A living legend of the safari world, Robin Hurt has been a Professional Hunter since the age of 18 and has spent the past 52 years conducting safaris in East, Central and Southern Africa.
Which countries have you hunted in?
As a licensed professional hunter (PH), I have hunted in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Central African Republic, Sudan and Namibia. I have also safaried with my clients with other outfitters in Ethiopia and South Africa, and I have accompanied clients on bird shoots in England, Scotland, Spain and the Czech Republic. I have hunted for my own pleasure in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Austria, Yugoslavia, USA and Canada.
How did you come to be a PH?
I grew up on our ranch on the shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya's Great Rift Valley where my father, Lt Col Roger Hurt DSO, was a Kenya game warden, so I grew up with a love of wildlife and wild places, and hunting has been in my blood from a very young age. My father was the biggest influence on me in my early years as a hunter and instilled in me a strict code of ethics, a sense of fair play and a love and respect for wildlife. I was a wild boy and liked to roam the hills on our land, rifle in hand. I hunted daily with my Maasai friend, Tinea. Our ranch was a magnet for wildlife with lots of plains game, numerous buffalo, plentiful leopard, the odd lion, and hippo in the lake. This was where I forged most of my early hunting skills.
Andrew Holmberg was another mentor who would often take me on safari during school holidays where I would help where I could. I shot my first elephant at the age of 16 with Andrew – a 96 x 96-pounder! My mother Daphne was most tolerant of my hunting obsession, and so I more or less had a free reign.
My early hunting for dangerous game was mostly in the company and guidance of my father's game scouts and, in particular, Sergeant Ndaga, an ace hunter of the Wakamba tribe. I left school at the age of 17 in 1962, and went straight into my first job on Nancy Miller's vast land holdings at Naivasha. My job, sanctioned by veteran senior game warden Lynn Temple-Boreham, was problem animal control; mainly buffalo and hippo. Shortly afterwards, in recognition of the work I had carried out, I was made an honorary game warden, a huge honour for a young man.
My actual professional hunting career started shortly thereafter, under the mentorship of John Cook, a PH of the old school. I was an apprentice with the finest hunting company in Kenya at that time, Ker and Downey Safaris. Fortune gave me a huge step up the ladder as, in 1963, Tanganyika Wildlife Development Corporation, a government parastatal, was looking for young PHs. I understudied Donald Rundgren, (son of the famous hunter, Eric) for several months in the Selous Game Reserve, and my full PH licenses in both Kenya and Tanzania were granted shortly thereafter, when I was still only 18 years old. We had to grow up quickly in those days!
And did you have any hunting idols?
I was an avid reader of all of Frederick Courtney Selous' books as well as those by Karamojo Bell, Gordon Cummings and John Guille Millais. And I studied Rowland Ward's book of records, too. The hunters I looked up to and admired were often friends of my father's, such as Eric Rundgren, Bill Ryan, Fred Bartlett, John Sutton, Tony Archer, John Cook, John Lawrence and Andrew Holmberg – all, in their own ways, outstanding hunters and gentlemen.
If you could go on one last safari, where would you go?
As most of my old stomping grounds such as Zaire and Sudan are now closed to hunting or have been poached to death, it would have to be somewhere that is still open to hunting. It would have to be somewhere I could hear lions roar each night, territory where big tusked elephant and rhino roam, and where buffalo with heavily bossed horns are common! Not to forget my favourite dangerous animal, the leopard. Such places existed once and I was privileged to experience them during my half-century as a PH. Sadly, such game fields are now a thing of the past. But that doesn't mean one can't dream. As a nameless Chinese philosopher once said, he who can live in the past as well as the present, lives doubly. But when reality kicks in, I am more than content here in Namibia, one of Africa's finest game countries.
What is your favourite quarry?
Without a doubt my favourite dangerous animal is the African leopard. Stealthy, cunning, secretive and a hugely dangerous antagonist when wounded, there are few, if any, animals that come close to having such a reputation. The Cape buffalo comes a very close second, being extremely dangerous as well. As plains game goes, it is the ‘grey ghost', the greater kudu that gets my vote.
I also love wing shooting, especially driven grouse, pheasant and partridge in the UK. Without a doubt the finest gamebird in the world – in my opinion – is the red grouse.
And the most challenging?
Without a doubt, the Kenyan or eastern bongo. This animal can no longer be hunted due to the Kenyan hunting ban which was enforced in 1977. The eastern bongo live in the most inhospitable high altitude bamboo rain forests, in dense cover at altitudes of over 8,000ft. And they're an animal of extreme cunning with acute hearing and sense of smell, and incredible eyesight. In my opinion, when Kenya allowed bongo hunting many moons ago, it was the most difficult animal in the world to hunt – bar none. Bongo are easily bayed-up by dogs and, as such, are highly vulnerable to poachers. So, even if Kenya were to allow safari hunting again, I would be opposed to the licensing of bongo, as their numbers have been devastated through illegal poaching.
Which rifle calibres do you favour?
The best all-round calibre that can be used on any animal in Africa, with suitable ammunition, is any one of the .416 calibres. Here in Namibia, the perfect plains game rifle would be either the .300 or .338 Win Mag. Both offer accurate ballistics suitable for shots of up to 300 yards. I would not recommend taking shots at longer distances, except in extreme conditions, such as on a wounded animal.
