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Uganda returns: Churchill's "pearl of Africa" still has plenty of oysters.

IT WAS A HOT MIDDAY IN EARLY march whet we arrived at Uganda Wildlife Safaris' tent camp in the Kafu River drainage about three hours north of the traffic and bustle of Kampala. The camp fronted a vast complex of winding papyrus swamp. in the hot midday, the impossibly horned Ankole cattle would come down to drink, and in the mornings and evenings sitatunga and bushbuck would wander peacefully along the edges.

We learned that this tributary was just one of several rivers feeding the Kafu, hundreds of miles of sitatunga habitat not hunted and historically were hunted hut. little. On the drive in, we had seen dozens of oribi and a few bushbuck. In the days to come, we would learn that during prime movement hours bushbuck and reedbuck would wander like goats in the grasslands, up from the rivers and the thornbush beyond. This was not the Uganda I had read about ... but in the context of modern Africa, it looked awfully good.

HUNTING HISTORY

One of Sir Winston Churchill's most quoted lines, at least in our world, is found in his 1909 book, My African Journey, in which he described Uganda as the pearl of Africa: not only because of its natural beauty, but also because of its economic potential. In that same year the epic Roosevelt safari traveled northwest from Kenya by train and steamer, up Lake Kyoga, west along the Victoria Nile to Lake Albert, then up the Albert Nile to what is known to this day as "Rhino Camp." Here, along the Albert Nile, in one of the oft-criticized excesses of the day, they took several of the critically endangered northern white rhinos for museum groups.

In that era, Uganda, loosely a British colony, was largely untamed wilderness. The northwest corner, west of the Albert Nile and south of Sudan, had been held as a private lease by Belgium's King Leopold II. Known as the Lado Enclave, this area was especially rich in elephants, and for some years was widely hunted by what Roosevelt called "gentleman adventurers" willing to risk Belgian patrols. Today we would call them poachers, but the distinction made by these mostly British hunters was that it was perfectly OK to hunt the Belgian king's elephants as opposed to their own monarch's game! The death of Leopold II in 1910 created a vacuum of power, with experienced and "would-be" elephant hunters flooding into the Enclave in the greatest "ivory rush" the continent ever saw. To the northeast, across the Great Rift Valley, lies the still-wild Karamoja District. It was this region that provided the nickname for perhaps the most famous of all the early ivory hunters, Walter Dalrymple Maitland "Karamoja" Bell.

There was some hunting available in Uganda after World War II, but it wasn't until 1961, when Brian Herne and other Kenya hunters set up shop in Uganda, that the ball really began rolling. Uganda was a primary safari destination for little more than a decade, but in those days the hunting was spectacular. Most hunters on safari took indigenous rarities like Uganda kob, and a few concentrated parts of their trip on local prizes like the Ssese Island sitatunga. But in those days, most safaris concentrated on the great prizes. A license included up to eight buffalo, and lion, leopard, and elephant were common.

In the late 1960s, the founder of this magazine, Robert E. Petersen, accompanied by long-time publisher, Tom Siatos, made their first African safari to Uganda. I've watched film from this safari, and it was spectacular. Historically, three of the ten largest elephants ever recorded came from Uganda. But in that short safari season, Uganda actually produced few monster elephants. Instead, it was a country that produced good, solid ivory from a still-large population ... along with wellmaned lions, easy-to-bait leopards, lots of buffalo, and a good selection of plains game. The best record of hunting in Uganda can be found in Brian Herne's excellent book Uganda Safaris (Winchester Press, 1980), regrettably out of print.

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END AND BEGINNING

Hunting became untenable around 1970, during Idi Amin's rise to power. Brian Herne returned to Uganda twice in 1975, at the height of Amin's reign, but it was clear that safari hunting was politically and logistically impossible. Herne's book contains some wonderful insights into that most colorful of African despots, Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada.

Amin's reign lasted until 1979, ended by a short and brutal war with Tanzania. That war was extremely hard on Uganda's wildlife. The long civil war was worse. Some estimates place the loss of wildlife as high as 95 percent in some districts. Elephants, the great cats, and large herd animals like buffalo were probably hurt the worst, but all wildlife suffered tremendously. With wildlife populations remnant and scattered, poaching diminished in the 1990s and recovery began.

