by Koos Barnard
Man has been a hunter/gatherer since the dawn of time. Before planting crops and keeping livestock, he lived off the veld and had to harvest whatever was available. That meant that he also had to hunt animals for their meat and skins. Unfortunately for wildlife, man has become the most successful living being and as his numbers soared he progressively took over the land that once mainly belonged to wild animals. In an effort to make space for, and sustain his herds of cattle, sheep and crops, etc., man desperately tried to tame the world but went overboard and almost cleared it of wildlife.
To feed our mouths, factories and our greed for comfort and luxury we have cultivated the world, scarred nature and confined what was left to very small wildlife sanctuaries. Yes, we have interfered with nature to such an extent that it has become necessary to manage it very carefully. Enter the hunter. Many of our kind long for the times gone by – the “need” to hunt is still deeply embedded in our souls. Hunters realized that the only way to ensure the survival of our game is to put a monetary value on animals. In the modern world only those things that earn their keep are allowed to stay.
The result was the game farming/hunting industry and today South Africa alone has over 9000 game farms and far more game than 100 years ago. To prevent over grazing of the veld animals need to be “harvested” regularly and that is the hunter’s job. Revenue earned from hunting allows the farmer to keep game and stock his property with a variety of species. Hunting is more profitable than eco tourism, especially for game farmers in remote areas. They can easily sell all their hunting but few city dwellers are prepared to travel to say Putsonderwater on an eco tour to see springbuck and gemsbuck in their natural habitat. The sad thing is that many so-called nature lovers are only interested in the Big Five and other “glamorous” species. And these they preferably want to view within easy reach of luxury lodges where air-conditioning, Jacuzzis, fancy restaurants and beauty parlours can soothe body and soul after a “rough” two-hour game drive.
Hunters can rightly claim that they are responsible for restocking South Africa’s game fields. Due to the crude weapons that homo sapiens initially used, hunting was difficult, time consuming and often dangerous. It was thus natural that man would try to develop more efficient weapons.
Hunting rifles as we know them today were initially developed for military use, not hunting but hunters, embraced them because they were far more effective than swords, spears and the bow and arrow. Current day hunting rifles are, for all practical purposes, nothing but “customized” versions of the military rifles developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Modern semi- and full-automatic military rifles are not suitable for hunting, ordinary citizens are not allowed to own them in many countries and they have been banned from the hunting fields in most countries.
Although most South Africans hunt for meat, a fair number of locals are both trophy and meat hunters. The most popular species among meat hunters are springbuck, impala, blesbuck, warthog, blue wildebeest, kudu and gemsbuck. A meat hunter might occasionally turn “trophy hunter” due to the fact that he thoroughly enjoyed hunting a particular animal. He will either mount only the horns of that animal or have it shoulder mounted by a taxidermist. Trophy animals are more expensive than meat animals and outfitters usually allow local trophy hunters to keep the meat without paying extra for it. Obviously, visiting overseas hunters cannot take meat with them but contrary to what some believe, none of that meat is wasted. The farmer uses the carcasses for rations for his labourers or sells it to a butcher or pet food butcher. And yes, even rhino and zebra, to name only two “inedible” species, get sold.
Many game farmers prefer overseas hunters to locals due to the fact that they can sell the trophy and get additional income from the carcasses. However, outfitters need locals to cull their herds from time to time because trophy hunters do not take off enough animals and only the big males. The meat hunter is the game farmer’s bread and butter and thousands of venues are available to those who want to shoot something for the pot or for biltong. Hunting with rifles is basically done in three ways; walk-and-stalk, ambush (voorsit) and shooting off a vehicle. The latter is not hunting, but merely meat collecting. When it’s not management culling, shooting animals off vehicles is regarded unethical. It is illegal in some provinces (KZN for instance, where hunters must be at least 200m from a vehicle before they may pull the trigger) and will in all probability become illegal soon in all provinces (unless special permission is granted). Shooting animals at salt licks or ambushing them at waterholes is also regarded as unethical and should not be encouraged.
Many regard the walk-and-stalk method as the only ethical one. There are so many “ifs” and “buts” though, that it is extremely difficult to pin down just what “ethical hunting” is. Many hunters follow their own consciences, based on some written or unwritten “code of ethics” but whatever we do, we will always be confronted by what seems to be a paradox – use the best, most practical hunting method and equipment to kill cleanly, yet always give the animal a fair chance to escape.
