January 05, 2018
BAM! BAM! BAM! Three hard knocks on the roof of the Land Cruiser sounded above us. Piet, our Namibian tracker, had spotted something we hadn't. Jamy Traut, the Professional Hunter leading my first safari, slowed the SUV to a stop. Raising a pair of Bushnell binoculars to my eyes, I spun the focus wheel. A herd of eland came into view, their spiral horns silhouetted against the clear morning sky.
"Eland, some of the best tasting steaks in the Kalahari," Traut said as he lowered the binos from his suntanned face. Pushing the gear shifter into first, he slowly released the clutch and the Land Cruiser rolled on.
Red dust blew in through the open windows, engulfing the cab of the SUV as we cruised towards the horizon. The golden glow from the morning sun rose slowly and illuminated the Kalahari landscape. Miles of terrain speckled with acacia trees, thick thorn bushes, clumps of golden grass, and windswept red sand dunes began to emerge. Namibia was slowly waking up around us.
My week had been filled with stalks over rough terrain, putting my Savage Weather Warrior loaded in .338 Federal to the test on big game. But a personal love of hunting upland birds had sent Traut and me in search of guinea fowl, the polka-dotted African game bird, on this early morning.
"How is hunting regulated over here?" I asked Traut over the drone of the engine. "Are there such things as tags, like in the U.S.?"
The native Namibian smiled as he pushed down on the clutch and shifted into third.
"That's a good question, one that I don't get asked a lot," Traut said in his unique, South African accent, best described as a mix of British and Australian. "But I wish I would."
Hunting a Foreign Country
It was day six of my seven-day Kalahari plains game safari on Traut's Panorama farm, and spotting the group of eland was an added bonus to an already fantastic first hunt on the Dark Continent.
The deserts of Namibia held herds upon herds of animals. Red hartebeest, nicknamed "the Ferrari of the Kalahari," and black wildebeest, "the clown of the Bushveld," grazed together in the tall grass. Kudu, "Africa's grey ghosts," used their drab-colored bodies as natural camouflage to hide among the rocks of the mountains. Springbok, blue wildebeest, gemsbok, and more roamed freely between the thorn bushes. Giant cream-colored ostrich eggs were easy to spot against the red sand, and large communal nests built by sociable weaver birds clung perilously to the trees.
Bouncing in a cracked leather seat that had held many hunters before me, I stared out the open window. The cool morning air flowed over my bare arms — it was early June, winter in Namibia. The temperature was a brisk 60 degrees. Traut, dressed in safari shirt, shorts, and Cape buffalo hide ankle gaiters, clearly was perfectly content with the weather, while Piet wore a thick winter jacket, bringing a laugh between us as I was happily hunting in a t-shirt.
Namibia Hunting Regulations
Hunting African big game has long been under scrutiny from anti-hunting groups across the world. Changes in societal culture — specifically the quick sharing of information across social media — have allowed anti-hunting and animal rights groups to spread their negative opinions on hunting in Africa by playing on emotions, rather than facts, thus spinning the public's perception in their favor.
Sharing photos of hunters with downed African game along with captions encouraging their followers to threaten and belittle sportsmen has become common practice for antis. But they've neglected to tell the whole story. Hunting Africa's wildlife is a vital part of conservation, in effect saving the species anti-hunters claim to care about. Just ask any Namibian.
"The Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism is similar to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife," explained Traut. "They make hunting over here so regulated that it's almost too much. Of course, that's a good thing."
In fact, Namibia was the first African country to incorporate protection of environment into its constitution. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) encourages hunting and calls it a valuable economic asset that addresses overpopulation of certain species, generates funds from land or resources that are otherwise unproductive, and contributes to the management of problem animals, all while benefitting Namibia's rural areas as a means of creating employment and providing meat to rural communities.
The MET allows plains game on farms and private land in the Kalahari to be managed by landowners who respect the wildlife and who have demonstrated an understanding of proper herd management.
Traut slowed the SUV to a stop, and we moved from the cab to the bed of the Land Cruiser. We glassed the red dunes, spotting a herd of black wildebeest. The large animals bucked their muscular bodies and ran in circles in a playful manner as if clowning around.
"They like to give landowners the idea of ownership because they know we will take care of it," Traut said as he kept the binos to his eyes. "For example, I don't want to deplete my own herd of wildebeest. That would be like me shooting my own cows. It must be sustainable. If the game pays, it stays. That's true everywhere but especially so in the Caprivi, my leased conservancy."
What is a Conservancy?
Prior to Namibia's independence in 1990, wildlife populations in the country's communal areas had plummeted due to unregulated hunting by military forces during the apartheid independence struggles, poaching, and drought. In 1996, the new Namibian government recognized something had to be done immediately to save the country's wildlife and established what would come to be known as conservancies.
Based on the structure from community game guard systems enacted in the 1980s to curb poaching, conservancies are areas with defined borders that allow local communities to manage and benefit from the wildlife inside their lands.
Perhaps best described as community-run wildlife reserves, conservancies are home to thousands of Africans living in rural communities and also are home to abundant African game, such as Cape buffalo, elephants, hippos, lions, leopards, giraffes, plains game, and more — all of which are vitally important to the people in more ways than one.
