I hope we all know that a plains game hunt in southern Africa constitutes the greatest value in the hunting world, offering adventure, excitement, variety, and successful hunting'¦at a cost about the same as a good whitetail hunt in Texas.
For most of us, this is the best option to start hunting Africa. Once having tasted the waters of the Nile (or, today, the Limpopo or the Zambezi), it is natural for the dreams to grow'¦and as they expand they will almost certainly lead you to Africa's dangerous game.
This can be scary, because while most of us realize that a plains game hunt is extremely affordable, we also know (because we've been told) that dangerous-game safaris are a lot more expensive, perhaps beyond what we can dare to dream.
It is true that any safari including dangerous game will be costlier than the average seven- or 10-day hunt for a selection of plains game.
This fact cannot be avoided.
On the other hand, it may not be as expensive as you think, especially if you focus on the experience rather than trophy size.
Big Four, Five, or Six...or Dangerous Seven?
It's important to understand that these are man-made groupings. The animals couldn't care less how we categorize them! Trophy criteria, such as "40-inch buffalo" or "black-maned lion," are also derived purely from man's ego.
The animals are all big enough and strong enough that their "trophy qualities" have nothing to do with either the potential danger in hunting them or the satisfaction we derive from the experience. So what are the options?
Africa's traditional "Big Five" consists of leopard, lion, buffalo, elephant, and black rhino. The concept was derived early in the 20th century when white rhinos were already scarce but the black rhinoceros remained plentiful. After 1980, the worm turned.
Due to widespread commercial poaching, the black rhino was scarce, endangered, and generally closed, while the white rhino had recovered dramatically and was again huntable. Now most people count either rhinoceros.
Today the black rhino is again hunted on a very limited basis, but the costs for both varieties have risen so dramatically that, sensibly, a lot of hunters now drop the rhino altogether and speak of the "Big Four." Remember, the animals don't care, so this is all about ego and comparative budgets.
Traditionally, the hippo was never included, but he's a huge animal and is definitely dangerous, probably killing more Africans annually than all the rest.
Recognizing this, a few years back the African Professional Hunters Association formally declared the "Big Six," adding the hippo. At the same time, more and more hunters talk about Africa's "Dangerous Seven," which includes the crocodile. It really isn't fair to leave out the crocodile. A big croc can weigh a ton, may be 80 years old, and has almost surely been a maneater!
"The animals are all big enough and strong enough that their "trophy qualities" have nothing to do with either the potential danger in hunting them or the satisfaction we derive from the experience."
Let's get real. If you're on a tight budget, you may not hunt them all'¦but that depends somewhat on how much time you have and how driven you are. But you have to start somewhere, and where that should be probably depends on what interests you the most. Here are my thoughts on hunting Africa's dangerous game'¦without breaking the bank.
Good deal, bad deal?
In some cases, there aren't any deals'¦and a bad hunt is never a good deal. So if it sounds too good to be true'¦it probably is. That said, if you have some flexibility in your schedule and can keep some money in the bank, outfitters do have cancellations. And as the end of the season nears, there can be some unsold quota with deals to be made.
Check in on the African-oriented chat rooms now and again and talk to some of the major hunting consultants and sort of get yourself "registered" as someone who might take a last-minute opening. One caution: A last-minute opening isn't necessarily a good hunt, so due diligence is still required.
How about lightning striking? You're in Africa, and an opportunity arises for one of the big boys. Maybe it's a cancellation, maybe the previous client was unsuccessful, maybe a "problem animal" situation has arisen, or maybe it's just an animal on quota that the outfitter realizes he is unlikely to sell.
If reasonably affordable, just do it! You are already there, so an extra trophy fee, even if high, is the cheapest thing going'¦and if you are unsuccessful, in most countries you won't have to pay.
Don't have the money? Heck, you probably don't have it with you anyway, so think long and hard. Figure out how long it will take you to raise the money when you get home and how long it will take to wire it. Above all, be straight with your PH.
This situation is not as common as it used to be, but unexpected opportunities do come along, even for lion. My last lion came about in exactly this manner. We were in camp on a conservancy bordering Etosha National Park when the landowner rolled in with two "problem lion" permits. I agreed to one without hesitation. It wasn't cheap — but it was too good to pass, and a few days later I took a fine old lion.
