Part 9: LIVINGSTONE’S SUNI

The author and his ram

In Part 9 we are still hunting in the “forest of shadows” in Mozambique, searching for the elusive Livingstone’s suni. The quest to harvest the Tiny Ten has led me to some special places in Southern Africa, and this adventure takes place in the sand forests of Mozambique, a very unique and special place. The main reason for my trip to this beautiful and wild part of Africa was to bag a Livingstone’s suni. Spending a few days in this hunting paradise afforded us the opportunity to taste a bit of old Africa – and I wanted more.

That’s a good ram! Shoot him!” my PH, Poen van Zyl, urged. He took my rifle and placed it on his shoulder to use as a rest, as we didn’t have shooting sticks with us. Placing his fingers in his ears to protect them from the imminent muzzle blast of my .375 H&H, he waited for the shot. I was looking into a tangled mass of trees, scrub and leaves, and couldn’t see anything. Time was running out fast and I felt the panic creeping up.
I whispered to Poen: “I can’t see him!” There was no response. I tried again, this time a little louder. Still, there was no response from Poen. By this time, I was frustrated with my failure to spot the ram and I felt even more panicky. The main reason I was standing there in the middle of Mozambique in the sand forest of Coutada 11, after travelling for over 1 300 km, was looking at me – but I couldn’t see it! The ram would be gone in a few seconds unless I located it soon.
My quest for the Tiny Ten antelope of Southern Africa had taken me to several regions over the last few years. I had started ticking off species on the list, and in 2018 only three of them remained for me to complete the Ten: Damara dik-dik, red duiker and Livingstone’s suni.
My goal was to harvest at least one of them in 2018 and, after talking to my hunting partner, Clifford Williamson from Savuti Taxidermy, we decided that a suni should be the one. Clifford only needed a suni to complete his Tiny Ten, so it was a no-brainer. He contacted Mark Haldane from Zambezi Delta Safaris and set the ball rolling. We would be heading to the sand forest of Coutada 11 in Mozambique later that year.
Neotragus moschatus, or suni, was named after Dr David Livingstone, the famous African explorer. Suni are very shy, forest-dwelling animals and occur from central Kenya to northern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. They prefer to keep to densely forested areas with lots of cover to escape predators. Weighing in at 10–12 pounds they are the second smallest member of the Tiny Ten, with only the blue duiker being smaller. Suni feed on leaves, fungi, fruits and flowers, and need almost no water as they get most of the moisture they need from the food they eat.
The general colour of suni is a rich reddish-brown, but the fur does tend to be lighter on their sides and legs. Their underparts and the insides of their legs are white. They have beautiful big eyes with black rings around them, and they mark their territories with secretions from the pre-orbital glands on the side of their faces. When alarmed, a suni can make weak barking and whistling sounds, and hearing this close by in the tranquility of the forest is beautiful.
There may be an individual or shared dung pile on the fringe of a territory. Only males have horns, 3–5 inches (8–13 cm) long. They are ridged for most of the horns’ length and curve backwards close to their heads. Suni are social animals but males will defend a territory and will usually take one mate. However, other females may share his territory. After a gestation period of about 180 days, a single lamb is born weighing about two pounds.
Hunting suni in the sand forest is an experience I will never forget and is one I really want to repeat. The forest is something out of this world. You have these big trees forming a canopy several meters high and blocking out the sun. Underneath them there are several thousand small trees fighting to get access to the sun’s life-giving rays from above. The ground, consisting of pure white sand, is littered with dead and dying leaves – almost like the beach sand you see at the coast.

