Hunting the magnificent sambar (part one)

In the stillness, the sounds seemed almost too loud for deer.

Then I heard the short, sharp “honk” the sambar gives when alarmed followed by the crackling sound an animal running away through the thick bush.

An hour later I heard the faint sound of twigs snapping, bodies pushing through the thick bush and a  sudden thump-thump – and my doubt vanished.

There were other deer in the gully below me and to my left. They were over 100 metres away, but I was hoping they would walk in my direction.

Nothing  makes my heart pound as much as the sounds of approaching deer, and the situation made me doubly tense.

I was sitting behind the upturned roots of a downed tree, the dull glow of dawn was filling a clearing sky and bringing the quiet bush alive. Panning with my Leica 10×42 binocular, I scanned every gap between the trees without catching a glimpse of any movement.

There was stillness again for a long time, but then I heard the crinkly sounds that dry leaves and twigs make when they’re being walked on. The noises were closer, and I knew those deer were coming along a trail which would bring them up onto the ridge about 100 metres in front of my stand.

Five more minutes of mounting tension passed, and then two hinds accompanied by spiker filed out onto the small sunlit clearing and quietly started to graze. One hind had her back to me, but the spiker and the other hind suddenly raised their heads, stared in my direction, then slowly walked back into the timber.

From the other side of the ridge behind them I saw movement – another deer.

A six-point rack materialised behind some windfalls deep beyond the timber edge. The antlers looked almost golden in the first rays of sunlight. Then for a split second the stag’s massive head, neck and dark brown back came into view.

The magnificent animal was broadside on looking down the gully, but he may have heard the other deer vacate the clearing and grown suspicious that danger lurked somewhere close by.

As I eased my rifle forward across my knees, I scarcely dared to breathe. However, all I got was a glimpse of him as he turned around and moved out of sight among the big trees.

I’ve been hunting deer for over 60 years, ever since I was in my early 20s. But I hadn’t tackled Victoria’s high country for about fifteen years. At 83 I’m no longer fit enough to clamber up and down those steep ravines.

This was my third hunt for a sambar stag in the last two years. These days I kept to the ridge tops  and chose to hunt from a carefully selected stand where from a distance of two or three hundred metres, I could observe the area around some old log loading ramp, or overlook a brushy gully.

There’s nothing new about hunting from a stand – all you need is warm clothing and a helluva lot of patience to sit still for hours constantly glassing with your binocular.

Of course, there’s no knowing if, or even when a shootable stag will put in an appearance. It’s largely a matter of luck. On my first trip we drove for many hours to reach one of my favourite spots from years gone by where I could sit on the edge of track and look down into a brushy gully where sambar were sometimes in the habit of coming out to browse late in the evening.

Alas, when we got there we found it blanketed with a deep layer of fog and visibility limited to less than 10 metres. My wife who was sitting about 30 metres farther up the track told me she heard a deer pushing through the thick undergrowth below her, but couldn’t see a thing. Another dry run, but then, that’s sambar hunting for you.

On my second trip we were driving along a track when my wife spotted a sambar stag standing across a gully. Most unusually he stood looking at the vehicle while it drew to a halt. But by the time I got out and unsheathed my rifle, he’d already started to run.

I tracked him through the scope and got ready to squeeze off a shot the instant he got in the clear, but he never showed. My wife saw him swing into a side gully and vanish from sight. Sambar hunting ain’t easy, no matter which way you do it!

There’s a lot of country mixed with them which makes a big “Asian elk” one of the most elusive and difficult trophy animals to bag.

The sambar’s six point antlers may pale in comparison with a majestic red stag’s rack carrying up to 20 points or even a graceful fallow buck with high, broad palms, but seeing a 6- point sambar head on your wall raises a greater sense of achievement.

When I was young, I had plenty of stamina and always wanted to see what was over the next ridge. I spent weeks  at a time backpacking for deer, sleeping on a groundsheet alongside a log or under a rock ledge. I saw a lot of deer, including some fine stags, but few offered anything better than impossible snapshots.

After I decided I was getting nowhere fast, I reasoned that I had to learn more about deer habits and habitat by studying the animals in their natural surroundings. Naturally, it took me a while, but eventually I became an accomplished still-hunter and took a number of trophy heads.

In order to successfully stalk sambar it is necessary to know as much as possible about the animal. The sambar, as well as being the largest, is also the most widely distributed deer found in Victoria.

Essentially a forest-dwelling animal he is originally from India where he is found from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in the south throughout the Peninsula and northward, penetrating to the foothills of the Himalayas. A variety of the same animal extends from Assam eastward through Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and down into the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra.

The appearance of the animal can vary considerably in different individuals, since those released here came from Ceylon (cervus unicolor unicolor ) and from Central India (cervus (C.u.Niger).

Generally speaking the sambar is a uniformly dark- brown deer, with a yellowish tinge under the chin, inside the limbs, between the buttocks, and underneath the tail. Hinds and young animals are lighter in colour. Old stags are almost black, and this impression is accentuated by their liking for mud wallows. The young are never spotted but are often furnished with a dark dorsal strip.

Animals of a dark slatey colour as well as a lighter shade of brown are commonly found during the hot summer months. The hair is coarse, especially on the neck, which is ruffed in both sexes. The ears are large and ovate with the narrow end at the base. The infraorbital glands are very large, and can be turned outward, during the rut they give off a strong smelling secretion.

The measurements of an average sambar stag are: 138cm at the shoulder, length 2.9 metres and tail 30cm. The maximum weight is probably 272kgs, but an exceptional animal taken in India weighed 322 kg and stood 1.829 meters high at the shoulder!

Ed’s note: See more fascinating sambar facts and the exciting conclusion to Nick’s sambar hunt in the coming October issue. 


The normal form of antler consists of two fairly long powerful brow tines coming off at an acute angle from the beams. These in turn, grow outwards, curve slightly backwards before dividing and give off two roughly equal branches of about 20cm in length.

A common variation of this type is for the outside tine to be longer than the inner one and to assume proportions entitling it to be considered a continuation of the beam. But this process is sometimes reversed and the inner horn can be the longer of the two, which some believe detracts from the rack’s symmetry and beauty.

Sambars’ antlers are often smooth, especially in young animals, but stags at their prime mostly have very rough, pearling on the horns which adds greatly to their desirability as a trophy. The full number of points is developed in the fourth year.

The age to which sambar live is not known, but it is believed that they can attain a great age. It is many years after the six points develop before full maturity is reached, and they continue in this stage for a long time.

The Indian record for antlers was shot in Bhopal adjoining the Central Provinces  back in the late 1920s and measured 50- 1/8 inches, but a dropped antler was found in Sind which measured 52 inches. In addition to its length this horn was said to be massive.

In India anything from 40 inches upwards is considered a good trophy, but girth and weight are also important. To my knowledge no head of 40-inches in length has ever been taken in Australia.  

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of Sporting Shooter magazine.





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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.