Color Lines: Inside the Movement to Change the Face of the African Professional Hunter

Outdoor Life spent a week in Southern Africa in studying a fast-growing campaign to introduce more blacks into safari hunting

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NORTHERN CAPE PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA
The only thing more incongruous than me, a Missouri farm boy, hunting African plains game on the property of a diamond magnate is my guide, a black man who can't write his own name.

But neither Patches, my professional hunter, nor I can focus on incongruities right now. We’re crawling across the brick-orange dirt of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province on land owned by the DeBeers family, trying to get within rifle range of a herd of red hartebeest.

After a full morning on our stomachs and knees, unable to thread a shot through the milling hartebeest and veil of camel-thorn branches, we walk back to the Toyota Land Cruiser. “They won today,” says Patches. “Tomorrow, maybe we win.”

OMAHEKE PROVINCE, NAMIBIA
Oryx, declares Namibian outfitter Joof Lamprecht, are "wide awake." But then he tells me that I'll be hunting with his best PH, a black man named Johnny Hogobeb, who worked his way up from mechanic thanks to his attention to detail and hunting skills. Hogobeb, Lamprecht says, "knows what animals will do even before they know it."

We’ll have to put that omniscience to the test. These Kalahari oryx are spooky as spies. When they get nervous—as they do when the wind blows, or the sun shines, or they spot a stalking predator—they herd in the open, and then sift through the thornbrush, their silver-and-gray hides vanishing in the vertical confusion of trunk and limb like quail disappearing through cornstalks.

We are tracking a herd with a very good bull, but Hogobeb wants to wait to finish the approach. We crouch behind a snarl of brush until the antelope stop to feed. Then Hogobeb grabs my shirt and pulls me into him. “We move as one,” he hisses. And so we do, spidering from one patch of shade to another, freezing when the oryx look up, creeping when they return to feeding.

LIMPOPO PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA
An instructor at the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC), Gawie Lindeque has gathered his students around a glistening pile of fresh scat the size of a take-out pizza. What animal dropped this, he asks? A black rhino cuts branches with its sharp incisors, he says. A hippo is a grazer. The difference shows up in the excrement, and the handful of crap that Lindeque sifts through is full of pieces of finger-size branches, each sliced cleanly at the same 45-degree angle. It's rhino poop.

But the students are bored with this scatological lesson in the brushy field behind their campus. They are eager to walk over to the rifle range to shoot their rifles at life-size targets of Cape buffalo and waterbuck. Later, they’ll test their first-aid skills in a mock vehicle wreck, treating the sort of trauma any hunting guide might encounter in the field.

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This is a typical day of field study at the college, located inside South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The school teaches wildlife conservation, but this class is anything but typical. It’s dedicated to transforming the very nature of hunting in Africa, starting with a new type of professional hunter. This is the first class in a brand-new PH certification program, and the students could not be more different from the white-skinned, campaign-hat-wearing, hard-living, Afrikaans-speaking PH that has been the face of safari hunting on the continent for more than a century.

For starters, eight of these 10 students are black, like Johnny and Patches. Second, few have any experience hunting or have even spent much time in Africa’s rural areas. One, Itumeleng “Thumi” Mashaba, is a young woman from Soweto, the sprawling township near Johannesburg that is synonymous with poverty and crime. Leslie Long, the most accomplished of the group, has apprenticed with a white PH, but even with a diploma from the college, he’s unsure of his future.

SOUTHERN AFRICAN WILDLIFE COLLEGE
As a college student, Theresa Sowry spent five years in a "caravan," what we might call a camp-trailer, following a herd of zebras. She was researching their forage preferences, and what she learned from all that time watching family units graze, sleep, and breed is that while herds might be defined as "indiscriminate grazers"—that is, they'll eat anything that looks good at the time—individual zebras are highly selective foragers.

“It all depends on the scale that you look at,” says Sowry, who is now CEO of the SAWC. In some ways, her mission at the college is a matter of scale. She hopes that by training a new generation and type of wildlife expert—starting with just a handful of pioneering students—she can broaden the appeal of safari hunting in Africa, and thereby save the wildlife of an entire continent.

“There are two things that are undeniable in Africa right now,” says Sowry. “The first is the wholesale loss of some species of wildlife through poaching. The second is that where we have managed trophy hunting, we don’t have poaching. So sport hunting—not photo safaris or conservation parks where hunting is not allowed—is the best tool we have right now to conserve species.

“But here in Africa, safari hunting is considered an old-boys network by most of our majority black population. You have white Afrikaans PHs who got their jobs because their white Afrikaans fathers were PHs. It’s one segment of our society that hasn’t changed since the end of apartheid.”

I know exactly what she means. In my previous hunts in Africa, I’ve been appalled at the overt racism I’ve encountered in the field, where domineering white PHs command their squad of black, servile trackers and skinners the way a slaver might direct his human traffic. It’s highly uncomfortable for me, raised in the United States, but I’ve come to view this field-level racism as one of Africa’s colonial legacies.

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Sowry isn’t nearly so acquiescent. She worries that unless the majority of Africans understand and appreciate the economic and ecological value of sport hunting, an increasingly vocal movement to end safari hunting will gain traction. So, too, will calls for the sort of land reform that has transformed neighboring Zimbabwe from a wildlife-rich Eden to a bleak rural wasteland that swarms with poachers.

