Ian Harford

Date: October 4, 2011

High Altitude Hunting – Rock Hyrax with Sparks Outdoors.

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Ian Harford hunts Rock Hyrax or “Dassies” on his Airgun Hunting Safari with Sparks Outdoors in Zimbabwe

We’ve spent the past couple of months meeting Keith Sparks and his team at Sparks Outdoors, marvelling at the stunningly beautiful Bubiana Conservancy in Zimbabwe and checking out the cool gear I’ll be taking with me. Although I hope you’ve enjoyed it, now we finally get to check out what it’s all about – hunting!

One of the great things about airgun hunting in Zimbabwe is the vast range of different quarry species available to hunt. Whilst you can sometimes be limited in your choice of quarry here in the UK, there are over 30 species of airgun quarry you can hunt at the Bubiana Conservancy.

Some are considered vermin such as white-necked ravens, porcupine and baboon, whereas others are prized for their game meat such as doves, guinea fowl and the many species of francolin.

One of the most distinctive species is the Rock Hyrax better known as the ‘Dassie’ or ‘Rock Rabbit’. These small mammals are widely thought to be the closest living relative to the elephant and are considered somewhat of a delicacy by the locals. ‘Dassies’ live in large family groups in and amongst the granite coppies that dominate the landscape at the Bubiana Safari area.

Dassies grow to around 50cm in length and up to 4kg in weight. They somewhat resemble a guinea pig, but are surprisingly large once you get up close to them.

They’re well adapted to their rocky habitat and have developed soft, constantly moist pads on their feet to help aid grip to the rocks. This makes them quite manoeuvrable when they need to be and can run up near vertical rock faces at incredible speed.

Very social animals, Dassies live in herds of up to 80 animals, but you’ll rarely see that many at once. They post ‘sentries’ to scout for threats, which emit high-pitched screeches to warn the herd of impending danger.

Unfortunately for them, the rock hyrax forms an important part of the food chain for predators including leopards and raptors.

My host Keith Sparks has experienced this on a number of occasions when hunting them – once stalking close enough to get off a shot, only to see the dassie snatched from the rocks by an enormous crowned eagle!

For this reason they’ve developed keen senses and can be very cautious. Although they’ll happily survey you from afar, getting within shooting range with an airgun can be quite different.

In some tourist places and built up areas where natural predation is significantly reduced, dassies can often appear tame – a bit like domestic rabbits. However, back in the bush everything bites!

You need to be up early to hunt dassies. They’re most active in the morning as the sun comes up, and can often be seen basking on the rocks. The trick is to outmanoeuvre the sentries and get a steady shooting position on a rock or nearby tree.

Although you can plan your route, the reality can be somewhat frustrating. The bush is always thicker and the rocks always bigger when you get up close! One snapped twig or dislodged rock and you have to start all over again.

They may look soft and cute, dassies are actually quite resilient creatures. Head shots are essential to ensure they don’t make it back to their cracks and crevices in the rocks.

Even if you do connect with a clean head shot, the carcass can sometimes fall down one of the gaps in the rock, making it impossible to retrieve. However, after climbing up 100 feet of sheer granite, keeping a steady hand can also be somewhat of a challenge!

With so many eyes on patrol and such difficult terrain, dassie hunting can be great fun and provide a challenging stalk. My first day hunting dassies began at a most unsociable hour. The sun rises in Zimbabwe at around 6.00am and we needed to be out scouting the cliff faces whilst the shadows were still in our favour.

With the majority of our gear finished in Realtree AP, we already had the advantage of the world’s most effective sporting camouflage, but darkness can be a powerful ally when it comes to concealment.

We left the lodge at around 5am. After driving to one of Keith’s favourite hunting areas, we left the truck at the side of the track and continued on foot. Our plan was to try and get up onto the top of one of the ‘coppies’ or rocky outcroppings and wait for the sun to rise.

That way we could afford to make a little noise whilst making the ‘hard yards’ through the tall grass and dense mopane brush that surrounded the rocks, creating an almost impenetrable fortress.

“Keep an eye out for snakes” warned Keith “they’re not active at this time of the day, but you’ll know if you step on one!” This made every footstep in the dark an exciting event in it’s own right. Zimbabwe is home to several species of venomous snakes including snouted cobras, black and green mambas – vigilance is essential.