On Karoo farms where animals such as springbuck and blesbuck roam open, grassy plains, stalking animals is extremely difficult. It will take hunters so long that the required quotas might not be taken off. On such farms hunters are placed at predetermined spots to wait in ambush whilst the animals are driven towards them by farm hands on horses or motorcycles. The purest, and to my mind, the most enjoyable form of hunting is to walk until you spot a suitable animal and then stalk it. Depending on the terrain, your ability or the equipment used this can be easy, fairly difficult or very tough.
Contrary to popular belief most game species can be successfully hunted on foot if the hunter has honed his stalking skills, is patient and use the wind correctly. Age, a bad back or ‘rugby’ knees and other afflictions obviously play a big role in a hunter’s ability to pull off difficult stalks. The most important aspect of stalking is that movement, more than anything else, usually gives the hunter away and secondly, not hunting into the wind. Fail to do that and the animals will pick up your scent and flee. So, move slowly and watch the wind. Most calibres in the 6.5mm, .270, 7mm, .308, .30-06, .303, 8mm or .300 Magnum classes, launching at least 140 or 150gr bullets at about 2500fps, are powerful enough to kill antelope up to and including kudu at ranges out to 200m.
Currently the most popular calibres in South Africa for general plains game hunting are the .243Win, .270Win, .308Win and .30-06 while the .375H&H is the most popular big bore (technically speaking the .375 is not a big bore but most average hunters regard it as one). Although taking long shots might be necessary on occasion, it is not the norm – most South African game animals are taken inside 200m. Those using vehicles to collect meat often have to resort to long range shooting because hunting cars are spotted from afar and once animals have associated them with hunters, will keep their distance. Resist the urge to buy a powerful rifle in the belief that you’ll need it for long shots. Too many people owning magnums are afraid of the recoil and subsequently do not shoot them well. A mild calibre that you have mastered is more efficient in the veld than a magnum that you fear. So-called slow calibres such as the 7×57, .303 or .308, loaded with heavy bullets, are preferable for bushveld hunting where shots are often taken at less than 100m. At short ranges fast travelling bullets cause extensive meat damage when body shots are taken. Fast or flat shooters such as the .270Win or .300 Win Mag are preferred for long shots in open country because their bullets drop less (they have flat trajectories), making it less crucial to judge range correctly. Those owning “slow” calibres can hunt successfully at longer ranges by using a rangefinder. Once you know the range and know where your rifle shoots at that particular distance (determined on the shooting range) the advantage a flat shooting calibre holds, disappears. The ability to place shots accurately is far more important than the calibre, make of the rifle or the bullet brand. It is good policy to invest in the best scope you can afford and then learn to shoot. Scopes afford much better target acquisition and therefore can aid the hunter to shoot more accurately. The average hunter should stick to magnifications of 4x to 6x for bushveld hunting and for open country anything from 6x to 12x. That is just a guideline though; many experienced hunters shooting game at long ranges prefer magnifications of 14x to 20x. Do not make the mistake of trying to “buy” shooting ability by spending large amounts of money on custom work to rifles, expensive bullets and developing the perfect load.
The secret to successful hunting is accurate shooting and the only way to shoot better is to shoot more (practice, practice, practice). Once your rifle is sighted in, move away from the bench, use field positions only and shoot at life-size, full colour paper targets of animals. Hunting with open sights is almost a lost art and should only be tackled by those who have the discipline to spend many hours on the range to master open sights. Maximum range for open sights is about 100m but due to vegetation that hide the animal or bad light a hunter using open sights is often forced to stalk within 50m or closer which can be quite difficult. Hunting dangerous game is very expensive, something the average South African cannot afford. The rifles required and their ammunition is also more expensive and big bore rifles with full power loads have a substantial amount of recoil. However, a fair number of hunters all over the world continue to find fascination in rifles with big bores and buy them to hunt ordinary plains game at short ranges. Many employ open sights and use light or reduced loads, which are powerful enough for antelope. To hunt properly and to fully enjoy the experience prospective hunters need to learn as much as possible about the animals they are about to hunt and the habitat these animals prefer. They also need to learn how to stalk, judge trophies, and determine gender and age and many more things. To use rifles effectively they need to delve into the fascinating world of ballistics and optics but that is not all. They will also learn about hunting knives, boots and all the wonderful gear and gadgets that are available to outdoorsmen and women. Getting into hunting is like opening a door to a whole new world. Try it and you will be hooked for life.