Zimbabwe is the most affordable, but if you want a bull, you are looking at a $10,000 trophy fee plus a daily rate. Here's the thing to remember: Elephant hunting is about the experience, not the ivory. Hunting any elephant offers the same awesome experience, and, realistically, hunting a cow elephant in a herd is actually much more exciting than tracking a lone bull. There are two options.
First is the "PAC" or "Problem Animal Control" elephant. You will not take the trophy home, but there is often no trophy fee at all, just the daily rate (which varies with outfitter, country, and time of season).
Elephants are overpopulated in many areas in southern Africa. Human/elephant conflicts are escalating, so there are elephants that must be taken. One caution: Some elephant hunts being sold as "PAC" hunts are not exactly that'¦and some are not legal.
By definition, a PAC animal is a specific animal causing trouble, whether raiding crops or terrorizing villagers. So think of it rationally. During the convention season in January, it is impossible to know how many elephants will cause trouble months later when the crops ripen.
Prearranged "PAC hunts" are often "meat quota" elephants for the local villages or tribal council, which some outfitters do have available. But some are questionable. Americans cannot import Mozambique ivory, so the question can be avoided, but while there are PAC elephants that must be dealt with in Mozambique, my understanding from the authorities there is that PAC elephants cannot legally be taken by visiting sportsmen. So ask some hard questions if such a hunt is offered months before the date.
To me, the best option for an affordable elephant hunt is Zimbabwe's aggressive quota for tuskless elephants. Daily rates are much less than for bull elephant hunts, and the trophy fee is reasonable. The premise is also sound. Zimbabwe has perhaps 100,000 elephants in habitat that should support half that number.
The tuskless gene is inherited, and in some parts of Zimbabwe, there are a lot of tuskless elephants (mostly females). So the quota reduces both the population and an undesirable trait.
It is a real elephant hunt, but generally done in herds as you try to winnow out a tuskless cow without a calf. I did a lot of this in the Lower Zambezi between about 2005 and 2011, and I observed two things. First, tuskless elephants, though still available, were becoming less common. Second, since most of this hunting is done in herds, the cow herds were becoming much more aggressive.
Do not underrate the danger or excitement of this hunt. By the way, in other parts of Zimbabwe where elephant overpopulation is more serious, there are also quotas for tusked cows.
Nope, no bargains here, either. The good news is that buffalo safaris remain very affordable in both Mozambique and Zimbabwe, about the same as a good (but not premium) elk hunt. Although quality is excellent, Namibia and South Africa are too expensive because of limited permits, and there is no reason to pay Tanzanian or Zambian rates to hunt buffalo.
In Mozambique and Zimbabwe, there isn't much difference in price between a marginal area and a good area.
So do your homework and seek out a good outfitter in a good area. Beware of seven-day buffalo safaris! They will work in Mozambique's Zambezi Delta areas, where buffalo are concentrated in huge herds, but in Zimbabwe, where buffalo must be tracked, hunting can be difficult in dry years because the buffalo must move great distances between grazing and water. It can take time!
I can't help you here. When white rhino opened in South Africa in the 1970s, Americans couldn't import the trophy, and the fee was about the same as for a nyala: $500. I took one in a big area on the Palala River in 1986, and you could add a zero to that number. Today you can add another zero and that still isn't nearly enough. The problem is, on the black market, rhino horn still has obscene value.
It is not legal to sell or transfer a rhino taken today under CITES quota'¦but this is happening, with "surrogate hunters" passing the horn to smugglers. There is also a new wave of rhino poaching threatening the overall numbers. Prices have escalated dramatically, and unless the authorities can get a handle on poaching, sport hunting will have to be closed.
A darted rhino hunt was an affordable option, but South Africa's veterinarian association, the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, and the authorities have pretty much shut it down, primarily because of the unavoidable risk to the rhino. The exceptions are darting for actual management purposes, but even this opportunity is shrinking rapidly.
Unless you're in Africa and opportunity comes knocking, I don't know any shortcuts. Leopard hunting is difficult, and with budget concerns you don't want to fail and have to try again. On the other hand, there is lots of opportunity to hunt leopard, much more so than 30 years ago'¦and while these countries are very good, you don't have to pay Tanzanian or Zambian rates.
I think the best combination for success, availability, and affordability is Zimbabwe, probably followed by Namibia. Permits in South Africa are more limited, and their leopards, though huge, are the cleverest of all. Actual prices for a baited hunt (hound hunts are higher) aren't much more than for a buffalo safari.
