From her vantage point hundreds of feet above a grassy plain bisected by a meandering stream, Beth Yoes of Beaumont aimed her digital camera at the sweeping vista, clicked the shutter, and captured the breathtaking scene.
It would be the first of more than 300 images of flora and fauna she would collect in the next three hours. Boarding a zebra-striped Jeep, Beth and her family—her husband, Stuart, and their daughters Mattie and Lilly—embarked upon a photo safari with wildlife biologist and guide C.D. McGehee. The terrain resembled Africa, but in reality it was Shonto Ranch, eight miles south of Kerrville in the heart of the Texas Hill Country.
“I’m gonna put a grin on your chin,” said the smiling, goateed C.D., who piloted the vehicle down rocky roads and pathways in search of animals from around the world. For the past 15 years at Shonto, the talkative Texas Aggie has shared his vast zoological knowledge, accumulated over more than four decades of working outdoors, with camera-toting ranch guests from near and far.
Exotic animals that thrive at Shonto and other Hill Country game ranches have become magnets for photographers of all skill levels, attracting both hobbyists and seasoned pros. Photo safaris give shutterbugs the chance to capture photographic trophies without the expense of traveling to Africa, Asia, or Europe.
Descending from the ranch’s highest elevation of 1,860 feet above sea level, the Yoeses soon happened upon seven barasingha, or swamp deer, native to India and Nepal, their orangeish coats contrasting with broad patches of green grass. McGehee maneuvered the Jeep to a spot close enough for great picture-taking but not so close as to spook the animals.
Next came an encounter with four gemsbok from southern Africa, identified in part by their swept-back horns and black face masks. Not far away were three waterbucks from sub-Saharan Africa, two female and one male, the latter sporting sharp, devilish-looking horns. As the number of sightings and camera clicks mounted, Mattie and Lilly marked off each new species on a photo checklist of 58 animals and birds likely to be observed at Shonto.
The ranch schedules photo safaris in late afternoons, roughly three hours before sundown, because that’s when the animals move from secluded resting places in the rugged hills to food and water sources on flatter ground, explained Shonto managing partner Chris Childs. The 1,100-acre spread has welcomed thousands of photographers since safaris began in 1998.
“Shonto is a Navajo word that refers to the reflection of the sun, hills, and trees on the water features throughout the ranch. We have three creeks and 10 fishing lakes,” Chris explained. “So in addition to taking pictures of animals in the wild, you can take pictures of some gorgeous scenery. We customize photo outings to include everything from animals to birds to wildflowers to beautiful Hill Country terrain.”
“Shonto is really two different ranch-es in one,” C.D. pointed out. “We’ve got four-and-a-half miles of water—interconnecting Fall, Turtle, and South creeks—dividing Shonto in two, with rolling pastures on one half and limestone canyons and higher elevations on the other half. It’s ideal habitat for native species like whitetail deer and turkeys, as well as exotic species like blackbuck antelope from India and fallow deer from Europe and Asia.”
The introduction of exotic animals from around the globe to Texas dates to 1856, said Charly Seale, executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association, which is headquartered in Ingram. That’s when the Army brought 33 camels to a new installation called Camp Verde, between Kerrville and Bandera, hoping that camels would outperform mules or horses in transporting supplies to western forts. Multiple historical accounts indicate the camels did well. However, a major distraction—the Civil War—and the spread of railroads ended the camel experiment by 1866.
The massive King Ranch in South Texas imported nilgai antelope from India in the 1920s. Soon, other ranch owners, including World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who owned a place near Hunt, added exotics for the enjoyment of their guests. Populations expanded dramatically after the severe drought of the 1950s, when ranchers such as the Charles Schreiner family brought in exotics for hunting to supplement dwindling income from raising cattle.
“Today there may be more rare and endangered species in Texas than in their native lands,” Charly said. “The terrain and climate are similar to Africa and other locales where exotics come from. These animals have flourished in Texas under private ownership and conservation.”
As the sun sank close to the horizon, the Yoeses photographed a zebra on their way back to a rustic pavilion on Fall Creek, where their adventure began. Reflecting on the previous three hours, Beth Yoes used the words “informative,” “amazing,” and “unbelievable” to sum up her family’s first photo safari, not in the wilds of Africa, but deep in the heart of Texas.