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Under President Museveni, elected in 1986 and still in power, the game department was reorganized as the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). With UWA's support a few years ago, enterprising outfitters started exploring potential hunting areas on both public and private lands. The reopening was "soft: as retailers would say, and the first safaris in modern Uganda began about four years ago for limited species in specific areas. Nile bushbuck and Uganda kob, species unavailable for more than 25 years, were among the first animals targeted on these preliminary safaris.

It's exciting to see new country and species available for hunting, but I didn't see myself going all the way to Uganda for a couple of antelope. So I sat by and watched things develop. Today, five outfitters hunt various parts of Uganda. The game list remains limited, and lion and elephant are not on license, but Uganda kob, Nile bushbuck, oribi, bush duiker, warthog, and bushpig are generally well distributed. Leopard hunting is open with a small CITES quota, but Americans are not yet allowed to import them from Uganda. Cape buffalo and the smaller Nile buffalo are available, and hunting has again been developed for the Ssese Island sitatunga, found only on Uganda's islands in Lake Victoria. East African sitatunga are surprisingly abundant in proper habitat on the mainland.

I selected Christian Weth's Uganda Wildlife Safaris (uganda-wildlife-safaris. corn) because he had the species I was interested in: Uganda kob, Nile bushbuck, Jackson's hartebeest, and the dealmaker, Nile buffalo--all animals I had never hunted before.

SITATUNGA PARADISE

My friend and frequent hunting partner Bill Jones joined me. In addition to the animals mentioned, Bill also wanted to hunt East African sitatunga. I passed on sitatunga because I'd taken a pretty good one in Tanzania the year before. That was my reason, but what I didn't realize was that central Uganda must be the very best place in modern Africa to hunt this elusive swampdwelling animal!

Mind you, I haven't hunted them everywhere, but I have hunted them in Botswana when they were on license, several times in Zambia, and in multiple areas in Tanzania. I've also beat my head against the wall trying to hunt the forest variety in both Cameroon and Central African Republic. I have never seen such a profusion of ideal habitat. Nor, from tracks and sightings, such a concentration of sitatunga.

Veteran professional hunter Tony Moore, with 40 years experience literally all over the continent, was waiting for us in camp. He'd been cutting papyrus and building machans for weeks, so as soon as we checked the rifles, he and Bill whisked off to one of his raised platforms overlooking a likely area.

Although found across a great swath of Africa, the various races of sitatunga are very specialized and are generally found only in specific papyrus swamps or thinly scattered in the great forest zone. The semiaquatic sitatunga is thus one of Africa's great prizes, almost ranking with the bongo and giant eland. As such, it's hard to know how to play the odds, and it's pretty difficult to pass a really good one--and perhaps unwise.

Bill and Tony saw sitatunga on every outing. They passed small bulls--clearly a good call. They passed a great bull seen at extreme range from a gently swaying platform--also a good call! On the third evening they took a gorgeous sitatunga in good daylight at just over 100 yards. He was a marvelous old bull with horns worn smooth all along the front surfaces. The animal places in the top third of the record book listings, so they did the right thing, but I've no doubt these never-seriously-hunted swamps will yield more monsters.

KAFU

While Bill and Tony were hunting sitatunga, Christian and I explored the thornbush. The variety of game in the Kafu region is not large, but the game that is present is plentiful and extremely calm. Bushbuck, normally so spooky, acted placid, and oribi were spotted wandering about in herds of a half-dozen and more! Eastern bohor reedbuck were more localized around cultivated areas, and there were as many bush duiker as I've ever seen in any area. Apparently, Jackson's hartebeest and the occasional Uganda kob wander through the area, but we didn't see these in the time I was there.

This was an area of scattered small farms with goats and lots of beautiful cattle with incredible horns. It was fairly obvious to me that these people don't poach; we saw no evidence of snaring, and the game was too calm and plentiful.

