South Africa: 2012
Striped Icon of Africa
By Engee Potgieter
I closely watched the zebra through my binoculars as they finally descended the mountain in a staggered single line. They had spent most of the day, high up on a hidden bench. It would likely be almost dusk by the time they got to my carefully chosen ambush position, so I selected an arrow with a lighted nock, and checked whether my sight light was still working. Now it became a waiting game – would the zebra reach my position with enough daylight left for an ethical and accurate shot, or would the shadows slowly creeping down into the valley envelope us in darkness before the zebra reached me…
Few animals are as immediately recognizable and uniquely African as the zebra, its familiar pattern used on thousands of products across the globe. And, even though strictly speaking, being classified as a “non-trophy” animal as it does not feature in any of the popular record books, this iconic safari animal is taken by most sporting hunters. The zebra is a remarkably tough hunting quarry, and precise shot placement is crucial if you want to anchor one. In some areas I have found them to be every bit as difficult to hunt on foot as kudu, requiring much careful planning and solid strategy.
During the 2012 season I had spent two fruitless days chasing after a particular zebra herd on a bleak and dreary Free State farm, only working out their tactics on the third day. As with most of the other animals on the property, they had been hunted relentlessly by the unscrupulous owner, and had resorted to feeding at night, only moving at dusk and dawn, and spending daylight hours high on a nearby mountain, safely perched on an inaccessible bench where they could see danger coming from hundreds of metres in every direction. This, of course, spelt disaster for a bowhunter on foot, but I was determined to look for a route or plan of attack that would get me into shooting range.
Luck smiled on me when I noticed how each day the herd would take a wide detour when coming off the mountain before passing through a section of a long, broken-down piece of fence as they travelled from their high vantage point to the only water source and succulent grasslands below. I reckoned that if I tied together some brush and grass, just big enough to take cover behind, I could sit in wait along the old fence line. I should, in theory, then be able to get a shot at one of the zebra as they wandered through the 80 metre gap. The only other problem would be whether I would have enough shooting light by the time they finally made it down the mountain. Ample shooting light is paramount, whether or not you have lighted pins, as peering through the small peep on the string can quickly become impossible in low light, severely affecting accuracy.
So with no time to spare I dug a shallow hole with my small, army-style folding shovel, just deep enough for me to sit in with my legs crossed, only having my waist above ground. I cut and bound together some long winter grass using para cord, (another useful item I always keep in my backpack). The key was to take a minimalist approach – I needed just barely enough to blend with my leafy suit and hide my human form, yet small enough to remain inconspicuous, as any large, bulky structure would stand out starkly against the generally featureless terrain and immediately alert the already skittish zebra that something was up.
After an hour’s preparation I took my seat in my “blind.” I felt rather exposed sitting in the shallow hole with just a few sparsely tied bundles of long yellow grass surrounding me, but I had the element of surprise on my side, as with each minute of fading light I would become less distinguishable to the approaching zebra. I was hunting during an especially cold South African winter. In the Free State, frost often covered plains and snow fell on the peaks, so it was not surprising that as sun started to set, the temperatures plummeted. I finally noticed the herd of zebra crest a rise, steadily moving in my direction. They were about 150 yards out when I picked out a big old mare toward the head of the group, so nocked the arrow and shuffled into shooting position – I would have to remain absolutely motionless until the zebra reached me if I had any hope of this plan working.
Shielded by tufts of grass and sitting with my back up against what remained of the fence, I knew they were close when horse-like sounds filled the air. As slowly and carefully as possible I drew back my 80# Elite Answer, thankful for the high let-off which would allow me to stay at full draw for more than three minutes at a time. Soon the lead mare wandered through the gap in the fence just short of 40 yards away. I settled into my familiar anchor point, took careful aim with my 40 yard pin low on the shoulder, and as soon as she paused I touched my release. The bright illuminated nock on my arrow streaked across the cold night air and disappeared in an instant with a dull thud, perfectly on the shoulder. The old mare bucked once before she took off like a steam train in a headlong dash down into the valley. The rest of the herd milled around bewildered for a few seconds before also heading in the same direction as the old matriarch.
I remained seated for a few minutes till I heard the neighing of the other zebra in the herd as they called out to the fallen mare, confirming what I already knew – that my Muzzy-tipped GoldTip arrow had done its lethal job, quickly and cleanly.
It was dark by the time I walked over to retrieve my arrow, with its bright little lighted nock still shining in the tawny Highveld grass. I switched on my headlamp, and at 97 paces I found the noble old mare. I was as proud of her as I was with any other of the trophies I had taken over the years. It was a hard hunt and it took some out-of-the-box thinking to outsmart this wily herd.
Zebra are also deceptively big and tough animals and few bow set-ups will get a full pass through on a fully grown and mature zebra stallion. Therefore, careful consideration is necessary, with premium-quality shaving sharp broadheads an absolute must. The tough hide, heavy frame and big bodies make the zebra a difficult animal to kill quickly, especially so, if hunted with stick and string! I’ve taken a handful of zebra, and can honestly say that they are every bit as tough to hunt as any other big game animal I’ve pursued in my hunting career. So I suggest that you err on the side of caution: Use a bow of at least 60 pounds pushing an arrow in the region of 500 grains or more. A premium quality, superbly sharp broadhead is a must, and two blade broadheads that feature small bleeder blades being ideally suited to penetrate deep and ensure a quick and clean kill. Take care when choosing your ambush location – position yourself so that you have ample opportunity to draw your bow before your target animal is in the shooting lane, so that you not spotted by the others.
My very first “trophy” zebra showed just how tough these animals can be. I was after a large stallion that had the nasty habit of killing young foals, so the decision was made to take him from the herd. I was shooting a particularly accurate 70# single cam bow at the time, with really heavy 600gr arrows tipped with a 125-gr Muzzy. With the bow that was stacking arrows out to distances of 60 yards, it was more than enough to cleanly and effectively take animals as large as eland. I was confident that I would shoot clean through the stallion, regardless of the shot angle or distance.
My brother and I set out mid-afternoon in search of the rogue stallion and soon caught up with the herd. He dropped me off about 100 yards from the group, and I cautiously snaked my way towards them. The target stallion was closest to my position, typically bringing up the rear. The herd was totally at ease and were staring off in the opposite direction at the departing vehicle. I eased out from behind the cover and took a reading to the broadside stallion: At 33 yards, I drew back, found my bright red pin through the peep, waited for it to settle in the middle of the shoulder, and squeezed the trigger. The arrow slammed low into the shoulder of the unsuspecting stallion with a thwack, bisecting the heart with the razor-sharp broadhead.
The arrow did not pass completely through the body, with eight inches of the shaft still sticking out of the nearside shoulder. With a pierced heart, the stallion took off on a furious run, but it was only after 140 yards that he finally fell. Its tenacity still amazes me it to this day as I look at the pedestal mount of the stallion in my living room, and it has forever cemented my respect and admiration for the species.