Hunting the Ssese Island Sitatunga
by Peter Flack
On 28 August 2009 I returned from Bugala Island, one of the 84 islands making up the Ssese Island archipelago (of which 64 are inhabited), in the northwest corner of Lake Victoria, the largest African and third largest freshwater lake in the world with a shoreline measuring nearly 5000 kilometers in length. These islands form part of the Buganda kingdom based on mainland Uganda and take their name from the time when the then king visited them. One of the islanders, in backing out of the king’s presence, became so overwrought by the experience that he farted causing the normally dignified and solemn king to burst out laughing. “Bassese” in the Buganda language means the people who caused the king to laugh.
I was the fifth hunter to try for an island sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei sylvestris) on the archipelago since this animal was put back on license by the Uganda Wildlife Authority almost two months ago after an absence of 30 years. Two of the previous hunters had gone home empty handed (one having bungled the only opportunity he had while the other wounded an animal which was not found) and two having shot outstanding species with the help of dogs. Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game has a minimum entry length of 22 inches and I was told that these specimens measured 26 and 27 inches, respectively.
I was keen to hunt this rarest of all sitatunga for a number of reasons. Firstly, a man I admired enormously, the late Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen (after whom the giant forest hog was named ), had hunted them on a number of occasions and three of the only 30 entries in The Book belonged to him – more entries than anybody else and I wanted to see if I could emulate him at least once. Secondly, I had read about the islands on a number of occasions and not only wanted to see them for myself but also hunt in the footsteps of men like Meinertzhagen, Buxton (who first described the mountain nyala for science), Downey (the famous East African white hunter), Mellon (author of African Hunter) and Pitman (the well known game warden) – world famous hunters all. Lastly, and probably the least valid reason for embarking on this incredibly expensive hunt, was that I wanted to try and complete a collection of all the sitatunga sub-species recognized by hunters the world over even though there are a number of experts, including Selous, who think that all sitatunga are the same.
The hunt cost $ 32,000.00 - nearly $ 2,000.00 a day - with a trophy fee of $5,000.00 for the 14 day hunt, of which, give the travel constraints (car, plane, plane, car, light aircraft, boat and car over two days), only thirteen days could actually be spent hunting. A similar amount could buy you a hunt for bongo, mountain nyala or Lord Derby’s eland in a prime location with a highly experienced and successful safari outfitter and professional hunter with every chance of success and therein lies the rub as Shakespeare put it. Having said this, I should mention that I asked for and was given the opportunity to stay on for a further ten days or return for a similar period later, free of charge, if I was not initially successful.
The safari outfitter, Bruce Martin of Lake Albert Safaris, is a well meaning, decent and hardworking man who must be given all credit for the time, money and effort he has spent in opening up the Ssese Islands to hunting. However, Bruce would be the first to admit that he is neither an experienced professional hunter (he only qualified as such at a South African professional hunting school last year) and has little or no experience in hunting any sitatunga let alone those on the islands. The professional hunter he has employed, Grant Roodt, is a huge, delightful, hardworking and experienced, 30 year old, South African professional hunter but, by his own admission, has limited sitatunga hunting experience in Cameroon and Zambia and has only been on the islands since the end of July.
Hunting is concentrated on a large swamp (approximately 3000 hectares in extent) on Bugala which, measuring some 20,000 hectares, is the largest of the islands. A number of small, high, two man machans have been built bordering the swamp with only one in a palm tree some 800 metres into the swamp itself. Having read Brian Herne’s must-read-book, Uganda Safaris, in which he wrote that, “All the trophy bulls seemed to be far out in the swamp, usually between 500 and 800 yards”, I thought that all but this machan were probably going to be unproductive, especially as the vegetation in the swamp, other than in the three or four, 200 meter long shooting lanes cut next to each machan, were well over head high. In other words, unless the sitatunga appeared in a shooting lane itself, there would be no chance of a shot and, if it did, you would probably only have moments in which to make one from a mobile platform as most of the machans were built around trees which swayed with the breezes.
