As a truck with skinners who would butcher the meat approaches, Scruffy says, “You killed the old stallion from the herd. That’s as it should be. What hunters kill doesn’t deplete these managed populations. Hunters kill a very small percentage of the game. But because they’re willing to spend a lot for this experience,” he adds, “this wildlife exists in plenty.”
The skinning truck pulls up and men climb out. Scruffy points at them and says, “I hire trackers, skinners, camp help and a lot more. My economic imprint is a lot bigger than someone running a photo safari business. And my trackers know right away when a poacher has entered the property. Hell, they might be able to indentify the bloke by his footprints.”
Later that day, on the way out of the De Beers property, we stop by an ancient waterhole to see Bushmen rock carvings. Long ago Bushmen chiseled images of rhino, blesbok, elephant and the rest into flat rocks as they waited for game to come to the waterhole. They didn’t, however, carve themselves or their bows and arrows. I found this to be a deep expression of their love for the game. Hunters have always been here and have always cherished the wildlife. We were natural. We were and are part of the natural process, and nature benefits when we understand our role and embrace that responsibility.
Soon we were off again, this time to Namibia where we would feed a village. (For more on Hans “Scruffy” Vermaak’s safari business, Coenraad Vermaak Safaris, go to cvsafaris.co.za)
Part II: Namibia
We arrive at a group of thatched-roofed buildings that seem to have naturally grown from a rock outcropping in the camel thorn forest. Inside are posh rooms filled with African art and taxidermy in such an overwhelming collage we have to pause and look closely to see everything. Our private rooms face waterholes. We sit on patios watching warthogs, springboks and impalas drinking.
“When we started building this outfitting company many of the cattle ranchers told us we’d be out of business in a season,” says Marina. “But in the years since, thanks to travelling hunters, we’ve bought many of those ranchers out and let our now 80 square miles return to its natural state. We tell hunters they’ll see a minimum of 500 animals per day.”
She wasn’t exaggerating; in fact, I’d like to tell you about the four gemsboks we stalk and kill the next day with Johnnie, another black PH whose charm is only surpassed by his ability to hunt. But instead I have to tell you about Otjivero, a village I’ll never forget.
Otjivero is a shantytown of little crudely built huts with corrugated metal roofs. There are goats in dirt front yards and chickens pecking in the shade. The only running water and electricity is in a clinic and school. We drive down sand roads through the village and stop in the shade of a tree beside cinderblock walls of a one-story school. It’s almost lunchtime and a man is boiling meat donated daily by Hunters Namibia Safaris. He’s cooking the meat in a large metal caldron that Marina provided.
Soon more than 300 boys and girls begin coming from their homes for lunch. They were dismissed from school to go home and get their bowls and some corn meal provided by the Namibian government. Every child is dressed in clean, pressed clothing. The girls are in olive skirts and the boys in matching pants. They wear windbreakers, sweaters and long-sleeve shirts. They likely only have a few sets of clothes but all of them are as unsullied as children in their Sunday best. Their smiles are bright and they’re curious about us.
They line up by class. Meat is ladled into their bowls one at a time by Hoxobab, a teacher wearing a dark suit with a red shirt and tie. They’re soon all eating wild game meat. While taking photos I look over the tops of hundreds of students eating meat at Ben and Marina talking to the school’s principal. I wonder how this can be politically incorrect.
“When I saw this place I knew we had to do something. Here in Namibia I can sell the meat, but I want these kids to have protein,” says Marina.
She explains she has had to stop giving them meat twice. When her trackers found poachers setting snares on their property and chasing game with dogs she cut off the meat supply. “A real African negotiation ensued,” says Marina. “We met under a shade tree and all parties aired their grievances. Before long they acquiesced, figured out who the culprits were and the poaching stopped.”
She says the wild game populations she’s helped grow wouldn’t last if people were allowed to illegally kill the wild game for the market. This human dilemma is known in economics as the “tragedy of the commons.” When the use of a shared resource isn’t controlled with the future in mind by an individual or regulatory agency no one has the incentive to preserve and protect it and everyone has the incentive to take as much as they can before someone else does.
On our last evening in Namibia we left Marina and stayed the night with Volker Grellmann, the director of the Eagle Rock Professional Hunting Academy Namibia. Volker is a bear of a German. Stories roll naturally from his chest about Namibia’s past and present. There isn’t space here to introduce him as he should be, but it was profound to hear him talk about how he helped bring the conservation model to hundreds of ranches in Namibia. In the late 1960s he started a booking agency to book hunters into local ranches. The hunters would typically stay with ranching families and hunt plains game. “Ranchers were shocked by what they could make from a few visiting hunters. A few tried to give me back the money, saying it was too much,” says Volker. “Before long landowners started doing all they could to protect and build game herds. They no longer saw kudus and gemsboks as competition for their cattle. They began seeing them as commodities that needed to be managed. Other parts of Africa took notice.”
We left Volker and all he had to say too soon and flew east to the other side of the continent where another part of the story awaited. (For more on Hunters Namibia Safaris go to huntersnamibia.com)
Part III: PH School
The drive to the school would appear to be a made-up, African parody if it was a scene in a Hollywood production. On the way down a winding road we stop to watch an elephant rub its forehead on a tree not 20 feet away. We watch impala cross the road and see other wildlife. We cross an electrified cattle guard (to stop the elephants) and note the prison-like electric fence around the school (to keep out lions and more) and stop on the grounds of the Southern African Wildlife College. That night we hear hyenas laughing near the fences. In the morning we wake to students in the ranger portion of the school singing as they do calisthenics. “They can harmonize,” says Theresa when we all comment how moved we were by the melody.
There are 10 students earning a two-year degree (18 months at the school and a six-month apprenticeship) that teaches students to be PHs—eight out of the 10 students are black and one is a woman. The conception of a PH being a “white hunter” is evolving wonderfully into a role for anyone driven to be, as Theresa says, “the eyes and ears of conservation.”