Boselaphus - The Blue Bull

By Bill Bahr

 “... five years ago a Houston, Texas father and his son were killed by a bull Nilgai when they approached it too soon after the father’s ineffective first shot ...”

Veteran bowhunter and Four Arrows outfitter Wayne Peeples tells this story and it usually makes a lasting impression ... not exactly one I wanted to think about while bumping into brush-falls in the pre-dawn darkness, lost somewhere on the King Ranch earlier this month. 

GPS owners are not supposed to get lost because it results in major embarrassment. Humiliation aside, being lost isn’t much fun either, particularly when it happens to be pitch dark and in the middle of rattlesnake country – without the benefit of snake chaps.  Admitting that you’re lost is the first step to being found, so I finally swallowed my pride and sat down on a fallen tree, trying to make the best of a bad situation.  

The dark morning sky slowly eased from purple to light pink and revealed a very unfamiliar clearing in the oak-mot forest; nowhere near my Swivel-limb tree stand set up the previous afternoon. “Oh well, one place is as good as another when you’re hunting Nilgai”, I lied to myself.  The tree trunk seat seemed to be in a good spot, located in a pile of blown-down live oak branches.  

Nilgai or “blue bull” as they are called in India.

As the sun crept over the horizon a tiny sound to my left alerted me that I was not alone.  A whitetail doe was carefully making her way behind me,  barely twenty yards downwind of my position. After being undetected, I was convinced that my new “ground blind” offered everything a bow hunter needed. 

The morning sun’s warmth and peaceful forest sounds had the same effect as a sleeping pill.  My eyes were nearly closed when suddenly a quarter-ton of bull Nilgai came charging out of nowhere, crashing through the fallen brush surrounding my little hiding place.

He stopped directly behind me only 15 yards away, breathing heavily, looking back and forth, ready to carve notches in anything that moved. You can bet your inheritance this lost GPS owner didn’t move. 

The next minute seemed like an hour before he finally stepped to my right, just enough for me to see him clearly out of the corner of one eye. He was magnificent; a huge dark- gray animal with a white throat patch and white trimmed ears and cheeks.  A second later he was gone. 

Less than a quarter mile away my hunting partner, Kevin Johnson, wasn’t having any better luck.  Nilgai bulls and cows had been walking past his tree stand on both sides, just out of range or obscured by brush.  When a trophy bull finally stopped long enough for a shot, Kevin’s only shooting lane was almost completely blocked, and he wisely passed up trying to “thread the needle” through a three-inch hole in the brush. 

Gun and bow hunters both agree that it’s not his looks or horns that count, but rather the challenge that hunting Boselaphus tragocamelus, (his Latin nomenclature) presents. Much like the whitetail deer, Nilgai have incredibly good vision and hearing.  Their sense of smell is not far behind either. Unlike their distant deer cousins, however, Nilgai possess no curiosity but rather a highly paranoid personality about anything that looks, sounds or smells like a threat.  This paranoia translates into an animal that is constantly on the move, one of the few consistent aspects of Nilgai behavior.

The Nilgai, often referred to by its nickname “blue bull” (‘nil’ is Hindustani for blue while ‘gaw’ is Persian for cow) is a native of India, Pakistan and parts of Nepal, with a total Asian population of about 10,000 animals.  Imported to the Norias division of the King Ranch in the 1930’s, the Nilgai now thrives in the hot, dry south Texas coastal plains and is estimated to number above 15,000 animals. 

In its native Asia the Nilgai’s only serious animal-kingdom predator is the tiger. In south Texas coyotes are responsible for a small amount of predation on Nilgai calves; however, by age three when full body size is attained, the “blue bull” has no natural enemies, thus accounting for its success in our state.

In addition to their marvelous defense mechanisms, Nilgai are very big and very tough.  Mature females average between 300-400 pounds, while big bulls will shade 700 pounds and stand over five feet tall at the shoulder.

In 1993, Winchester Arms ranked the Nilgai next to the Cape Buffalo as one of the toughest animals to puncture with a frontal quartering shot.  They even sent a shooting team to the King Ranch that year to test out their newest big-game bullet, the Black Talon.  At a range of about 50 yards it took American Hunter magazine’s associate editor, John Taylor, three shots from a .338 Win. Mag. to drop an average sized bull while it tried to exit into the next county. 

