Big game hunting is serious business in Africa. Each year, at least 18,500 hunters from wealthy countries make a kind of pilgrimage to sub-Saharan Africa with the purpose of tracking down one (or several) of the continent’s rarest and most majestic animals and shooting them dead for sport.
The trade does not shy from controversy: Proponents of safari hunting claim that their activities are part of a responsible approach to wildlife management and help inject cash into unpopular tourist destinations, while opponents point out that the most desirable trophies come from threatened and endangered species and that the money these hunters bring actually does little to improve local livelihoods.
Who are the people who travel across the world to bag big game, and what are they willing to do to indulge their hobby? What animals do they hunt and why, and how do local authorities ensure that their animals aren’t hunted to extinction, like so many others? Which are the most popular animals to shoot, and how are they handled after the fact? What is it like to travel to a distant place and hunt some of the largest and most impressive land animals in the world?
An Expensive Hobby
The first thing to know about big game hunting in Africa is that you probably can’t afford to do it. Even a modest safari involving just a few guides and lasting only a few days runs into five-figure prices and involves more red tape than exporting missile technology to Syria.
The typical hunting trip requires several months of advance planning, during which the would-be hunter has to get a passport from his own government, request a visa from the host country’s government, make arrangements with a local agency for accommodations and logistical support, get vaccinated, buy lots of insurance and brush up on local gun laws — things which most of us don’t have the time, or means, to do.
A good hunting agency will either walk potential travelers through this process or offer to handle many of the details on their behalf. Of course, the full-service approach is pricey. One South African agency offers packages for different types of game that range from a mere $3,000 for beginners looking for a 5-day antelope hunt to over $77,000 for a 21-day lion, buffalo, and elephant shoot for one person. The per diem rate may run as high as $420 a night for each person in a given party. These packages cover meals, accommodation, and guides, but guests are on their own for airfare, taxidermy, and trophy fees, which can easily double the price.
These agencies offer hunting packages for almost any kind of animal. Plains safaris will take guests out into the veld to hunt warthogs, zebra, or any of a dozen species of antelope, from the tiny and impossibly cute klipspringer to the huge and very rare sable. They also have the option of shooting a giraffe, an ostrich, or an African wildcat called a caracal.
Dangerous game packages are for hunting animals that have a sporting chance of sending hunters home stuffed and in a box, rather than the other way around.
Crocodiles, hippos, and rhinos count as dangerous game, as does the cape buffalo, which has a reputation for turning on hunters and kneading them like bread dough under its hooves if the first bullet doesn’t kill it. Hippos have the highest body count in Africa, which is impressive enough, and their thick skin and stocky build make them a challenge for inexperienced or underarmed hunters, which is why most companies insist guests bring along a .30-caliber or heavier rifle.
The African Big Five are the elephant, the rhinoceros, the lion, the buffalo, and the leopard. Buy this package, for a mere $100,000 in game fees alone, and guides will drive you out to areas where air reconnaissance has spotted the animals. Once there, a team of helpers will either prepare ground cover or set up a blind for you to wait in comfort for the herd to pass by. Sometimes the guides will trek out to drive the game toward guests or, as happened with Cecil the Lion, they might lay bait to draw the animal out of a protected area and into a location where it can legally be shot.
Elephants and rhinos are endangered species across their entire ranges — the western white rhino was just recently declared extinct after five years without any sightings in the wild — so hunters who want to bag these animals must fill out a lot of paperwork and pay fees directly to the South African national government, rather than to the state governments that regulate more common game.
Individuals can book trips for themselves alone, or they can bring along a guest for additional fees. Family packages are available, but according to one Pennsylvania-based tour agent who requested anonymity, the most popular package by far is father-son trips for wealthy men and their teenage or even preteen sons. More importantly, the source said, the trips are about generating memories, not blood sport.
“Lots of people take their kids [on low-risk antelope hunts],” the tour agent said. “The kids can either just observe, or they can shoot also and try to bag their own trophies. It’s a real experience for them, you know? It’s something your kid will never forget.”
The source’s agency tends toward the full-service approach and offers to have its agents pick guests up at the destination country airport, and drive them off to one of their luxurious hunting lodges. Among other things, these lodges offer professionally prepared meals, an obsequious staff, and daily laundry service. The company sets guests’ parties up with guides, transportation, and trophy services such as skinning, dipping, and shipping the carcass to the taxidermist of the guest’s choice after a successful hunt.