Across a fire, under the unfamiliar stars of the Southern Hemisphere, Hans “Scruffy” Vermaak is telling us about a lion that tried to kill him. He was in the open back of a truck when the cat came out of the bush. He knew the lion was wounded. A client had done that. But he didn’t know it was right there, targeting him. Lions do that, he says. When they come, lions pick a target and kill that unfortunate someone; whereas leopards, well, they’d rather just attack everybody.
He has us all leaning forward, riding each syllable of the close-call. But right in that boisterous moment, for some reason known only to the subconscious, it occurs to me that Africa’s wildlife has actually become dependent on the swashbuckling role played by professional hunters (PH) like Scruffy.
“The lion came right up for me. I can still see his yellow eyes locked onto mine. I shouldered my rifle as I fell backward into the truck,” says Scruffy as he raises his arms. “The gun went off, smashing a bullet through the lion’s brain. He fell back into the bush.”
After a pause he exclaims, “God I love lions.”
All along I’m thinking, This guy guides hunters to lions, kudu and Cape buffalo, but he is clearly in love with this wildlife. The part he plays, the PH, is iconic and has been portrayed by Clark Gable and Stewart Granger. Today, however, the part a PH plays is often misunderstood, even demonized. So much so, in fact, it’s in danger of being lost. If lost, then all this is … .
As I follow this politically incorrect line of thought on our first night in the African bush, a young apprentice, a teenager who longs to be a PH, puts a small shovel of red coals under my chair. Scruffy nods at the embers and says, “That’s an African seat warmer.”
I think, bloody brilliant idea, and ask Scruffy if the African lion has a future.
He compares the plight of the wild lion to the white and black rhino and explains how hunting helped spread rhinos back across private lands in southern Africa. When ranchers were permitted to sell a few hunts, the economic incentive prompted many of them to establish rhino populations. Soon species many thought would become extinct in the wild made glorious, market-driven comebacks.
This is the basic idea Ben Carter, executive director of Dallas Safari Club (DSC), invited me and Andrew McKean, the editor of Outdoor Life, to grasp on this trip across southern Africa. Still, Ben wasn’t saying much. He was letting us see for ourselves.
Part I: Cecil Rhodes’ Legacy
He tells me that when he was a young lad he was always hanging out with the Zulu boys. One day he was so scruffy looking when he came back from tracking game that his father—credited as being one of the first PHs in South Africa—called him “Scruffy.” The nickname stuck.
His assistant PH comes up so I ask him about his name. It’s Mphaleni, but everyone calls him “Patches” and I want to know why. The answer takes some teasing out, but it seems that years ago some American, after days of watching him track, said, “You move like an Apache.” Not knowing what an Apache is and English not being his first language, he thought he’d been nicknamed “Patches,” and so he was.
They’re a profound team. Scruffy says he could speak Zulu before English. Patches, meanwhile, is a Zulu who started with Scruffy as a tracker. Scruffy saw potential in Patches—the guy can hunt—and convinced him to become a PH. Patches went to PH school, but he struggled with the written portion of the course (he has very little formal schooling) so Scruffy got him a tutor. After a lot of work Patches became one of the few black PHs in South Africa. Scruffy keeps telling us how proud he is of Patches for becoming this new example, which makes me realize the archetype of the PH is evolving. In Africa, much the same as it has been depicted on the silver screen, blacks have always been gun bearers and trackers. Patches, however, is a full PH.
I climb in the back of a truck beside Patches. Soon we’re driving along red sand roads that crisscross the Rooipoort Nature Reserve, a 100,000-acre private property founded in 1893. We begin this adventure at Rooipoort for a reason. When we left the pavement the evening before we passed the “Shooting Box,” a Victorian home with all the extravagant trimmings money could buy in 1898. Cecil Rhodes had this home dragged on ox carts some 500 miles from Cape Town after it was shipped as a kit from England. Rhodes founded the diamond company De Beers. He’s South Africa’s Andrew Carnegie. He earned money to do what he wanted, and he wanted a private hunting preserve.
Rhodes had the Shooting Box pulled to this rural area because this is where the game was still abundant at the very end of the 19th century. Hearing this, some modern observers might imagine Rhodes and his pals knocking over the last of dwindling antelope populations for sport with big cigars in their grinning mouths. They’d be right about the image and wrong about the results. Because Rhodes wanted game to hunt, his property protected and saved then-disappearing species.
According to De Beers, this property is now administered with a “progressive conservation philosophy [that] aims to demonstrate that wildlife has more than just an aesthetic value.” What they’re referring to is the fact that Rooipoort has been the largest private supplier of wildlife to reserves in southern Africa. The red hartebeest and black wildebeest, to name two species, were virtually extinct elsewhere in southern Africa in the mid-20th century. By trapping and transferring animals from this property—herds protected by the self-interest of hunters—areas around southern Africa were able to begin new herds.
Later, when more ranchers realized they could make a dandy profit from wildlife, they reintroduced species and protected their wild resources like they do their cattle. That’s the selfish secret behind why PHs are critical to protecting and enhancing these many storied wildlife populations. As Adam Smith once wrote, altruism isn’t as trustworthy as self-interest.
After a morning seeing herds of wildebeest, springbok, impala and so much more, Patches spots a good gemsbok far off on a rocky ridge. We go on foot with backs bent and circle to keep our scent from his nose. We slip by little white-and-tan springboks in the soft light of a late afternoon. We stalk so close we can see the gemsbok’s straight, long horns standing above brush 50 feet away, but it’s too thick for a clean shot.
The next day Scuffy, Ben and I go looking for zebra. As we drive he shows us a leopard kill stuffed in the branches of a tree. He says on a smile, “Leopard are making a comeback here.” But just then his cell phone rings. He answers and speaks Afrikaans, but then hangs up and explains. “I’m the president of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa. This makes me a target of anti-hunting groups—most of their members are from Europe and America. One of my employees was just telling me about some new attack in the media.”
He shrugs it off and only a few minutes later, far off in the bush, we see zebra stripes. We begin a long stalk together on a herd of zebra under a high hot sun. We crawl through yellow grass and use brush for cover to get close to a bedded herd. Finally I shoot and a zebra jumps and goes down.