Africa will never be the same…but there’s plenty of good with the bad.
Sometimes history is easy to pin down. We define the Victorian era by Queen Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901). We can generally determine when wars start and end, though not everybody gets the word right away. Other times it’s a bit squishier. As far as Westerners were concerned, Africa’s age of exploration started before recorded history with the Phoenicians, then the Greeks and Romans, followed centuries later by Dutch and Portuguese seafarers. It’s more difficult to put a precise date when the last blank spots were inked in on the map of the Dark Continent. To this day, knowledge of D.R.C.’s vast forests is sketchy, and major species like the giant forest hog, mountain nyala, and okapi weren’t identified until well into the Twentieth Century.
We like to say that the history and tradition of the African safari began with the Roosevelt expedition in 1909-10; the epic nine-month Roosevelt expedition was for neither conquest nor exploration. It wasn’t entirely for fun, with the majority of the profligate “collecting” under the banner of science, but it created Africa’s sport-hunting industry, and most of the guides engaged by the Roosevelts conducted safaris for decades to come. Phillip Percival, one of the youngest, remained active until his death in 1966 and, as founder and perennial president of the East African Professional Hunters Association, became known as “the dean of professional hunters.”
The Roosevelt safari makes a good beginning, but the golden age of safari hunting probably didn’t start until after World War I…coincidental with the coming of vehicles, which simplified logistics, extended range, and foreshortened the time required to traverse Ruark’s MMBA (Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa). There was another hiatus during World War II, but safari hunting and the safari industry, centered in East Africa, and continued with minimal changes from 1920 through the Sixties.
Kenya was the most popular destination, but Tanganyika was also important. From the Sixties, Uganda was a player, and some safaris wandered up into Sudan. This is the Africa most English speakers know about. Far to the west the French sphere of influence was also important. The enormous colony of Oubangui-Chari that became Chad and C.A.R. was an important safari destination in the postwar years…but few Americans or Brits hunted there. This is, of course, oversimplification. Ethiopia and Somalia were possible, along with various West African countries. Angola became a popular destination after World War II, and Mozambique opened in 1959, but through the Sixties and into the Seventies the major safari industry remained in East Africa, with Nairobi the epicenter.
Nairobi served as base for my first safari in 1977. Kenya was pretty much the last of the “block” system. The outfitter reserved hunting blocks, no long-term concessions and no permanent camps; everything went into the “lorry,” a 2 ½-ton truck, followed by the hunting party in a Land Rover. We hunted first on the slopes of Mount Kenya above Nanyuki. After a week or so the lorry was packed and sent ahead. We overnighted in Nairobi, then drove southeast to Voi, then south along the eastern edge of Tsavo, spending our last two weeks on the Tanzanian border. Today exclusive concessions and at least semi-permanent camps are the norm across Africa.
In my entire African experience I have seen a completely self-contained roving safari just one more time. That was nearly a quarter-century later, in Chad in 2001. It wasn’t exactly the same because, in that desert climate, we used lightweight backpack tents…but in three weeks we roved more than a thousand kilometres, hunting for specific animals in several areas.
That first safari in Kenya was both magic and bittersweet. Certainly it started an African addiction that I’ve not been able to kick. We failed to get the lion I wanted so desperately, but we heard them roar, and at the tail end I turned down my choice of two young males. Not shooting one of those lions was clearly the right thing to do, but one of the hardest hunting decisions I’ve ever made. Though Kenya was nearer to the end than anyone knew, game was plentiful; I took a full complement of East African plains game, and some of the trophies hold up well to this day.
A few weeks later Kenya closed hunting with no warning; safaris in the field were ordered to cease via radio. “Closed” is an all-pervasive word; it wasn’t completely true in Kenya, and it is not true in Botswana. Bird shooting is open in Kenya, and there is culling and problem animal control ongoing…but in 42 years no nonresident big game licenses have been issued. Every few years rumors surface of Kenya reopening, but after all these years I doubt it. Kenya’s Parks are magnificent, but I don’t believe wildlife exists outside her Parks to make even a token safari industry sustainable. But that’s now. In May of 1977 Kenya’s closure hit the hunting community like a nuclear strike. The Nairobi-based safari industry was destroyed, and the outlook was so bleak that the venerable East African Professional Hunters Association ceased operations.
