More than just a trophy
Simon K. Barr travelled to South Africa’s Limpopo Province where he got to see first-hand, the crucially important role that trophy hunting plays in Africa’s ongoing wildlife conservation saga.
(Photography: Tweed Media)
When I booked my first ever Cape buffalo hunt last year, I had no idea that a Minnesotan dentist was also planning a trip in Africa. Whatever truly happened on his fated hunt, the wake left by Walter Palmer changed the public’s opinion of big game hunting forever. Walter’s story was spun in such a sensationalised way that the ensuing trial, held in the courtrooms of social media, was conducted with impunity and with the full support of the mainstream press. The entire hunting community were held collectively responsible for his actions and were found guilty. The defence came way too late and sentencing had already begun. Tragically, the word term ‘trophy hunting’ is now as unpopular as the word ‘terrorism’ in the Western consciousness.
So, it would be fair to ask yourself, how does a self-confessed hunter like me sleep at night? I’d like to tell the full story of my first Cape buffalo hunt and allow you to judge whether I should ever be allowed to set foot in Africa again.
My buffalo story starts at the Dallas Safari Club Convention in Texas some four years ago, when I finally had the chance to meet one of my big game heroes, Kevin ‘Doctari’ Robertson. The Doctor, an author to a host of books on hunting African game, had long captured my imagination. His bestseller The Perfect Shot is the title for which he is best known. As a qualified veterinarian and a licensed professional hunter (PH) in Zimbabwe, his book draws on all of his experience, skills and knowledge. It has meticulous descriptions of biology, ecology, habitat, and trophy evaluation for nearly every game species in Africa.
I made a point of meeting him at a book signing at the Dallas Safari Club Convention in 2011. I always knew my journey to Africa was just a matter of time, indeed Kevin made a prediction that I would fall in love with Africa, her game and scenery, and my destiny would be to hunt Cape buffalo.
Later that year, I was lucky enough to experience my first plains game hunt in Namibia. And, as the Doctor predicted, I fell madly in love. I subsequently visited numerous times to get my fix and, in doing so, I experienced some of the most incredible hunting and wildlife encounters I could have hoped for. My journey had started and I was, without realising it, already orbiting around the idea of hunting a Cape buffalo.
My relationship with Kevin developed over time, and one morning, I arrived at my desk to an email from him entitled ‘Buffalo hunt’ in which he more or less prescribed me a buffalo hunt as part of a crucial fundraising initiative.
Kevin is a head of department at the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC) on the edge of Kruger National Park which is dedicated solely to the conservation of Africa’s native wildlife. With the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Peace Parks Foundation as patrons, the college is independently run and funded privately with no support from the South African government. Many of the students who study there are not in a position to pay for their courses, so donations and fundraising are what keep the lights on. The college is also responsible for training all of the field rangers who keep watch over the dwindling rhino populations in parks such as Kruger.
The buffalo that I would pay to hunt was a donation to the college from the nearby Klaserie Private Nature Reserve in exchange for training their anti-poaching field rangers. The Klaserie is one of the largest privately-owned reserves in South Africa. It covers 60,000 hectares and has no fences, thus forming part of the Greater Kruger National Park. It is run by a committee made up of owners from the 70 farms that make up the reserve. With a policy of keeping the commercial and human impact to a minimum to make the reserve as near a pristine environment as possible, the animals are truly wild.
Although the wildlife is left to manage itself in a natural way, it is fiercely protected by the reserve. Simply put, without the anti-poaching effort in the Klaserie, which runs an annual bill into the millions of South African Rand, there would be no rhino. New, intelligently alarmed electric fences, a paramilitary force of 26 armed field rangers, their training and equipment does not come cheaply. Now extrapolate the anti-poaching costs of 60,000 hectares across the Kruger Park’s two million hectares. It is clear, the cost to protect these animals from almost certain extinction is mind-boggling.
In order to fund the anti-poaching initiative, the owners of Klaserie allow 1.25 per cent of the reserve’s buffalo and 0.5 per cent of the reserve’s elephant population to be hunted annually. It has been scientifically proven many times over that removing these minute percentages from a population has no effect on the size and health of the herd. Trophy hunting also focuses on old males which are usually past breeding age. A census of animals is compiled every year; in 2015 this equated to 2,500 buffalo and 1,200 elephant.
There can be no argument that the income generated by the harvestable surplus of animals from these trophy hunts directly benefits the reserve’s wildlife population, particularly endangered species such as Southern white and black rhino.
The Doctor explained all of this to me in his email. Yes, this was a trophy hunt, but it was about sustainable utilisation. The bull would be the oldest buffalo we could find in the Klaserie; the older the better. I knew many buffalo shot in Africa hardly make their eighth birthday, so tracking an animal over 12 and past his breeding prime was my ideal hunt. Also included in the hunt was a one-to-one buffalo course run over two days at the wildlife college in the days preceding the hunt.
The course was fascinating. I spent a day in the classroom studying hundreds of buffalo images to give me a photographic reference on how to judge age, horn size and suitability. We also examined anatomy to the point that when I closed my eyes I could visualise every muscle group on a buffalo’s shoulder and where I must shoot to obtain the perfect shot. It was intense but I loved it. The Doctor has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject as you might expect, having taken 600 buffalo to his own rifle.
The second day was spent on his simulated stalking range where Kevin has created 10 life-sized cut-outs of buffalo standing at differing angles. The organs are invisibly marked on the targets and change colour when shot so it is possible to identify how good each shot is. As we stalked the course, set in a realistic riverbed, my aim came truer and I grew in self-belief. This unique two-day course meant I could be sure when the moment came, I had a frame of reference to work to and I would confidently get the job done.
