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Big changes under way in Rusa Deer hunting

by Greg Morton,
The Hunting Report, August 2006

New Caledonia has always been synonymous with huge free-range rusa stags, but recent developments are changing that very quickly.

The emerging problem is a decrease in the number of mature trophy stags caused by commercial hunting and an increase in deer-capture pens providing animals for the venison market. Both methods are indiscriminate, and they are harvesting everything. The days of seeing 300 to 400 deer a day in the open are no longer common in many areas. Stags have less chance of living to an age that produces the big heads, and a 30-inch stag is now the norm in most places.

This is a relatively new problem, but it is escalating. Spotlighting occurs everywhere near the coast, where the average number of deer shot per vehicle per night is six. Deer traps are proliferating, too.

The impetus behind this is the high market value of venison, currently at $6 NZ a pound, about $3.75 US. Rusa deer, of course, are not native to New Caledonia. They were introduced in 1870 when the governor of Java gifted a number of the animals to the wife of New Caledonia Governor Guillian. Since introduction, the rusa population has grown rapidly, and the total number is estimated between 200,000 and 300,000. About 30 farms currently hold about 14,000 deer behind wire. These farm animals are semi-wild, and live generally un-molested until mustered into yards when selected animals are sent to the abattoir. Most farms are located in the Boulouparis region, which is roughly 73 kilometers (45 miles) north of Noumea.

There are still some true freerange hunting operations in selected rural areas, but in order to continue producing big trophies, property owners are going to have to control spotlighting and make enough from trophy hunting clients to protect their deer herds.

One landowner I met with on my trip has decided to take a different approach. He is creating an alternative hunting option that will guarantee visiting hunters a gold medal trophy.

John and Doris Fong are owners of Ouatom Estates, which is a deer farming operation encompassing four estates. They recently created a trophy hunting arm to their business called New Caledonia Deer Hunting. Rather than send all captured animals to the abattoir, Fong selects the best of the captured trophy stags and sets them aside for a trophy-breeding program to produce quality stags for hunters. In other words, he has created a hunting estate with the purpose of producing gold medal rusa trophies for travelling hunters.

Captured stags are fed supplementary foodstuffs, and vitamins, which in just two years have produced some exceptional heads. The advice, and hands on assistance, of expert Don Bennett of Deer Genetics New Zealand has also been crucial in producing big heads in a short time. In addition to its own capture program, Ouatom Estates also buys exceptional stags trapped by other deer farmers to add to their rusa genetics pool. At a time when the average free-range stag size is decreasing, the size of stags on Ouatom Estates is on the rise.

Recently, 292 mature stags were put through the deeryards and measured before being released into the various hunting blocks. The largest had a 27-inch spread and 35-inch length and would score 162 SCI (the minimum is 110). Another 12 were typical, nice-looking animals with main beams from 30 to 35 inches and scoring from 136 to 158 SCI. A non-typical stag, with extra tines on top scored approximately 153 SCI. Fifty more stags were high quality gold medal animals.

Fong hopes to offer stags that will consistently meet the following criteria: A super gold is 26 inches in width and 38 inches in length; top gold is a width of 22 and length of 36; standard gold, width of 18, length 32; a silver, width of 15 and length of 32; and a bronze, width of 12 and length of 32.

Ouatom's hunting area is near the town of La Foa, and encompasses open coastal plains and steep, bush-covered savannah country.

Fong has released trophy stags into high-wire enclosures similar to those in New Zealand. The best way to take a trophy here is to wait near main animal trails and ambush the stag when he appears to feed. Dawn and late afternoon are the feeding times for the animals. There is plenty of scope for free-range hunting as well, and during lull times hunters may target wild pigs and wild turkeys.

The cost of hunting on this property is $US7000 for a four-day hunting package, including airport transfers, lodging, gourmet meals, guiding and preparation of trophy.

Fong was still figuring out trophy fees when I was there in July. The accommodation offered at the estate is of a very high standard. There are several brand-new bungalows, a cookhouse and a large dining room.

The Fongs are great hosts and speak English and French. Fong uses New Zealand hunting guide James Gray to look after the hunting side of the operation. He guides the hunters, capes and processes the trophies and accompanies client groups for the duration of their hunting safari. Gray, of course, is the owner of James Gray Hunting and Fishing New Zealand. He can meet clients at Auckland International Airport and travel with them to New Caledonia, to the hunting property and back to Auckland.

The cheapest airport fares to New Caledonia are through New Zealand where local travellers use Air New Zealand or Aircalin. Hunters who wish to add additional New Zealand trophy species to their hunt can also book with Gray to hunt his South Island hunting locations.

Bringing rifles into New Caledonia can involve tricky paperwork so details need to be organised through Gray at an early stage.

Rifles are available to be hired on the property. The best hunting period is July to October with the peak of the rut being August. Recommended dress is a camouflaged suit, good walking shoes, sunglasses, binoculars, and a sweatshirt or jacket for the cool mornings.

The panic button has not been totally pressed on the free-range rusa herd of New Caledonia, but the times are a-changing there. Ouatom Estates is looking to the future when less big stags might be available. If you want a top SCI head, Ouatom Estates is one operation that can guarantee it.


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