Traditions, Ethical Hunting & Legacy

It is early on a winters morning and the sun can just not generate enough power to warm your body. The twigs and dry leaves crackle under the soles of your boots that sink into the rich red soil. The smell of the bush creeps into your nose and your senses are as sharp as the cold breeze slipping past your collar and down your spine. There is something primal about the fact that you carry a rifle in your hand, a rifle that can take a life. The hunting instinct is undoubtedly present. It is a picture that has been drawn into our DNA over many ages and you just can’t erase it! Men (and some women) are hunters!

On the eve of the biggest hunt in my life – a buffalo hunt at Botse Safaris in Limpopo – several possible scenes play around in my mind. I think of great names that had the priviledge of hunting this magnificent beast. People like Harry Manners, Ernest Hemmingway and Harry Selby. The romance of an African hunt was painted in vivid colours through stories written by these legends in various books and articles. To hunt a buffalo in the same way these legends did, is a major consideration. To achieve that though, you firstly have to dig very deep into history. It might turn your experience into a diamond of a hunt. It becomes very evident that very few Afrikaans speaking hunters are mentioned in journals and books, although many existed and were the equals of the mentioned legends. Their footprints cross-crossed Africa but their stories died with the campfires that they sat next to. The sad reality is that the big name hunters came from the USA, England and the rest of Europe and had access to a proper education, whereas the local Afrikaans speaking hunters could barely read or write and were unable to put an inked feather to paper to eternalise their experiences. Let us look at the hunters that could document their experiences:

Harry Manners was an ivory hunter who took down more than a thousand elephant. With his Winchester
Model 70 375 H&H, he believed there was no such thing as stopping power. I must add that with his small stature he probably could not see himself take the donkey kick recoil of the .470 Nitro Express that was very popular during that time. He believed that if there is penetration, shot placement is the key to successful hunting dangerous game. Harry might have been small of stature but he was as tough as you can get. When the competition in the Ivory trade became rife, he moved to Tsetsi-fly areas in Mozambique and hunted there for prolonged periods of time. The time arrived when the ivory trade was regulated and Harry moved on to hunting Cape Buffalo in huge numbers for the Sugarcane plantations, as trade laws forced employers to provide a certain amount of protein to employees working in the plantations, which were provided from the big herds of Cape Buffalo. You can’t compare this with current Buffalo Hunting. Although Harry was as tough as a honey badger, his motivation was totally financially driven. As a sport hunter it is very difficult for me to draw an association with Harry.

Ernest Hemmingway was a strange character who became famous as a journalist, writer and adventurer. He was a eager and active sportsman with a passion especially for his shotguns and wingshooting. It was with one of these guns that Hemmingway took his own life. Hemmingsway’s adventures brought him to African shores twice during his life. The first visit was a gift from his second wife’s uncle, “Uncle Gus”. During this visit to Africa he hunted various trophy animals in Kenya and Tanzania. Besides his love for the shotguns, his favourite rifle was a Griffen& Howe 30-06 Springfield. He took down a Cape Buffalo and a Rhino with this rifle. The Rhino being shot from 300 yards on open sights. Ernest’s second visit was much more interesting. Besides the fact that this visit was with his fourth wife, he also survived two plane crashes. He used a .577 Nitro Express instead of the 30-06 when he hunted buffalo, as the buffalo on his first visit did not go down as easily as he thought it would. In 1941, when the USA declared war against Japan and Germany, Hemmingway decided that he and his trusty .577 Nitro Express can’t miss this historic event. He went out daily with his fishing boat called Pillar in search of German U-boats. He believed that this rifle was powerful enough to shoot through the hull of these U-boats. Considering the fact that Hemmingway was married five times also showed that Hemmingway had a broad interest!

