By Lorraine Lawrence
Talk to people about hunting in South Texas and a word will come up that will halt the conversation. That word is "nilgai." Reaction to it can vary widely from "what is it?" to "where do we get some?" but people are always curious to know about this unusual exotic animal.
I first heard about nilgai, years ago, when someone was describing how unusual the animals were and I made it my business to learn more about these elusive beasts. Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) are native to India and are the largest of the Asian antelopes. Their name literally means “Blue Bull”. For those unfamiliar with these animals, seeing them for the first time can be a slight shock. Somewhat unprepossessing, and looking as if they were assembled from remnants of other animals, they are not what generally springs to mind when thinking of graceful antelopes. Topping out at more than 600 lbs. fully grown males can seem a bit bovine in appearance. Their coloring ranges from charcoal black to steel gray in the males, and a tan or rusty shade in immature bulls and cows. They sport a mane and tail similar to those of the gemsbok, and a tuft of hair under the neck that is strongly reminiscent of a turkey's beard! Their heads seem disproportionately small for their bodies and, above their shoulders or withers, a distinctive hump gives them an odd "going uphill" appearance. All-in-all, they are not what generally comes to mind when visualizing trophy animals. And yet, once you start to learn about them, the fascination grows and the attraction won't let you go. They are some of the toughest animals around and, when temperatures are slightly cooler, they can wander for several days without water. These durable beasts are challenging to hunt, requiring a decent caliber gun with some knock-down power. Many guides and outfitters recommend nothing less than a .30-06 to put them down, and a bigger caliber would not be considered too much gun.
In Texas, I have seen a good number of nilgai in the coastal flats and islands, while duck hunting near Port Mansfield, and some huge specimens in the Hill Country on game ranches; but they are most at home in the long grass pastures and thick brush around Kingsville and Falfurrias, where they were first introduced in the 1920s, and where the winters are a little more temperate. It was to this area that I went when I decided to try my luck at a trophy-sized nilgai.
I had hunted for nilgai before in South Texas and been lucky to take both a yearling bull and a smaller bull on two separate hunts. Spotting these animals before they spot you is crucial to success. Another important key is being able to make an accurate long shot, and taking it quickly as they seldom stand still for long. My quest for a trophy-class nilgai began where one of those earlier hunts left off. My younger bull had only just been loaded onto the truck, and we were about to head out, when I spotted a huge nilgai bull - almost charcoal black - standing right in the area that we were leaving. Had my pocket book been a little fatter that day, I might have shouldered my gun, but I already had more than enough meat to fill my freezer for a long time. So I just looked longingly at that wonderful trophy bull, teasing me through my binoculars, and promised myself that I would come back another time.
It was November when I finally returned to make good that resolution. I had scarcely been able to put the huge, charcoal black nilgai out of my mind, so I had arranged with John Johnson of Laguna Salada Safaris to hunt with him in Hidalgo County, south of Falfurrias, Texas. On the morning that I took the road down from San Antonio there was a light misting rain and, as I drove, I kept an eye on the clouds. The further south I went the lighter the rain became until, by the time I arrived at the lodge, the sun shone brightly and a rainbow arched across the sky. This had to be a promising sign I thought as I unpacked the truck and brought my gun and gear into the lodge. Inside, I recognized and greeted another hunter, with whom I had hunted before. John had booked him in to hunt a nilgai cow at the same time that I was after my big bull.
On both of my earlier hunts I had used a .30-06 but, this time, I had brought a .338 Tikka M658 fitted with a Leupold VX3 4.5-14x40mm LR Gold Ring scope. I was not going to risk shooting that trophy nilgai with anything less in terms of knock-down power. John Johnson and I had often discussed how tough and how aggressive nilgai can be. You will rarely find them on smaller game ranches on account of this aggressive behavior towards other animals. In fact wounded nilgai are renowned for getting up to make a charge at hunters that supposed their animal was done, and even a well-placed and large caliber shot frequently requires one more to finish the job.
We rose early next morning, leaving the lodge before daylight, and headed for the Sante Fe Ranch, not far from Edinburg, near the Mexico border. This part of Texas is cattle country and the location of many legendary cattle operations. Nilgai are hard on fences and can cause considerable damage, so hunters interested in nilgai are welcomed in the area. While adult nilgai can jump 4½ foot fences without a second thought, they usually prefer to dig underneath and crawl through the gaps. This habit inevitably unearths many fence posts and tears up fences giving the animals a bad reputation amongst ranchers. Having witnessed large nilgai pull this stunt I had been shocked to see how fast these huge animals can accomplish it, before vanishing into the brush, despite their size.
When we arrived at the gate to the Santa Fe Ranch it was barely light enough to see, and the sun had yet to show its first golden streaks over the horizon. It was that first hour or two of the day, when the early morning light is so wonderful and animals so active. It was one of the most pleasurable times to be in the field hunting, and a real reward for our early wake-up call. A small jeep fitted-out with a high seat was parked just inside the gate. Our second guide, J.W. Bremer, was waiting for us and we took the opportunity to make our introductions and pair hunters with guides. I was matched with “JW” on the smaller jeep. While it would mean a dustier and rougher ride than on the larger truck, I was confident that it would enable us to access quietly some of those places where the more wary trophy bulls might be hiding. We were hunting this large ranch “safari style”, i.e. spot and stalk, where the greatest amount of territory possible could be covered and then, once the quarry was spotted, stalking and shooting would be done from the ground using shooting sticks. It was very much like the type of hunting I had done on African safaris and would be a good test of skill on nilgai.