The following morning we headed to the Klaserie, an hour’s drive from the college. Guiding the hunt was PH John Luyt of Duke Safaris. John has hunted the Klaserie for many years and is a past assistant warden of the reserve. He is now its hunting representative and guides all 30 or so buffalo that are taken every year. I could immediately tell from John’s manner that he was a seasoned PH. Even Eddie our tracker was a licensed PH so the collective experience to support me was immense.
Once we had signed all of the necessary paperwork at the reserve’s headquarters, the first morning’s hunting would take us along the dried Kongongyane riverbed, a tributary of the Klaserie that runs the length of the reserve. This river is one of the reasons the Klaserie is such a perfect habitat for buffalo. As the Doctor had explained in the classroom, the buffalo’s only weaknesses is their need to drink at least once a day.
It was my first time hunting dangerous game and the occasion was not lost on me. Within half an hour of leaving the safe confines of the Land Cruiser, our first dangerous game encounter took place – but not a buffalo. As we stalked the sandy riverbed, we heard a loud, spine-tingling growl of a cat, not 30 metres from us. After quick investigation of the tracks, it was established that we had just bumped into a female leopard with her cubs on a fresh impala kill. The kill was so recent, its nerves could still be seen pulsating under the skin of the slumped carcass. It was time to move on. As we promptly left the area, we could hear her spitting angrily in the bush. This focused my mind like no hunting experience before. Without the experience of my guides, I could easily end up as part of the food chain.
Over the next three days, with many more incredible wildlife encounters, we stalked along a large portion of the Klaserie river. We had the chance to study many groups of bulls to look for the old ‘dagga boy’ (an old, either solitary bull or one that is part of a small bachelor group that has been evicted from the herd) I had dreamt of. The majority of bulls we had seen were in the seven- to 10-year age class. But finally we found a group of four old veterans. One of these warriors was so old that his horns had been worn right down to the boss (the fused bases of the horns, also know as a scrumcap). This bull was the 69th we had seen and both Kevin and John aged him in his 13th or 14th year. For a buffalo to reach this age in lion country is remarkable and only happens with wisdom.
We continued stalking the riverbed and saw a further group of 11 bulls, none of any serious age. I simply had to go back, my mind was set on the old scrumcap. He was a true dagga boy and the most suitable adversary we had seen. It was late in the day and Eddie set to work identifying his spoor which was highly identifiable in the group due to its impressive size. With swirling wind and 42˚C searing heat around us, the hunt for a specific bull was on. We spent the rest of the day following his tracks and at last light we left to return to camp and pick up the spoor again the following morning. The night could not pass any quicker.
The next day was an agonising chase. He was a crafty old bugger and realised he was being followed quite early on in the day; indeed, you don’t get that old by being stupid. The rest of the day was frustrating yet incredibly exciting, as we got various split-second glimpses of the group but no chance of a shot. The bull always stood or moved at the back of the group when we saw them. Somehow I think he knew he was being hunted and he got the better of us that day.
After another early start, we were back on the tracks. The spoor showed us that the bachelor group were relaxed in an open formation, feeding into the wind. Some way off, along the course they were taking, was a waterhole John knew of. The potential for the wind to change when the sun was fully aloft was high, so we decided to leap-frog ahead of the group and set an ambush along the way to the waterhole. Over the next hour, we moved quickly and quietly around the group using the wind to our advantage. Our ambush position put me in the shade and out of the intense African heat.
We laid in wait. After a couple of hours we started to think the crafty old brute had outwitted us once again when the first of the group strolled into view. The scrumcap was yet again bringing up the rear. Relief turned to adrenaline like I have never experienced before. What I had learned over the previous week and my many years of hunting came directly into focus. Neither Kevin nor John could help me now. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
A sitting shot on a walking buffalo at 60 metres was on the cards. I rested my elbows inside my knees, offering my .416 Rigby a stable shooting position, save for my pounding heart. With my Leica scope wound down to 1x power, I mounted the gun and took my moving mark on his hull. Breaching his armour and getting to his vitals with the 400gr Hornady DGX bullet would be the most important broadside shot of my life. My recent training kicked-in and the shot rang out, hitting the mark. The bull bunny-hopped forward – a signature reaction to a good engine room shot – and more adrenaline kicked into me as I quickly cycled the bolt. A follow-up shot proved impossible as he ran directly into the group, away from the battle scene.
After half an hour, we followed up and found him some 100m away, lying down with his head up and two of his compadres at his side. Mercifully, my training and guidance from Kevin and John meant a couple of follow-up shots concluded the matter cleanly.
And there it was – my first ever buffalo lay before me. This was a life-changing hunt, the emotions were extreme and the satisfaction of identifying and hunting a specific animal of this age was immense.
The Doctor aged his jaw and teeth and confirmed he was in his 13th year. There will not be many buffalo of this age living wild in many places in Africa. This old boy was way past breeding and the perfect age class animal to take. In European stag or buck terms we would say he had ‘gone well back’. He was easily the oldest gentleman we had seen in the Klaserie and met a truly honourable end. It was a privilege to hunt this old bull with one of my hunting heroes and every single cent of my hunting fee went to anti-poaching in the reserve. This was by far my most rewarding and meaningful hunt to date.
So there are the facts; you can decide whether you think that I, like the dentist, should be banned from going back to Africa. I am proud of my hunt and believe it is a true example of how hunting and conservation can go hand-in-hand. This was sustainable utilisation at its best. The only thing keeping me awake at night is not the fact that I killed a buffalo, but the plight of the rhino. At least I know I have done something to help them.
Rigby .416 Rigby Big Game Rifle
Leica Ultravid HD+ binoculars
Leica Magnus 1-6.3x24 riflescope
Hornady 400gr DGX
The Perfect Shot II
The Southern African Wildlife College: www.wildlifecollege.org.za