James Quin is anything but a stereotype, says Marcus Janssen. Not only is he one of South Africa's most highly regarded professional hunters, but he is also a devoted family man, a dedicated conservationist and a gifted artist.
It is a simple fact that some people leave more of a lasting impression on you than others, no matter how brief the initial encounter. James Quin (46) is one of those people.
I first met him in 1995 in a classroom at St. Charles College, the school I attended in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. His wife Vivianne was the events manager at the school and had arranged for him to come and talk to members of the college's wildlife club about his time as head ranger at the world-famous Mala Mala Game Reserve. From the very first of his incredible slides Ð a photograph of a female leopard asleep in the bough of a marula tree - I was spellbound. Even now, I vividly recall being deeply envious of him because, at the age of 14, I already knew that I wanted to follow in his footsteps and work in the safari industry.
Little did I know, however, that four years later I would be interviewed by James for my first full-time job. By that point, he was working as a professional hunter (PH) at Coenraad Vermaak Safaris, South Africa's longest established hunting outfitters, and, following a number of work experience placements with them through my school holidays, I had been invited for an interview for the position of manager of one of their hunting camps in a big five concession on the Botswanan border. Gladly, I got the job, and over the next two years James and I saw a lot of each other. He would arrive with his clients at Nare Camp and stay for up to three weeks, heading out into the rocky hills each day with his clients to hunt big game and returning at nightfall.
Initially, he was a hard taskmaster, ensuring that I was very aware of my place at the bottom of the food chain, but, after a while, he began to soften and started to invite me to join him and his clients on hunts. Over the next year or so, I was often at his side as he tracked elephant, buffalo or lion. Indeed, I probably learnt more from James than anyone else I worked with because he always went out of his way to share his encyclopaedic knowledge. And not just on how to bait leopard or track elephant, but on wildlife in general, from plants, insects and birds, to the biology and behavioural traits of klipspringer, eland, rhino, giraffe and hippo.
And, for my benefit - and, arguably, the amusement of his clients - he would often quiz me as we glassed a valley. "Oi, shit-for-brains, what's that?" he would say, teasingly while gesticulating towards some tree on the brow of a hill several hundred yards away."A leadwood," I would guess with mock confidence. "Oh my God, we've employed the village idiot!" he would say with a great guffaw of laughter. "My three-year-old son knows the common name, you dunce. What's its proper name?" Thanks to James, even now, I have not forgotten it: "Combretum imberbe."
But, despite sharing hundreds of campfires with James and many long, long hours in leopard blinds, or sat high on the top of rocky kranzes glassing for kudu, eland or klipspringer, there was one thing that he kept secret from me - his love of art and his ability to paint the wildlife, landscapes and people he encountered on a daily basis. Indeed, it was more than 10 years later that I happened across a photograph of one of his paintings on Facebook of a nguni cow. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.
As it turns out, James started painting when he was a schoolboy at Michaelhouse where he won the art prize for his oils and sculptures. In fact, he went on to study fine art at South Africa's leading art school before doing a stint in the South African army as an armoured car driver, before then going on to become a ranger at Mala Mala. "I have always loved art," he says over a crackly line from Grahamstown, South Africa, where he now lives (when he isn't on safari in Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique or Zimbabwe). I think I hear a cockerel crowing in the background which seems out of place as I struggle to picture James anywhere but in the bush. Indeed, my residing memory of him is in the Timbavati where I joined him for my first ever buffalo hunt at the age of 15. "Although I did have a bit of a hiatus while I established my hunting career (spending up to 200 days per year on safari)," he continues, "the art was obviously still in me. At the back of my mind, I guess I always knew that I would come back to it eventually."
It was six years ago that James picked up a paintbrush for the first time in many years, after his wife bought him a three-day residential art course with well-known South African artist, Bob McKenzie. "At first, I really didn't want to go," he says. "I dragged my heels as I had essentially turned my back on my art and didn't think I was ready to go back to it again. But as it was a birthday present from Viv, I begrudgingly agreed to go along." Much to James' surprise, however, he loved every minute of it and hasn't put his paintbrushes down since.
"It really reignited the fire in me to want to paint again,Ó he continues. ÒI guess I had forgotten how much I love it. It was the best thing I could have done, and I have Viv to thank for that." Although James has accrued a bank of countless incredible sights to draw upon over the past 25 years, from leopard kills to close encounters with elephant, rhino and buffalo, it is the everyday, ordinary scenes that he particularly loves to paint.
"It is very easy to take for granted the things you see - or perhaps don't see - on a daily basis," he says. "As life becomes more hectic, you invariably become enveloped in your own mundane day-to-day routine and never-ending list of chores. But being on safari forces you to slow down and really pay attention to the world around you." Of course it is a crucial part of a PH's job to be acutely observant; watching, listening and looking out for the tiny signs, the little things that would otherwise be missed.