My primary interest in Kafu was Nile bushbuck, a brightly colored bushbuck limited to Uganda and Sudan. This was just a matter of time and patience. On the first evening we caught a glimpse of a monster and made several short still-hunts for him. But he was living in a patch of thick bush, and we never saw him again. We did see a number of small to medium rams that we passed, so I guess you could say I ran out of patience. When we saw a lovely old ram with exceptionally thick horns feeding in a little glade, he seemed plenty big enough. We made a little stalk, and I shot him with Bill's 1912-vintage .416 Rigby. I also took a fine reedbuck and a good East African bush duiker. After he had his sitatunga, Bill played catch-up and had great luck duplicating all of my animals plus a very fine oribi.

ASWA-LOLIM

Murchison Falls National Park lies east of the northern end of Lake Albert, containing the falls of the westbound Victoria Nile, which goes into the lake, and several miles of the northbound Albert Nile, which comes out of the lake. It must be one of Africa's leastknown secrets, holding thousands of buffalo, kob, waterbuck, hartebeest, and more. On drives into the park, the country we saw was primarily gentle grassy ridges studded with palm trees, and the wildlife was amazing.

The hunting area, Aswa-Lolim, lies to the north of the park boundary and east of the Albert Nile. It's the same lovely country with grassy swales and giant palms but with more brush and forest on the ridges. The game situation, however, is quite different. Aswa-Lolim, formerly a game reserve, was recently privatized. The human population is not large, but there is habitation along the park boundary, and I suspect there remains some poaching. We found pockets of kob and reedbuck, but outside the park, game was scarce, with little evidence of larger herd animals like buffalo and hartebeest.

Thus it was very much a "boundary hunt" as it might be alongside almost any sanctuary in the world. This is neither good nor bad; it is what it is. So far it had been a very dry year, unusual for well-watered Uganda, and the grass wasn't green enough on the other side to entice a lot of movement. Honestly, this area hasn't been hunted long enough for the outfitter and professional hunters to have a good sense of whether some months might be much better than others. Last year there were a lot of buffalo out of the park in May and June; this year, we had tough sledding in March. But who knows?

We did find very good kob quite easily. This is not an animal that should be underrated. The kobs are close relatives to the lechwe, with shorter lyre-shaped horns and an exceptionally beautiful reddish cape with white and black on the underparts. The Uganda kob is the country's national animal, and since it hasn't been available for some 30 years, it's an important trophy. Right off the bat I took a good one with a tough frontal shot through a small window in the trees. A couple of days later, Bill took a much better one ... and then fortune smiled. I had a chance at a monstrous kob tending a female on a sloping plain not far from the Nile. Although we had two on license, I didn't really intend to take a second kob--but this one was far too good to pass. So Tony and I made a quick stalk, set up the sticks, and I had my best trophy of the safari.

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Come to think of it, Lady Luck smiled more than once. Of the game available, Jackson's hartebeest is the least certain right now, but early one morning we caught a big herd on our side of the boundary. Tony and I closed in quickly and got a shot at about 200 yards. The Swift A-Frame took out both shoulders, and the big animal was down in its tracks.

Our main goal in Aswa-Lolim was Nile buffalo. Inside the park we saw dozens and dozens of beautiful bulls, and there was a group of six bulls operating right on the boundary. Sooner or later, they had to make a mistake. So we watched them. And we came to hate them. Meanwhile, Tony kept scouts looking elsewhere for sign on our side of the boundary

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Although it seemed quite hopeless--no different from waiting for elk to come out of Yellowstone--this area is one of the best places to hunt Nile buffalo. They are slightly smaller in the body, with smaller horns that rarely have the "drop" of a Cape buffalo's. Murchison Falls National Park is clearly overstocked, and on any game drive you will see groups of gorgeous dagga bulls. Some have to wander out, so it's a matter of patience and luck ... like any "boundary hunt."

The six bulls we were watching never came out, but one blistering hot morning the scouts came in with reports of a big lone bull well inside our area. We took the tracks, came up on the buffalo, and shot him without incident. Then, as I reported previously in a past column, I became ill, and that was the end of my first Uganda safari. But I'm pretty sure it won't be my last.

To see more photos from Craig's safari, log on to--petersenshunting.com/uganda

WORDS & IMAGES by CRAIG BODDINGTON
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Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Oct 1, 2012
Words:2488
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