Just remember, failure is not an option worth contemplating. Nobody can give you 100-percent odds on leopard, but you can stack the deck by doing your research. A PH who knows leopards is probably more important than the exact area (you only need to get one shootable male feeding). Timing is also important.
Generally, you want to go early, just after the rains, when there's lots of groundwater and the prey species are widely dispersed. No matter where you are (even in Tanzania's best areas), leopard hunting gets very difficult after the warthogs drop their young, which is usually September through October.
In 1953, Robert Ruark wrote about "the high cost of lions." It hasn't gotten better. If affordable, a good lion hunt is the primary reason to pay Tanzanian and Zambian rates (secondary is to enjoy a classic, old-time general bag safari, including multiples of dangerous game, and to hunt the many indigenous rarities in both countries). If this is possible, do it — but be very careful. There are only a handful of genuinely good lion areas! At these prices, failure sucks, but understand there is no sure thing on a wild lion hunt today.
There are "sleepers." Northern Mozambique doesn't have many lions, but quotas are low and success is high'¦likewise Burkina Faso in West Africa. Zimbabwe has a few extremely good areas, primarily the Lower Zambezi and the Matetsi blocks. None of these are inexpensive safaris, but they are generally less than half the basic cost of a Tanzanian safari.
There are two bargains that I know of. First is to hunt lioness rather than lion. In today's Africa, even the thought of taking a lioness is politically incorrect'¦but there are areas where too many lions are impacting buffalo calf survival and decimating prized antelope species like sable. So there are areas that have lioness on quota. The hunt is the same and the trophy is exportable — but it is much less expensive and very successful.
Second is to hunt a "captive reared lion" in South Africa. Despite all the bull dust, there are only a handful of genuine wild lions taken annually in South Africa. It is now so difficult to separate which is which that in Safari Club International's record book all South African lions go into the "estate" category. This is appropriate; I do not think wild lions should compete with captive reared in the records, and I despise the unscrupulous operators who are selling such hunts as "wild."
However, given honesty and conduct of the hunt within existing law, I am not against the practice. It takes pressure off our dwindling wild lions, and, done properly on foot, it is extremely dangerous because these lions have no fear of humans. These lions are much more affordable than any wild lion hunt.
Let me be clear: This is not a hunt that I wish to do, but I'm in a different place. I had my chances back in the '70s and '80s when a lion was often just part of a general bag hunt.
Sometimes a lion was taken, sometimes not, but a lion safari wasn't the extremely costly undertaking it is today. So I have no issue with anyone who makes a conscious decision to take a South African lion today as opposed to no lion at all. Let's just be honest about it.
In the early years of my African hunting, the crocodile was barely considered a game animal and hippos were almost a giveaway. The pursuit of a big crocodile was much underrated and now is often the object of specialized hunts (whether stand-alone or a side hunt within another safari).
Trophy fees, however, have gone up considerably. Mozambique probably has the most affordable crocodile hunting, followed by the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe.
Hippo hunting has also changed. In water, the hippo is extremely vulnerable and has been poached out along many of Africa's waterways. Where hunted, he remains plentiful, but quotas are no longer large, and trophy fees often exceed those for buffalo and even leopard.
Still, it is a true dangerous-game hunt that can be a great experience. There is nothing wrong with taking a hippo in water — it's a difficult shot and the best way to be selective — but it is not much of an experience. Insist on finding one on dry land!
This is not possible in all areas, but if you can, then you may find all the excitement you want. Cut off from its watery sanctuary, a hippo will charge more readily than any animal I know of, except a cow elephant, and can be just like a big bullet sponge, very difficult to stop!
A Proper Order?
Hmmm. I would start with buffalo because it's such a classic African hunt. Then leopard because it's reasonable and very available. Then elephant, perhaps tuskless. Some of these can be combined, and certainly a crocodile and hippo together offer a great riverine safari.
I think, unfortunately, we have to pass on rhino altogether, but let's not give up on the lion yet! Both the reality and the public perception is that wild lions are dwindling in numbers and range.
The question is whether regulated hunting is good for the species or not. The hunting community believes limited hunting is essential, but it's a tough battle that we may not win. So, especially if budget is a concern, it's already too late for rhino — and I urge hunters to go lion hunting now if at all possible. All the rest will remain huntable for many years to come, and although the specific hunting countries will come and go, I don't envision any major changes in their availability.