Hunting the handsome chital

By Nick Harvey

Just before we turned the Suzuki down the track to the creek crossing, we saw through the scattered trees a little herd of the beautiful spotted Axis deer, which in their native India are called chital – pronounced cheetal.

The graceful animals took flight when they saw the vehicle and ran through a clearing for about 150 metres before cutting across the track in front of us. There were three stags in the group, but not one had antlers long enough to be classed as a worthwhile trophy. No matter, my mate Peter Schubert took a crack at a young stag with his .30-06 and we heard the bullet hit a split second before the deer dropped. 
Chital furnish excellent venison. We field dressed the animal and took it back to camp where we skinned it and put the choicest cuts in the esky. The members of our party who’d been getting by on bully beef and vegetables welcomed the fresh meat, fried the liver and began to fill their bellies. 

The chital is the most attractive deer.

The first species of deer to reach our shores was the chital (from the Bengali word for spotted) which is native to India and Sri Lanka. The history of chital liberations seems slightly hazy, but a herd of about 400 of these exotic animals was introduced on Dr. John Harris’s property near Bathurst, NSW as early as 1813. Other liberations took place in a number of areas in Australia but in Queensland the species has not only survived but flourished. Today they have bred so prolifically that trophy hunters can’t control them and landholders are being forced  to cull them to reduce their numbers. 

The main concentration of chital deer in Queensland is in the Charters Towers area, centred around the adjoining properties of Niall and Maryvale where the original release took place. This herd of chital (axis axis ceylonensis) are descendants of a stag and two hinds introduced from Ceylon by William Hann in 1866. The deer have thrived, despite the inroads made by dingoes and poachers preying on the herd and, today, its future seems assured. Several other liberations which took place in Queensland seem to have failed.

In 1862, chital deer were released by the Acclimatization Society of Victoria in two locations. Then in 1863, four chital were let go on Wilsons Promontory, followed by five at Yerong in 1870. No chital have been seen in these areas for many years and the ones on the “Prom” are thought to have interbred with the hog deer there.

A liberation, in 1868, of 35 chital at Longeronong Station in the Wimmera district was more successful and within 80 years Aborigines told of seeing herds of spotted deer in the Grampians up to 80km from their original release point. Over the years, however, this herd has been decimated due to closer settlement and indiscriminate shooting, so their survival is doubtful. However, one cannot entirely dismiss the possibility that a few chital deer are still roaming the Grampians to this very day.

Chital are also found in limited areas north of Port Macquarie and Inverell in NSW, Texas in Queensland and Water Valley in S.A.

The chital is a strikingly marked deer; it has a bright rufous fawn coat covered with white spots on a light fawn background and its pelage remains the same summer and winter. A mature stag will stand about 91cm high at the shoulder and weigh about 86kgs. The antlers are large in relation to the size of the deer, reaching a length of up to 96cm in India. Australian heads, however, seldom exceed 76cm in length. Antlers are a reddy-brown with a beam that curves backwards and outwards in a lyre-shaped formation which gives this deer an unusually graceful appearance. The usual number of points is six, but trophies with extra points are sometimes encountered.

Chital deer are gregarious and roam about in large herds. Like other Asiatic species in Australia, chital stags will be seen in various stages of development at all seasons of the year. Young stags shed their antlers every year, while older animals may keep theirs for up to four years. The rut is slightly irregular because hinds come into oestrous at different times of the year; accordingly, the stags rut at different times. In India the peak mating time is early winter, and fawns may be dropped at any season. In Australia most chital rut between June and July and the fawns are born between January and February. Chital are prolific breeders. During the rut, the stags fight for possession of the hinds, but do not roar; instead, uttering a long, shrill shrieking noise. The antlers are shed soon after the rut.

In India chital are deep-forest dwellers, known for their elusive shyness but, in north Queensland, they seem to favour rather open lightly timbered plains country where they can graze; preferring the banks of creeks and rivers. They are mostly found in herds of ten to thirty, but larger herds of a hundred are not uncommon. Chital don’t mind living in close proximity to people and often congregate around a station homestead.

Chital are less nocturnal than sambar and often feed until late in the morning and again from early afternoon. Chital are usually found in lightly forested areas or adjoining clearings.

Over the years I’ve hunted chital at Water Valley in South Australia, northern NSW and far north Queensland just south of the Gulf. But the greatest concentration of spotted deer is found west of Charters Towers in an area which takes in such well known properties as Bluff Downs, Wondovale, Maryvale and Niall. In fact, today, the deer’s numbers have increased so much that they are competing with stock for pasture and landholders have had to start culling them.

On this trip we’d been hunting on a property about 120km west of Charters Towers for four days searching for a trophy animal without luck. The day after Peter shot the deer, we drove out and up onto a rocky hill to glass. We walked out and sat on a low ridge to scan a long sparsely wooded valley. Right away Peter spotted a medium-size boar with barely visible tusks. Then, much closer and almost directly below us, we found some more pigs that were coming right towards us. Soon we could see that they were a sow with a litter of half grown youngsters. “All I could think of when I saw those plump little piglets,” Peter said grinning,“was a pork barbecue.”

Suddenly I noticed a movement on the slope ahead of us. It appeared to be large black boar, but he was traveling away and would soon be out of sight and out of range.

“Take Him,” Peter urged me in a whisper. “Right now. Hurry”.