The last of our famous hunters under discussion is Harry Selby. From the hunters in this article, he is the only South African born person. He was only three years old when his parents moved to a huge cattle farm in Kenya. There were vast numbers of game on this farm. Elephants, buffalo and lions frequently traversed this beautiful piece of land with a stunning view of Mount Kenya. At the age of eight, Harry got his first rifle. It was a .22 LR with which he started hunting Guinee fowl and small game. At the age of twenty two he was already a respected Professional Hunter. His biggest breakthrough came when he was chosen to be the Professional Hunter for Robert Ruark on his African hunting expedition. Ruark made Selby a very prominent figure in his Novel – Horn of the Hunter. The release of this popular book ensured that Harry’s dairy was fully booked with international hunters for a prolonged period of time. In 1962 there was great uncertainty regarding the hunting industry in Kenya. Harry then moved from Kenya to Botswana. Besides the fifty-three hunting seasons that Harry had in Africa and created unforgettable memories for countless international hunters, he was also responsible for the first photographic lodge in Botswana. Harry’s hunting career started off with a .470 Nitro express in his hand. After a vehicle accidentally drove over the barrels and destroyed it, Harry hastily replaced it with a .416 Rigby bolt action just in time for an international hunt. He described this rifle as inherently accurate with immense penetration power. This is the rifle that he fell in love with and this is the rifle he used until he retired.

Back to my buffalo hunt. After watching an informative Craig Boddington video, I decided to give this hunt a name – The Widowmaker Hunt! Reading through the information on the legendary hunters in this article, I can mostly associate with Harry Selby. Both of us was born in South Africa, our first rifles were .22 LR and like Harry, my dangerous game rifle is also a .416 although it is a Remington Magnum and like Harry I am also a keen photographer. Overall I cannot align my hunting motive with the motives of these legendary hunters. They mostly hunted to line their pockets either by taking international clients on hunts or hunting for the ivory and meat trade. I do however share their love for nature and rifles as well as the ever present promise of adventure. As Hemmingway did, I would also love to spend months on end in the African Bush, but I am pretty sure I would come back finding myself without a job, without a dime and without a wife! I am blessed in the extent that my wife shares my passion for hunting and also understands my heart. She is a major planner in this buffalo hunt and it might just be that the biscuits she hid in my backpack be the highlight of my hunting trip!

Having conversations with two good friends – both of them experienced big game hunters – Retief Kruger and Arnuld Engelbrecht, made me realise that the success of your hunt is not bound to expectations that others have of you, but the fulfilment of the dreams that only you can have for your hunt. A big hunt like this cannot only be something you tick of a bucket list!

My choice of gun is my Winchester Model 70 .416 Remington Magnum. It is very important that a man is proud of his weaponry. The rifle must sit comfortable against your shoulder and you must have overwhelming confidence in your ability to use it. I have decided to use the rifle without any glass optics. Open sights in hunting big game requires a lot of confidence.

In total contradiction to the opening paragraph, the Widowmaker Hunt did not happen in the cold of winter, but on a warm October day where you could feel the flames deriving from the sun on your skin. Whilst still on the shooting range, the news came in that the buffalo was spotted at a waterhole early in the morning by maintenance staff. Although many hours have passed since the sighting, we decided to go to the waterhole and start searching for tracks. Within thirty minutes of walking ever wider circles around the waterhole we found some tracks. The experienced tracker, Vengai, was confident that this was the tracks left by the old Dagga Bull which we were after. Within the first 100 yards, we walked into a team of Zebra. With clattering hooves, they disappear in the thick bush. We found the track of the buffalo and realised that he was just there, not far from the herd of zebra. The running zebra gave him a bit of a scare and he was jogging away in a different direction. Now, much easier to follow the tracks that is fresh and deep in the soil we set off after the big old bull. Short on his heels, he knew that we were after him. Every two to three hundred metres we could see that he stopped and turned in our direction before jogging off again. He also turned to thicker bush that made visibility very low. Right at an open piece of field, he swerved sharply to his right. He was most certainly not going to give up the safety of the bush cover. We knew we were very close. It was already 17:30 and the golden glow of the setting sun was touching the leaves and the thorns of the dense bush around us. We noticed that the track is leading in a big circle, but the circle was getting smaller. He was busy circling to get behind us. I wondered in silence when his temper is going to jump out of gear and I was sweating on the idea of being trampled by one of Africa’s most dangerous beasts. With my thumb attached to the safety and my senses on high alert, the bushes broke in front of us and the beast charged past us within 20 yards. We looked at him in amazement until his charge came to a halt about 70 yards further in the thickest of thick bush. I could see his grotesque figure through leaves and brush and went down on one knee. I lifted the .416 and took aim. I saw that through the brush I still had a good shot. I looked over my shoulder and asked Blackie the PH, “Can I take him?”.

