The Eternal Discussion: Tipping on Safari
by Gerhard R Damm
Walt Prothero’s article “The Tipping Dilemma” in the Summer 2005 issue of Wild Sheep (Quarterly publication of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep – FNAWS) prompted me to write this article. I am aware that I am treading on dangerous ground – but many hunting trips around the globe during the past thirty years give me some perspective, albeit a personal one influenced by my own experience. However, the fact that the tipping question comes up at many hunting forums on the internet with regularity, and the fact that The Hunting Report felt it was important enough to conduct two surveys (1997 and 2004) prove that the “Tipping Question” moves many a hunters’ heart and mind – I am certainly not the exception.
Is a tip justified? What amount? A percentage of the hunt cost? How to distribute amongst those who helped on the scene or behind the scene on the hunt? These are difficult questions and depending on the answers, the outcome can be everything from a congenial, friendly farewell to a downright display of sour faces after a hunt is concluded.
I have always more than only an uneasy feeling when the final day of a hunt approaches – because the very last day will invariably be the day of reckoning, and instead of enjoying my hunting days to the fullest and to the very last moment, thoughts often wander away pondering the eternal and difficult question of how much money to spent in addition to a usually very expensive hunt. And then there is the other dilemma – guides and professional hunters tend to become friends in the course of a hunt. This is quite normal when one shares most of the waking moments during a fortnight or more, and especially when the going got though irrespective of the outcome. To tip a friend – well I don’t know! It just doesn’t seem appropriate and it devalues the common personal experience to a commercial transaction.
This commercial transaction is usually done before going hunting – I pay the agreed deposit months, or years ahead and the balance before going into the field. What remains to be paid are trophy fees after the conclusion of the hunt (… not always – since some hunts – especially the costly sheep hunts require full payment in advance of everything including trophy fee).
One should assume that businessmen – and I suggest that today all hunting outfitters/operators are astute ones – calculate the cost of a hunt and build in reasonable and justified profit margins. Therefore my first conclusion is: tipping an outfitter/operator who owns the hunting business is akin to tipping your doctor, lawyer, garage owner, auditor, building contractor, etc!
The outfitter’s costing should also include reasonable wages and salaries for the staff of the outfit. The entire staff contributes to the success of a hunt or safari – those in the offices who do all the paperwork behind the scenes, the meet and greet service at the airport, the drivers, skinners, trackers, cooks, tent attendants, camp helpers, and last not least the professional hunter and the nowadays common camp manager. I suggest that their just, adequate and commensurate compensation is the responsibility of the hunting outfitter and safari operator. They know (or should know) the individual capabilities and personal dedication/professionalism. Their wages should reflect their professionalism, experience and their dedication to the job. This is especially important for the local staff - their wages should be well above the respective national average, considering that hunting safaris are usually priced at the very high end of the tourist market and that their contribution largely determines the success or failure of a hunt. I suggest that the daily rates of a hunting safari – which are in most cases well above those charged by the most luxurious photographic safari lodges – give the outfitter/operator ample opportunity to pay such wages/salaries. I consider that statements such as “the staff (or individuals of the staff) depends on tips to make ends meet” or “the staff needs to earn during the hunting season enough to last out the year” are no reasons for a hunter to tip. The responsibility for a living wage/salary lies squarely with the outfitter/operator. And the visiting hunter can and should expect that the staff including the PH will perform at their level best during the safari – that’s what he contracted and paid for!
The outfitter/operator should definitely avoid to raise expectations by telling staff that they will “earn” a certain percentage over an above their wages with tips from hunters. African old-timers like Glen Cottar and Tony Dyer made this abundantly clear to their staff – including the professional hunters – do not expect tips! Just like the old timers, outfitters/operators should select and train the staff well, pay fair and square wages/salaries and expect truly professional service of everybody in the camp. The outfitters/operators are no different in this respect to any other entrepreneur who employs people to run a business.
I have the impression that many outfitters of the 21st century Africa unduly raise staff expectations with regards to tips (especially when discussing salaries – “you will earn soandsomuch in tips!” – and thus are part of the problem. And the problem is basically that of a backhanded bribe at worst or moral blackmailing the visiting hunter at best!