So, late in the afternoon of my third hunting day when a good, representative, mature, 20 inch sitatunga bull appeared walking and feeding down a tiny rivulet some 30 metres to the north of the palm tree blind, it did not take me long to make up my mind on the simple basis of a sitatunga near the blind is worth twenty in the middle of the swamp. The 165 grain Blaser cartridge from my custom made .300 Win. Mag., topped by a 2.5-10x56 Schmidt and Bender scope flattened the bull on the spot and the first, fair chase island sitatunga taken with a rifle in 30 years was mine. I was one very happy camper even though some might say that I made a mistake and should have hung in for a bigger one. Time will tell but, as all I ever want from the end of any hunt is a good, representative male animal in a position where I can kill it cleanly with one shot, I don’t think so.
To test the waters as I had another ten days left on my safari, I asked whether it would be possible to hunt a second animal. The answer was, yes, at a cost well in excess of the $ 5,000.00 trophy fee. So, why did I not accept? I think there are a number of reasons:
The accommodation on Bugala consisted of one of three modern houses at Ssese Habitat Resort. Ours had five bedrooms and bathrooms separated by a large lounge-come-dining room on the top of a hill with a beautiful view over Lake Victoria and other islands in the archipelago. My room was more than adequate and furnished with a double bed (beneath a good quality mosquito net) and bathroom en suite. Unfortunately, the Chinese made aluminium windows and door frames were shoddy with gaps which allowed entry to mosquitoes and lake flies, while the plumbing leaked and hot water was unavailable except for my first night’s stay. Equally uunfortunately, dogs barking off and on throughout the night and loud music, playing both day and night, was a feature of the stay. A classic East African tented safari camp this was not.
The food was adequate but our very pleasant chef tripled as a waiter and dishwasher - which was done next to the dining room table while we ate.
The only two trackers were away on another island looking for the wounded sitatunga of the client who preceded me and I was helped by two young teenage boys, one more clueless than the next. For example, while sitting in one of the machans on the edge of the swamp, our young, local assistant took four calls on his mobile phone and either would not or could not understand our hand signals instructing him to turn it off. In short, there were none of the normal complement of well trained staff you would normally associate with a safari (particularly where you were paying $2,000.00 per day), namely, a driver, two trackers, a baggage man, chef, waiter, tent-come-laundry man, skinner and skinner’s assistant and, for example, my professional hunter was obliged to skin my sitatunga on the back of a truck under the outside lights of the house in which we stayed. There was also no skinning shed or secure place to lay out and salt the skin other than in a locked storeroom some kilometres away.
All of the Ssese Islands are covered by rain forest with the exception of Bugala where large tracts of land have been acquired by a company (owned by Malaysians and select and privileged Ugandan(s)) which has bulldozed huge areas of pristine rain forest and replanted them with palms in order to harvest the nuts for biofuel purposes. During the day, the noise of bulldozers, chains saws and other heavy machinery is ever present.
The islands are rife with poachers who use dogs to drive the sitatunga into the lake where they are then drowned by their accomplices in canoes. One professional hunter I spoke to and who took over the safari of the first hunter due to the complaints made by him, estimated that there were a minimum of 100 poachers throughout the islands who killed, on average, three to four sitatunga per month which were then sold into the commercial bushmeat market at approximately $15.00 per animal.
It took about an hour to drive from the accommodation to the swamp over a poor, potholed, dirt road and you were hardly ever out of the sight and sound of the locals. In fact, in the midst of sighting in my rifle - there is no shooting range - a local cycled through the palm plantation behind the target which my PH had set up for me.
While I am sure that things will gradually improve over time and there are plans afoot to build a separate hunting lodge on a small peninsula closer to the swamp in question, right now, if all you want is a sitatunga, then there are better areas which offer a better hunting experience and more value for money than the Ssese Islands. If you are determined to hunt an island sitatunga, however, (and remember that this is the only game animal available on the islands) then, as they say in the classics, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”
Until, however, Bruce Martin and his team get their act together – including the accommodation, staffing, food, logistics and an understanding of how to hunt island sitatunga - the pricing of the hunt is a little like MacDonald’s arguing that their hamburgers should cost $100 each because that is the price for one made from Kobe beef at London’s Savoy Hotel. On the other hand, if you want to make a meaningful contribution to the conservation of island sitatunga which, but for hunting and the well known benefits it brings, will otherwise eventually all end up in Ugandan cooking pots, then you may be happy to pay the excessive price for the hunt. Somehow, however, I cannot help but think that Bruce Martin has not given sufficient thought to this and he and the sitatunga may both live to regret this fact.