Caesar Kleberg knew a thing or two about capitalizing on an opportunity.
One of the truly great conservationists of the past century – and not just in Texas – Kleberg’s legacy included leaving the King Ranch better than he found it and helping to promote sustainable land use that would benefit future generations of man, flora and fauna.
Kleberg, who worked for his uncle Robert J. Kleberg in ranch operations before becoming ranch foreman on the famed Norias Division, is credited with starting the overall effort to preserve habitat and wildlife populations on the sprawling South Texas ranch. Caesar oversaw the restoration of a number of species – notably whitetails, Rio Grande turkeys and bobwhite quail – helping to bring back overall numbers that had been depleted around the turn of the century.
While those species and the multiple generations of livestock that have called the brush country home get most of the attention, Caesar also is known for helping to promote the introduction of exotic game to the Texas landscape. It’s only fitting that one of the largest antelope in the world is what he decided to set free on the King Ranch in the 1930s, setting the stage for big-time hunting opportunities that have only continued to expand.
The first nilgai on the ground in South Texas were transplants from zoos. The ancestors of those critters that currently roam this country are as wild as can be. The nilgai antelope is native to southern Asia but its characteristics made it the perfect species to introduce to the South Texas landscape. Not only did the “blue bulls” survive, they thrived on the plains of the brush country. The population has grown from a few dozen in those early years to more than 50,000, according to Texas Parks & Wildlife Department records.
Nilgai don’t do well in colder climates – prolonged hard freezes have been known to thin out the South Texas herd somewhat – but they are hearty animals that can do well across the scrub country. They’re now found from the Baffin Bay-Riviera area all the way down to the Mexican border. In fact, there are currently free-ranging populations in Brooks, Cameron, Hidalgo, Kenedy, Kleberg and Willacy counties. I’ve even seen them in the dunes along the Padre Island National Seashore, where they stick out like a sore thumb.
Nilgai are distinctive to say the least. Males can tip the scales at more than 600 pounds though they don’t sport the same headgear as other sought-after antelope species. A truly big bull’s horns will only be roughly a foot in length. Nilgai also feature a unique beard that sprouts midway up their throat. Think turkey beard on steroids for some type of comparison. Males are dubbed blue bulls due to their blue-gray coat though some younger males may have tinges of brown on them. Cows and calves are light to pale brown.
Like other exotics, nilgai can have detrimental impacts on the native landscape and they also compete with other species for food sources. Nilgai also have little use for fences, often tearing them up if they would like to get through instead of jumping over.
Big bucks bring big bucks to Texas deer hunting economy
When it comes to the actual pursuit that is nilgai hunting, expect to cover some territory and expect to take long shots – unless you catch a good dose of luck. Most of the landscape that nilgai call home in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley is wide open, with little native vegetation for cover, other than overgrown mesquite and cactus thickets and the occasional roll in the terrain. Nilgai have excellent eyesight and hearing, and with their head being much higher off the ground than that of a whitetail, they are adept at spotting any approach whether you’re on foot or especially in a vehicle.
Most successful nilgai hunts are done safari style or spot and stalk, though those animals that have been hunted quickly grow wary of encroachment of any kind. Nilgai have similar characteristics to a number of other large antelope species as well as wild boars, making larger-caliber rifles an absolute necessity.
There’s not a guide or outfitter in Texas that would allow anyone to bring along anything less than a .300-caliber magnum rifle with well-constructed bullets such as partitions. And for good reason: nilgai are stout animals with a thick hide and vitals that aren’t easy to punch through.
Nilgai exhibit differing territorial behaviors during different periods of the year, according to noted researcher William J. Sheffield. Nilgai segregate into male and female groups except during the breeding season, according to Sheffield. Bulls do not maintain a fixed territory but defend a space around themselves.
Fighting occurs between dominant bulls, as with other species, and serious injury or death can result when the powerful animals tangle. Some breeding takes place year-round, but the principal breeding period in Texas is November through March, according to Sheffield. At that time breeding groups of one dominant bull and one to several cows are found. The peak calving period is September through November.