Scenic view of the hunting area

The fact that the vegetation is so dense in the forest makes it very difficult to move around, let alone hunting inside this impregnable world of shadows. The usual hunting method for suni is stalking very slowly and soundlessly in thick cover and stopping often to glass. Another method – and this is only possible if the roads in the hunting area are relatively smooth and will allow a vehicle to travel quietly on them – is to sit on the tailgate of a truck and slowly drive along the roads. This method is often productive during the early morning and again in late afternoon. The hunter and PH will then carefully search the bush on either side of the vehicle for movement or anything that will give away the position of a suni. When you spot one, you simply jump off the vehicle and stand completely still. The vehicle will then continue to drive on, only stopping several metres further.
This was the method we used and it proved very successful. The number of suni we saw was unbelievable. This was a direct result of the hard work, time and money Zambezi Delta Safaris puts into their anti-poaching operations.
It is always good practice to check your rifle’s zero after it has travelled as it might have received an accidental bump. On this trip I was using my .375 H&H, loaded with 270 gr VRG 4 Peregrine bullets. My rifle is fitted with a Steiner Ranger 2-8×42 mm with a 4AI reticle with a red dot. This magnification is perfect for close-up shooting in thick cover or taking longer shots if necessary.
After checking our rifles, we headed to the hunting area. Clifford was up first and for the next four hours we drove on the sandy roads and looked over countless suni rams. Just before midday Clifford found what he was looking for in a ram, and after a good shot, had his number ten. We headed back to camp for lunch. We would try for my suni the next day as we planned to focus on red duiker in the afternoon. (This hunt was described in Part 8 of the series in a previous edition of AFRICA’S SPORTSMAN MAGAZINE.)
We decided to hunt the floodplains the following day, so on day three we headed back into the sand forest to find my suni. We started at 7 a.m. and fell back into the routine of jumping off the tailgate, looking at suni and determining if it was a shooter or not. As it is, your mind starts to wander a bit. I was losing concentration and started to daydream. I was brought back to reality when Poen clicked his fingers and jumped off the tailgate. He was about two steps in front of me, looking into the forest with his binoculars. I tried to locate the spot he had his attention on when, all of a sudden, he grabbed my rifle and placed it on his shoulder. My heart jumped into overdrive! I was standing there looking into the forest with my riflescope, seeing nothing but trees and undergrowth.
I stared into this world of darkness and shadows but for the life of me couldn’t see the suni that Poen had seen. We were standing on the road and it started to drop off a little bit with a downward slope. The forest floor made a small depression before starting to rise again on the other side. Poen still hadn’t reacted as he couldn’t hear my – by this time – frantic whispers. I firmly believed that I had spoiled my opportunity and that the ram would, in the next few seconds, run off with that whistle blast alarm call that meant game over!

The author and PH Poen van Zyl sitting on the tailgate of the truck

Poen and Cliff judging a suni in the sand forest

Last light, last change

Moving very slowly, I tapped Poen on his arm and gestured that I couldn’t see the ram. After the third or fourth time, he acknowledged and very slowly turned his head towards me. “Do you see the dry branch of that little bush straight in front of us?” he asked. Using my Steiner Ranger binoculars, I located the dry branch he was referring to. I said, “Yes, I see it.” Poen replied in a whisper I could barely hear: “OK, from there move up to about 1 o’clock. There is a small tree with two branches forming a V-shape close to the ground. It is standing right behind them.”
Moving up from the dry branch, I found the small tree and immediately spotted the tail of the suni, twitching to the left of it. Very often this is the first thing that gives away suni or blue duiker in their shadowy world. I confirmed to Poen that I could see him. I had been looking at the wrong spot the whole time. I was focusing on the small depression instead of looking further into the forest. The little antelope was about 50 m away from us, standing broadside.
Replacing my binoculars with my Steiner riflescope, I moved in behind the .375 H&H and, using Poen’s shoulder as a rest, took aim at the suni. The V of the forked branches was front of the suni’s body. The branch on the right covered the area behind the shoulder, and the branch on the left covered the rib-to-hip area. It left me with an opening of about two to three inches for a shot at the vitals. As you can imagine, with suni being the second smallest of the Tiny Ten, that didn’t present me with much of a target at that distance. Searching for an opening among all the leaves and branches, I found a small tunnel through the undergrowth. I placed the crosshairs just to the left of the right branch and started to squeeze the trigger. The recoil made me lose sight of the suni and after I recovered, I frantically scanned the area but couldn’t see anything. I looked at Poen and he started walking over to the spot. He grinned at me. “Did I get him?” I asked nervously. He didn’t reply and continued walking, with me following on his heels.
The suni was lying in the exact spot where he had been standing, just behind the small tree. The 270 gr Peregrine had found its mark and made a quick, clean kill. I picked up my ram and admired his beautiful features. His big eyes, small nose and graceful legs with the small hooves were amazing to see. They are truly beautiful animals and I stood there in silence enjoying the moment and taking in the experience.
With this beautiful and very special animal, I was one step closer to completing my goal. My suni was number 9 on my list. ASM

The author and PH Poen van Zyl with his ram