A recent chital taken by Nick.

No rifle rest was handy, so I dropped to a sitting position. I had a hard job picking up the target in my scope as the boar was meandering about and wasn’t easy to follow.

At last he was standing side-on and I aligned the crosswise reticle in the scope on his shoulder and pressed the trigger. At the shot, the boar dropped and lay still. By this time the light was fading so we headed back to the homestead to have dinner with the property owner and his family. Over a venison roast he told us that chital do well in this hilly, semi-arid country, where the climate apparently is much like that of the Indian plains from which they come. Just like on other properties in the area where we’d hunted chital before, at night the chital seem to congregate all around farm buildings and dwellings showing little fear of humans. The smart little spotted deer has always lived in close proximity to mankind in his native India and it seems he does the same here. He has survived competition with domestic stock, unrestricted hunting and can live in the open as well as in the bush.

The next morning we rose just before dawn and ate a hurried breakfast before driving toward the far boundary. This was a rough, sparsely timbered area, where we made several trips along low ridges which hemmed in shallow gullies. Peter went along one ridge and I took the other, hunting carefully and slowly.

Peter got the first chance at a trophy stag that he surprised lying in the shady head of the gully. The deer got to his feet and went straight into overdrive. He wasn’t bouncing or jumping; he was running flat out for a thick patch of wattle. Peter fired and the stag stumbled but managed to keep going. My mate bolted another round into his Mauser .30-06 and swung the crosswires just ahead of the deer’s chest and touched off a shot. The deer kept going for another ten metres before piling up in a heap.

I hurried down into the gully and across to where Peter was standing turning the deer’s head to get a better look at his antlers. He was a mature animal and we estimated his live weight at around 200 kilos. After we took some photos, it didn’t take long to field dress him, but we had some work to do with axe and crowbar before we could get the 4×4 down into the gully where the deer lay. Peter field dressed him and we loaded him on the 4×4 leaving the caping chore for when he got back to the homestead.

Next morning, I got Peter to drop me off along the top of a ridge that followed a creek that meandered snakelike for several kilometres before it emptied into the Burdekin River. It was rocky and it was hard going for a while, but I finally came out on top of a grassy slope that allowed easy access to the creek bank where the country was more undulating and semi-open. Halting on a bit of a rise, I sat down to glass with my Leica 10×40 binocular.

Soon I found a good stag grazing slowly through the thinly scattered trees way ahead and across on the other side. He was well out of rifle range, but I could see clearly his long antlers. The upper bank of the creek was fairly flat and I ran half crouched over to close the distance and get within range before the stag could get out of sight or into heavy cover.

As soon as I reached the timber just under the opposite ridge, I found the deer moving slowly through some brush about 200 metres away. Raising my binocular, I studied the deer for size. He was a good stag, and he carried a high, heavy rack.
On this day I was carrying my Mark X Mauser in 6.5x65mm RWS shooting a handload of 49gn of AR2209 which lofted the 120gn Barnes TSX out at 3180fps. Sitting down I rested my leading hand on the side of a tree and followed the deer through the Leupold Vari-X III 2.5-8x scope, waiting for a clear shot. Finally, when he paused to take a look around, the crosswires were already steady on his chest, and I pressed the trigger. He dropped on the spot and lay still without a kick.

No world record, for sure, but a good representative head. He had three points to a side on a high, evenly matched rack. The inner tines were a bit on the short side, but I thought he looked near as good as my best chital taken in northern NSW two decades before and others from Niall and Wondo Vale.

Chital aren’t hard to kill and although I’ve enjoyed good success using the .270, 7×64, and .300 WSM, I did just as well with my .257 Roberts which just happens to be my preferred calibre for most deer species. My rifle is a Ruger M77 that’s been long throated to drive the Barnes 100gn bullet at 3250fps. Mild recoil makes it pleasant to shoot, it’s deadly accurate and has scored at least a dozen clean one-shot kills on deer ranging in size from hog to red stag at ranges from 70 to 250 metres.

There’s no such thing as the perfect deer rifle; at least no one calibre that could be said to be superior to all others. This is because our six different species of deer vary greatly in size and choice of habitat. Sambar and rusa are mainly woods deer and a rifle that might prove ideal for shooting at close range in the brush would lack velocity for a long cross gully shot. Red, fallow, hog and chital favour lightly timbered, undulating grassy country where long shots are likely to be the rule rather than the exception.

The hunter should not only take into account the size of the deer, but the type of terrain and the ranges over which he is likely to be shooting. Deer may be taken in varied hunting situations, they may be standing side-on or at an angle in an undisturbed state, and sometimes spooked and on the run, their system boosted by an adrenalin rush.

Matching the bullet to the game is just as important as the calibre in ensuring the success of any deer hunt. I’ve scored more instant kills using traditional cup-and-core bullets like the Woodleigh, Remington Core-Lokt, Hornady Interlock and Speer Mag-Tip in calibres from .270 to .308, but for rifles in the 6mm and .25-.26 calibre class it pays to use a controlled expansion bullet like the Barnes TSX which will open up uniformly, yet hold together and penetrate deeply. Just as there is no perfect rifle or calibre, there is no bullet that is suitable for every species of deer. So, correct bullet choice is probably the most important factor in ensuring success on any deer. One thing’s certain, there’s no advantage to being over-gunned for lightly built, soft-skinned chital. 




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