From my first glimpse of the blue-gray animal sporting white pinstripes and horns that curled skyward like smoke rising from a fine Havana cigar, I was captivated. I speak of the lesser kudu—Tragelaphus imberbis—an animal that not only ranks among Africa’s top trophies, but in my opinion is the No. 1 trophy among all African antelope. My high regard for this handsome animal began more than 30 years ago while living in Kenya, East Africa.
I first became fascinated with the lesser kudu during outings to Tsavo National Park, 8,000 square miles of big-game country famous for legendary tuskers, ornery rhino and man-eating lions. Traveling across Tsavo’s grassy savannas or winding through her parklands of flat-topped commiphora and acacia trees back in the 1960s meant encountering game of every description.
Herds of zebra, giraffe, impala, oryx and eland were almost always within sight.
More challenging, though, was spotting timid game like the cover-loving, spiral-horned lesser kudu or the wary, long-necked gerenuk for which Tsavo’s habitat is ideal. It was always a challenge and a treat to spot a lesser kudu, whose gray-and-white-striped body blended so remarkably well with the thorn-brush terrain it favored.
I would come to learn that lesser kudu prove elusive even in picture books by well-known wildlife photographers, who mostly fail to connect with this difficult-to-capture subject. Owing to infrequent and unpredictable sightings, and then only quick glimpses, photographing a good lesser kudu bull is tricky at best. When one is spotted, it is seldom more than a few bounds from diving into thick bush.
Often compared to whitetails in terms of body size and behavior, the lesser kudu is about a third the size of its larger cousin, the greater kudu. Like the greater kudu, its slender brown-gray and black face is graced with a white chevron between the eyes, two white spots on its cheeks and a splash of white on its lips and chin. But the lesser kudu is easily distinguishable based not only on its size and distribution, but also by the absence of a throat fringe. Instead it exhibits two conspicuous white throat patches and has a thin fringe of mane running from the nape of its neck back to the top of its shoulders.
A lesser kudu bull weighs anywhere from 120 to 200 pounds and stands a little more than 40 inches at the shoulder. Anywhere from nine to 15 vertical white pinstripes overlay the rich blue-gray coloration of a mature bull’s sleek, shorthaired coat. Its long, slender front legs are tawny in color, accentuated by distinct black-and-white markings that make it look like it is wearing stockings. A sharp, coughing bark is uttered by both sexes when alarmed, and a bushy tail—gray above and white below—is flagged much like a whitetail’s when bounding from danger; its gray-and-white-striped body seems to evaporate once it reaches cover.
Only males have horns, which crown an elegant appearance framed by two distinct and well-proportioned ears. The horns of a mature bull spiral upward and make at least two complete turns. Two-and-a-half twists are evident when the tips parallel each other or point outward. To borrow a phrase from Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, the horns are colored “the brown of walnut meats and are ivory pointed.” The reference to “ivory tips” is not real ivory but rather the creamy core color of horn tips that have been rubbed sharp and smooth against bushes and trees, or honed in the muddy edges of waterholes. To earn a listing in Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game trophy bulls will sport horns measuring anywhere from 27 inches up to the current world record of 36 inches.
During the rutting period, a dominant bull will join up with a small group of females for breeding purposes, after which it will either regroup with other bulls forming bachelor packs, or remain solitary. Primarily browsers, lesser kudu favor dry bush country with plenty of commiphora woodland and acacia thorn thickets, which provide food and into which they blend so remarkably well for protection. Because moisture is mostly obtained from what they eat, lesser kudu thrive in semi-arid thorn brush and don’t necessarily rely on fresh water sources. They feed mainly in the early morning, tending to lay up in thick bush for most of the day before resuming feeding in late afternoon. Their principal natural enemies are leopards and wild dogs.
The lesser kudu is limited in distribution to specific areas of East Africa, where aerial surveys show that pockets of populations exist in Uganda, Somalia and Ethiopia. In Kenya, lesser kudu numbers are diffuse throughout their range, while in Tanzania, stable populations are common throughout northern Masailand. Surveys suggest a total population of around 100,000 throughout the lesser kudu’s range. Currently, Ethiopia and Tanzania are the only two countries that permit legal and controlled hunting of lesser kudu.
Soon after moving to Kenya in 1967, my father acquired a Land Rover and enough camping equipment to make a two-week stay in the bush comfortable. He’d successfully negotiated the red tape associated with the issue of firearm permits and imported two rifles and a shotgun for hunting purposes: a Remington M721 in .300 H&H Magnum with iron sights, a Winchester M69 bolt-action in .22 LR and a 12-gauge pump. We both qualified for resident hunting licenses by passing rigorous oral and written exams administered by the Kenya Game Department.
It was classic East African big-game country providing prime habitat for dry-bush species like the lesser kudu, gerenuk and fringe-eared oryx, among many others. Back then this vast stretch of country was peppered with black rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard and was legendary for its 100-pounders—elephants carrying tusks weighing more than 100 pounds apiece. (Devastating poaching in the ’70s and ’80s changed all that by nearly wiping out the black rhino and all but eliminating the big tuskers from this particular stretch of country.)
My father and I spent many enjoyable days in the Kenya bush, and in time, we both managed to collect a couple of very fine lesser kudu trophies. On one occasion early in our experiences, I remember riding along in the Land Rover and spotting a lesser kudu bull ducking into an isolated patch of cover. I dropped out of the vehicle behind some brush while Dad drove on.
I edged around the cover so I could watch the bush where the kudu had disappeared, about 75 yards away. As I watched and waited, I made out his outline, which was confirmed when the bull shifted slightly. I held the front bead of my iron sights squarely and solidly on its shoulder from a kneeling position and applied slight pressure to the trigger, ready to take the shot. But I hesitated. I couldn’t see its horns; I couldn’t tell how big they were and didn’t want to shoot an immature bull.
A staring match ensued for what seemed like hours, but I felt confident that whichever way the bull moved I would have a shot as soon as I confirmed its horn size. Long story short, when it broke and ran, it did so in the only direction where a shot was impossible. When it finally came into clear view, it was well over 100 yards away, running with its white tail flashing. Of course, the bull’s horns towered above its head and it was clearly the biggest lesser kudu I’d ever seen. I still get the shakes every time I recall the sight and think how easy a shot it would have been before it bolted. And yet, I didn’t feel it was worth the chance of taking an immature animal so I live with my decision.
I collected my first lesser kudu in July 1969. The hunt proved to be remarkable as much for its circumstance as for its success. Early on a Saturday morning a light drizzle dampened the coast near Mombasa as I placed our three guns in canvas cases behind the front seat of the Land Rover.
Dad and I rolled out of town with camping gear and a week’s worth of provisions, all packed in a trailer we towed behind the Land Rover. We each carried general game licenses, which allowed us to hunt species such as impala, warthog, zebra, Coke’s hartebeest, Grant’s gazelle and wildebeest. We also carried additional licenses for lesser kudu, gerenuk and fringe-eared oryx. We drove westward into the hinterland, headed for Block 26, located about 100 miles west-southwest of Mombasa.