A typical African safari camp consists of between 20 and 30 people – a few less in South African and Namibian ranch hunts – and if camps are changed during the hunt, we quickly approach or exceed 50 people who might expect tips! It has clearly gone out of hand! Finally there is the question of who is responsible for the success of the hunt (measured in this context in the trophies obtained): The driver, who maintains the hunting vehicle in good shape so that you are able to leave early in the morning for a days hunt? The sharp eyesight of the assistant tracker, who spots the game? The phenomenal skills of the trackers who follow and interpret spoor, with few professional hunters being able to compete? The dexterity and professionalism of the skinners who preserve the trophy for years to come? The professional hunter who skillfully brings the hunter into shooting position and judging potential trophy animals? The anonymous office worker who arranges the dipping, packing and shipping of the trophies? Or is it the outfitter/operator, who obtained prime concessions and assembled an excellent staff complement through business acumen and hunting savvy? Then there are those whose responsibilities concern the hunter’s personal comfort: the kitchen staff whipping out delicious meals; the camp attendants having a hot shower ready after a dusty day in the field; the camp manager who has to oversea a million things every day and who has to entertain the hunter and company together with the professional hunter every evening around the camp fire.
Looking at the previous paragraph one quickly realizes that there cannot be a just solution to the tipping question. I also suspect certain racial inequalities having crept into the common tipping procedure, at least the Hunting Report study (2004) points towards that direction. The tips for the professional hunters ranged from $100 to $8500 with a median of $1325 for a full bag traditional safari to $50 to $2000 with a median of $550 for a plains game safari, whereas the tips for other camp staff ranged from $20 to $3000 and a median of $400, respectively from $20 to $2000 with a median of $187. These figures are based on approx 260 (full bag safari) and 300 (plains game safari) respondents in 2004 (see table below).
The results must not be interpreted as being representative; however they certainly shed some light on hunter tipping behavior and give food for thought for a discussion.
Evaluating the written comments of respondents and the contributions on internet forums one fact quickly becomes obvious: most hunters confirm that they tip; they also state that they do so under pressure (from peers, agents, outfitters and/or staff) or simply because a “tip is expected”. A common thread in their comments is that they clearly would rather not be part of the tipping scheme as it exists today.
Very few hunters tip extraordinarily high. I consider tipping percentage (from the total hunt price) of between 30 and 44% an extravagant folly or a hidden bribe of some sort. Those who tip extraordinarily low with a tipping percentage between 0.3 and 0.8% are also few and I suspect that these tips are sometimes regarded more as an insult.
There have been a number of different suggestions: from no tipping at all towards adding a percentage (range between 5% and 15%) on either the daily rate or on the total hunt cost. The later obviously would alleviate the operator/outfitter from some of his responsibilities, since it would place the onus of paying a substantial part of the staff salaries on top of the hunting bill. This solution must therefore discarded entirely, since I believe – as stated earlier in this article – that salaries and wages should form part of the cost calculation of the entrepreneur.
Tips – if any – after a safari should be spontaneous and for a service and performance well above average and beyond the call of duty. It is a personal gesture of the hunter towards a particular person or an identifiable group of persons who performed at levels well beyond the expected and usual!
A tip is NOT a routine procedure and neither professional hunters nor camp staff should openly or subtly solicit the client pay for perceived or real shortfalls in a just salary or wage (they should rather negotiate with their employer). Tips are NOT part of remuneration packages.
Tips are also definitively NOT to be measured as a percentage of the hunt cost as some agents and outfitter/operators suggest either directly when asked about tipping by visiting hunters or indirectly when saying “tips and gratuities not included”. A tip or the promise of a tip at the end of the safari are NOT “bribes” to make sure that the trophies arrive at the final destination, that a hunter is taken to a particular trophy or gets away with illegal or unethical actions.
It’s about time that lessons from old-timers like Tony Dyer and Glen Cottar are internalized – especially by their successors as outfitters and safari operators!
(click on image below to enlarge to full view)