Hunt the African Big 5
The dream is still possible!
Remember Chicken Little, who cried that the sky was falling? We African hunters are wasting time running in circles, spouting doom and gloom. Sure, African hunting has taken some knocks. Botswana’s suspension of safari hunting is unfortunate — especially for Botswana’s elephants. The demise of Cecil the Lion was a PR nightmare. More serious are the suspensions, moratoriums, and bans on importation of legally taken sport-hunted animals.
So, yes, we face challenges, but I’m not a doom-and-gloom guy. Africa remains the land of dreams. Most modern safaris are short hunts for a variety of non-dangerous species. These offer awesome adventure and the best bargains in the hunting world, but dangerous game is still what makes Africa unique. The Big Five comprises buffalo, leopard, lion, elephant, and rhinoceros. Hunting them all is a daunting task, but in spite of all the hand-wringing, let me share two important facts that most hunters are not aware of:
Yes, they are huntable. No, they are not endangered.
“Oh, I didn’t know you could still hunt….” Fill in the blank with whichever member of the Big Five you prefer. All are still legally huntable in sovereign nations that have harvestable surpluses.
Because of vast quantities of misinformation, some hunters will find this difficult to accept, but it remains fact: None of the Big Five is considered “endangered” by modern science, as monitored by the international body CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Certain populations of all five are considered “threatened,” but there is a huge distinction between “threatened” and “endangered.” Threatened animals are often hunted (including in the United States) because a monitored legal harvest is beneficial to the species. Endangered species are not hunted. Or as one illiterate anti-hunter sent me on social media, “Real men don’t hunt extinct species.” No, we don’t, and we don’t hunt endangered species, either. But if we choose, we can still hunt the African Big Five.
Here is the status of each as they stand in 2019.
The African buffalo exists in varying densities almost continent-wide — except for the great deserts—with total numbers in the low millions. Regulated sport-hunting is conducted in more than a dozen nations, where the buffalo provides an important food source—and causes its share of problems with crop-raiding. An African buffalo is far and away the most available and economic of the Big Five to hunt and offers hunters plenty of great choices.
A Cape buffalo safari costs about the same as a mid-level guided elk hunt in the Rockies. The biggest recent change: After decades of breeding up disease-free buffalo, South Africa has become a major buffalo destination. Supply seems to have caught up with demand, and prices have dropped. This makes South Africa the most affordable place to hunt buffalo, but it must be understood that most South African buffaloes are not strictly free range. Free-range buffalo destinations include Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. All are good, with Mozambique and Zimbabwe the most economical. Bottom line: There’s a lot of great buffalo hunting in today’s Africa. And it’s just as exciting as ever.
Thanks to intensive management in Southern Africa, both black and white rhino populations have increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, the new wave of poaching has caused serious losses, and despite extreme protective measures, both species are now again in decline. Rhinos are slow-breeding creatures, hard to manage, and difficult to protect against increasingly violent poachers. Both species are threatened, but present in enough parks and enclaves that “endangered” is not the correct classification.
Despite today’s sad state of affairs, both white and black rhinos remain huntable in Namibia and South Africa, which host the majority of the world’s populations. The quota for black rhinos is a tiny token, only implemented under very specific conditions. Costs are astronomical, but even a single hunted black rhino pumps huge funds into management and protection. In a sad turn of events, more white rhinos are available today because landowners with private herds are having increasing difficulty funding adequate protection. Landowners with private herds must be able to make the rhinos at least pay for themselves.
Hunting is one answer. Monitored sale of legal rhino horn, strongly advocated by range nations with the most rhinos, could be an answer to curbing the black market. Today white rhinos can be readily hunted, and the extreme cost defrays protection and management. Honestly, however, the experience of hunting a white rhino today is nothing like the experience of rhino hunting in wild Africa a generation ago. Another, extremely exciting, option, is to participate in a rhino darting, periodically essential for inoculation, implanting tracking chips, and so forth.
A couple of years ago, I observed several veterinary rhino dartings. They were thrilling and fascinating, and then the rhinos went off to do their jobs making more rhinos. If you are driven to hunt the Big Five, I believe this is the way to “harvest” your rhino.
Forty years ago, organized poaching gangs devastated Africa’s elephant populations. Many of us predicted the end, but we were wrong. The international ban on the ivory trade worked, at least for a while. Some herds rebuilt, and several southern populations escaped heavy poaching. Unfortunately, since the worldwide economic downturn in 2009, there has been a new wave of commercial ivory poaching, and elephant numbers are again falling.
This does not mean elephants should not be hunted. With a current population of perhaps a half-million, the African elephant is not endangered. It is threatened in many areas yet seriously overpopulated in others. In recent years the primary opportunities to hunt elephant have been Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, with limited opportunities in Mozambique and Zambia.
