Open Range: Hunting the Scimitar-Horned Oryx in Texas
March 12, 2013
The scimitar-horned oryx is extinct in the wild, the victim of a country ravaged by war, famine and poaching. The last known animals were probably wiped out in the 1980s, either by Chadian rebels or Sudanese soldiers that Kalashnikoved them down for target practice, psychotic pleasure, or food.
It was a sad end for an animal believed to have been the inspiration for unicorns and whose likeness was carved into Egyptian tombs 23 centuries ago. Despite this macabre ending in the wild, the species numbers some 11,000 in Texas alone and — for now — can be legally hunted on game ranches throughout the state or, better yet, in an expansive free-range environment like the Indianhead Ranch along the Texas/Mexico border.
Encompassing more than 10,000 acres, Indianhead Ranch was founded in 1982 by France-to-Texas transplant Laurent Delagrange to be the premier hunting preserve in the world. The ranch offers over 20 native and exotic species in a free-range setting.
The ranch is a mixture of high mesas, deep canyons, and rock-strewn hillocks dotted with honey mesquite, sage, ocotillo and a host of thorn-bearing succulents, such as prickly pear and horse-crippler cactus. It is this geography that, according to veteran guide Darren Carr, "pretty much keeps them on the ranch."
"Of course some animals have left the ranch and others have come on, but then that's what makes it free range, I guess."
Not only does this defining terrain, with names like Satan's Bluff and Devils River (and no, there's no apostrophe in Devils), keep animals on the ranch, but it provides for a more challenging hunt than would the landscape in the antelope's former range in Chad.
Darren, who guided hunters professionally in Chad the last two years the country was open to hunting, explains, "When they were in Chad, scimitars lived up in the northern deserts. It was a wide-open nothing. There was no cover at all. Here on the ranch, they have tons of cover — plenty of places to hide. And hunting 'em is tough, real tough."
Considering that the scimitar-horned oryx is a 300-plus-pound, smoke-white colored antelope, I found the idea that hunting them was extraordinarily difficult hard to believe. How hard could it be to spot a huge white object in a tangle of green brush or a jumble of brown rocks?
I was about to find out.
Darren drove me afield in one of the ranch's mid-1980s 4x4 Suburbans converted to safari-style vehicles. When I asked Darren why a five-star hunting resort like the Indianhead was utilizing quarter-century old tanks, his answer was very telling of the trails ahead. "Tha' roads on the ranch are brutal. We had a full-size Hummer, but it was too wide for the roads. We tried a couple 4x4 trucks — busted them. Jeeps — twisted their axles. For some reason, these ol' trucks are the best. Lucky we found 'em."
True to his word, the roads proved to be brutal. Rather, the landscape that held them was brutal. And finding an oryx proved much harder than I originally thought. The idea was to drive the property looking for animals and then stalk them on foot. This is a good plan if you can find an oryx. For the first hour or so we didn't.
Despite the fact that the ranch is home to a cornucopia of native and exotic huntable species, Darren and I only saw a small herd of Armenian mouflon running up a mesa, and a large gathering of aoudad standing watch on a vertical cliff during the first part of my hunt. It wasn't until later that I saw my first scimitars, and even then Darren had to show me exactly where to look.
"There's a herd of about eight of them 150 yards out behind that stand of mesquite." Darren offered me his binoculars. I raised mine instead to see only black, saber-like horns gleaming in the sunlight high above the twisted foliage. Further study allowed me glances of white and rust through the vegetation, but it wasn't until something had sent the herd running that I saw any bodies in their complete form.
This scenario was repeated for the duration of the morning. Darren and I would spot a stand of oryx just in time to watch them run for the cover of a canyon or an island of scrub. They were wary animals, elusive and very fleet.
After several hours and many failed stalks later, Darren spotted a good-sized bull leading a herd of 12 animals up on a distant draw. He led me to within a little over 200 yards of them and...I pulled the shot. The only thing I managed to connect with was a good-sized rock underneath the bull. I completely shattered it. Darren was the perfect guide, however.
At my botched shot he merely smiled and offered, "Now'd be a good time to break for lunch." I agreed.
