Time to Rethink Hunting in South Africa

May 2018 Issue – Mike Bodenchuk, Editor-at-Large

Editor’s note: Editor-at-Large Mike Bodenchuk, who is also a working biologist, just returned from a three-week trip to South Africa, where he squeezed in some hunting between meetings with wildlife managers. He says that for various developments hunting in South Africa may be the best it’s been since Europeans arrived on the Dark Continent- even with the land reform situation that has been covered so sensationally in the news worldwide. Read Bodenchuk’s report here, then check out the accompanying security report on South Africa from our partners at Ripcord Travel Protection.

We often get so caught up in our own politics that it’s difficult to observe the politics of other nations- and their impact on hunting. South Africa, for example, recently elected and installed a new president, and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) adopted a policy statement on land redistribution as part of a “…programme of radical socio-economic transformation.” The report from the 54th ANC Conference states “Expropriation of land without compensation should be among the key mechanisms available to government to give full effect to land reform and redistribution.” The report goes on to identify prioritization of “…redistribution of vacant, unused and under-utilised state land as well as land held for speculation, and hopelessly indebted land.” A vocal minority party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, is getting a lot of press calling for more radical redistribution of land.

So what does all this have to do with hunting? Well, right now might be the very best time to rethink hunting in South Africa. And the political rhetoric isn’t the only reason. Certainly, there are a number of game farmers who are cautiously watching the development of land redistribution, but the fact that South Africa’s President (and ANC President) Cyril Ramaphosa is himself a game farmer gives this sector a bit of comfort. The ANC policies to “…not undermine future investment in the economy or damage agricultural production or food security…” makes most game ranchers and Professional Hunters feel secure in the stability of hunting for the near future.

Accurately or not, South Africa has a reputation as a “first safari” destination. Since the land reforms that allowed landowners to own much of the wildlife on their land, some 15% of the country is utilized as wildlife lands, allowing South Africa to meet its commitment to ecosystem integrity without extensive wildlife reserves. The maintenance of game ranching allows South Africa to continue offering widespread and affordable safaris.

South Africa is a large country with several ecoregions. It doesn’t matter where you hunted first (or last), there is something else to see. The landscape in the Cape region is as different from the Karoo (or the South African Kalahari) as Nebraska is from New Mexico. Different habitat supports different species- some of which are uniquely South African. If you want to build an African trophy collection, there are many animals that can only be obtained in South Africa- blesbok, vaal rhebok, mountain reedbuck and Cape mountain zebra, for example, are only available in South Africa. Other species, such as black wildebeest, Cape kudu, Cape eland and Kalahari springbok are so uniquely South African that they also should be hunted here, even though they’re available elsewhere. I find it interesting that many experienced African hunters return to South Africa to complete certain collections.

Another reason to rethink South Africa now is the abundance (actually overabundance) of some game, which has been driving the prices down. Disease-free Cape buffalo have been trapped and moved around to the point that they are available widely. A buffalo hunt just outside of Kruger National Park, might still set you back $30,000 or more (and you may be limited on the size of buffalo you’re allowed to shoot), but ranch hunts are selling in the $10-15,000-range for large, mature buffalo.

Sable, similarly, have been produced by nearly every game rancher, and there is currently a glut of sable on the market to ranchers and hunters. Whereas a decade ago a sable hunt might fetch $10,000 in trophy fees alone, sable hunts are now available for $6,500 or less. Remarkably, the surplus of sable includes a lot of animals in the two- to three-year-old range, so the prices will hold or decline for the next several years.

Is there a down side? Certainly. With over 1,000 professional hunters in the country, there are many hunts being marketed on small properties with animals purchased and released just for an arriving hunter. Game fences, even very large ones, are part of the scene, and if you’re opposed to any fence, your options may be limited. Remember that many of Africa’s national parks and wildlife reserves are also fenced, so the question is really about how big the fenced area is and how it might affect the movements of the game you seek.

Finally, and I think this is perception rather than anything else, but for many of South Africa’s hunting properties, the abundance of game is almost overwhelming. To the uninitiated, a landscape with 30 to 300 head (and six to eight species) of big game visible at any one time appears to be artificial. However, the abundance and diversity of game available on South African ranches approaches the scene that occurred before European contact, and it’s this abundance we’re missing in the US.

So, how do you approach a South African safari? Today, more and more South African PHs are coming to the shows and selling directly to American hunters. At the SCI show, I estimate that South African PHs and ranchers outnumbered the next closest African country (Namibia) 3-to-1, and collectively there were more South African offerings than all other countries combined.

Obviously, you need to do your homework on any hunt. In addition to learning where the PH hunts, for what species and at what prices, you need to ask questions about the size of properties hunted (they may offer different species on different properties in the area), the extent of fences and the method of hunting. Many hunters prefer to cruise in a vehicle and stalk a very short distance once game is spotted, so many PHs have developed this as a style. Most, however, will appreciate a hunter who wants to walk and will provide the opportunity to do so, but you’re going to have to ask for it. The best time to do this is before booking the hunt, not after you’ve arrived.

Obviously, there are a lot of issues associated with direct booking, such as airline tickets and connecting flights, gun permits, export of your trophies and more. If you’re not comfortable working through these arrangements yourself (or with your PH’s assistance) there are a number of hunting consultants who will assist you in every step of the process. Using an agent, however, does not reduce your responsibilities to make sure the hunt meets your particular needs and standards.

All this became obvious this past month when I took a three-week tour in South Africa, including hunting in Limpopo and the Northern Cape provinces. I was able to revisit the Karoo, where I hunted in 2007, as well as the East Cape, Free State, Northwest Cape and Mpumalanga. Meeting landowners and PHs along the way gave me an opportunity to see the differences in the country and the opportunities for hunters of varying experience to find something they want (need?) in South Africa.

During my tour, I had the opportunity to hunt with Daniel and Dorea du Toit of Kolobe Safaris (kolobesafaris.co.za, +27-83-280-7643; email kolobesafari@mweb.co.za). Being early in the year (still had rain on several days of our trip), we were among the first clients of the year. I hunted sable, bushbuck and jackal (I have a thing for calling predators), while my hunting partner hunted nyala, waterbuck and mountain reedbuck. We also saw several grand kudu (58-inches-plus), a few great eland bulls and a host of plains game. Daniel took us to three separate properties, including a must-see mountain property near Mokopala, where we hunted the reedbuck and bushbuck. That day will remain very special, as I saw vegetation and scenery I never thought I’d see in Africa. We stayed in one of their three chalets and ate excellent meals prepared by Dorea in the lodge a few dozen yards away.

In addition to Daniel’s home-based operation, he offers big game (buffalo, elephant, etc.) safaris in the private lands adjacent to Kruger National Park. These are some of the largest remaining wild lands and are certainly worth the time to tour and hunt. With enough time, a combined ranch/Kruger area hunt is very possible. As a former big game guide and outfitter, I can appreciate the attention to detail at Kolobe, and Daniel was very interested in getting us the animals we wanted. I highly recommend Kolobe Safaris.

How South Africa handles it’s “…radical socio-economic transformation…” has yet to be seen. In the interim, South Africa remains a safe, economical hunting destination for the first-time hunter or the seasoned collector wanting to add remaining oddities to his walls. Now might just be the very best time to rethink and book a South African safari.