Friday, April 04, 2008


The price of a rhino's life? $100,000

Louis Theroux feeding lions

Big game hunting hasn't died out with fears for endangered species, it's just moved to private game reserves. Louis Theroux went to South Africa to try to understand the thrill of paying to kill an animal.
Last year, having made documentaries on high-stakes gambling and extreme plastic surgery, I turned my journalistic sights on another controversial leisure industry: the world of big game hunting in South Africa. Hunting is, if anything, even more polarising than other subjects I've looked at.
Where the strangeness of gambling and plastic surgery lies in the element of self-sabotage - throwing your own money away, making yourself look weird - hunting gives another turn to the screw by putting another sentient creature in harm's way - specifically, that zebra or lion whose pelt would look so nice turned into a pouffe for the front room.

Louis Theroux's African Hunting Holiday is on BBC Two on Sunday, 6 April, at 2100 BST
Catch up at BBC iPlayer or see clips here

A lifelong city dweller, my ignorance about wildlife in general and hunting in particular was, at the outset, almost complete. For five or six years I was a vegetarian; I don't cook much meat at home and I still get a slightly weird "farmyard feeling" when I take sausages out of the packet and notice that they're all strung together.
As for big game hunting, my ideas - formed by old films and books - were basically that you'd spend weeks tramping through rough country for a glimpse of a kudu, unleash hell with your shotgun, then retire to the tent for six or seven gin-and-tonics. And I had a notion that nowadays most of the big animals were endangered and therefore off limits - no-one actually still went out bagging rhinos and lions, did they?
But almost any animal can be hunted - rhinos, lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, and many more - and far from being out in the "bundu", most of the hunting in South Africa takes place on privately owned game farms. The animals are behind fences.
Menu of game
They are wild in the sense that they may bite you; they are wild in the sense that they won't come when you whistle; but they are not wild in the "Born Free" sense. They all belong to someone.

Porcupine or rhino: The difference is almost $100,000
You don't have to tramp around for a glimpse of a kudu because the farmer who owns all the kudu can drive you to the corner of his property where they're usually seen. Most safari outfitters offer a menu of game that clients can choose from. It's like shopping from a catalogue.
Looking down these lists is slightly surreal. Everything is on offer, including porcupine ($250 - is it possible people really hunt these?), warthog ($300), on through a multitude of indistinguishable deer-like species, up to the big ticket items: $8,000 for a hippo, $14,000 for a buffalo, between $25,000 and $35,000 for a male lion, and between $50,000 and $100,000 for a rhino.
It was all quite weird, but I became intrigued by the element of pretence in what was being offered - the outfitters were selling an old-fashioned idea of man-against-nature while secretly working the scenery in the wings. There was a whiff of theme park about the whole thing.
I also liked the paradoxical situation of the game farmers - that they keep their animals alive for years, leaving them feed in the dry season, piping in water - only to have tourists come in and whack their prize specimens from the back of a four-by-four. It was a bit like running a zoo where visitors could shoot the animals.
Discount packages
Not surprisingly, the industry has attracted its share of criticism, especially from the media. This made it tricky for us to get people to go on film. But after a lot of phone calls my team eventually won the trust of Riaan Vosloo, owner of Shingani Safaris, a company that operates in the north-west corner of the country, Limpopo Province.

Louis Theroux with professional hunt organiser Riaan Vosloo
Riaan is in many ways typical of South African professional hunters and outfitters. He grew up hunting wild game the old fashioned way - he told me in the old days he'd be pleased to shoot one or two animals in a four-month season. Now he offers discount packages where visiting tourists can bag four trophies in six days.
On one level, he probably regards the ersatz theme-park kind of hunting that he purveys to international clients as unchallenging and slightly pointless; at the same time he's proud of his ability to make sure every hunter, no matter his skill level, goes home with the trophies he's paid for. You might be morbidly obese and half-blind, you'll still get those record-breaking kudu horns - even if it means Riaan has to drive you up to the animal and point your gun in the right direction.
During our filming, Riaan had a large party of bow-hunters from Ohio staying at his lodge. These were a far cry from the colonial-era image I had of the great white hunter. They were regular middle-class and working-class folk, some of whom had never been outside America before. Used to hunting deer they could at times be a little ignorant about the more exotic game. A trucker called Anthony was asked by his South African guide if he wanted to take a shot at a "duiker" (a small horned antelope). "A tiger? I can't afford that!" he said. Another novice hunter told me, in a moment of confusion, that her husband had killed a "zudu".
Accidents happen
But the Ohioans were knowledgeable where it counted: they were accurate with their arrows and they took pains to make their kills clean.
It might take several days to pop that waterbuck or that oryx. But the outcome was never really in doubt
Walking-and-stalking game with a bow and arrow is virtually impossible - you can't get close enough. So the bow hunters would sit in a blind most of the day, looking out on a watering hole, wait till their animal of choice came in for a drink, and then whack him.
Nor was it as absurdly easy as one might think. All the game farms I saw were a minimum of a couple of thousand acres; they feel like wilderness, at least when you're in the middle of them, even if they are actually fenced in. Some days, because of wind carrying their scent towards the animals, nothing turned up at the watering holes. It wasn't as though they were being led into the firing line on a leash - it might take several days to pop that waterbuck or that oryx. But the outcome was never really in doubt.
Naturally I'd been concerned about the nature of the deaths inflicted on the animals - how protracted and painful they might be. With a good shot through the heart or lungs, I was told, most animals will "bleed out" in a matter of seconds.
And because with bow-hunting there are no loud gun-shots, the experience is apparently less stressful - both for the unlucky prey and for the surrounding wildlife.
Natural predators
And yet, and yet. Accidents happen, shots go astray. Miss the vitals and you're looking at tracking an animal that might take hours or even days to catch up with and put out of its misery. Not a nice way to go.

"Why you might choose to take an animal's life for sport..."
Exactly why you might choose to take an animal's life for sport was a question I never completely got my head around - notwithstanding numerous approaches to the issue. Hunters talked about the challenge of pitting your wits against an animal in its natural habitat (well, kind of) and the rush of lining up a perfect shot.
It may be that we're natural predators, genetically programmed deep in our inherited neuro-circuits to dig killing things. Or perhaps it's a question of hunters being raised in a culture that desensitises them to the well-being of animals. Who knows? The thornier conundrum for a squeamish city-dweller like me is that the practice of keeping animals on game farms and allowing them to be hunted has helped to increase the stocks of exotic wildlife.
Simply put, hunters are paying for more and more exotic animals to be kept alive and healthy - which has to be a good thing. There are now more wild animals on private farms in South Africa than in the nature reserves.
In the end, for me, the most touching and revealing element in the story was the bond that grows between the game farmers and the animals they raise and allow to be killed.
Several of the game farmers seemed deeply ambivalent about the hunting that takes place on their properties and which pays their bills. Having got to know their animals, and grown fond of them, they actually don't like to see them get hurt. It's an axiom of the game farming world that farmers almost never hunt their own animals. On one or two occasions I was with game farmers whose animals had been injured but not killed, and they became visibly uneasy. It was oddly touching to see these grizzled South Africans grappling with their unease about the new incarnation of their sport and attempting, for the most part successfully, to stick to the script about giving clients the trophies they wanted.
In the end, there may be no satisfactory answer to the urge to hunt. But the more profound lesson may be one about the nature of empathy - that no-one wants to hurt a creature that he's got to know.



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