Hunting the scimitar-horned oryx in the Hill Country where Texans helped save the species from extinction.
By Gary Lewis
Dead ahead, five hundred yards distant, on the fringe of a feather-leafed patch of mesquite and prickly pear at the edge where grass as green as the day of creation gave way to forest, stood three scimitar-horned oryx.
They gave no indication they had seen us, but we were not fooled, Roger Schmidt least of all. With their horns flashing in the early light, they fed into tall cover.
Ryan Lentz let out his breath. He carried a Nosler Custom rifle in 300 Winchester Magnum stoked with Nosler AccuBonds. If there was one in our party whose heart didn’t race at the sight, it was Sakura, the boxer that walked alongside Lentz or rode in the ATV at his side. Sakura breathed heavy in the early morning air, her chest protected by a Cordura vest, proof against rattlers and cactus spines.
Where there were three oryx there would be more.
Schmidt led the way and Lentz followed, Sakura at his side. Their eyes on the glimpses of horn and hide ahead of us, they missed the rattler coiled up in the groundcover. The size of a saucer, it was quiet, deadly, in the cool of the morning.
With the wind in our favor, we stayed on the move, using the cover of the tree trunks and low-hanging limbs to get closer. Still alert, the animals moved, and we saw more as the group of three joined a larger band. Then the wind changed, and one animal gave the warning. The herd flowed like water, their horns flashing, their legs churning, their muscles rippling.
A herd of more than 70 oryx live on Schmidt’s ranch and to keep from exceeding the carrying capacity, he allows a few to be removed each year. If all went right, we would get to take some meat home to sample some of the legendary taste of North Africa. How often does a hunter get to put steaks from an endangered species on a grill?
A Species on Its Way Back
In early 2016, twenty-five scimitar-horned oryx were herded onto an airplane in Abu Dhabi and made the nine-hour flight to their new home in Chad. Fourteen more scimitar oryx were turned out into the desert in early 2017.
With these releases into an unfenced area the size of the state of Indiana, the scimitar oryx will no longer be classified extinct in the wild. Status will be downgraded to critically endangered.
Once the scimitar oryx thrived across Northern Africa. The last herds were wiped out in Chad and in the year 2000, the species was pronounced extinct in the wild. But special reserves in Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, United Arab Emirates and in Texas have kept the species alive and saved the scimitar-horned oryx for the world.
There is only one place where oryx dammah exist in sufficient numbers to be hunted. That place is Texas Hill Country.
Roger Schmidt is a rancher, attorney and veteran, a Renaissance man – lover of animals, fine wines and finer firearms. A conservationist to his core, the scimitar oryx is his most prized and favorite species. When he extended me the offer to carry a rifle on his Texas ranch there was no turning that down. But, I had another plan in the works. There was a fellow I knew of in Dallas – a good friend of a good friend – who would shoot the rifle. I called Heath Gunn, of Honored American Veterans Association and he called Ryan Lentz, a Marine Corps veteran. Tracy Wilson, a friend from Vancouver, Wash., would join us and Samuel Pyke, too, camera in hand.
On a mid-May evening that crackled with electricity, when thunder boomed horizon to horizon, we rolled the rented Ford down a gravel road south of Eden.
A 30-inch rattlesnake slithered across the track from the neighbor’s ranch onto Schmidt’s as we opened the gate. That one was too fast for us to draw a flashlight and a bead on. We might have to deal with it later.
We drove up to a ranch house and a campfire where we met Charles and Julie Burleson, who would cook for us and Ronnie Bakios, Schmidt’s brother-in-law and top guide for the ranch.
When we mentioned the serpent at the gate, someone harkened back to Rooster Cogburn’s words in True Grit.
“Everything in these woods’ll either bite ya, stab ya or stick ya.”
Watch yourself, sister.
Out in the Mesquite
Perhaps the shape of the oryx horn gave its form to the back-sword that gained widespread fame from the Ottomans onward. Its variants are the shamshir (Iran), the kilij (Turkey and Egypt), the nimcha (Morocco), the pulwar, the talwar, the kirpaan and the shotel.
Well-named is the scimitar-horned oryx with swept back curving, needle sharp horns that can stretch the tape to almost four feet. From the open grassland into the broken country with dry creek bottoms and thick stands of mesquite, the oryx ghosted ahead of us. Spotting for us, Ronnie Bakios and Heath Gunns caught glimpses of the herd from high points and in small openings. When we caught up to them, they had located the bulk of the herd where they moved through a series of small meadows.
This time we had a calm, steady breeze in our faces.
Schmidt, Lentz, Kura and I took cover behind a screen of small mesquite trees and eased along to get a look at a specific animal.
“There. That one.”
The one Schmidt had picked out had longer horns than the other ones around it, but to our untrained eyes, it was hard to see the difference. Less than a hundred yards now. Still nervous, the herd moved through the knee-high grass and Lentz’s animal was at once in the open and then again obscured by another cow or bull. Up on the sticks, his eye down in the ocular of the scope, Lentz waited and then he flicked the safety to fire and pressed the arc of the Nosler’s trigger.
Hit, the animal staggered into the trees, while the rest of the animals streamed away.
Built for survival in the desert sun, the oryx coats are white with a reddish-brown chest. Light brown markings on the face run down the forehead and cross through the eyes. When we could examine Lentz’ trophy up close, we looked at the hooves, which are large and flexible for walking long distances in both sand and rocky terrain.
And walk they do.
Out in the open again in the afternoon, we found the herd on the grasslands at the other end of the ranch. These environs are as close to their native North Africa habitat as can be found south of Eden.
Reverting to type, the scimitar oryx stayed in sight where they could keep an eye out for trouble.
This time trouble was Tracy Wilson with the Nosler rifle in hand. We knelt in the shadow of a tree and waited and when the herd flowed our way, Tracy knelt and shot his oryx. The animal dropped its head and turned around in a circle and laid down, while around it the twin scimitars of fifty oryx glittered like swords in the afternoon sun.
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