New Perspective on Lion Hunting in South Africa
I just returned from a Safari in South Africa. The main species on the agenda were a Lion and a "Green Hunt" for a Rhino. I brought home a life time of memories, every single thing I saw and heard made Africa the experience of a lifetime. I have hunted a lot of places but never Africa. This year I decided to embark on a lifelong desire to achieve the pinnacle of hunting; taking the Big 5.
Lion hunting is becoming an almost impossible task, because of escalating prices and shrinking countries which allow lion hunting. After a great deal of searching, and numerous recommendations, I opted to hunt with Wesley van der Veen of Ultimate Hunting Safari's. He came highly recommended and offered what sounded like a unique hunt; an area of 625 sq. miles. I was concerned about all of the rumors, comments, call it what you will about hunting lion in South Africa, but that amount of land is so vast, it sounded like a needle in a haystack just to find a cat.
We settled on a date in later May and were fortunate to get a permit. We would be hunting in the Kalahari. First myth that does not reflect reality - not all hunts for lion are for cats that are "transplanted" to a small enclosure 6 months before the hunt and fed to keep them in the same area.
In fact, the lion I hunted was born on the property I hunted, lead 2 different self-sustaining prides and was rarely seen, except for the chance encounter while hunting other species. The ranch does bring in younger males from time to time if a client wants t hunt a younger male, but as I learned, that serves a useful purpose of genetic diversity and most of the lions are relocated from over-populations in places like Kruger.
This hunt was 10x what I expected. It is unlawful to bait lions in South Africa. Therefore, I was advised that this would be a "proper" lion hunt, spot and stalk. To find this cat, pre-scouting was done for about 2 weeks to locate an area where a big, lone, post breeding age male was roaming. There were some many tracks, lion and otherwise, that we had to drag the roads in an effort to find the tracks of the type of cat we were looking for.
We got lucky and the morning after about 30 miles of road was dragged, we crossed the track of a big cat. Just around the corner and we saw him, an enormous specimen, maybe 600 lbs, with a full blonde mane and long black tips, 6" or more of black mane going all the way to the middle of his back and covering his glands on both sides in the rear.
We took up the track and its was a stalk of a lifetime. This cat had virtually anywhere to go but seemed intent on staying in a seemingly small area. After about an hour we found out why, the lion had killed a huge warthog the night before and was not about to leave his prize. It was barely eaten as his tracks took us within 20 feet of the warthog.
The bushmen trackers did an unbelievable job sorting through all the tracks I the desert on staying on his track. We had 3 PHs on that stalk and I later came to understand why; 2x we found where the lion had circled behind us and was following us. One OPH was leading the track with me as the hunter, another PH was glued to my wife (we have 5 small children that we wanted to be sure and get home to) and a 3rd PH was staying about 20 yards off, watching our flanks and rear. Twice he saw the cat when no one else did.
We tracked that lion for at least 10 miles in what became 95 degree heat in the Kalahari. When the cat started running, we decided to hold up, take a break and have some water and let him settle down. We knew that eventually he would make a stand and we hoped to avoid a full-on charge. My wife needed to use nature's bathroom and we went about 20 yards away from the group, with me carrying a .416 Rigby just in case. After that, we rested under the shade of a tree for about 30 minutes.
When the group picked us up to pick up the track again, we rounded the brush next to the tree we rested under and not 60 yards away was the lion, laying in the sahe of a tree next to his warthog. No doubt he could hear and smell us all of the time. He could have charged and we would not have known he was there until it was to late for at least one of us.
Fortunately he took of away from us and we were on the track again. We came again to an incredibly thick stand of brush, even by Kalahari standards, that we had circled around twice before. When we made it to the other side, the trackers grew excited and scared - no tracks had come out. He was there, no more than 30 yards away - but where? We could see nothing.
Finally the PH to my left saw his blond coat heading away and with a foul word, signaled that the track would continue. I am about 6'4" tall and have a much different perspective than the other in the group, who were all about 8" shorter.
They did not see the lion turn. This would be the last time he ran away. True to their nature, lions pick out a single person and make a straight-on charge. There was a PH to my right at 10 paces, my PH directly behind me, and the 3rd PH was to my left at 5 paces standing with my wife. The lion was headed directly to my left. I shouted "here he comes" but only got "where" in response. Everyone else was to short to see him coming.
