The scimitar-horned oryx is extinct in the wild, the victim of a country ravaged by war, famine, and poaching. The known last animals were probably wiped out in the 1980s by either Chadian rebels or Sudanese soldiers who Kalashnikov-ed them down for target practice, bordering on psychotic pleasure, or food. It was a sad ending 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 premiere hunting preserve in the world. The ranch offers over 20 species of 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’s tough. Real tough.”
Considering that the scimitar-horned oryx is a three hundred 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 4 x4 Suburban 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 4 x 4 trucks – busted them. Jeeps – twisted their axels. 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 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 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 sent the herd running that I saw any bodies in 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 upon a distant draw. He led me to within a little over 200 yards of them and long story short I pulled the shot. Missed the animal completely. 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 was 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 7,000 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 Darren and I 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 ‘ems 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 the two bulls within the tribe of scimitars and pointed to the best of the group.
“He’s the bigger of the two,” Darren whispered. “Take your time.”
Not wanting a repeat of my miss from the day before 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.
Darren estimated the bull’s age at ten or eleven years old, still young enough to breed but too old to fight for the right to do so. The bull’s splayed and broken horns told of a lifetime of doing just that. He was a great trophy, one of a species completely extinct in the wild. One that will only continue to thrive if hunters do their part by shooting it.