However, our approach hadn’t gone completely unnoticed. From the snorting, grunting and low level thrashing of the bush, I can only assume we disturbed a family of warthog. Luckily for us they chose to avoid any confrontation and headed deeper into the bush.

At that time of year, many warthog females have young piglets with them and usually retreat if approached. However they can be particularly nasty if they feel threatened – a very dangerous situation even in daylight.

Climbing sheer granite cliffs is tricky at the best of times. Doing so on slippery dew covered boulders in near darkness has an almost comedic value.

I lost count of the number of times I lost my footing and ended up with a leg hanging through a crevasse with nothing below but a yawning chasm! By the time we arrived at the top I was about ready for a breather, and we were rewarded for our efforts with a breath-taking sunrise.

With the sun now creeping towards the horizon, I could see why Keith chose this spot. I could discern the outline of several of the granite coppies that surrounded our position. We sat for some time glassing the gaps and crevices of surrounding rock formations.

I’d taken my Zeiss Victory 10x45RF binoculars for this purpose. For low light conditions I’d ordinarily use the slightly bigger Victory FL 10×56, which has slightly better light gathering capabilities, but the range finding function of the 10x45s would come in handy as judging range between two elevated positions can sometimes prove difficult.

As it happens, the first creatures to move amongst the rocks weren’t the quarry we were looking for. A troop of baboons had risen early and had gathered on one of the neighbouring coppies yawning and scratching. I felt a strange urge to do the same! We sat very still as not to alert them to our presence.

Around the farm baboons are considered a serious pest, whereas here in the bush they don’t cause any harm and are usually left to their own devices. However, they could still prove a nuisance if they became aware of us and betrayed our position.

As the sun slowly rose over the horizon the temperature started to increase noticeably. The tops of some of the higher rocks were now bathed in sunlight. We could clearly see movement in between some of the rocks, but nothing that represented a clear target.

The baboons had moved off and Keith suggested moving around to see if there were any dassies emerging on the other side into the sun. We carefully and deliberately crept along the top of the boulder, being sure not to nudge any loose stones or lose our footing.

Keith was off to my left, slightly in front. All of the sudden he stopped in his tracks, completely motionless. I looked in the direction of his gaze and about 50 yards away could just see a little snout protruding from behind a rock.

Keith hadn’t been seen, but was in full view of the sentry. He pointed for me to take a shot from a ridge about 10 or so yards in front of us. I slowly edged forwards, keeping low and out of sight until I reached the ridge.

I checked the scope settings and adjusted the magnification right up to 10x. I looked back at Keith who still wasn’t moving. I slowly raised the rifle up the ‘blind side’ of the rock and used it’s top edge as a sturdy platform from which to shoot.

The March 1-10×24 Tactical Scope is fitted with a super fine MTR-2 reticule which has a very fine dot at the centre. I placed the dot directly behind the hyrax’s eye and gently squeezed the trigger.

The heavy hammer stroke needed to strike the valve and sheer volume of air released by the Air Ranger 80 creates a noticeable amount of recoil. This resulted in me temporarily losing my sight picture.

I looked back towards Keith who was smiling from ear to ear. I initially thought I must have missed, but then “good shot!” came the reply. The dassie had fallen forward of the rock and was lying on a ledge some 50 feet below us.

“We’ll collect it on the way down” whispered Keith, “let’s see if we can get another while we’re up here.” I nodded and we continued our stalk around the rocks.

As I looked down towards where the carcass lay, I saw another dassie on a ledge further down over to my left. Strangely it didn’t seem concerned with what was lurking above it, allowing me to squeeze between two boulders and get into position for my second shot.

This time the shot was at quite a steep angle downwards, approximately 25 yards away. This time I aimed at the top of its right ear. I squeezed the trigger and heard a loud ricochet – pellet on granite! I feared the worst, but when I looked down the dassie lay completely motionless on the ledge.

After we collected the carcass it was obvious that the 36 grain .25 JSB Exact King pellet had passed clean through the skull and then ricocheted off the granite surface below it. It took two hours to get into position, then two shots in as many minutes!

We’d arranged to meet with Farm Director Davey Drummond over breakfast to discuss his white-necked raven problem so decided to call it a morning. All that was left was to navigate our way back down the slopes – easier said than done when gravity’s not on your side!

Ian’s Zimbabwe Dassie hunting equipment:

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One Response to “High Altitude Hunting – Rock Hyrax with Sparks Outdoors.”

  • Malc

    October 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm