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The Blue Brindled Gnu

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It was late afternoon, the sun had already disappeared behind the mountains and my tired legs were taking me slowly up a steep slope towards my hunting vehicle. Somewhere close by, a francolin started calling. Normally I would have stopped to listen to its beautiful evening song, but I just plodded on. I was feeling dejected and had given up hope of finding a blue wildebeest.

Then movement among a clump of umbrella thorns caught my eye. A quick look through my binos revealed a single blue gnu grazing peacefully, totally unaware of my presence. I got a small acacia between me and the bull and with my heart beating in my throat, closed the distance between us. The thorn tree allowed me to get within 50m of the bull and as I reached the tree, the blue wildebeest turned towards me and lifted his head.

Boy, he was huge in body and horn and would easily qualify for Rowland Ward. I slowly lifted the 7mm Mauser and steadied the crosshair in the middle of his forehead, slightly above the eyes. He probably sensed my presence for he suddenly lifted his head higher, seeming to stare right through me. Under the umbrella thorns he looked so enormous that for a fleeting moment my imagination almost transformed him into a buffalo.

I had the bull at my mercy – a tiny movement of my trigger finger would send the 150gr bullet crashing through his brain. I was hunting for meat however and lowered the rifle, resigning myself to the fact that I would have to try again the next day. When I turned away and walked back up the slope, the old bull noticed me, but did not seem to be alarmed. He just stood there, a big black statue with wide sweeping horns, epitomizing every blue wildebeest that has ever walked the Dark Continent.

I continued up the slope and then my luck suddenly changed. Down in the gulley two wildebeests had separated themselves from the deep shadows and started walking up the slope, fortunately without noticing me. I sat down quickly and flicked off the Mauser’s safety – if they continued on their path they would soon cross my front at no more than about 75m. Through the scope I could identify both as bulls.

On they came and then suddenly one noticed me. Stopping in his tracks, the bull turned towards me and through the scope I could see that he was still a fairly young one and that his horns had an average spread, probably measuring 24”. As the crosshair settled on his forehead he snorted once and then I caressed the Mauser’s trigger. The Partition struck with a loud “dup”.

The blue wildebeest is also known as the brindled gnu because of the dark stripes on his neck and flanks. Standing up to 1.5m tall at the shoulder and weighing about 250kg, an adult bull is just a little smaller than the American elk. It is one of Africa’s most adaptable species and naturally occurs in the northern parts of Namibia, is common in Zimbabwe and Botswana and the South African provinces of Mpumalanga, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and parts of the Northern Cape. They have been introduced to game farms all over South Africa and prosper even in the colder areas of the Eastern Cape. Wildebeest seem to do equally well in dense bushveld, open savannah and in the semi-desert Kalahari. This species is popular with both meat and trophy hunters.

Gregarious by nature, wildebeests normally gather in herds of up to 30 animals but in open, unfenced areas they gather in great numbers and migrate to find better grazing. The great wildebeest migration in Tanzania, home of the white-bearded wildebeest, is a well-known and much filmed event.

In open savannah the spot and stalk method is the best way to hunt these animals. Get onto high ground early in the morning and use binoculars to spot them, then plan your stalk. In savannah country wildebeests are at times quite easy to approach. They probably feel safe when they can see a hunter and I have often used an oblique approach to get a client close enough for a shot. Unfortunately wildebeest sometimes associate with zebra, which have acute senses, and can make an undetected approach difficult.

While the blue wildebeest does not always present a big challenge in open country, hunting them in dense bush is an entirely different story. Like kudu they become shy and secretive when hunted regularly and often spend the hot hours of the day in deep shade where their dark bodies are difficult to spot. Even in mid-winter when most of the trees have lost their leaves and the branches appear almost black, they blend in so well with their surroundings that you can walk right past them.

I have hunted them in Natal in thick bush where their ability to become “invisible” has often amazed me. In such terrain, if you have choice, do not hunt them in hot weather during full phases of the moon. When the moon is bright they graze during the night and retreat to dense cover during the day. These animals are territorial, especially the old and breeding bulls, so you will always find them at their preferred spots. Also remember that wildebeests prefer short grass and that they are dependant on water. Determine where they graze and drink and which routes they take – their spoor is easy to identify once you know what it looks like.

Another way to find them, is to listen for that strange metallic nasal snort from which their Hottentot name, gnu, is derived. I have often heard adult bulls call early in the morning. Hunting them during midday can be very frustrating and often a waste of time – unless you are patient and walk very, very slowly. There are always one or two animals “on guard” but a silent stalk can surprise them in their “beds”. Spotting an animal in deep shade is one thing but telling which way his body is facing can be difficult. Many hunters have missed or wounded animals as a result.

Telling the bulls from the cows is your next problem as both sexes carry horns. Hunters making use of professional guides shouldn’t have problem but remember that the final decision to shoot is yours. As a general rule, the first thing to look for is the penis sheath, but on a wildebeest it is often small and difficult to spot. The angle might be wrong or vegetation might obscure the belly-line.

The most reliable way to distinguish between the sexes is by the horns – the bulls’ are thicker, but it is the overall spread that is important. A trophy bull’s always exceeds the ear length while a cow rarely has that kind of spread. A bull’s horn bases are thicker and they have a slight downward sweep before the curl starts. If the ear-tips extend to the outside of the curves, he is about 23 – 25” and if the outside curves exceed the ear length by an inch or more he will usually be in the Rowland Ward class. The minimum to qualify for Rowland Ward is 28.5”. 

Sometimes you can also use face colour to identify bulls. An adult bull’s face is usually pitch-black while that of a cow or sub-adult bull has an area of brown hair at the horn base. I have, however, seen adult bulls with tinges of brown on the forehead and a friend once shot a cow with a pitch-black face. Using face colour is thus not a reliable indicator of the animal’s sex.

Blue wildebeests are very tough. Someone once said that they are born sick but get better anytime a bullet hits them. These animals are vincible, however, and a well-placed shot from any .270 or 7x57 will do the job. But if the bullet misses the vitals (even by a hair’s breadth) their legendary toughness kicks in.

A common mistake hunters make is to shoot a wildebeest too high on the shoulder. The hump and the mane create an optical illusion causing hunters to aim for the centre, which results in shooting above the vitals. I also think that the popular system of sighting in a scope for a point of impact 2.5 to 3” high at 100m contributes to the high shots. Most wildebeests, especially in bushveld, are shot at 100 to 150m. Instead of aiming low on the shoulder, the hunter aims for the centre and with his bullet printing high at 100m he shoots over the hear/lung area. Wildebeests have massive heads and it is tempting to go for head shots, but again, hunters tend to aim for the centre and then shoot under the brain of an animal facing them. If the bullet holds together long enough and penetrates deep enough it might reach the neck bones and breaking one or more will put the animal down. However, if the bullet is slightly off, the result will be a wounded animal. If you go for the head, place the shot slightly above the eyes.

Although a .270 or a 7mm Mauser will kill a blue wildebeest, heavier calibers such as the various .300 Magnums, a .338 Win Mag or even the .375H&H, loaded with premium grade bullets are preferable.

Koos Barnard is an ex-professional hunter and a full time gun writer, having published hundreds of articles. He was born in Namibia and has been a keen hunter since his youth.

Often referred to as the “clown” of the bush because of its habit of cavorting madly at times, the blue wildebeest is sometimes regarded as an inferior quarry. It lacks the regal splendour of the kudu and gemsbuck, but to me the blue wildebeest is rather special and I cannot think of them as clowns. Their rugged looks and toughness appeal to me. In a way they are like buffalo – not too difficult to find, but you’d better get into position to place your first shot exactly right or you’ll have a lot of trouble on your hands.

• The Springbuck •
• The Kudu •
• Hunting the Zebra •
• The Blue Brindled Gnu •
• Deja vu in Zimbabwe •
• Living dinosaurs •

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