Africa – an evocative word that encompasses a legendary continent. Many of us succumb to its allures, whether we journey there for a trip of a lifetime or for a lifetime of trips. Most of us, no matter what part of the globe we call home, can easily recognize this continent’s most charismatic and iconic wildlife species, whilst we are still but young school children even.
Some of us eventually go to Africa to hunt these animals, and some go to only view or photograph them. Although many on social media and in the press do their best to divide these groups and claim they are so disparate, in all reality, are they truly? What drives any of us to hop on a plane, cross oceans and vast distances, and spend our money in a variety of African countries, primarily those in the southern part of the continent?
Africa, despite all its modern day challenges and limitations, is still greatly perceived as a place where nature rules mightily by tooth and claw. Mention that you will be traveling there, and it’s not uncommon to be asked by unknowing people if you’re not afraid of being attacked by wildlife?
At a very instinctual level, I think we all actually crave to some extent that element of danger and unpredictability, that brush with the true, savage wild that makes our heart race and adrenaline flow like not much else on this earth can. For those of us who hunt, we experience this feeling and connection to nature very directly and intimately, by becoming predators ourselves.
No one loves and understands the prey more than the predator, and although a kill is the intended result of hunting, all of the elements leading up to that moment, such as the scouting, the strategizing, the execution of the stalk, etc., are equally as, if not more, important , educational and rewarding as the actual kill itself.
People who are against hunting are eager to criticize us hunters for these feelings, wrongfully assuming that we have bloodlust, that we hate the animals we hunt, or that we hunt purely to glorify our own selves. I don’t feel that way at all about my hunting and I also don’t feel that our motivations as hunters are so vastly different from those who only wish to see or photograph Africa’s wildlife.
I think most all humans have a complex set of emotions about wildlife, particularly about predators and scavengers. Throughout our own history as a species we have not only fulfilled both of these roles ourselves, but we have also been prey. The vast majority of us nowadays, however, are too far removed from nature to feel a strong connection, understanding or empathy for any of these roles anymore – unless we hunt, live in rural areas, or live under the threat of potential human-wildlife conflict.
Yet even those who hail from the most urban environments still maintain some primitive mixture of attraction, revulsion, respect, contempt and outright fear for any species capable of killing another animal. Ask any tourist or photographer what animals they most hope to see on their safari and what will likely be the answer? The Big Five. Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant and Cape Buffalo.
The Big Five was a term traditionally coined by big game hunters because these were considered the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. The photo safari industry, that so often criticizes the hunting safari industry, has had no qualms about adopting this designation for their own marketing strategy, however.
Why? Because this element of “danger” these species possess, appeals to us all. Which animals are even the most popular in zoos? Yes, the big cats, bears, raptors and wild canines. Any predator, actually, with primates (the group of animals most like us) running a close second.
And what about our fascination with the age old dance of life and death between the predator and the prey? Why do photo safari vehicles line up multitudes deep to allow tourists a front row seat as witnesses to the great wildebeest migration where it crosses the Mara River, filled with hungry crocodiles, eager to kill what they can?
Why are the most popular video clips on the internet dramatic attack scenes of lions seeking to make buffalo their next meal? Or leopards sneaking up on plains game to make the lethal pounce, kill the antelope, and drag it away to get all bloody faced and well fed? Why are so many people fascinated by birds of prey, but often fairly uninterested in the seed eaters? Why are the major “money shots” for photographers and tourists any chase scenes, hunt sequences, or even defensive encounters, particularly if they result in injuries or kills?
Granted, some people honestly do not like to see an actual kill or the dismemberment and devouring that inevitably ensues, but virtually no one can ever take their eyes off of the actual hunt process. Is there a good reason why this is not called bloodlust? Or why we don’t feel that the lioness kills because she hates the impala?
Watch any nature documentary and make note of what percentage of clips involve predators in pursuit of prey. We humans are indeed very interested in this timeless biological principle. And not only that, but some of us are fairly fond of vilifying predators too, either by choosing the dramatic, sinister mood music to accompany their appearances in documentaries, cheering for any prey that escapes, or persecuting humans who choose to hunt.
Yet predatory behavior is fascinating, scary and sought after, again and again, even by those who wish to view nature in what they feel is a very benevolent sort of manner. I doubt too many tourists sit around in national parks, watching plains game for lengthy sessions. Typically, they lose interest in them fairly quickly, unless, of course a predator shows up.
And many aren’t even all that interested in scavenger species, actually viewing them in disdain at times. After all, why can’t they go out and properly hunt for themselves, the lazy, conniving buggers? How dare they let the real predators go out and do the risky, hard work, only to show up later and expect a “free” meal?