We returned to the field after a quick bite to search for a scimitar that I could actually shoot rather than frighten with my lacking ability. We saw several herds and made a few stalks, but the afternoon turned out to be just as unproductive hunt-wise as the morning. Education wise, however, was a different story.
Darren explained that despite the harsh environment of the ranch, it and the surrounding area was home to some of the earliest inhabitants of North America. Pictographs found in caves scattered throughout the ranch date back to 7000 BCE. Some caves hold ash piles from decades, if not centuries, of campfires. At least one of these had become a favorite dusting spot for aoudad on the ranch. To my knowledge, this makes the Indianhead the only place in the world where animals regularly roll in 9,000-year-old ash.
The first animals we encountered the next day was a pair of bison. Through my camera's telephoto lens, I watched the larger of the two mow through pound after pound of cactus pads. Although I cringed at the thought of a mouth and face full of thorns, the Cadillac-sized bull seemed not to care.
About an hour after watching the cactus buffet, Darren pointed me toward a distant herd of Armenian mouflon dancing up the vertical wall of Satan's Bluff. I was so mesmerized by their seemingly effortless climbing ability that I failed to notice Darren had moved his observation several hundred yards and two bluffs over to where a small herd of scimitars stood feeding.
"There's a couple good bulls in that bunch. One of 'em's real nice." Darren screwed the steering wheel to the left and punched the gas. "We're gonna circle back around the other side of the bluff and go at 'em on foot. I'll see if I can get ya closer than 235 yards to 'em."
The comment Darren delivered with a smirk was lost on me until I recalled that the shot I had blown the day before was at that very distance. Touché, Darren. Touché.
Thanks to Darren's skill and plenty of cover, we were able to stalk within 100 yards of the herd. There were eight animals stirring on the caliche plain, the dust caused by their slight movements between clumps of short grass, creating an intermittent fog about their hooves. Darren sized up two bulls within the tribe of scimitars and pointed to the best of the group.
Not wanting a repeat of my miss, I did just that. In fact, I took too much time, as Darren had to add "whenever you're ready" as a follow-up to his instructions. Actually, I think he repeated his additional instructions three or four times. I squeezed the trigger on my CZ, and the bull dropped at the shot.
"Got 'em!" Darren congratulated.
Of course I did.
The Legalities of Hunting Scimitar-Horned Oryx
In 2005, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) placed scimitar-horned oryx, addax, and Dama gazelle on the Endangered Species list because of population numbers in their native Africa. But because of their belief that "hunting programs can provide a benefit to the long-term survival of a species," the agency put into place 70 FR 52310 at CFR 17.21 (h), which allowed these animals to be sold, hunted, and culled on private ranches. Priscilla Feral, President of Friends of Animals, found this practice "obscene" and challenged USFWS in court to end the exemption.
On June 22, 2009, the court remanded the rule and the exemption was pulled. Because of this law change, ranchers that own any of the three antelope must register their animals with USFWS, pay a fee and jump through a long line of proverbial hoops in order to do anything with their animals.
The only effect the law change regarding scimitar-horned oryx, addax and Dama gazelle will have on hunters will be bank account related, as trophy fees for these animals are expected to rise. Hunters are allowed to take these animals from ranches that have a USFWS Export/Import/Interstate and Foreign Commerce/Take of Animals permit. Hunters may keep and transport their trophies — for now.
This law change came about because one group (Friends of Animals) was vocal as another (hunters) remained mostly silent. It wasn't until after the amendment was put in place that hunters began to make their argument heard. By then it was too late. Fortunately, the change didn't end hunting of these species, but it did put the hurt on many ranches that stocked the animals.
For many, putting the time, effort, and money into obtaining the new and necessary permits simply isn't worth the trouble. Because of this, Charlie Seale, executive director of the Texas based Exotic Wildlife Association, estimates that less than 10 percent of the ranches that had these animals before the law change continue to have them now.
The chain of events begun by this anti-hunting group has actually caused more harm to these species than good, a fact Mrs. Feral said she is fine with in a 60 Minutes news story first aired on Jan. 29, 2012. The future of scimitar-horned oryx, addax and Dama gazelle lies not with individuals or groups that would rather have them go extinct than allow them hunted, it lies with the hunters who ensure these species have a place to live and a value attached to their existence — a fact none will understand or appreciate until we vocalize it.