In that year of 1977 the classic East African safari was indeed finished. There were good reasons for gloom and doom, but Kenya’s sudden closure was just one of several coffin nails in a very bad decade for African hunting. We remember Kenya’s closure, but we forget that Tanzania closed hunting in 1973, not to reopen for eight years. We forget, too, that in 1973 Kenya closed elephant hunting, though all other species remained open for another four years.
These were the only full-out closures, but continent-wide the entire safari industry took a beating. The Portuguese pullout in both Angola and Mozambique was hasty and messy. Hunting didn’t exactly close, but ground to a halt because of civil unrest. The last Mozambique safaris were probably in 1975. At about the same time, and for the same reasons, hunting in Idi Amin’s Uganda ground to a halt. Chad followed a couple years later. Some Kenya hunters continued in Sudan for a few seasons, and Ethiopia was open and producing some of the continent’s last big tuskers. Revolution in both countries would soon end sport hunting. Southern Sudan (now South Sudan) has not been hunted since 1983. Ethiopia would reopen in the early 90s, would close again, and now seems solidly open.
So, between 1973 and the mid-Eighties the hunting map of Africa shrank dramatically and alarmingly. There were reasons to believe the end of the game was near, but there were bright spots. In those days few of us understood that East Africa was no longer the epicenter. In 1963 Harry Selby and other East African hunters pioneered newly independent Botswana. By 1977 Botswana was a popular and successful safari destination. Before 1965 Malawi, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) were loosely joined in Federation. Under Federation there was no safari hunting because no legal facility existed to issue licenses or export trophies. Malawi has never opened safari hunting, but after Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) Ian Smith’s government fixed this, as did newly independent Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda. Rhodesia’s long bush war greatly inhibited safari hunting (and everything else!), but by 1977 both Rhodesia and Zambia were well-established safari countries. After hostilities ended and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, her safari industry blossomed; in the 1980s she became Africa’s third-most-popular safari destination. Zambia has had a couple of brief suspensions of hunting but remains open. Tanzania officially reopened in 1981 and remains a committed hunting country.
Then we have what might be called “recycled” hunting countries. Mozambique’s civil war was long and brutal, hard on both her people and her wildlife…but the shooting had barely stopped when new outfitters started up in the late Eighties. Thanks to their conservation efforts many areas have recovered well, and Mozambique is again a fine and growing safari destination. Uganda’s game was similarly ravaged, left only in pockets—but those pockets were good and are expanding. Uganda reopened in 2009, and although her hunting industry is still small her game is increasing and the potential is marvelous. Much of Chad’s wildlife was destroyed during the Libyan invasion. Today Chad is a highly specialized destination, offering several species not found elsewhere. Chad reopened briefly in the Nineties and is open again.
Elsewhere around the continent there are several other hunting countries not yet mentioned. Cameroon and C.A.R. have long been the most reliable destinations for some of Africa’s great prizes, Derby eland in the north and bongo in the south. Hunting in C.A.R. has been on-again, off-again, but is technically open as conditions allow. Congo (Brazzaville) and Gabon have also been episodic, but at this writing both are open, Congo for the major forest species, and Gabon for forest duikers. Hosting the greatest variety of pygmy antelopes and great prizes such as water chevrotain and zebra duiker, Liberia has been open for nearly ten years, with hunting more successful every year. Ghana has been open, with her great prize the tiny royal antelope. Morocco and Tunisia host driven hunts for Barbary wild boar, plus bird shooting. Benin and Burkina Faso are open with small but reliable safari industries, both holding good populations of western species such as savanna buffalo, western roan, harnessed bushbuck, and more. There are a few countries that do not offer organized safari hunting, but where it is possible for intrepid do-it-yourselfers to obtain hunting licenses and pursue limited species. These include Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Senegal.
Altogether more than 20 African nations allow legal and licensed sport hunting by foreign nationals. This is much more opportunity than existed in the darkest days following Kenya’s closure. I suppose it depends on whether your glass is half-full or half-empty. Back in 1977 it seemed an impossible dream that I might someday hunt Chad, Mozambique, Uganda, and so many other places. My glass is more than half-full! Although in many cases hunting is limited, today the vast majority of Africa’s diverse game species are available, certainly many more species than was the case in 1977. Continent-wide the only major losses have been the great desert game: Addax and scimitar oryx are gone, aerial gunned to feed opposing armies. Neither Barbary sheep nor Nubian ibex are currently huntable, but have been in recent years and could be again. I will never hunt a black rhino but I think it’s wonderful that permits are available, and their great value contributes hugely to the survival of the species.