By the most recent survey, Botswana alone has 250,000 elephants, possibly half the total in all of Africa. In 2014 Botswana suspended safari hunting on public lands, effectively stopping elephant hunting. Botswana’s elephants are grossly overpopulated, causing long-term damage to the habitat and adversely impacting all wildlife. At this writing, it appears that Botswana’s new administration will reopen safari hunting, including elephant.
At about the same time, in 2014, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) put a hold on issuing permits to import sport-hunted elephants from Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has perhaps 70,000 elephants, down from peak but still overpopulated. Tanzania has a similar number, also down. Namibia and South Africa each have 25,000 elephants in limited habitat. They are at or above carrying capacity. American hunters’ primary options for hunting elephant and bringing their ivory home are Namibia and South Africa.
Many hunters no longer wish to hunt elephants. That’s a personal decision. The meat is fully utilized, and I would argue that, because of crop damage and habitat destruction, overpopulated elephants must be hunted. Before you cross elephant off your bucket list, allow me to assure you that hunting any elephant is an amazing experience, and in this topsy-turvy time, there are opportunities.
Zimbabwe has an aggressive quota for tuskless elephants. A hunt for a tuskless elephant can cost less than a buffalo safari and is one of the most exciting and dangerous hunts in the world. Namibia’s conservancies where elephants are hunted often offer permits for non-exportable “own use” elephants, i.e., meat hunting. My own “last” elephant was an “own use” permit, a grand old bull, not only with a broken tusk, but also suppurating wounds from AK-47 bullets, probably sustained far to the north in Zambia. Taking him was thus merciful and essential management. I apologize to no one for participating.
The leopard’s range is the most widespread of the Big Five, and it roams throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It’s almost impossible to count an animal as secretive as the leopard, but at least one estimate suggests there might be two million leopards in wild Africa.
Due to an active fur trade, leopards were declining rapidly in the 1960s. Cessation of the fur market had much to do with a dramatic rebound. Today there are more leopards, especially in Africa’s hunting countries, where leopards have significant value. A leopard safari is more expensive than a Cape buffalo hunt and is similar to a Dall sheep or a grizzly hunt. The least costly leopard options are probably Namibia and Zimbabwe, which are good places. Other good places include Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia.
As for success, that’s a tough call. Nobody can guarantee a leopard. Areas with dense populations probably offer the better odds, but all that’s needed is one big tom to hit a bait, so a hunting team with lots of experience is the most important factor.
Africa’s lion population has declined precipitously since World War II and continues to drop. Estimates of wild lions are all over the map, but 35,000 seems a common number. This is not an endangered population, but lions are seriously threatened in many areas. The lion’s primary challenge is encroachment by livestock-raising humans.
If cessation of all hunting would stop the decline, I’d be for it immediately. But it’s not that simple. To the African herdsman, the lion remains a dangerous nuisance. Selective and regulated hunting places extreme value on lions, and only with this value can rural Africans be persuaded to coexist with lions. From the hunter’s perspective, long gone are the days when “a lion is a lion.” We have learned that only older males not in prides should be hunted. Tanzania, the most important lion-hunting country, led the charge in mandating that only six-year-old males were legal for hunting. Managers in most of the other areas have followed Tanzania, so today only older “post-pride” males are targeted. For management these are essential moves. Today’s reality is that lion hunting is far less successful than ever before. This must be accepted if you take the plunge and commit to a lion safari—anywhere and at any price.
As for importation of your long dreamed of lion, right now that is a problem. USFWS drew an odd line in the sand, and “western” lions, such as those in Benin and Burkina Faso, are no longer importable, and the rest of the continent is pretty much “on hold.”
Back in the 1970s, Americans could not import sport-hunted leopards. The current importation permit system for leopards has been in place since 1983 and operates smoothly. Being an optimist, I believe a similar process should develop for lions from areas that are managing their lions. CITES supports regulated lion hunting as a management tool.
The inability of hunters to import lions is having a disastrous effect, putting outfitters out of business and preventing management across large areas. This is not good for the lions, so I hope that emotion can be put aside in favor of science-based management.
In the meantime, safaris for wild lions are costly. Tanzania has the largest population and offers the most opportunity. Zambia is also good. The large conservancies in Zimbabwe are excellent, and some of its designated safari areas have too many lions. Namibia has awesome genetics but few permits, and along the boundaries of Kruger and other parks, South Africa has some opportunity for “born in the wild” (if not exactly free-range) lion hunting. This is pretty much the universe of lion hunting today, but in wild Africa, it is still possible to hear the roars and dream of facing your lion. I hope this never changes.