"But this has also helped me as an artist," he adds. "It has not only taught me a great deal about my subjects, but it has also made me pay attention to everything else, the goings-on that you might otherwise overlook. For example, as we drive past herdsmen with their livestock at the side of the road on a daily basis, it is so easy to look past them to the more glamourous scenes of big game or iconic landscapes. But often it is the things that one might regard as mundane that truly encapsulate the very essence of life in Africa."
Light plays an important role in James' art, too, and not just for dramatic effect. "Of course I use light and contrast to give my paintings mood and atmosphere," he continues, "but I also understand the link between light and the behaviour of my subjects. As the light changes through the day and the shifting seasons, and as the weather changes, not only does it affect the aesthetics and appearance of a scene, but it also affects the way that animals behave. So light plays an integral and inherent role in my art, as it does in the very behaviour of wildlife. For instance, antelope and other ungulates become a lot more weary and nervous at last light, as predators become more active."
James' favourite medium is oil on canvas and board, with the size of each painting varying according to the subject matter. "Some subjects just don't work on small canvases," he adds. "For example, where the landscape itself is an intrinsic part of the painting. But on the other hand, certain subjects are best suited to smaller canvases, where the background is irrelevant or where you want to draw attention to a particular detail."
Although James still spends up to 100 days a year on safari, the growing demand for his art- he has commissions from as far afield as the US, Scotland, England and Ireland - means that he now spends every spare moment he has in his studio in Grahamstown. But, as is the case with all PHs with a family - James has two children, Andrew (15) and Jemma (12) - striking the right life/work balance is a challenge. "There have been times when being away from home so much has been difficult," he admits, "but there is no question, I love my job and I still love being on safari. For me, it isn't an escape from life, but a deeper immersion into it. It puts things into perspective."
James is now the general manager and director of Stormberg Elangeni Safaris which is based in the Eastern Cape but operates in eight major concessions across five different countries, and although he spends a significant amount of his time planning and organising the logistics of running 60-80 safaris per year, he says that he hopes to continue hunting for another 15 years at least. If he's lucky, that is. Indeed, the life of a PH is an inherently risky one, and James admits that he has had one or two close calls over the years, including a recent unprovoked buffalo charge that took him by complete surprise. "I shot that old dagga boy at no more than a yard from the end of my barrel," he says, nonchalantly. "I think he must have been injured or wounded by a lion." Although sticky situations usually arise when you become over-confident and make mistakes, there are certain instances when you are simply caught off-guard.
Once such incident actually occurred in the concession where I spent my first year after leaving school. Having returned to camp for the evening, James took a call on his mobile phone from his wife Viv and inadvertently wandered a short distance from his vehicle - where his rifle was on the gun rack behind the cab. "I was no more than 20 yards from the Land Cruiser," he explains, "when, suddenly, I heard what I initially thought was the snorting of a rhino in the darkness. But I soon realised that it was in fact the local coalition of five male lions who had wandered between me and the truck. I was charged several times but I somehow managed to get back to the vehicle without being scratched. I would be lying if I said it didn't get the old ticker going! Incidents like that remind you how easily a situation can go from normal to potentially disastrous in the blink of an eye. It just takes one mistake on your part".
If James does make it to retirement age (!), he admits that he is looking forward to enjoying a more sedentary life as he approaches old age. "I would like to think that my art will eventually take over from my hunting and ultimately become my main income," he says. But something else that James has always felt passionately about is conservation. After all, his love of wildlife is the reason why he pursued a career in the safari industry in the first place.
"The protection of our flora and fauna is paramount," he says. "We (hunters) are the guardians of our wildlife, and our hunting areas act as important buffer zones for national parks. Whether it is through photographic safaris in the high profile wildlife parks of the Masai Mara, Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti or Kruger, or through hunting in areas surrounding these parks, the key is the operational presence. If you take the safari operators out of the equation, these areas become susceptible to indiscriminate poaching and the wildlife suffers as a consequence.
"We (safari operators) are the eyes and ears, and our presence acts as a deterrent to poachers who are the real enemy. People need to realise that we pay a huge amount of money before we even start hunting, money that goes directly into conservation, so we have a vested interest. But more than that - and some people find it very difficult to get their head around this - most of us who hunt, do so because we care deeply about wildlife and want to protect it for future generations. The truth is, hunting is one of the best ways to conserve and protect wildlife by giving it a far greater value than that of its meat. That is the message we must get across."
I have no doubt that James will succeed in this aim, as he has succeeded in almost everything else he has done. Whether it is through hunting, art or education, James is a man who will always leave a lasting impression.