He nodded and I looked over the open sights again. I slowly squeezed the trigger and the thunderous shot rang out through sicklebush. The buffalo turned and disappeared into the bush like a ghost. I immediately thought of Hemmingsway’s words, “be prepared to shoot yourself out of the trouble you shot yourself into!” From a different vantage point my brother, Jaco, could still see him. The bull stopped and turned around, facing the hunters. We slowly moved towards my brother to get a view. The next moment the buffalo fell to the ground. My first instinct was to move in and put a quick end to this matter, but I was stopped by the experienced PH. A minute later the silence was broken by the beast’s last death bellow. We slowly moved forward cautiously, looking for signs of life through the binoculars. With the barrel of my rifle I tested the buffalo’s eye for any sign of life. Emotion poured over me like a Highveld rainstorm. It was difficult to figure out my own emotions at this point, and even more difficult to put pen to paper and describe it. Not sure if I must laugh or cry I sat next to him, put my hand on his nose and just said “Thank you”.

Hunting Ethics:
Normally I would dance around this topic like a ballerina in the State Theatre. In this type of conversations you don’t step on somebody’s toes, you put on your heaviest hunting boots and jump on their knees!

To define a hunt as ethical, you must firstly kill the animal as quick as possible, preferably with a single shot. Sometimes a second shot is needed, especially when you hunt buffalo and you can’t convince your buffalo that he is dead already. A very good friend of mine and a well known Professional Hunter, Hancke Hudson reminded me that it is very difficult to take someone on concerning unethical hunting if what he did is not illegal. Therefore I am going to talk about what is unethical and illegal in this article, and maybe mention a thing or two that I find difficult to swallow.
A rifle in the one hand and a alcoholic beverage in the other is certainly unethical and most definitely illegal. Except for hunters always complaining about pricing, alcohol use and abuse is by far the biggest problem for wildlife ranchers.

As a hunter, I am definitely not a saint, and many a time questioned my own behaviour. Looking back, a Njala bull that I took from the back of a truck and Impala and Warthog hunted from a hide certainly do not make my chest swell with pride, and most probably I will do it differently when the opportunity passes my door in future. When hunters sit next to a fire in the evening, the arguments regarding ethical hunting is as long and grey as the Karoo tar road between Graaff-Reinet and Victoria West.
Herewith my summery on ethical hunting:

  • Be prepared and know your weapon to ensure a quick kill
  • If an animal is wounded, be prepared to do everything humanly possible to track the animal and ensure that it is spared agony and suffering.
  • Show respect to the animal that was hunted. After his departure it displays very bad taste to make funny videos with the animal. Personally I deem it unfit to sit or stand on the carcass for a photo.
  • Keep alcohol of the truck and the hunting field, rather keep it for the conversation around the camp fire in the evening.
  • Respect the people on which property you are a guest.
    This is purely my take on ethical hunting and it is very difficult to judge ethics with the proverbial bar in my own eye.

Our Legacy:
As a father of a daughter (that also hunts) and a unborn son I regularly think about the example that I and other hunters of our generation is setting. What do we leave behind for our children. What would their hunts look like in thirty years. Herewith just some thoughts on what we can do to ensure a legacy that would make our children proud.

  • Enjoy the smell of the bush more than the gas fumes on the back of a truck.
    *Except responsibility for every time you pull the trigger.
  • Show respect for the bush, the animals, your fellow hunters, your rifle and the people you are a guest of.
  • Let your behaviour on a hunt be more important that the brand of camouflage you are wearing.
  • Let your character be determined by your hunting skill and not by the last empty bottle you peeped into.
  • Let the story of the hunt be more important than the trophies against your wall
  • Learn as much as you can from every Professional Hunter and tracker that cross your path, they are fountains of knowledge
  • Embrace the extremes that is thrown at you – from bitter cold to sweltering heat – and write it down as experiences.
  • Be thankful for the opportunity to hunt. It is a privilege, not a right.

Lastly, live and dream your hunt. Never just be satisfied with your hunt, be proud!

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