The Kudu Horn and Scouting

The Greater Kudu, or Koodoo
Tregelaphus strepsiceros

"The kudu is a species of antelope which ranges from South Africa to Ethiopia. A kudu bull may stand over five feet high and is colored from a reddish gray to almost blue. In addition to the beast’s reputable sense of hearing, its keen sight, sense of smell, the great speed make it a difficult animal to capture."

Frederick Selous, in his classic work, A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa, 1881, described the kudu as "perhaps the handsomest antelope in the world."

Following a tradition stretching back more than 85 years, the troop is often called to assembly with the traditional sound of the kudu horn at many Wood Badge courses and Junior Leader Training Conferences .

It may seem strange that the horn of an African antelope, a type used by the Matabele as a war horn in the 19th century, should call Scouts and Scouters together in America and in many countries around the world. But it was just such a horn that roused the first Scouts ever called together. In the summer of 1907, Baden-Powell held his first experimental camp on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbor. Retrieved from his African trophies, the kudu horn entered Scout service.

Brownsea Island, Poole Harbor, England — August, 1907


"The day began at 6 a.m. when Baden-Powell roused the camp with the weird notes from the long, spiral horn of the African koodoo — the war horn he had picked up on his expedition into the Somabula Forest during the 1896 Matabele Campaign."


"As a colonel in southern Africa during 1896, Baden-Powell commanded a flying column in the Matabele Campaign. It was on a raid down the Shangani River that he first heard the kudu horn. He had been puzzled by the speed with which alarms were spread amongst the Matabeles, until one day he realized that they were using a war horn of great carrying power. A code was used. As soon as the enemy was sighted, the alarm was sounded on the kudu — taken up right and left — and, thus, carried many miles in a very short space of time.

"When he assembled the first Scouts at Brownsea, Baden-Powell remembered the kudu horn he had brought back with him from the Matabele Wars, and used it too add a touch of adventure and fun to the camp.

"After Brownsea Island the kudu horn was returned to B-P’s home and was silent for 12 years, while the movement it had announced was fashioned and spread throughout the world. Then, in 1919, Baden-Powell entrusted the horn to Gilwell Park for use in the first scoutmaster training courses."

Gilwell Park, Epping Forest, England — September 8, 1919


"The first scoutmaster’s training camp held at Gilwell started on 8 September. It followed the pattern B-P had used with boys at Brownsea twelve years before. The patrol system was again put to the test with nineteen participants divided into patrols and living a patrol life. The instruction took the same form as on Brownsea. Each day a new subject was introduced and covered in demonstrations, practices and games. The Matabele Koodoo horn that had called the boys into action in Brownsea was used for all signals."

Ten years later, at the age of 72, Baden-Powell brought the kudu horn with him to open the Third World Jamboree. That the kudu is a challenge to sound is seen clearly in his experience at Arrowe Park. The results, however, was as impressive as any could ask.

Arrowe Park, Birkenhead, England — July 28, 1929


"The opening day of the Third World Jamboree started with a heavy rain that increased during the day; but by the appointed hour … the weather had turned "windy and fine." B-P had brought with him to Arrowe Park the old koodoo horn of Matabele War days he had used to awaken campers at Brownsea for the world’s first Boy Scout camp and to open the first scoutmasters’ course at Gilwell Park. Now he lifted it to his lips to blow a blast that would reverberate over the vast parade ground in front of him. But, in his excited state, his lips refused to do his bidding. The sound of the horn was only a feeble "pfft.

"Nevertheless, as if called to action by the koodoo horn, the March Past got under way, with contingent after contingent swinging by the saluting base, with the flags of practically every civilized country in the world snapping in the brisk wind, with the grandstands’ thousands of onlookers greeting each nation with enthusiastic applause."

The Kudu’s Call

To this day, the kudu is still used to call Scouts together in training courses around the world. To all who follow in the Founder’s footsteps, it is a summons to live Scouting at its best.

Adapted from John Thurman, The Gilwell Book, British Boy Scout Association, and William Hillcourt, Baden-Powell: Two Lives of a Hero, Boy Scouts of America, 1964.

The line drawings of the Greater Kudu and the Kudu Horn are from Frederick Selous, A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa, 1881. The drawing of Brownsea is from a sketch by Baden-Powell, as is the Scout Badge which he drew for the first edition of Scouting for Boys, 1908.

link-kudu.jpg (5247 bytes) space25.gif (58 bytes) Find out more about the Greater Kudu at the Animal Diversity Web of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology.

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Copyright © Lewis P. Orans, 2012
Last Modified: 2:50 PM on October 13, 2012