails, with antlers that look like a tree, occur across much of the southern half of the province.

Hunters generally classify deer antlers as ‘Typical’ or ‘Non-Typical’, also called ‘Atypical’.

Each deer species have antler characteristics that are unique. One characteristic of all typical antlers, regardless of the species, is the similarity of the right and left antler – they are virtual mirror images of one another.

Non-typical antlers usually remain paired, and can appear to be mirror images, but they have points that differ substantially from those of a typical with respect to number and placement on the main beam.

Very large non-typicals can be quite bizarre, with lots of points, bumps, burrs and great mass.

Many antlers are ‘in-between’, in that they are mostly typical but have one or more non-typical points.

Older animals tend to have bigger antlers than younger ones and also are more likely to be a non-typical. Very old animals commonly sport antlers that are substantially smaller than the antlers it had during its prime. Genetics, habitat quality and other factors, including weather and injuries, can influence antler growth.

For deer, antlers have a number of uses, notably impressing females and intimidating males during the rut. They can be formidable weapons during fights with rivals or when confronted by predators.

Like most hunters, I like deer antlers; all species, all shapes and all sizes.

Sidebar

Interestingly, pronghorn antelope, an animal restricted to the western plains of North America, have unique horns that, is some respects, are antler-like. It has permanent horns covered with a sheath that not only has a branch, but it’s shed on an annual basis. African antelope, animals like kudu, gemsbok and impala, don’t shed the sheath of their horns and their horns don’t have branches.

When a pronghorn sheds its sheath, very obvious, visible horns remain on the head.

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When antlers are shed, all that remains are short, flattened protuberances called pedicles.

Those flattened horns on these Giraffe look sort of like a pedicle to me.

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Damara dik-dik

Years ago, I cut myself badly skinning a whitetail on a hunt near Moosomin, Saskatchewan and had to have stitches done after I severed an artery near my thumb (another skinning lesson learned . . . ). The doctor who did the surgery happened to be from South Africa (it turned out all the doctors in the hospital at that time were from South Africa!); he told me that as I was a hunter, I should plan on an African safari to go after ‘The Big Five’.

He didn’t say anything about ‘The Tiny Ten’.

The Big Five, as many hunters know, are the elephant, lion, leopard, cape buffalo and rhino. For big game hunters, taking all of the Big Five is considered to be one of highest achievements a hunter can accomplish. The reason for this is the inherent danger in trying to hunt any of these animals; the term ‘The Big Five’ was coined years ago to say here are the five most dangerous game species a hunter can pursue. There were bragging rights to any hunter who could say he (or she) had taken The Big Five. Even today, cape buffalo are believed to gore and kill about 200 people a year (mostly hunters).

While there’s still a mystique in today’s hunting world around The Big Five, it isn’t what it used to be.

There are a number of reasons for this attitudinal change. First, whether this assemblage of African big game animals is indeed a list of the 5 most dangerous animals a hunter can pursue has always been debatable, but never more than today. In addition, hunting ‘dangerous animals’ isn’t a top of the list want for many of the hunters of today.  Finally, there are a lot fewer opportunities to hunt these animals than there used to be.

At any rate, hunting The Big Five has never been something I aspired to do, although it was certainly of interest to me, even those many years ago in Moosomin.

Back to ‘The Tiny Ten’. . .

Around the campfire in Namibia on our first night, talk of The Big Five naturally came up.

And that’s when I first heard about The Tiny Ten.

The Tiny Ten is a list of the following species of small antelope found in southern Africa:

  • Damara Dik-Dik
  • Blue Duiker
  • Common Duiker (also called Gray Duiker or Bush Duiker)
  • Red Forest Duiker (also called Red Duiker, Natal Duiker or Natal Red Duiker)
  • Cape Grysbok (also called Southern Grysbok)
  • Sharp’s Grysbok (also called Northern Grysbok)
  • Klipspringer
  • Oribi
  • Steenbok (also known as Steinbuck or Steinbok)
  • Suni

These antelope are really small; often they are referred to as pygmy antelope. For example, a mature Damara dik-dik is only about 30–40 centimetres at the shoulder and weighs only 3–6 kilograms. Tiny.

Yet all these pygmy antelope have horns.

They are also said to be a challenge to hunt.

During my hunt in Namibia, I saw Damara dik-diks, steenboks and duiker (I don’t know which species I saw). A couple of my hunting partners saw a klipspringer one day. One dik-dik – the one in the photo – was supposedly a real trophy, as was one of the steenboks I saw and photographed.

They are certainly interesting and it was great to see them.

But like The Big Five, hunting The Tiny Ten isn’t a goal for me.

I am glad I saw a number of them, and would certainly like to see all of them. Maybe that’s my quest.