Dreaming of Duikers
by Joe Byers
Although they are snared, netted and poached throughout Africa as a source of bushmeat, American hunter Steve Kobrine finds the continent’s smallest antelopes a worthy trophy and an exciting hunt, especially with bow and arrow.
Roaring lions, stampeding elephants, charging Cape buffalos - Africa hosts more dangerous and adrenalin-pumping game animals than any place on earth. Few men have experienced more of this life-on-the-edge adventure than 36-year-old archer Steve Kobrine, who has taken 29 species of African game with stick and string, including the Big Five – twice. Despite the allure of spiral-horned antelope and the thrill of dangerous game, Kobrine also finds reward in the pursuit of Africa's savannah and forest duikers. These pygmy antelope offer plenty of challenge, especially with a bow. Forest duikers, for example, live in thick jungle, rarely drink at waterholes, are often nocturnal, and by their minimal size are just plain difficult to hit. Pygmy antelope are rarely dangerous, yet dedicated sportsmen must often travel in areas of political unrest, such as Cameroon, C.A.R. and Mozambique.
Although Steve Kobrine has taken more than 90 species of African game with bow and arrow, including the Big Five - twice, he specializes in the wary and elusive duiker species. Here he is with a Peter's duiker (Cephalophus callipygus).
Duikers may seem less challenging than other antelope due to their smaller size and the nature of the hunt. Frequently for trophy hunters, duikers are peripheral species, taken only when an opportunity presents itself and therefore they may seem easy – if the hunter hits his mark. However, select a specific species of duiker in a fair-chase situation and a different image emerges.
Consider, for example, Kobrine's quest for the western bush duiker:
"I was sitting in a tree in Benin, one of the best places left to shoot a roan antelope. I had set up a treestand overlooking a small waterhole, with hopes of getting a roan or a duiker. That part of Benin on the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert is extremely hot - my thermometer reached 120˚in the shade. I got into the treestand in the dark and sat 13 hours in that heat with one bottle of water. Just before dark, a pair of western bush duikers came from the bush and slowly picked their way down to the water's edge. The ram was very spooky, and I had to draw and let down two or three times. Just as it reached the water’s edge it would get nervous and dart back into the bush. I had the feeling it wasn't going to drink, so the next time I saw it at 30 yards, I put an arrow into its chest."
To date, Kobrine has collected 10 species of duiker, including yellow-backed duiker, taken by tracking in C.A.R.; red-flanked duiker, taken with a long-range shot in Cameroon; and Maxwell’s duiker, taken after days of waiting in a treestand in Ghana. This success inspired ambition and spawned a special goal. "The zebra duiker in Liberia is my next dream animal," says Kobrine. "It’s one of the most colourful small antelope in the world - yellow with black stripes like a zebra. You hunt them at night by calling, and when they come in you turn on a headlamp and get ready to shoot. They sometimes stand when the light comes on, so I am told. They are found only in the rain forest of western Africa. Liberia is still considered a dangerous country for travellers, but my father and I made plans to go, and paid a substantial deposit to hunt there, but the outfitter ran away to Mexico," said Kobrine angrily. "I hope Liberia will open hunting with a decent outfitter. The zebra duiker remains a dream, but one day I will go."
Meet the Duikers
Duiker means 'diver,’ or 'those who duck' in Afrikaans, and hunters or photographers will quickly learn they are aptly named. The body of this interesting animal is sloped forward with powerful, longer hind legs that readily accommodate its ducking instinct. Duikers range in size from 22 inches (55 cm) to as much as 57 inches (1.45 m) in length. and weigh from three pounds (1.35 kg) to 175 pounds (80 kg).
All duikers are members of the family Bovidae, like sheep and goats, and have even-toed hooves, horns, and a four-chamber stomach like cows. Biologically, they fit into two groups - the forest-dwelling duikers, Cephalophus and the savannah (bush) duikers Sylvicapra grimmia. Of the 18 species (depending on your sources), 17 belong to the forest-dwelling clan while the common, bush or grey or Grimm’s duiker is the lone member of the savannah group. (V.L. Wilson puts the blue and Maxwell’s duiker into the genus of Philantomba.)
Duikers are feeders of opportunity, often browsing, yet also consume fruit, lizards, rodents, and small birds. Socially, they are usually found in pairs; however, both male and female often spend time apart, a reason for many solitary sightings. Most pairs occupy a relatively small territory of five to10 acres (2 to 4 ha), mark their areas with scent, and will defend their turf against other duikers. They have no set breeding period and females give birth every five to seven months. Females are usually a little larger than the male and may have horns, depending upon the species.
