Hunting Hooved Devils in South Texas

The freaks of all North American ungulates, nilgai are chewing up Texas and decimating cattle operations.

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Jul 5 2012, 4:00am

Hunting isn’t a sport, unless we’re talking nilgai. To kill one of these species of nearly indestructible antelope in the United States, you go to the 160-year-old King Ranch in Southern Texas. It’s as regal as its name—at 825,000 acres, it's one of the largest ranches in the world and as big as a national wildlife refuge, and it’s still run by descendents of the founder. If you want to hunt here, you pay $750 per gun per day, plus a $1000 if you take down a bull, $300 if it’s a cow.

In the 1920s pioneering wildlife conservationist Caesar Kleberg imported the 300- to 600-pound beasts from Southeast Asia to feed the ranch’s cowboys. They call mature males blue bulls, as their gunmetal hides make them shine like fish on hooves. Their sharp, conical horns protrude from their skulls like your common devil. They graze on the Gulf of Mexico coastline and migrate at least 200 miles inland, picking through the salt grass dunes and oak motts and cactus flats. They are the freaks of all North American ungulates, and they’re trouble for Texas wildlife management. That’s because even though the population’s hemorrhaged to more than 30,000, carrying ticks that can decimate cattle operations, outfitters still charge thousands of dollars to hunt nilgai.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tries to control nilgai by shooting them from helicopters, but nilgai often bear twins. They replicate quickly and run like maniacs when they see anything move. Today, at least 10,000 nilgia reside on the 237,000-acre Norias Division of the ranch. I’m told that every employee of the King Ranch has hunting rights as part of their benefits package, but they can’t hunt the Norias Division. That acreage is reserved for more exclusive clientele.

However, my old boy Travis got to hunt it.

In order to hunt on the King Ranch you must hire a ranch wildlife biologist, which are really just hunting guides holding semblances of a college education. The wildlife biologists are there to uphold the Ranch’s strict standards of conservation and wildlife management. Well, Travis knows a Ranch wildlife biologist on the Norias Division that took him out for free. The guy looks like a Hispanic Yosemite Sam. Yosemite drives a 1-ton truck and carries a .45 on his waist, which looks ridiculous on him, even if he knows how to use it. Travis is a sporty little Texan himself who regularly shoots animals. He hooks alligators from trees in Louisiana and empties Alaskan rivers of hundreds of salmon. He believes in Jesus. He likes everyone, and he lusts after levels of blood that could power a pod of blue whales for 12 lifetimes*.

Travis recalled his nilgai hunt like this:

“It’s extremely hard to describe just how tough these things are. I was throwing lead at these things. I was just trying to get a bullet in a kill area.” Which means he was just trying to hit the nilgai anywhere so he could slow it down and their truck could catch up to it. “They don’t slow down,” says Travis. “We chased several herds over 10 miles at 30 to 40 miles an hour. They never freaking stopped.”

As the nilgai trotted alongside Hispanic Yosemite Sam’s beleaguered truck, his VHF radio starts screaming with voices of Border Patrol agents chasing a caravan of illegal immigrants. In the distance, a curly tail of dust spires up from the mesquite and cactus. A white Border Patrol SUV that they’ve been hearing over the radio chases after the dust tail. Suddenly, Travis hollers at Yosemite to slow down. A nilgai herd has stopped and they’re all just staring. Travis ignores the Border Patrol chase and volleys a round into a nilgai bull standing 300 yards away–right behind its shoulder, but the bull just takes off running. Yosemite chases after the wounded nilgai, though the bandits and Border Patrol in the distance distract him. The nilgai bull slows down and stops. Travis fires out the window at it, shoots it in the ass. It takes off again. For miles, they chase him. Over the radio, it sounds like the border crossers have crashed into a battery of silos, and they’re scattering in all directions. It’s nearing dusk. The nilgai bull slows down again. Travis shoots him in the stomach, which coaxes it to lie down under a mesquite tree. Travis shoots him behind the shoulder again. It doesn’t flinch. It just stares at him. They walk up and shoot him three times with a handgun.

“None of the bullets went in. They did not go in him!” Travis yells.

Then Yosemite walks behind the bull and sinks a slug between its shoulder blades. Its head collapses. And now they can take pictures with it.  

*Comparison not verifiable.

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