Author with a “small” female Nilgai

The Nilgai’s reputation for being bulletproof comes from its massive neck and shoulder construction and very thick skin. A “shield” of even thicker skin, much like one found on a wild boar, also covers the shoulder area. Sufficient bullet or arrow velocity and downrange kinetic energy are critical for successful shots made to this area of its anatomy.

That same shield and overall thick skin also allows for very little, if any, blood trail.  Before I became a serious bow hunter I shot several “blue bulls” with a 7mm Rem. Mag. and failed to find any blood trail, much less a dead animal.  The only Nilgai I downed was with a lucky brain shot, executed at 150 yards on an average sized female.

Right about now you are probably wondering “what are the secrets to success when bowhunting Nilgai?”

To get the answers, Kevin and I booked our hunt through Jerry (Doc) Pedersen of Paris Archery & Outfitters (903-785-6471).  “Doc” has recovered four out of the last five he has shot during three trips to south Texas - quite a record when you consider the odds.  Doc focuses on three things when “blue bull” hunting ... method, location and patience.  Doc feels that tree stands or ground blinds yield better results than still hunting because they allow you to stay hidden until ready for the shot. We used Swivel-limb lock-on stands that were well suited for the small twisted live oaks that seem to dominate the landscape. 

Many hunters, including Doc, have tried the spot and stalk method but most find that they just cannot get inside the 40-50 yard range without being busted. Nilgai rarely stand still, so a shot taken over this distance will, more often than not, have disastrous results if the animal moves. 

Another method for improving your odds is to hunt the Nilgai “rut” which starts in December and continues through March. During this time Nilgai bulls trade in some of their customary caution and solitude for more amorous adventures.  Doc has hunted during both periods and highly recommends the rut hunt.Proper stand location for Nilgai seems to be one of the more hotly debated topics. 

Young and old animals alike all have a habit of using communal fecal piles, and it’s hard to ignore these tempting spots. The problem with setting up on only one of these locations is that Nilgai don’t use the same pile on a regular basis, and there are so many piles that picking the correct one is difficult. 

“Triple treat”

Nilgai however do use a series of travel “lanes” between bedding, watering and fecal piles, and if one can find a convergence of these lanes the probability of getting a shot will increase substantially.

Tim Dean says, “Make sure to bring lots of help!”

Using the methods and locations just described, Kevin and I saw twenty-three Nilgai in two days, eighteen of which were within 60-70 yards or less. We both had shot opportunities and were at full draw several times but elected to pass up on shots that were not what we wanted.  This is where the patience part comes in handy, and the longer you stay in the field the higher your odds of getting the shot you want.

Even though Kevin and I were not lucky enough to fill our 136-quart ice chests, quite a few of the twenty-eight bowhunters in our camp did. Seven Nilgai were shot and four were recovered. Al Rodgers and Wendell Hoskins of Paris, TX both shot their first blue bulls, as did Tim Dean from Cameron, LA.

We selected Four Arrows Outfitters (210-497-5848)  for their location and excellent reputation. Wayne and Jarred Peeples started Four Arrows and formed a relationship with the King Ranch in 1995. They now manage between 16,000 and 75,000 acres of prime Nilgai country.  Wayne and Jarred, avid bowhunters, understand bowhunters’ needs as well as the tough business of hunting Nilgai.

40 extra gets you this view

Al Rodgers is a happy man tonight.

Four Arrows provides all the necessary ingredients for successful south Texas hunts. In addition to Nilgai, they also offer opportunities for trophy whitetail deer, turkey, feral hogs and javelina.  Their prices for Nilgai start at $100 per day from February through July, and that price includes one javelina, one feral hog, one turkey (in season) and barracks style lodging per two days booked. You also have the use of their walk-in cooler. More upscale semi-private lodging is  available for $40/night.  Hunting the rut will cost you an extra $50 per day but we thought it was well worth it based on all the action we saw.

A few final words of advice are in order.  Although you can drive on some of the ranch roads with 2-wheel drive vehicles, 4-wheel drive is necessary to get to many locations.  A laser range finder will come in very handy for shots over 30 yards, and even after you’ve made a good shot, expect very little blood and lots of tracking. And last but not least, try to remember that the best Nilgai to shoot is the one closest to the road.  Good luck