Sport hunting has helped draw in hunters to South Texas from around the world, and as such, expect to pay at least a few thousand bucks for an opportunity to harvest a good bull. It should be noted that if you are successful, you’ll be able to fill your freezer for the rest of the year with some tasty meat that’s quite delicious. It’s quite possible to take a couple of hundred pounds of meat off a good-size bull.
One Texas meat processor and retailer currently sells antelope meat at $11 per pound for burger and $30 per pound for loin rack. Much of that meat goes to restaurants looking to capitalize on the exotic wild game market.
While supply and demand have driven up the price somewhat on nilgai hunts in Texas, there do remain a number of public hunting opportunities that are a steal if you’re selected to hunt. Can you say unlimited nilgai?!
Nilgai hunting on Texas public lands has become crowded with opportunity and access being at an all-time high. More hunters have discovered that a pair of national wildlife refuges in the Rio Grande Valley offer multiple hunts annually for the in-demand exotics.
In fact, the demand for the April “emergency” hunts – designed to help curb the burgeoning nilgai population – on the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge became so great that the entire drawing process was altered for the opportunities open to 80 hunters.
Laguna Atascosa remains at the forefront of cattle fever tick eradication in the Lone Star State. Working with federal and state partners including U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas Animal Health Commission, as well as private ranches and local communities, the Refuge has implemented an aggressive campaign to rid refuge lands of fever ticks. That includes nilgai hunts to help keep the population in check.
In the late 1800s, the cattle fever tick spread bovine babesiosis (also known as cattle fever) from Mexico to Virginia, resulting in huge economic losses in the United States due to cattle mortality. Ticks are known to be on Mexican cattle and other hoofed animals that cross the border, officials said. Mexico does not treat or control cattle fever ticks.
In the 1940s, the Department of Agriculture eradicated cattle fever tick in the U.S. and established a permanent quarantine zone on the border to detect and eliminate ticks quickly, in an effort to limit the spread of fever ticks.
Texas deer hunting enjoyment not just about pulling the trigger
In 2016, Laguna Atascosa increased the white-tailed deer bag limit from two deer to five deer solely to help eradicate ticks. That limit continued last season as well. In fact, the Refuge has been successful in lowering deer numbers on refuge lands. The Department of Agriculture recommends a density of one deer per 30 acres for effective control of fever ticks, officials said. Deer density on the Refuge is now approximately one deer per 110 acres, well below the recommended mark.
The refuges utilize the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s online drawing system during fall and winter hunts, but because the system doesn’t operate in the spring, hunters must drop off applications in person. Previously, the emergency hunts were conducted on a first-come, first-serve basis, but due to the influx of people pursuing those permits, the refuge decided to allocate the permits through a lottery system.
Hunters or their proxies were able to download an application from the refuge website and drop it off by a certain March deadline, but didn’t have to be present to win.
“We’ve been running hunts on the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge since 2000, but last year was the first that we used Texas Parks & Wildlife’s online draw system to place hunters in our deer and exotic hunts,” said Refuge biologist Imer De La Garza. “It has been a good partnership and it has gotten the word out about all the hunting opportunities we have. We previously did all the drawings through the mail. The demand for our hunts has gotten bigger each year, so it’s a good thing for anyone who may be interested in entering our draws.”
De La Garza noted that despite its immense overall size, the Refuge has relatively smaller parcels open to hunting.
“We’ve got about 7,000 acres over two tracts that are open to our hunts at the Refuge,” he said.
The drawings that have piqued the interest of hunters from across Texas now that hunts are drawn via TPWD are those for “blue bulls.”
“The nilgai hunts in particular have generated more and more interest, especially because nilgai are isolated to extreme South Texas,” De La Garza said. “People see where it says ‘unlimited nilgai’ on the hunt application and they get excited. There’s good and bad with that though. You can shoot them, but then you also have to pack them out.”