Hunting Strategies for Duiker
The ducking instinct of the duiker makes it a very challenging game animal and sportsmen can pursue them in a variety of ways. The territoriality of the antelope is one of its biggest liabilities. Unlike a trophy kudu bull that, once spooked, may never be seen again, a hunter who spots a trophy duiker ram will likely see it again, nearby. Stalking safari roads at dawn and dusk with a rifle, shotgun or bow can be exciting, especially knowing that the animal is close by. Rifles using solids, shotguns and buck shot, and arrows tipped with large expandable broadheads will produce the best results. Kobrine uses the largest expandable broadheads he can obtain. This may sound ironic for such a small antelope, yet bow shots are often quick and the target small. Plus, trailing a duiker in dense jungle foliage is nearly impossible, although some species can be found in the open during the way along the edge of the forest.
Many African archers ambush antelope at waterholes, yet duikers meet their hydration requirements through vegetation for much of the year. As a result, a duiker may pass by a hide or waterhole, yet will rarely drink.
Kobrine was one of the first bowhunters to collect the West African savanna buffalo, recently re-classified by SCI.
Kobrine has learned that pygmy antelope often drink at tiny seeps or trickles, avoiding the main water source. Outfitter Ken Moody reports duikers exhibiting this behaviour at his Dunsappie concession along the Limpopo Valley of South Africa. One hunter saw half-a-dozen duikers drink daily while hunting steenbok. From a hide in mid-July, duikers appeared throughout the day and drank for a minute or more. Rams often had horns nearly as tall as their ears. Although duikers are not as glamorous as kudu or gemsbok, for archers they are often more elusive.
Using a predator call is one of the most exciting ways to hunt duikers. A calf can run within hours of birth, but the female hides it in cover and suckles it there for some time. If the calf encounters danger, it exhibits a loud bleating cry which brings nearby duikers on the run. Hunters can exploit this characteristic by making a bleating sound with a predator call. (This also works well on jackal and steenbok.) Many forest species are nocturnal so calling must be done at dawn, dusk, or with a light.
(Editor’s Note: A good PH should be able to tell a male from a female duiker – even when, like yellow-backed duiker, the female carries horns. And a good hunter should take a male over a female duiker, rather than shooting first and identifying the sex later, and should certainly not shoot several specimens in order to keep the best male as is the practice in some hunting areas.)
Duikers can be very elusive, yet are very territorial. Often posting a pop-up hide near a likely feeding spot, trail, or waterhole can be productive. Kobrine has waited for days to get a single opportunity at some species.
A .17 Safari
The introduction of the .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire sparked a rimfire revival, pushing a tiny 17-grain V-Max bullet at a blistering 2550 feet per second. Fast, flat and accurate, the .17 has excellent characteristics as a mini big game round.
Kobrine relates the story: "I had booked a South African safari prior to the introduction of the .17, and became intrigued by the prospect of hunting Africa's pygmy antelope with the tiny rimfire as my hunt drew nearer and the round received accolades in the outdoor press. Steenbok, duiker, jackal, guinea fowl, and a host of other small creatures seemed the ideal challenge.
After taking a klipspringer on an exciting mountain hunt, a duiker seemed the next step up in body size, and the tomato farm of Erwin Kruger in the Limpopo Province of South Africa became the perfect test track. Tomatoes were planted in rows and the tiny plants were an enticing morsel to nocturnal raiding duikers that consumed entire rows of plants. The crop-damage approach provided multiple shooting opportunities and tested the prowess of the tiny calibre. This activity had no sporting value, yet it demonstrated that the .17HMR had a place as a serious hunting cartridge. For jackal, guinea fowl, and antelope up to 50 pounds, the calibre made an extremely challenging hunt, yet it had limits. Seventeen grains of projectile doesn't push brush. A friend borrowed the .17 to hunt steenbok and his shot flew wildly off the mark, the speeding bullet an obvious victim of an unseen branch."
Matching calibre to animal is at the heart of the sporting challenge. The proper bullet must have enough velocity, expansion, and energy for ethical lethality, yet standard hunting calibres can be excessive for downsized critters like duiker. Hunting small creatures becomes much more of a challenge, mandating a one-good-shot, precisely-in-the-shoulder, regimen.
Steve Kobrine smiles behind a Maxwell's duiker (Cephalophus maxwelli) taken in its typical equatorial forest habitat.
The thrill of the hunt is the chase, the pursuit, the suspense, the quest. The majesty of a large kudu bull or the sheer brute force of a Cape buffalo are unequalled, yet for sheer availability, variety, and sporting challenge, the duiker deserves a second look.
Stalking, calling, or ambushing a ram in its home territory is great sport, especially with archery gear or a sporting small-calibre rifle. Don't be surprised if success is more difficult than you thought. Duikers are near the bottom of the food chain and the prey of all the cats, crocodiles, and even birds. Natives often hunt and snare them relentlessly, yet still they survive. Any creature that can endure such predation is, indeed, a sporting challenge.