We mounted up and headed out. From the high seat of the little jeep I had a slightly elevated view of the terrain and wildlife, and because the small jeep was not so loud, JW and I could talk to each other without raising our voices. We started to spot game immediately. There were huge flocks of turkey, an assortment of whitetail deer, including a several large bucks that most deer hunters would be very proud to bring home. Here and there we caught glimpses of nilgai cows and young bulls, but they quickly scooted away into the cover unlike the inquisitive deer that simply stood and stared as our little jeep crawled past on the over-grown trail. We spotted a large coyote that was surveying a small flock of turkey menacingly, but JW and I decided to leave him uninterrupted for the moment. There might be time for some varmint hunting later but, with the sight of more and more nilgai as we penetrated deeper into the ranch, we were far more intent on finding that big bull. We paused to glass each open area, pasture or long draw, carefully before entering. At length, we spotted a larger bull at the end of a draw. We left the jeep to thread our way slowly along the cover to a shallow rise where we could take a discrete look at him through the scope. He was not quite the heart-stopping bull of my dreams, though he was much closer to the kind of bull we were seeking and bigger than anything we had seen so far; but JW assured me that he had seen what I was looking for only a few days previously and that, as it was still early in the day, we should pass on this animal.
Having returned to the jeep, we had just started out along the sendero when suddenly JW stopped the vehicle and fumbled in his pocket. He had left his mobile phone on vibrate while I had left mine, only brought in case of emergency, turned-off in my pack. He looked puzzled as he answered the call from John Johnson at the other end of the sizable ranch. It was not their usual style to telephone each other while hunting but JW seemed satisfied as he put his phone away. “Mount up,” he called, “we have a way to go!” The call had been to inform us that the other party had successfully taken the cow they had been after and, while loading up, they had sighted a huge nilgai bull on the other side of the pasture. They had beaten a hasty retreat with their cow, and then called to tell us about their sighting, before departing for our rendezvous point at the main gate.
Our small jeep made little noise as we threaded our way through several pastures, past brushy areas and a deep ravine along the way. I was grateful for the fact that JW knew the terrain “like the back of his hand” but, though we covered the considerable ground swiftly, it still took some time to reach the spot that John had told us about. John had seen a good many nilgai over the years and we both knew that, for an animal to make him that excited, it must be a worthwhile. We pulled up on the far side of the gate and both of us carefully scanned the rough terrain with our binoculars. At first we saw nothing. We had almost convinced ourselves that the bull had gone when I spotted some small movement about half way across the pasture, down in a long dry creek bed. A small group of nilgai cows was slowly moving along the shallow depression which had given them so much cover that we had almost missed them and, trailing along behind them, was the trophy nilgai bull! We stealthily passed through the gate and crept along the fence line. The group was far too out-of-range for a shot, and was heading away from us. We hastened along, to close the gap, using the scrub along the edge of the creek bed as cover to hide our approach. The cows, having gained some distance from the lone bull, turned to trot along the fence back towards the gate. It was obvious that they were now aware of our presence, possibly having caught our scent on the swirling breeze, and they were on the alert. And yet, they were not fully alarmed as we had made good use of that same creek bed ourselves, keeping as low as we could, to remain out of sight while closing-in.
The big bull then made his fatal mistake. He held back, letting the cows move along to attract attention, while he stopped near the fence just a short distance away. He slowly zigzagged, back and forth, as if searching for something. As he did this, his gait slowed down enough for me to bring the crosshairs of my .338 up to a spot on his front shoulder. Having had a good look at him my heart was racing but I controlled my breathing and, when he paused just before turning to zigzag back once more, I gave a slow, firm squeeze. The loud report rang in our ears and the recoil took my sights off of him for a second. As I brought the rifle back steady, JW let out a loud exclamation “That’s the way!” he said. I checked the fence line quickly with my scope, half expecting to take a second shot. At first I couldn’t see the big bull anywhere. Then I spotted his vast gray form on the ground. We both kept vigil on him for a bit longer before making a slow approach, knowing that it was always better to err on the side of caution when dealing with these tough antelopes. We finally covered the distance, more than two hundred yards from the edge of the creek bed, to where the bull lay in the sandy soil along the scrubby fence. As we walked, JW and I wondered aloud on why the animal had slowed down to make those peculiar zigzags along the fence. In doing this he had given me a better shot, where I didn’t have to take him at a run. As we looked along the fence I spotted the reason about fifteen feet away from where he lay. A shallow place had been scooped out under the fence and it was evident that nilgai had crawled through the gap many times before. Our bull must have been searching for that gap and was just about to make good his escape when my .338 had found its mark!
After a few photos with my trophy, JW and I loaded the massive animal onto the jeep with the help of a small winch. Soon we were bouncing our way back to the front gate where the others were anxiously waiting to hear if we had had any success. I know that I beamed with pride all through lunch and for a long time afterwards over what had been an exciting and most rewarding nilgai hunt.