Seeking The Golden Oryx of Namibia

Namibian Adventure Number Two: Photographing The Golden Oryx.

I meet Burger Olefson, guide and professional hunter in Windhoek the capital of Nambia and travel six hour south to the desert cross roads at Keetmanshoop in the southern desert. Another 65 miles on gravel roads brings us to a farm gate. Eight more miles on sandy roads and we reach an old farm house built in the 1800s. This is will be our base to photograph the Golden Oryx or Burchell Oryx. .

The Golden Oryx is a subspecies of the Gemsbok in southern Africa. It is one of the rarest antelop in Africa. They live in a small isolated part of Namibia. Scientists at Capetown Univerity are looking at the genetics of this oryx and will have more specifics on it over the next several years. I am here to photography them and write a short species profile for Sports Afield Magazine. Burger and the ranch staff are more than willing to help.

Like the American Bison and Tule Elk, Golden Oryx numbers dwindled to less than one hundred with small isolated herds clinging to remote isloated canyons. Over the past two decades rancher Fred Burchell has rounded up small herds of these oryxes from these remote canyons in the Namibian desert. He first discovered a small band/herd of Golden Oryx on this ranch and spent years seeking out other small herds, capturing the ones he could and bringing them this ranch.

Today there are over a hundred Golden Oryx on his 98,000 acre ranch. He has confined them to several square miles of rocky, brushy and sandy river bottom land to propagate the herd. The fenced off area or camp as they call it is enclosed by an 8 foot tall fence. This is very similar to the confinement of the last American bison at the Lamar Ranch in Yellowstone when only 50 or so genetically pure bison were left in all of the United States after 1905. In both America and in Namibia the key to success is propagating them in their natural environment and maintaining a pure genetic pool. The two square miles of rocky hillsides, thorn thickest, savanna grasses and river bed they live form a natural habitat that is varied and protected. The cover is extensive and the herds are elusive.

Trying to photograph them I learned how spooky they could be. At the sound of our land rover they bolted into the dense brush, over rocky ridges and through river bottoms. We followed and stalked herd after herd. They always moved away well out of camera range. I though this was going to be a give-mee.

Burger my guide did a double take when I said I needed to get within 50 yards of the animals for good pictures. Then he just laughed. He is a youn man with a good natured. He smiled and said, “Yes, we will try. I think with a bit of luck we can do it!”

I expected to just sit at a water hole and have the oryx come in to drink. Then I would snap pictures from a blind. I should have done my home work. Oryx seldom drink from water holes. They have adapted to the harshes of deserts by getting almost all of their water from the grasses and shrubs they eat. They are the perfect desert antelope

Over the next three days we seldom got closer than 400 yards. What I envisioned as a simple task of taking pictures of penned up animals turned into to a mission that involved miles of driving a land rover over rocky terrain, bouncing trhough river bottoms and weaving our way through boulder into high passes. We hiked into massive rock out croppings, wandered miles of desert and stalked individual animals and small herds of oryx each day. I got lots of pictures, but none good enough to publish.

Our driver and tracker Jan, a native of the local area, had exceptional skills as a tracker and instantly spotted animals which it took me several tries to find with good binoculars. He knew the movements of the oryx and put us in position a number of times to intercept them at a pass or feeding area. Each time the wind shifted and they got our scent or they just took a different route.

Several mornings the temperature was in the 40 degree range and the afternoon heated up into the 90’s. The wind blew constantly. Like the oryx, we retreated from the sun and wind only we went to the ranch house for shade, food and a cold beer.

On day four an hour before sunset we found a herd of 35-40 Golden Oryx in a small canyon. The wind was in our favor and we got within 100 yards of the herd. After shooting all the pictures I could at 100 yards I got down on my belly and snaked my way 25 yards closer crawling through throne brush. Several punchers later the pictures got much better. Now I was 75 yards away. After taking 50 pictures I decided to try crawling closer. With fading light I had nothing to loose if the herd spooked and ran.

The herd had me spotted but evidently could not figure out what it was that was sneaking up in such an obvious fashion laying flat on the ground. Several of the biggest bulls moved in front of the herd and walked toward me. Slowly I rolled into shoot position and started snapping photos. For the next 15 minutes the herd milled mystified at the odd form on the ground behind the brush. This gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to take photos of one of the rarest antelope on earth with golden light.

The future is bright for the Golden Oryx. But unlike American where the US Government and Yellowstone National Park spent millions of dollars restoring the bison herds of America, the Burchells will bear the cost of propagating the small but growing herd of Golden Oryx. The herd is growing at a steady rate. The excellent reproduction and future potential of the herd allows for a small harvest of mature males called bulls. The money garnered from the hunts is put back into fencing, protection and habitat restoration for the Golden Oryx

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