The Basics of Hunting in Southern Africa

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After my first plains game safari in South Africa last year, I was fortunate enough to be offered some contract work that has taken me throughout southern Africa. Since that first trip, I’ve spent about four months on the continent, mostly in short 10 to 14-day chunks. Every time I work there, I tack on some time to hunt. I’m starting to get the hang of it. The first thing to know is . . .

You don’t have to be rich

The biggest fallacy about hunting in southern Africa is that it costs tens of thousands of dollars and is only for the super-wealthy. If you’re going after the the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and other “dangerous game,” that’s certainly true no matter what country in Africa you intend to hunt.

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But there’s a whole lot more to hunt in Africa than dangerous game. In fact, there are over 40 species of plains game animals in South Africa alone, and they are far less expensive than most would imagine.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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On my first trip to South Africa, I hunted for 10 days and took a wildebeest, a blessbok, a Red Hartebeest and a plains zebra. My total cost, including airfare, lodging, food, tips, permits, everything, was about $5,000. That’s less expensive than most weeklong guided bull elk hunts in the US, and you only get one animal there.

Hunting plains game is an amazing experience. The plentiful Burchell’s Zebra or Blue Wildebeest epitomize southern Africa. Finding an old warthog is more challenging than most would expect, and you’ll cover some incredible terrain looking for that one right boar.

Chasing Kudu through the KwaZulu-Natal or the Eastern Cape is a hunt so enthralling many dedicated hunters choose to go after them over and over again. Springbok in the greater Karoo or the Gemsbok Oryx in Namibia is an entire thing in and of itself.

There are also subsets of plains game that dedicated hunters choose to chase. For me, it’s the “Tiny Ten.” For others, it’s all the “Beests” or all the spiral horns or all of the different color phases of the Springbok.

Given the wide range of species, and the even wider range of environments, you could hunt southern African plains game year after year for the rest of your life and never have the same hunt twice.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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Know what you’re buying

South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Botswana, and all of the southern African countries are very different places, and they hunt a little differently depending on where you are. You’ll see truly massive Cape Buffalo in the South African Limpopo province, but they’ll be in small herds. You’ll see hundreds of them in Mozambique. In one place they’re standing in tall grass, in the next they’ll be in marshland.

If you’re hunting in South Africa, you are almost certain to be hunting what is essentially a high-fenced game ranch. You may never see that fence again after you get in, and the animals living there may live their whole lives and never see it, but it’s there, somewhere.

Conversely, you may be hunting your target species in a smaller 300-acre pen. If this is an important consideration to you, ask your guide service specifically about it.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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“Free range” hunting is more common in Mozambique and other countries, but the size and quality of the animals may be diminished as compared to game concessions in South Africa.

The only exception to this I’ve found so far is Crusader Safaris out of South Africa. They have real free-range hunts in a few locations throughout the country, a true rarity. I’ve not had a bad guide yet, but the folks at Crusader Safaris are on a different level entirely. I would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone.

Costs

The price of your safari will depend on duration, location, and species. The same animal can be priced radically differently in two different countries.

Most guide services will provide you with a price list for trophy fees for any species killed and the locations they hunt upon request. Make that request early on. Communicate your budget to your guide service and be very clear on your priorities. It’s good to say exactly what you can and can’t afford. Nobody will have any problem with that.

You will also have a “daily rate” that essentially covers your room, food, and sometimes alcohol. Again, that rate varies quite a bit and is generally commensurate with the amount of human misery required to sustain you on your hunt.

South Africa generally has inexpensive daily rates, and a higher trophy fee. Mozambique and Botswana, on the other the other hand, generally have lower trophy fees and higher daily rates.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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It was strange to me to find that a tent-based safari was often more expensive than lodge stays. I won’t spoil the surprise, but, if you can, do the tent-based safari.

Depending on the geography and plains game species (or primate) you choose, you may need to apply for special permits through your guide service. The fees for those permits are minimal, but some of those permits take days, some even take months. Get right on that.

When you’re there, you will see a lot more game than is on your list. Every guide I’ve used has got me right on my biggest priority on the very first day. Sometimes I’ve gotten that animal on day one…and sometimes I never saw it at all.

While you are hunting for your priorities, other opportunities will present themselves. Your guide will point them out and it’s okay to ask how much it costs. They’ll tell you…that’s part of their job. You might be able to make a deal on that animal, and you might not.

Don’t shoot at any animal your guide doesn’t specifically approve. If you do and there’s blood on the ground, even a single drop, you are paying full price for that animal. If you shoot through a zebra and hit the giraffe behind it, you’ll be expected to pay for both, regardless if either is recovered.

Note that many, if not most, guide services don’t take credit cards. Ask right up front if they do. If they don’t take credit cards, make sure your bank can do an international wire transfer to them prior to leaving for the trip.