Africa is considered to be the cradle of humanity. The place where our ancient ancestors crawled down out of the trees, began roaming the savannas, and learned to hunt. Many already known and probably scores more of yet to be discovered bushmen rock paintings attest to this , and some indigenous African cultures still hunt in relatively primitive ways, with spears or very simple bows and arrows.
Most of us who hunt in Africa likely hope to feel some connection to our global heritage as hunters, in one of the places where humans first did so, despite the fact that we now use much more sophisticated weapons and gear. But it’s thrilling to us to learn from native trackers and those who still do live a true bush lifestyle, subsisting on the land, when we hunt in such situations.
It’s not always like that, of course, but even when it’s not, there is still some feeling of primitive connection to hunt in a continent with native history so very much older than so many places, where wild species were the primary source of food for the beginnings of humanity, and, through modern day sustainable use and wise management practices, can and should still be staple table fare.
In many situations, the kills we hunters make are important sources of food to entire rural communities, which adds much satisfaction and a sense of responsibility to our hunting efforts. But, even on a much smaller scale, we very much relish our time sitting around the campfire, sharing our kills and stories with any other human beings in camp, connecting in a very basic, heartfelt way under the stars.
Tourists enjoy these campfires too, even though they may be roasting domestic livestock or even just solely vegetable kabobs on the braai. In similar settings, family groups bonded to eventually become societies and cultures, way back when man first learned how to create fire, how to kill animals, and how to hunt cooperatively for even greater success.
As we get further and further away from these simple yet essential interactions, we often end up craving them more and more. Africa is a place that can easily provide this experience that transports us all back to our very basal, grassroots beginnings. We leave with the intoxicating scent of acacia wood smoke on our clothes and a satisfied feeling that we escaped from full modernity, if even for only a brief while.
We all enjoy taking photos of a place quite different from where we call home. Yet we also are always pleasantly surprised to find similarities that bind us all together as well. We have wish lists for animals we hope to hunt or to see, as we humans are naturally drawn to collecting.
We enjoy bringing home souvenirs of native handicrafts, animal trophy parts or something unique to the country that we can show our friends or family. Something that bespeaks “Africa” in some way. Something that stirs our memories and fuels our daydreams – and often spawns ideas for future trips. We cherish the new friends we make.
Our guides, our professional hunters, our camp staff, our trackers, and any of their family members we meet. Often we even form connections with fellow hunters or tourists if we are part of a group trip. Sharing the adventure is a huge part of most any journey or travel experience, no matter our reason for being there. And unless we had a truly awful time for some reason, we leave at least a little part of our hearts behind and take home in exchange a new understanding, appreciation and empathy for different places and different cultures. And we just might even ignite the spark within someone else to travel there as well, when we share our stories, trophies and photos.
Although we all too often get caught up in the never ending one upmanship, overly critical, intolerant, my purpose is superior to yours nonsense, why do we insist on continuing that? Although we can all find valid arguments for why we travel to Africa, or find fault with other people’s interests and approaches, the bottom line, most likely, is that it’s important that we all DO go.
And, moving on from there, we should all do our best within our respective choice of activities or pursuits to ensure that our travels and efforts DO somehow contribute to conservation projects, wildlife habitat management or conversion, anti-poaching patrols, community development, and responsible, sustainable use of Africa’s incredible diversity of natural treasures. And we should strive to also realize our own potential impacts as travelers on these areas.
We are but visitors, who need to realize that loving a place to death, insisting on biased species management, or demanding too much infrastructure is simply not responsible or respectful and can create many negative impacts. It’s critical too, that we don’t allow ourselves to be blinded by a sort of “Out of Africa” effect, where just because we visit places that are idyllic, beautiful and well-managed, we assume that all of Africa is similar.
There is a myriad of problems and challenges plaguing conservation throughout the continent, and, as travelers who contribute our money and interests, we should feel responsible enough to educate ourselves as to what these realities are. And, more importantly, committed to accepting and supporting genuine solutions, even if they may not fit our personal ideas of how things should ideally operate.
Once we get past all this senseless quarreling and quibbling these days, I think we could all easily realize that we do ultimately want the same things – healthy, sustainable wildlife populations coexisting with the people who inhabit and utilize these landscapes as well.
There is not only room for but also a definite need for a variety of user groups, funding sources and management plans. We all wish to go to Africa and return with amazing memories of our fantastic experiences there. Maybe if we all spent more time relating to each other and attempting to understand and connect with each other like we do around the campfire, under the stars, we just might achieve a much better balance?
It’s become all too trendy to be divisive these days, but what does that accomplish? Pushing our own agendas exclusively may result in creating Africa as many travelers wish to see it, but allowing for a diversity of sustainable uses is truly the only way we can ensure an Africa as it should be.