There was the semblance of a window at roughly 20 paces. I broke the first of 2 golden rules at that point. When the lion made it into the opening, I made direct eye contact. There is almost no way to describe the malevolent look of those ochre-yellow eyes of a lion. Every account I have read is true, the stare of a lion is something you never forget. For me, it's the first glimpse of my wife on our wedding day, the first sights of each of your 5 children being born, the last look of life in my father's face was he passed with his family at his side, and that lion, looking right through me, as if to say that he will decide what happens next. I now know when many men "freeze." It is a primal look that should scare anyone who sees it.
All of these thoughts go through your mind in a split second. I know because that window was only a few feet across. I then broke the second golden rule, I shot before the PH told me too, there was no time for a discussion. The shot hit hard and the lion jumped 5 or 6' into the air, roared in a way that I will not even try and describe, took a semi-circle back and existed the thick brush about 15 yards to my left. Since only I knew where he was, only I was able to make a second shot and it missed.
THe roaring lasted for about 5 minutes as the big cat ran into the thickest of think brush. We were now on the track of a wounded lion and the PHs had no idea where he was hit. We formed a skirmish line and moved forward in 1/4 length steps, piercing ever forward for a glimpse of what might be laying in wait. The trackers would look between the 4 men with guns shoulder and point this way and that. The tracking was measured in inches or feet, not paces or meters.
We moved maybe 80 yards in about an hour. The blood spoor was thick and red, indicating a good hit, but you just never know. As we circled around a thick stand of brush the trackers again became frantic and scared - we were not on the right tracks, they lost them in the thick brush behind us. Four men came about in a flash and there he was, 15 paces behind us, dead. The 300 gr Nosler Partition from my 375 H&H Mag hit in the front left shoulder, went through the front of the left lung, severed the top of the heart, pierced the back 1/3 of the right lung and stopped in the hind quarter. A devastatingly perfect shot and he still ran 80 yards.
That lion could have gone anywhere to elude us. Luck was simply on our side. Hard work and pre-scouting defined the general area where he had been hunting. Game was plentiful and that lion was able to sustain himself where he wanted. We saw 2 other lions while on his track (which speaks again to the skill of the bushmen trackers) and only moth nature knows how many lion actually roam that property.
I will be hunting in Zim later this year and have a lion on quota. Chances are low for success and I have somewhat lost interest in that part of the hunt. Somehow sitting over bait for a great cat to come in now seems different to me. Surely if the opportunity presents itself, I will take another lion. I am captivated and probably forever will be by the hunt for lion.
But those who would condemn hunting lions in South Africa are likely those who have never done it, or did so without searchig out the best opprotuities to do so. I would not personally want to hunt a lion that was only released into an area 6 months before I arrived. However, there are several good places to hunt lion in their native habitat on properties where they lions were born, fought for and held prides, were ousted by younger, stronger males and existed just as they would anywhere else.
As I came to learn from those who run such an operation, conservation is a big part of their operation. They do bring in younger lions for genetic diversity. Are those the lions that are shot by hunters looking for a younger male because of price? Frankly, they do not know. Lions are not tagged like Rhino. They are, in many cases, translocated from areas where there are too many lions or from other breeders who also have sustaining prides and move lions about for diversity.
I know there are operations that are not as well run as where I hunted lion. But for those who want the true lion hunting experience, it does still exist in South Africa. I got much more than I bargained for and will hunt again next year if the Courts allow it.
South Africa offers a unique opportunity to hunt lion and more importantly, to conserve the species. For those who thin that banning lion hunting will "save the lions," think again. Lion exact a heavy toll on other game, cattle and in some cases people. If they can "pay" for themselves, they will face an inevitable death. Those that are presently being breed for stock for the sport hunting industry will either be set free and cause lion/human confrontations or they will be shot. Those lions on the ranch such as the one I hunted will suffer a similar fate. They will take game, cost the property owners money and be shot. But that will be illegal. So out comes the shovel. A terrible fate for the most majestic animal I have ever hunted.
My pint is to think again about what lion hunting in South Africa is really and truly like. Search out the best places and you will have an unrivaled experience. Even if you never plan to hunt a lion, think before you condemn South African lion hunting. From my perspective, there are more lion in Africa because they can be hunted than will exist if they cannot be hunted, either because of laws or undoable price.
The lions will not be saved, they mist pay to stay. That is just the reality of Africa.