Helping Out In Africa

I've always hunted for food. I believe in it. Ever since I was a kid, I proudly dressed and carried home the rabbits and squirrels I'd shot, with high expectations of a home-cooked wild-game dinner.

For that reason, I'm a lousy trophy hunter. Given my druthers, I'd rather tip over a spike bull elk than his grandfather. For me, the proof is in the quality of the steaks and chops. That's not to say I haven't held off on a shot and passed on an average elk to wait for a big boy in places where there was an abundance of bulls and the hunting was easier than the norm. The same holds true for other game animals when I've been picky.

FOOD FOR AFRICA

Imagine my delight when I went on a recent trip to Botswana in southern Africa, where every ounce of meat from the game we killed was given to people on the verge of starvation. To give you an idea of how desperate these folks are, consider that most of their protein was coming from mopani worms, an insect that invades their trees during the hot summer months.

My good pal Steve Comus, director of publications for Safari Club International, engineered the trip. I'll be honest: Prior to this I had given little consideration to people in Third World countries. After all, their problems were not my problems. Because of sheer ignorance, I had no real empathy for them. Why should I care that people in Botswana were starving and suffering from the worst HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world? Still, when Steve told me about the plan to donate all the meat we shot, I became really interested. Part of what made me so eager to participate was that this hunt was driven by the elemental urge that has motivated us to go afield since before recorded time--the desire to gather food.

When we headed to Africa, Steve was literally dragging the biggest army duffel I'd ever seen, filled with clothing and sleeping bags for children in the poverty-stricken villages near where we'd be hunting. All the goods were donated by SCI.

I hunted on ranches owned by Eric and Oksana Sparks of Tucson, Ariz. The Sparks's goal is to provide assistance through hunting to local villagers, who are one step away from starvation and suffering from the highest AIDS infection rate in the world.

BRINGING BACK THE GAME

Eric's contribution was to introduce game species into the area that had been shot off by cattle ranchers and poachers. To do so, he constructed an enormous 9-foot fence around several thousand acres. While Steve and I were there, we witnessed the first release of animals into the enclosure --several dozen blue wildebeest and red hartebeest. According to the plan, the animals would be allowed to breed, and as their offspring were produced, they'd be turned out into wild, unfenced country. Ultimately, the released animals will form the core of new herds that will attract hunters not only to Eric's ranch but to others as well, bolstering much-needed economic development in this depressed region.

HUNTING FOR THE HUNGRY

Oksana Sparks is one of the most fascinating women I've ever met. With long, flaming red hair and energy to spare, she has dedicated her life to the poverty-stricken people in the villages. She lives on her Botswana ranch more than six months of the year and most of her time is spent in the villages, where she provides food, clothes and educational supplies. She herself is a passionate hunter, having taken many species in North America as well as in Africa.

My hunt resulted in some fine animals, all of them destined for the villages. When I put down an absolutely beautiful 55-inch kudu, I knew that it would feed many families very well. On another day, Oksana guided me to a Limpopo bushbuck along the Limpopo River, which divides Botswana and South Africa. It was a fine animal, and we had no sooner transported it into camp than Oksana hung it in a tree and expertly removed every bit of flesh. Again, I knew exactly where the animal's meat would end up.

One afternoon, 55 children from a local village came to the ranch and danced for us, dressed in traditional costumes of tanned hides provided by Oksana. I have to say that it was a life-changing experience for me, as was our trip to the villages the next day, where we watched the children sing and dance in their classrooms. The most emotional moment of the trip was when we offered gifts of meat to people who suffered from severe malnutrition. I remember walking up to a woman who was nursing twins; the look in her eyes when I placed an impala hindquarter before her moved me to my core.

A CALL FOR HUNTERS

I came away from that hunt with a new understanding of people in desperate need. I realized how important it was for hunting organizations like Safari Club International to offer humanitarian assistance. Steve Comus's gifts on behalf of SCI were just a tiny part of this group's commitment.

For me, knowing that some of these children whose beautiful smiles I was seeing would not be alive next year was a terribly depressing thought. On the positive side, it was comforting to know that hunters can make a difference, just as we do in America, with programs that offer wild game to people in need. Never again will I take my comfortable life for granted. I owe a debt of gratitude to Eric and Oksana Sparks for opening my eyes.

For information about Jim Zumbo's books, go to jimzumbo.com.

For more on hunting, go to outdoorlife.com/hunting

If You Want to Go

If you would like to hunt with the Sparkses and find out more about Oksana's work with the villages in Botswana and how you can help, contact them at 520-670-1275 or on the Internet at suksessafaris.com.