September 10, 2012
The late Peter Capstick described an African safari as "one of the greatest adventures our modern world can still offer." I can't say it better. An African hunt is indeed one of the last great adventures — and a first safari is a life-changing event that, honestly, can never be repeated — although many of us have spent our lives trying to recapture that level of magic.
Africa captivated me at an early age. I devoured the great old books, and spent all too many hours dreaming of Africa. I was still a kid, just 24, when I saved enough pennies to go on my first safari. My intention was to get Africa out of my system once and for all, but that didn't work very well. After 35 years and more than 100 African hunts I still dream of Africa, and wait anxiously to return. That first safari was in Kenya, at that time the most traditional African country, but closed to hunting just a few weeks later. Based solely on that fact, I can probably lay false claim to having seen the last of the great old days of safari. The truth, however, is in the past 35 years I have seen many changes in African hunting, and not all for the bad. Here are eight reasons why African hunting today isn't what it used to be.
African game country once seemed limitless. In the old days a safari could pick up in Nairobi and wander south down through Tanganyika, as Hemingway did in the '30s and Ruark did in the '50s. Or perhaps northwest through Uganda all the way to Sudan, as the Roosevelt safari did in 1909. Today Africa's burgeoning human population has consumed vast areas that once were wild, replacing game with cattle and goats. Wildlife is ever more regulated to smaller enclaves in and around parks, reserves, designated safari areas, and in some cases private lands.
Like many changes this is neither bad nor good; it just is. But there is one good outcome: today's outfitters and professional hunters must operate in particular areas, usually called concessions. They will hunt those areas for successive seasons, so they come to know them well, and they must manage them properly for sustained yield and consistent quality.
On my first safari Kenya's 'block system ' was in place, meaning that, rather than wander as we pleased, we could take our safari to specific, pre-reserved hunting areas. But the camp was still mobile, packed up in what they called a 'lorry ' — fine language for a truck — and sent ahead when it was time to move areas. Spike camping (they call it a 'fly camp ') for a day or two remains common when one or another animal might be most plentiful in a far corner of a big concession, but in the last 35 years I have only seen a true mobile camp twice more: in Ethiopia in 1993, and in Chad in 2000.
Almost universally in today's Africa, since hunting areas will be used for multiple seasons, outfitters build more or less permanent camps that will serve as a base of operations for multiple years. Gone is the romance of moving into what seems truly wild country, but in its place the modern African camp is more comfortable and better appointed. The range is limitless, from near-luxury lodges common in southern Africa to thatched huts and tented camps elsewhere. The latter will probably be on permanent cement slabs, and genuine running water is far more common today than the bucket shower and 'long drop ' toilet of years gone by.
From the Zambezi northward most hunting is still done on government concessions, but in southern Africa many safaris are conducted on private land. This is the most common situation in South Africa and Namibia, which now host about two-thirds of all hunting safaris. Unlike the North American concept of wildlife — wherever found, held in stewardship by the public — in Africa it is more common for wildlife on private land to be the property of the landowner, to manage and utilize at discretion.
This concept, coupled with the eager safari market, has created a massive game-ranching industry. This is strongest in those southern countries, but is spreading north as more and more landowners see value and better utilization of land in game and are investing in protection and breeding stock. I first hunted both South Africa and Namibia (then Southwest Africa) in the late 1970s. They were good then, but I am convinced both countries hold at least ten times more wildlife than when I first visited them. There is a downside: Breeding stock is costly, and under this system wildlife that has great value must be protected, so game fencing is now almost endemic in southernmost Africa and is being seen more often in countries where this was once unthinkable.
With sustained harvests in finite concessions, game quotas are smaller and must be carefully allocated throughout a season. 'Open ' licenses allowing game to be taken as encountered were common on my earliest safaris, but are increasingly rare today. Africa is still Africa and there can be surprises, but today most animals one desires to hunt should be spoken for at the time the safari is planned, and the available bag will generally be smaller.
This actually works just fine, because today's shorter safari must of necessity be more specialized and much more focused on properly hunting very specific animals. Today's 'buffalo safari, ' for instance, may include a small selection of plains game (varying with the area) — but the primary quarry is the buffalo and, by definition, the safari has been fully successful when the buffalo is in the salt.
Let's face it — people are busier now than ever before. With planning, most people can manage a two-week trip, but longer hunts are more difficult. When it took days and even weeks to reach Africa, a ten day hunt didn't make sense, but thanks to jet aircraft Africa is just a (long) day away. In southern Africa great hunting may be just a couple more hours away on good roads, but even the most remote areas can be reached in a few hours by charter aircraft. I live on the West Coast, thus must cross North America before starting across the Atlantic, but even then I can be hunting in Africa more quickly than I can in much of Canada and Alaska. As a side note, today I'm not paying much more for a plane ticket to Africa than I was paying in the '70s and '80s. So, comparatively, travel costs have actually gone down considerably.
Kenya is gone as a hunting country, just like Chad, Somalia, and more. Even so, the 'roll call ' of African hunting countries is longer today than in the 1970s. There are, regrettably, a few species that can no longer be hunted, but Africa's available game list is much more robust now than when I started. The reasons: Although African politics lack the stability taken for granted in the Western world, Africa in general is far more stable today than during the latter days of the colonial era. Also, more African countries and more worldwide conservation organizations recognize (although sometimes grudgingly) that well-managed sport hunting places value on wildlife, and only through established value can wildlife in the Third World be allowed to coexist with human interests.
There are two aspects to this. First, when I started shopping for my first safari little information was available, and overseas 'snail mail ' was the primary means of communication. Today we have instant communication and information via the Internet. There are websites, specialized hunting magazines, and large hunters' conventions. It can be difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, but I can assure you it beats the heck out of virtually no information at all.
Second, although telegrams and cables were possible, routine communication was not. When you were on safari, you checked out of the net. In some parts of Africa cell phones work better than in much of the U.S., and satellite phones and Internet hookups work everywhere. It's easy to check in with family, much easier to respond to emergencies, and I even have friends who continue to run their businesses while on safari.
The High Cost of Hunting Lions
This is not new. Ruark complained about it in 1953. But it has gotten worse today. Africa's great game — lion, elephant, buffalo, to a much lesser degree leopard — require space and are increasingly relegated to shrinking wild lands. These hunts are increasingly more specialized and, especially with lion, ever more costly. This will not change. On the other hand, the proliferation of game ranching has created a 'class ' of safari that didn't even exist in 1977. The plains game safari is now the most available to hunt on the African continent, and also the most affordable. It is possible to do a great plains game safari for a half-dozen animals (or more) for about the cost of a very medium Rocky Mountain elk hunt or, say, an average Texas whitetail hunt. A buffalo or leopard safari is now less than a top-end elk hunt or a moose or Dall sheep hunt in Alaska. So here's the final reason why Africa isn't the same as it used to be — it's still one of the world's last great adventures — but today it's one of the most affordable adventures in the hunting world.