Every few weeks there’s a new internet-fueled scandal involving African big-game hunting, whether it’s a millionaire buying the right to kill a rhino or a high school gal posing with a bunch of critters that she killed on a hunt with her dad. Whenever it happens, I get a few inquiries from my readers and viewers who want to know my take on the subject. I usually decline to comment, because I’ve never hunted in Africa and I can’t speak with a great amount of authority on the issues being discussed. But since it seems that lack of personal experience is hardly a deterrent for most other folks who join the comment frenzies, I figure that I can get away with dispensing a few thoughts and opinions on hunting in Africa:
(photos via Melissa Bachman’s and Kendall Jones’ Facebook pages)
Thought/Opinion # 1) An American girl hunting in Africa will piss off a lot more people than an American guy hunting in Africa. I think the word “sexism” gets thrown around way too much in our culture, but I’d say that this constitutes a type of lightweight sexism or at least gender bias. The anti-hunting response to women hunters reminds me of the outrage that people feel when a child commits a crime; they act as though evil has reached a new low, or that something that was once pure has now turned rotten. That some Americans maintain this idea of females as a gentler sex is excusable, because most human cultures have largely relegated combat and hunting to men for thousands of years. There’s a pragmatic argument for this: we have something called sexual dimorphism, which means there’s significant difference between the bodies of men and women. No doubt those underlying differences have been reinforced by all kinds of cultural baggage, but that doesn’t make the real differences go away. What’s interesting, though, is that there was a lot less sexual dimorphism in Neanderthals, and paleoanthropologists believe that Neanderthal women were out there hunting dangerous game right next to their guys. That our own species might now be heading in that direction strikes me as a good thing, though I can’t say whether it’s progressive or reactionary. I have a daughter of my own, and I hope like hell that she becomes a hardcore hunter. So to all those folks who get pissed off by the image of a woman next to a dead critter, you might as well get used to the future (or maybe past?) and learn to live with it. Regardless of how you feel about hunting, the sex of the hunter shouldn’t make it any better or worse.
Thought/Opinion #2) A rich American hunting in Africa will piss off a lot more people than a middle-class American hunting in Africa. That’s called envy.
Thought/Opinion #3) African hunting has a horrible PR agent. That’s a joke, of course, because there’s no cohesive organization for “African hunting,” just as there’s no cohesive organization for American hunting. But come on? How can such a huge, thriving industry allow the American public to form such a horrendous notion of what’s going on over there? Part of the answer is simple – it’s because much of what the American public hates about African hunting is actually somewhat true. Yes, it’s true that much of the hunting in Africa, particularly in South Africa, is done on fenced properties where the animals’ movements are at least nominally restricted. Yes, it’s true that the hunter eats only a small fraction of the meat that he or she has been responsible for killing; And yes, it’s true that American hunters pay a lot of money to kill the animals. With most hunting operations in Africa, you pay a base fee of around $300 or $800 a night, then buy animals a la carte. A warthog will cost around $350; a kudu will cost around $2,600; a leopard, around $15,000; an elephant, maybe $35,000. (We’ve all heard about range-finding binoculars; I’m gonna invent a bar-coding-reading riflescope for use on African safaris.)
Thought/Opinion #4) I’d love to hunt in Africa. I’m interested in the animals, and I’m interested in the people. When I go, I want to return home with the trackers to eat our kills with them and their families, rather than going back to some elaborate camp to sip wine.
Thought/Opinion #5) The “truths” that Americans understand about African hunting are really only half-truths, at best.
A. Sure, a lot of those animals are fenced in, but there probably wouldn’t be any animals at all in many of those places if it weren’t for the fences.
B. Sure, it’s true that the hunters eat only a fraction of the meat that they kill, but that hardly means the meat goes to waste. I’ve heard from dozens of friends and acquaintances, all of them honest and many of them skeptical, who swore to the fact that African game animals get utilized far more thoroughly than most of the whitetail deer that get harvested in the United States. Right down to the testicles, I’ve been told. One friend of mine described a scene in which the eating started within minutes of the animal’s death and didn’t end until it was a pile of scraped bone.
C. Sure, it’s true that Americans pay a lot of money to kill those animals, but that money goes a long, long ways toward conserving those resources. It’s been proven time and again in the U.S. that a sort of commodification of wildlife isn’t entirely bad. By which I mean, those species which hunters consider desirable have armies of volunteers and banks full of money at their back. Just look at the wild turkey and its best friend, The National Wild Turkey Federation. Or the elk and its best friend, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. These organizations help prevent politicians and destructive industries from trashing our hunting and fishing grounds. Do all those members volunteer their time and money just because they want to kill more elk? Kind of, yes. But it’s also a lot more complicated than that. Last year, I spent some time in a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation camp in Kentucky, where volunteers gather on behalf of that state’s elk habitat and herd. The odds of drawing an elk tag in that state are miniscule, and most of the guys in that camp will never, ever get lucky enough to pull one. Yet there they were, giving their time and money, because they know that time and money are required for wildlife conservation. I’m not naïve enough to think that a similar sort of altruism is at play when Americans travel to Africa—in fact, I doubt that many Americans who travel there are overly concerned about African wildlife habitat issues at all—but their spending in those countries is very important – nearly as much as the volunteering/donating that go on in the United States. The influx of hunter-spent dollars in Africa sends a powerful message to government bodies: These animals and their homes are important. They have value. They are economic drivers. Don’t mess with them.
Thought/Opinion #6) Damn, there’s a lot of people in those photos. A lot of those grip-and-grin photos from Africa have more people in them than a class reunion.
Thought/Opinion #7) Before I hunt in Africa, I’d like to go there and have a look around. For me, personally, it’s hard to get excited about hunting an animal that I don’t know very well. (People used to feel something similar about their sexual partners, or so I’m told.) I grew up in a state with a sizable population of black bears, and I’ve always thought of them as game animals. Conversely, I grew up a long ways away from grizzly bears, and so I never had a strong desire to hunt for one. But then, after moving West and accumulating many run-ins and experiences with the critters, I finally warmed up to the idea of one day chasing one with a rifle. I expect that something similar would happen to me if I visited Africa. I’d only be able to watch so many zebras and warthogs before developing an intense curiosity about what they tasted like. And of course I’d have to satisfy that curiosity by taking matters into my own hands.
Thought/Opinion #8) Americans should realize that African animals exist outside of Disney films and BBC documentaries. For many Americans, perhaps what’s hard to swallow about African hunting is that they can’t shake the idea that they’re looking at dead cast members from The Lion King. In the U.S., we live with the reality of splattered whitetail deer along our highways and black bears that trash our orchards and garbage dumpsters. I think this makes our own wildlife seem a little more accessible, a little more known. We regard our wildlife with a sort of vague timelessness – one animal will die, another will take its place. That’s not how many people view African wildlife. When they see a lion, they feel like they’re seeing a movie star. And if there’s one thing that we Americans hold in high regard, it’s that.
Thought/Opinion #9) I’ll probably never kill an African lion. I know that some chest-thumping blowhard will give me the ol’, You’re-playing-into-the-hands-of-PETA routine for saying that, but it’s my gun and I’ll use it to hunt what I please. It’s just not how I personally want to spend my money. Besides, I’m focused right now on getting my first mountain lion, or let’s say an American lion. I like the sound of that… American.