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Original Issue

Small game shoot in big game land

The customary safari props were all in place: an apple-green dusk, just beginning to spread like Kodachrome over the hills north of Nairobi and hippos belching and mumbling in the chocolate currents of the Tana River. Herds of impala and zebra browsed through the heat amid thorn scrub on the horizon, while from the riverside brush arose a clamor of birdcalls so patently electronic, it seemed, that even Tarzan would blush at the racket. But not John Anière, 35, the resident Lord Greystoke who leases these 5,000 acres of game lands in the Ithanga Hills as a hunting concession.

"Those are kanga calling—guinea fowl," said Ani√®re. "We'll pop in at the coffee shamba up on the ridge for a little evening shoot." Ani√®re is one of a mere handful of East African professional hunters (the term "white hunter" went out with independence) who sees the ecological handwriting on the wall and is promoting small-game hunts on a continent where the future of big game is a matter of much concern to environmentalists. He is into a good thing. For the upland bird shooter in particular, East Africa is a hunting ground of such abundance as to make a Scottish grouse moor or Spanish partridge shoot resemble just another canary farm. Not even North America, in the halcyon 19th century days of the market hunters, could match the richness of Kenya today.

The region's upland game birds range in size from Lilliput to Brobdingnag. On the small end is the button quail, which is actually a bit bigger than that (about the size of a wren), while at the far end of the scale sits—or, rather, sprints—the long-legged Kori bustard, a 20-pound speedster that would rather run than fly, and definitely deserves a far less ludicrous name. No serious hunter kills either of these extremes on the African bird roster—the button quail is a weak, unchallenging flier, while the giant bustard is protected over most of its territory. Poachers, rifle-shooting meat hunters and, perhaps, evolutionary forces have reduced its numbers.

In between, however, there are more than 100 species of game birds that exist in abundance with no danger of overkill, and thus provide airborne targets that are as difficult as anything in Europe or the Western Hemisphere. Green pigeons in the dank, Podocarpus forests of Mount Kenya. Ring-necked doves and the heftier, more acrobatic sand-grouse over the water holes of the semi-arid game plains. For the walk-'em-up shotgunner raised on pheasants and ruffed grouse, there are the spur fowl and francolin, partridgelike birds that travel in coveys through the brushy ridges and dongas (dry riverbeds) of the lower slopes. In a single weekend of shooting and, with a minimum of traveling from one spot to another by Land Rover, a visiting hunter can experience the equivalent of a Georgia quail season, an Imperial Valley dove season, a Kansas pheasant season and a Maine or Michigan ruffed grouse season—and bag double those U.S. limits in the process.

But the target this evening was guinea fowl. "You'll find the kanga rather deceptive," said Ani√®re as the Land Rover bumped its way toward the coffee plantation. "It's a cross between the pheasant and the B-17—slow off the ground, but hard as hell to bring down." Ani√®re is a quirky, quick-witted Spanish émigré whose family was on the Loyalist (i.e., losing) side in the Civil War. Like so many East African whites, he has patched together a livelihood out of many talents. For a time he worked as a surveying skin diver for the colonial government, snorkeling out of Pemba, a fiercely hot coral island north of Zanzibar. ("A boring place betimes," he recalls, "except for the breakfasts. I would get up at dawn and goggle out along the reefs, plucking oysters and shucking them into a plastic bag on my belt. Then home—which was a room above an Asian's noisy duka—for brekkers: oysters fresh in their own salty juice and a few pints of iced English ale.") Before that came the Mau Mau "emergency," Kenya's euphemism for its tragic but successful 1952-56 revolution. Ani√®re served in the "pseudo-groups," bands of white Kenyans who disguised themselves in blackface, wore the slouch hats and long khaki army-surplus greatcoats favored by the Mau Mau, and patrolled the slopes of Mount Kenya in search of the real thing. "We had our own Africans along with us and tried to remain inconspicuous among them," he says, "but no European, however clever at disguise or anthropology, could really fool the Mau Mau bands. As a result, we were not all that effective, though there were some rather fierce, long-range battles up there in the fog and the bamboo."

Anière's hunting skills were honed down fine by that experience, but he has discovered since that it takes far more than a knowledge of game habits and a fine tracking eye to become successful as a pro. "You're a Jack-of-all-trades," he complains from time to time, "and Jack's a dull boy. Accountant, travel agent, tour director, camp counselor, bon vivant, raconteur and, occasionally, sex symbol to the ladies on safari. Give me a water bottle and a rifle and point me into the bush, and that's fine. But with people along, I don't know."

A metallic, cackling sound, reminiscent of the ring-necked pheasant's call, emerged from the coffee plantation as Anière parked the Land Rover halfway down the slope that led to the river below. "The kanga are working their way down the slope to their roosts," he explained. "I'll have the men beat down toward us, and we'll try to take them passing overhead. Merely try! They're enough like pheasants to double back between the beaters' legs or fly back over their heads after they're flushed. If you can call your shot, try for the head or the neck. These birds take a lot of killing." He sneered at the 20-gauge Beretta double-barreled shotgun he was holding; Anière would have preferred the larger 12-gauge, but his North American clients had selected the lighter weapons in order to make the shooting more challenging.

The harsh voices and thwacking sticks of the Wakamba beaters drifted down the hillside through the coffee bushes. Dark, turkey-sized shapes scuttled ahead of the line. Then the birds rose—a dozen, two dozen lumbering shapes, seeming clumsy and almost reptilian against the green sky. As one flapped past at close range, there was an impression of the long, naked, vulturine neck and the wet, quizzical eye. The shotgun swung up and along the bird, past it—the fatal kapow! A halo of feathers drifted past the muzzle—a good, solid hit—but the bird set its wings and sloped down a hundred yards farther on. It took a second shot on the ground to finish off the kanga's run.

With the dark settling fast, the hunters pushed down into the thickly grown river bottom, flushing guinea fowl out of the trees and killing them clean on straightaway shots. The birds were plump and large, weighing up to 12 or 15 pounds apiece, though most of that weight was in bone and viscera; the guinea of the wild is not nearly as meaty a bird as its domesticated, barnyard cousin. "We might encounter the odd buffalo in here," Anière muttered as he pushed through the brush. "They drift on down from the hills, just as the rains begin, and the rains this year are overdue. These little popguns would barely kill the ticks on a buffalo's ears, so if one comes, get behind a tree and keep running in circles." Then he shot his eyebrows and pulled his baboon's face. "Gives one a bit of a tingle, what?"

That night, over lies and camp stew, the evening shoot was critically analyzed. Two wounded birds—"runners" in the parlance—had escaped, though a decent retrieving dog would have gathered them easily. Unfortunately, gundogs are rarely used over birds in East Africa, partly because bird shooting is still so new a sport there, and partly because the country is hostile to dogs. "They don't survive long here," said Ani√®re. "Snakes and leopards take their toll—old chui will pad right on into camp and past a fire to snag a dog out of your tent, and the first you'll know of it is next morning when you find leopard pugmarks in the ashes. Ticks and leeches are even worse. A leech up a dog's nostril will finish him slower but just as final as any leopard."

The following morning was devoted to sandgrouse—the black-faced sand-grouse, to be specific. Eremialector decoratus in Latin, kwale in Swahili and tricky to hit in any language, it is a bird whose flight patterns closely resemble the North American white-winged dove, a favorite target of bird shooters in the U.S. Southwest. "Ah, yes," mused Ani√®re as he jounced the Land Rover toward the shooting ground. "E. decoratus—a splendid fellow. Love him dearly, I do. Resident in the arid and semi-arid regions of East Africa from Somalia to central Tanganyika, he and his lady friends often form small flocks when Slighting to water in the early morning and late afternoon."

The site of this morning's shoot was a stagnant water hole in the midst of a high, rolling thorn plain southwest of Ani√®re's camp. Bands of impala and waterbuck, plus a few rare, exotically marked roan antelope, stared as Ani√®re wheeled up. A resident flock of guinea fowl, doubtless alerted to the morbid intentions of their visitors by word from the coffee shamba, legged it into the weeds with dispatch. Ani√®re studied the sign on the water hole's mucky margin. "A cow rhino and her calf," he remarked with fatherly pride. "They've been around now for a couple of weeks." The tracks of a serval cat, a bushbuck, a duiker or two, and a trio of splayfoot poachers filled out the list of natural graffiti that caught Ani√®re's eye. Then the sandgrouse began arriving, flying low and erratic against the first sunlight. "Let a few of them drop down to have a drink," Ani√®re whispered. "That will bring the rest of them in. They'll flight for about an hour, and with luck we should have plenty of shooting—enough to stiffen up the sinews and summon up the ear doctor, I reckon."

Unlike the clumsy but rugged kanga of yesterday, these birds were graceful, frail and gymnastic on the wing. No single flight of sandgrouse followed the same approach to the water. Individuals shifted position amid the formation with disdainful aplomb, demanding the utmost concentration on the part of the shooter. Each squadron took two or three turns of the water hole before setting its wings for the low, swift touchdown run, and it became quickly evident that the most sporting shot was during one of these overflights, when the birds were from 20 to 50 yards high. Ani√®re reserved his ammo for these shots, shaking his head sadly when he missed (not often) and grinning his baboon face when He scored. The gun barrels quickly grew scorching hot, and the banks were littered with empty shell cases—all of which were later retrieved, unlike one of the birds, which fell in the water hole and never drifted ashore. "One more reason for a good gundog," moped Ani√®re. "Damn, how I hate to lose something I've killed. It compounds the crime, what?"

That night, the sinews were stiffened all right, and the ears still rang from the blast of uncounted shots—a whole skeet season of shotgun shells expended in a single morning. But the safari props were once again in place and all was cool, particularly the beer. "You begin to wonder about the concept of 'big game,' " Ani√®re mused as the hippos mumbled. "Like so many concepts in the Western world, magnitude has become more important in our type of hunting than fun. I expect that if you could breed a 3,000-pound sandgrouse, there would be millionaires by the hundred winging their way here from New York and Cleveland and Los Angeles to have a go at them. Ha! And many of them would miss—just as they miss the big tuskers and lions and buffalo they blast away at." The campfire played its light show on the tidy tents, and a hyena uttered its strange, vocal joy over the discovery of something rotten and edible at the edge of camp—probably bird guts. Ani√®re continued: "But there is a bigness to small game as well, particularly birds. They are fast and they are plenty. And not a one of them gives you the same shot twice in a row." He took a long pull from his beer. "Blast them!"