If It Pays, It Stays
"If it pays, it stays" is a phrase used to describe Africa's conservation model. The mindset of the rural people being that big game is a moneymaker for their communities and well-being: Meaning, they will work to properly conserve the wildlife.
To maintain the game living in conservancies, community game guards patrol the area, deter poachers, and monitor wildlife numbers. Each year, based on information gained from the game guards, the MET sets quotas for individual conservancies on how many of each species can be taken during a year to maintain healthy herd numbers.
But how do hunters contribute?
Similar to how American hunters lease private land in the U.S., African outfitters place bids to gain access to all hunting rights on conservancies. However, bids don't come just in the form of monetary value.
"In order to gain hunting rights to conser-vancies, outfitters go to the local conservancy committees and say, 'Here's what I'll do for you,'" explained Traut. "For example, we'll offer a certain percentage of the trophy fees to the community, and the meat of the harvested animals. We'll employ this many locals to work at our lodges as cooks, trackers, road cutters, and more. We'll give you a vehicle and equipment to help with your anti-poaching efforts. Things of that nature that directly help the community."
This makes for thriving communities that benefit from the wildlife surrounding them, rather than suffering from it. The bush of Africa may be enchantingly exotic to the rest of the world, but it's home to communities trying to make a living.
"A herd of elephants can destroy a farmer's crop in one night," Traut said as our feet sank into the red sand as we made our way to the top of a dune. "A lion can kill a substantial amount of cows in the same evening. Farming is a way of life here, and these animals can take that away in hours."
Instead of eliminating problem animals themselves and gaining nothing more than meat and a problem solved, the community members recognize the financial and personal gains offered from allowing controlled hunting. The money generated from outfitters selling their allotted species tags goes directly back to the community where some of the profits are shared communally while the rest are used for conservation, anti-poaching efforts, and more. All while putting fresh meat on their dinner tables.
As we trekked across the Kalahari, movement to my right stopped me. A very large, grey figure was feeding behind a tall bush. Lifting its head, a tall, sharp horn appeared, and beady black eyes stared in our direction.
"You have rhinos here?" I asked enthusiastically.
Traut turned to look and laughed at my excitement. "Not technically. We've brought a male and a number of females here hoping that they'll breed and grow their numbers. Poaching has become a serious problem in the conservancies."
I could hear the concern in his voice.
Poaching is not a new threat in Namibia, but it has grown over recent years with an onslaught of poachers crossing the borders from neighboring countries. Their target: elephants and rhinos to sell their ivory tusks and horns on the black market.
Poaching statistics released by the MET in early 2016 showed that 216 black and white rhinos had been killed in the previous four years, while poachers had killed 266 elephants since 2013. In fact, the illegal killing of elephants skyrocketed last year: 101 elephants were killed in 2016, compared to the 49 killed in 2015.
Poaching has launched the country into a state of emergency, with the MET recognizing that efforts needed to be made to curb the onslaught. An anti-poaching unit, the Wildlife Protection Service, was established in August to provide support through active patrols, surveillance, investigations, on-the-job training, communication, and adaptive management.
But the Namibian government isn't the only group focused on stopping poaching. Hunters have also joined the fight.
"Outfitters want to stop these senseless killings just as much as the animal rights community wants to," Traut explained. "So much so that outfitters and hunters around the country and world are donating to the cause."
Traut donated a 4-wheel-drive vehicle and a boat to be used for anti-poaching patrols, as well as other equipment, such as binoculars, and has paid for the proper training of game scouts in conservancies that are being hit hard by poachers.
Safari Club International (SCI) has donated more than $300,000 since 2010 for anti-poaching efforts in southern and eastern Africa, focusing on capacity building and increasing effectiveness of the anti-poaching forces. The threat from poachers targeting elephants and rhinos in northwest Namibia has led SCI to donate money for the training of game scouts in the conservancies to counter the poaching threats.
"It's going to take boots on the ground, and they can't do it if they aren't well equipped. I'm happy to help that cause in any way I can," Traut said as we made our way back to the Land Cruiser under a setting sun, my Stevens 555 over my shoulder, and two large Guinea Fowl in my hands.
A Safari Hunter
Sitting in the passenger seat as we bumped along the road back to camp, I thought hard about the information Traut had conveyed. Everything he said erased all the common misconceptions that many Americans associate with hunting Africa.
My thoughts were interrupted by Traut's sudden stop of the Land Cruiser. Pointing to a set of trees 300 yards away, I saw our group of eland from earlier grazing calmly, unaware of our presence.
"You know, we ate the last of the eland we had in the freezer last night," Traut said quietly, a smirk appearing on his face. "Would you like to feed camp and take that old cow standing at the back of the herd?"
The thought of providing for the families of the native Namibian workers Traut employed on the farm and my fellow hunters made for an easy answer.
After a long stalk, the old eland cow fell seconds after I pulled the trigger. Her large body seemed to grow bigger with every step as I approached. The long, spiraled horns felt rough against the palms of my hands, and I stared in awe of the eland's beauty. Silently thanking her for the meat she would provide, I wiped my eyes and thanked Traut for this opportunity. The spell of Africa had taken its hold.