My favourite dangerous game rifles have both been doubles in .470 and .500 Nitro Express made by William Evans in London. For my magazine rifle, my preference was for the Westley Richards .425. Indeed, most people can't shoot open-sighted double rifles well and I find they get on with a scope-sighted magazine rifle far better. But there are exceptions, for example Sheikh Sultan Al Thani from Qatar and Marshall Field and the late Sam Winston from the US, all of whom are/were as deadly with double rifles as the very best PHs.
I have a pair of Westley Richards sidelock 12 bores and a 28 bore drop lock, also built by Westley Richards. My preference now is to shoot with the 28 bore, which I absolutely love!
Who is the best Shot you have ever come across?
The best rifle Shot I have ever seen was Katherine Eaton, a Canadian girl who hunted a dozen animals with 13 shots! The best shotgun Shot, by far, that I have ever shot with with was David Ker of London.
Who do you regard as the greatest PHs of your generation?
The very best living PHs, in my opinion are, in no particular order Mike Bartlett, Simon Evans, Johan Calitz, Franz Coupe, Dirk de Bod, Jeff Rann, Josh Perrot, Peter Holbrow, John Sharp, Craig Butler, Danny McCallum, Raoul Ramoni, Coenraad Vermaak, Garry Kelly, Clive Eaton, Jason Roussos and, without being too prejudiced, my two sons, Derek and Roger Hurt.
And the best trackers you have ever worked with?
The best elephant trackers I have hunted with were the Guyu brothers – Diwani, Chancalo and Abajila – and Abakuka Gamundi. They all hail from the Kenyan Walingulu tribe. What these fine men didn't know about elephant wasn't worth knowing. The most skilled bongo trackers were also Kenyans from the Nandi tribe. Laboso Arap Sura and Joseph Sitiene were both particularly skilled trackers. The finest lion tracker I used in Botswana was a San bushman aptly named Stomach for obvious reasons – he would never lose spoor in the hot Kalahari sands and could track faster than I could walk!
You must have had one or two close-calls in your time?
I have had many! I was charged down and tossed by a buffalo and I was also mauled by a leopard. My son Derek was also recently mauled by a leopard, so I believe we have the dubious reputation of being the only father and son duo to be members of this club! Perhaps the closest call I had, however, was when my client and friend Sam Winston shot a hippo stone dead with a perfect brain shot from his .500 William Evans double rifle, just as I was about to be chomped!
There are hundreds of hunting myths and misconceptions, but what, in your view, are the most common ones that you would love to dispel?
Leopard are not endangered – they are common throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. They are nocturnal by nature, so are rarely seen unless baited, which leads to the misconception that they are scarce when, in fact, they are the most common of the big cats by far. Lion, on the other hand, have declined in numbers at an alarming rate over the past 50 years. This can be attributed to an unchecked human population which has encroached into the wilderness. More people = more cattle = less lion. Cattle herders hate lion and will kill them by any means, including poisoning. Another common misconception is that Africa is crawling (or slithering!) with snakes – they are not as common as one is led to believe.
If you could offer one piece of advice to someone thinking of going on their first safari, what would it be?
Always get a reference from a previous client of the PH or safari company you intend to book with. This will tell you a lot about your PH's integrity, his competence and character, and what his back-up plans might be in the event of something going wrong. Also find out about their deposit policy, camp staff, trackers, vehicles, equipment and hunting areas.
What do you regard as the biggest threat to African wildlife?
Human encroachment into the wilderness. Quite simply, less habitat = less wildlife. Poaching of rhino and elephant, fuelled by demand for illicit rhino horn and ivory in Asia, is also a major problem. Unless the black market is shut down, poaching will continue. The financial incentive to poach is a huge temptation for people living in the bush who have very modest or no income. In order to overcome the current poaching crisis, however, education and awareness needs to be transported to Asia. The problem is that in Far Eastern cultures, conservation of wild animals is not a priority. Targeting the end user is the only solution.
Do you think that the viability of commercial hunting is secure?
Safari hunting is one of the best forms of wildlife and habitat conservation. Wild places need competitive forms of land use, so if people and governments are to be encouraged to set aside vast tracts of land for wildlife, local people must benefit from them. This is why community wildlife projects have sprung up in countries such as Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Kenya's closure of hunting in 1977 only served to take a legal presence out of the bush (safari hunters) and create a void which has subsequently been filled by illegal, indiscriminate poachers.
It will be interesting to see how the Botswana hunting ban enacted at the end of last year pans out. My guess is that legal hunting will be reopened out of necessity to appease local communities who have lost out heavily through the ban. The alternative is a return to poaching as a means of living. It is far better to have a legal hunting presence in the bush, which is in fact controlled management, rather than indiscriminate poachers. Legal hunters are, out of necessity, the best conservationists – stewardship of wildlife is central to their way of life and business, whereas poachers are simply bent on extermination of wildlife for a quick financial return, with no care for wild animals at all.
With the current poaching epidemic raging throughout Africa, our Tanzania company, Robin Hurt Safaris (Tanzania) Ltd, run by my sons Derek and Roger, chooses not to hunt elephant in our concessions. We want to look after our big bulls which are prime breeders. We have not hunted elephant in these areas for more than a decade. We are not against other operators hunting elephant – the fact remains that the mere presence of legal hunters in a safari concession is a deterrent to poachers.
If you could get one message across to the world's media about wildlife conservation in Africa, what would it be?
Don't interfere in something you know very little about. Instead, encourage conservation through realism and not through misguided emotion. Work with African people and governments, not against them.