Back in 1999 when a freelance travel writer could still get a commission, I wrote a piece on hunting in Namibia which was published in CNN Traveller. I interviewed two major players in the Namibian hunting fraterntiy and one, the now-dead Jan Oelofse, invited me to his farm, Mt Etjo, to see for myself what happens in a hunt and to meet some of his hunters.
Jan Oelofse remains one of the most unpleasant people I have ever encountered, but his views on hunting and hunters were jaw-dropping. For him, hunting and conservation were intertwined – a viewpoint extremely common amongst hunters. He admitted to me that he ran canned hunting, illegal then and now. In a canned hunt, someone – usually someone American – pays a great deal of money ($25,000 then, probably around $35,000 now) to shoot an animal – generally a lion – in a small enclosure. When I asked if if he regretted anything he’d done, he answered:
“I’ve done a lot of things I didn’t like to do. The first impala I shot on this farm wasn’t necessary for me to shoot, but it was financially necessary. If a guy takes you out and every night wines and dines you and doesn’t take you to bed, he’s not going to take you out any more. It’s the same in life. If people are prepared to pay in kind, in money, you cater for it. Hunters have sponsored this place.”
Cecil the lion has rightly made headlines across the world. The American dentist who shot him with a bow and arrow on an illegal hunt in Zimbabwe and then left him to in agony for 40 hours before he was killed, skinned and beheaded has discovered how it feels to be hunted. I have no sympathy whatsoever. I have no sympathy with hunters who would rather shoot with a gun or a bow than a camera. I despise their attempts to justify and their pride in ‘the hunt’. In my view, hunting is indefensible, whether it’s foxes, deer or the animals of Africa.
I am currently working on a travel book/memoir/thing. One of the chapters is about my time with the hunters. Rudi and Annette (not their real names) were Oelofse’s professional hunters. Michael was the American hunter client. They tried to persuade me to go out with them, but I couldn’t. Perhaps I should have done, all in the name of the story, but nothing I would have seen happen would have changed my views. Despite all that, I liked them, a fact that still disturbs me, although nothing in Namibia is ever black and white. Here’s an extract:
“OK,” I say, taking another slug of wine to bolster my confidence. “You love watching game, you love animals. So why go that extra step? After tracking something for days – why do you need to kill it? Isn’t the hunt enough?” I feel like I’m in an undercover documentary made by Merchant Ivory.
Rudi, shamelessly conforming to stereotype, declares: “It’s the challenge,” and Michael, hilariously, shrieks: “Oh noooo!” Annette and I both laugh but Rudi is clearly irritated. “It’s so personal – like hallowed ground. It can be murder or a great experience. If you are not in the circle, hunting is a machismo, big horn on the wall thing and it annoys me when I get dismissed like that.”
It’s still not nearly good enough for me. “But why kill it?” I persist.
“We want to utilise it. We utilise to conserve…”
But now I’m irritated. “No, I don’t want the conservation shit. Tell me what you really think, because if you can’t even say the word ‘kill’…” I wish I’d been this brave with Helga and Henk. These guys and girls may have the guns, but they scare me a lot less than the Swakop racists.
Rudi finally tells it like it is for him. “Because I have outclassed the animal. He’s made too many mistakes. Actually, I don’t even like hunting with a rifle anymore, it’s not enough of a challenge. I use a bow – and before you ask, it’s legal here now. The bow hunter is not going to utilise as many animals as a rifle hunter.”
“Why don’t you say kill?” Astonishingly, it is Michael who asks.
“Well,” says Rudi, shifting in his seat, “It just sounds a little bit better – some people don’t like that word.” Oh, you think? But then he wrong-foots me again. “A lot of times I prefer it when the animal gets away. We beat him, we could have killed him. I feel super about it. If I just want to kill, I could shoot 2-300 animals a day. It’s not the kill – and that’s why I don’t like to use the word. Killing is the final full stop. When you get to the final stage of the hunt… I’m so psyched up, I can hear my heart beating.”
Michael agrees. “There’s nothing like it. But how can we explain that to someone like you? How we can respect it and kill it? In the simplest terms, it makes no sense whatsoever. I’m hunting kudu tomorrow and you should come, you know that. “
“But it won’t make me understand, because I could never kill something,” I point out.
“True,” he says, “but you’ll maybe understand why we do it from beginning to end. You’d have a better input. To people that don’t do it – and yes, I mean people like you – it’s a stigma, you’re just a macho asshole trying to prove something and it’s so far from the truth that I want to scream. I hate being dismissed as the Great White Hunter, what the fuck is that about? Guys back home do their bowling and their tennis, so maybe there is a macho thing going on. They switch the subject too quick. They want to push me down the drain, because I’m doing what they don’t dare to.”
“Come on then,” I ask as we drain the third bottle. “Sum it up for me in one sentence.”
“For the sport and the challenge,” Annette and Rudi say simultaneously.
Michael rolls his eyes, intensely self-aware. “I’ve spent fifteen years not getting it straight in my own mind. Maybe I’ve never been cornered before.”