The cornucopia available in today’s Africa reflects the reality that well-regulated sport hunting places value on wildlife, and that visiting hunters and outfitters, area by area, are performing effective anti-poaching, and funding community projects. In Third World economies, regulated sport-hunting works
This is not universal, though certainly not applicable only on the African continent. Today we know that Kenya’s closure was fostered by the Kenyatta government so the poaching gangs could have full sway…and they did. Botswana is not “closed.” Private land hunting remains open, but hunting on government concessions has been suspended. Somewhat similar to the disastrous Kenya model, it is known that Botswana’s suspension has much to do with government ties to the lucrative photo-safari industry. Ecotourism is important, but central Botswana is not the Okavango, lacking in both natural beauty and species diversity…and this is common throughout Africa. Ecotourism is highly profitable, but focuses on special areas: Kenya’s manicured Parks, the Okavango, even Kruger (the continent’s first protected Park).
We can argue to hunt or not to hunt, but Botswana’s real problem is her overpopulation of elephants. By recent survey Botswana hosts a quarter-million elephants. This could be a third of the entire continent’s remaining total…or it might be half. The entire Chobe region is like a nuclear blast zone, and all other species are suffering from inability to compete. Long-nurtured sable and roan antelopes are now scarce…even buffaloes are nowhere near as common as 20 years ago. Botswana has more of a management problem than a hunting problem.
Across the hunting map of Africa few blank spots remain. I believe Botswana will reopen safari hunting but, unfortunately, hunting cannot solve her elephant problem. Disaster looms. Despite numerous efforts, no one has been able to crack the code to open hunting in huge Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, former Zaire). Too big, too corrupt. There is potential in Angola, and huge opportunity in South Sudan. So I expect the hunting map of Africa to continue to change.
There are two more hunting countries that have become the epicenters of today’s now far-flung safari industry. In 1977 South West Africa (SWA), now Namibia, was a sleepy backwater. Long ago a German colony, it was a popular destination for European hunters, and was the site of Jack and Eleanor O’Connor’s last safari, but the American market had little interest. Still, hunting was good, primarily on private ranches.
In 1977 I think it’s fair to say that SWA had more hunting going on than South Africa. Pioneering outfitters like Norman Deane’s Zululand Safaris and Bowker and Scott in the Eastern Cape were getting things going, but after a century of rapacious farm development game was scarce, and hunting opportunities were few. I hunted both countries in 1979. Both were good, but nothing like today. Serious game ranching began in South Africa in the 1970s and blossomed in the Eighties. SWA became Namibia in 1990, and her wildlife industry also exploded.
My, have things changed! It is estimated that South Africa’s wildlife has increased about thirty-fold since 1970, and that country holds some 9000 registered game ranches. The increase in Namibia is similar, and both countries now offer untold acreage in game. Both nations are the only two countries in Africa where the Big Five (and/or Dangerous Seven) may be hunted. That said, both Namibia and South Africa are primarily plains game destinations…and this has been their greatest gift to the hunting world. The short, inexpensive, and incredibly productive safari for a variety of non-dangerous species hardly existed in 1977. Today the plains game safari owns the lion’s share of the market. Annually thousands of hunters flock to both Namibia and South Africa, right now in similar numbers. Altogether Africa hosts about 20,000 hunting safaris annually. Namibia and South Africa together account for between 75 and 80 percent of the entire continent’s total. They have no close competitors.
This was unimaginable in 1977, and also unthinkable that the safari industry could ever be as large as it is today. This is a direct result of the short, inexpensive plains game safari that makes the dream of Africa come true for so many sportsmen and women from around the world. And, as we know, once one sees even a small slice of Africa one is almost certain to return. So, the plains game safari whets the appetite, creating dreams of a return engagement to hunt buffalo, perhaps other dangerous game, or one of the great antelope prizes. We can all lament the loss of the East African safari of yesteryear, when the average safari was three or four weeks and included three, four, or even all of the Big Five.
Those days are over, but what we have now is in some ways better, a bigger Africa and a bigger industry, shared by more. What really happened in those dark days of the 1970s, is safari moved south. Today’s primary epicenter is Johannesburg, jumping off point not just for South African safaris, but many Namibian safaris, and a major share of hunters bound for Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. At this writing the game is far from over, and my glass remains much more than half-full.