“When hunting is taken away from communities, then they don’t value wildlife,” says Sowry, who adds a sort of couplet to finish her thought. “If it pays, it stays. We need to prove to the non-hunting majority of Africa that wildlife pays everywhere it is legally and sustainably hunted.”

Her strategy to broaden the base of popular support for trophy hunting starts with her unorthodox PH school. She’s been surprised at the benefaction she’s received from the traditional hunting community. Aimpoint, the Swedish gunsight manufacturer, helps fund the school, and so does the Dallas Safari Club. But the greatest sign that the industry is ready to transform comes from the safari community itself. The Professional Hunting Association of South Africa hosts a gala dinner each year to raise funds to help defray tuition costs for students at the SAWC. Even more critically, with Sowry’s gentle urging, established PHs have agreed to offer apprenticeships to graduates of the college’s course.

“We are starting to get applications from the children of some of South Africa’s most established professional hunters,” says Sowry. “We want to continue to be transformational by recruiting non-­traditional students, but it’s nice to be respected by the industry we hope to transform.”

A HARTEBEAST WITH PATCHES
Patches, whose given name is Mpahleni Madonsela, started working for Hans "Scruffy" Vermaak's safari outfit 25 years ago.

“If he had had proper schooling, he’d be my boss,” Vermaak says of Madonsela, who got his nickname when a Zimbabwean PH told him that he was “as quiet as an Apache.” In the convoluted, Dutch-influenced brogue of Afrikaans, “Apache” came to be “Patches,” which Vermaak pronounces as “Peaches.”

“Maybe he can’t write, but he knows animals,” says Vermaak. “He knows people. He knows the bush. This is the thing about black hunters. The best are the total package. They hunt like Bushmen, but they also know how to take care of people from other places and make them feel special.”

Here on Rooipoort—a 100,000-acre ranch west of Kimberly founded by Cecil Rhodes, the father of Africa’s diamond industry and founder of the famous graduate scholarship that bears his name—Patches turns away from a dozen bull hartebeest that look good to me. He wants to find an older, solitary bull, and at high noon on my last day hunting here, we do. The old veteran is bedded in scrub brush, his red hide gleaming in the sun like a new penny. Again, we crawl, but this stalk ends with me shooting my first hartebeest. I marvel at its Dr. Seuss anatomy—knob knees, convoluted horns, and a torso that appears to be coming and going at the same time—an animal that seems to be constructed out of spare parts.

“We say that God made the hartebeest at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon,” says Patches, as he claps me on the shoulder. And then he adds, “Today, my friend, we won.”

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A great Namibian oryx.

AN ORYX WITH HOGOBEB
If Patches seems like an old friend, equal parts back-slapping confidante and hartebeest-seeking missile, Johnny Hogobeb is a bit more distant, but he's a consummate professional.

His path to PH took longer than Patches’ did, but he had help from his patrons, Joof and Marina Lamprecht.

“I would put Johnny with any client, in any hunting situation,” says Joof. “This is the thing with black Africans, yo: Many of them have talents that they have never been given a chance to express.”

Hogobeb’s performance confirms his abilities. In just two days, our party kills four remarkable oryx, a blue wildebeest, a gigantic eland, and a giraffe.

LOOKING AHEAD, NERVOUSLY
I spend my last evening in Africa with Sowry and her students, sitting around picnic tables under an immense acacia tree, talking about their hopes of helping create a new model for safari guides and their fears that they won't be accepted by the insular PH culture.

I show them pictures of my animals with Johnny and Patches. The students pass my phone around the group. You can tell by the glow on their faces that each of them pictures themselves in place of the black PHs in the hero shots, posing with a happy hunter, celebrating a successful safari and a promising future for themselves and the families they will support.

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A sign of the troubled times.

POSTSCRIPT
This spring, nearly a year after my visit to SAWC, I checked back with students in the PH program. All five of the students who passed the PH course have been placed with a working professional hunter.

Leslie Long is working as an apprentice PH in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.
The lone woman in the class, Thumi Mashaba, landed a job with Hunt Safari, an outfit in Middleburg, South Africa. The outfitter, Jakes van der Merwe, told me that after interviewing her, he saw Mashaba's potential.

“She still has a lot to learn about hunting itself, but she seems very keen,” van der Merwe wrote in an email. “She is well spoken and will be a great benefit with overseas clients. With the women hunting market growing in the U.S., I believe female hunters might feel less intimidated and enjoy their hunt more.”

Long reflected on the larger value of his college education.

“It is of vital importance for the future of hunting in Africa to have black natives trained in this industry, so that they can benefit directly from it and manage their own wildlife in a positive way.”

A TALE OF TWO NATIONS

You hear this a lot, in both North America and in Africa: Managed hunting is the only way to save wildlife species. If that’s the case, then we should see evidence if we look at the amount of huntable wildlife in South Africa, where safari hunting thrives, versus Zimbabwe, where much of the nation’s legendary trophy hunting ended with the widespread land reform of the Mugabe administration, which seized white-owned property.

According to a UN study of biodiversity, 32 percent of Zimbabwe is considered “threatened,” while 22 percent of South Africa is impaired.

The picture is muddied by the rise of game ranches in South Africa, but a 2012 study of African wildlife concluded that in sub-Saharan Africa, managed hunting has more long-term economic and community value than either beef production or subsistence “bushmeat” consumption of wildlife.

This story originally ran in the May 2014 issue of Outdoor Life. All photos by Andrew McKean, except oryx photo: Anne and Steve Toon / Getty Images.