Most guide services will ask you for a down payment or “reservation fee” prior to the hunt, and they’ll hold dates for a year, sometimes more. That fee varies depending on location and target species, but expect a fee of at least $1,000 to $3000. This will be applied toward your trophy fees or daily rates.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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Package rates often provide some savings. But be aware they aren’t set in stone. Let’s say someone offers three spiral horn animals for $5000. You like that, but you want a zebra, too. They list the plains zebra at $1,500, but you’ve only got $6000 total to spend on trophy fees. Call them and see what they can do. I’ve never seen a guide service not drop the price a bit to work in additional animals on hunts.

As for tips, I have given around $100 a day for my individual guide and $150 a day to be split among the kitchen and “house staff,” and $20 per animal to the skinners. This is for good service, and I’ve never had anything but outstanding service. I don’t know if that’s a particularly big tip or not, but the owners of the outfits have always told me it is a welcome amount.

In short, it’s totally doable to have a great safari for much less than you probably think.

Paperwork

Hunting in Africa is more complex than most hunting in the US, but by no means insurmountable. The easiest way to make everything simple(ish) is to hire a reputable guide service.

Nothing is more important than your choice of guide service.

Whether or not to hire a guide service isn’t the question. You have to in order to hunt, or to bring a firearm into the country, for just about anywhere you would hunt. Most countries want an invitation letter from the guide service that details who you are, when and what you will hunt, and usually the firearm and ammunition you intend to bring.

Finding a solid guide service is actually pretty easy. If you can, head to a hunting convention or Safari Club meeting. Talk to all the of guides you can and ask other hunters about them. Use the internet.

There are tons of hunting forums and you can usually find someone who has hunted with whoever you’re interested in. Beyond that, I’ve never found a guide service that won’t happily supply a list of customers with their contact information. Contact those people and ask them every question you can think of.

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Every country in Africa is different. That means that the laws and permitting for each country may be similar, but they are not the same. You should expect your guide to send you a lot of forms to fill out, especially if you are heading to multiple countries on your trip.

There will be many questions on those forms. Fill them out to the best of your ability, and send it back to the guide as fast as you can. Expect to have to go through that a couple of times if you’ve never done it before. The challenge is not that the forms are particularly difficult, but there are real cultural and language barriers, even in English. Follow the lead of your guide.

In the US, we expect slow service from government officials. That’s because we don’t have any clue what slow service really is. In Africa, they know. Get your forms in as fast as you can. I’ve had permits take four months to approve and I’ve had the same permits take 10 days to approve.

Your airline may bring your firearm directly to the police station inside the airport where you land. Ask at the baggage carousel if this is the case. Either way, you’ll need to find that police station in the airport. You will then have to show your permit to them upon arrival, or you will have to sit there and fill it out.

Don’t fill it out there. If you do, it will be on their time, and the police there are not in a hurry to help. There may also be a significant language barrier and you may be expected to pay a bribe.

Your guide may suggest that you employ the use of a separate party to handle the importation of your firearm. I would strongly encourage this practice.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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As an example, I had already hunted in South Africa several times before I went to hunt with my Nosler M48. I knew how to fill out the forms correctly and chose not to pay for the import service. That was a serious mistake.

My gun never made it out of the custody of the South African police until I picked it up at the airport on my way home. Just three weeks later I hired https://riflepermits.com to import the same gun. A kind older gentleman met me in the airport, walked me over to the police station, and in less than three minutes I was on my way.

If you are hunting anywhere other than South Africa, this service is even more valuable, as you will often pay more in bribes than you would in hiring the service. A hunting companion of mine paid as much as the value of his firearm to get that gun home from Mozambique. Skip that hassle and hire a pro.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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Make sure you have a separate locking container for your ammunition…and only your ammunition. I understand, this makes no sense. But sometimes, and for some airlines, in some countries (and all of this seems to change daily) the ammunition is required to be entirely separate from the firearm, and in its own locked case.

No matter where you go, you’ll need a US Customs Form 4457. It is important now to make sure that any firearms and optics (including binoculars) are on the 4457. There are services in the US available to help you get that form right, but in this case, that’s a waste of money. Call your local customs office (often in a nearby airport) and take your firearms and gear to them. They’ll help you fill it out right there and you’re done. It takes very little time, but arrange for this as soon as possible, as some countries will want to see this prior to granting you an import permit.

Finally, if you have to travel through Europe or the Middle East, you may need to file an import/export permit for whatever country you are stopping in, even if you never touch your firearm while you’re there.

The import/export permit for my transits through Amsterdam took three full months to approve. They required proof that I could legally own a firearm in the US before they would release my rifle, and my Texas CHL was sufficient. All for a rifle I had no access to while I was in the country.

Travel

Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no direct flights from the US to southern Africa. That required me to travel to either Amsterdam or Paris, and then to Johannesburg. Those were long flights, but almost completely empty.

Now that the world has regained a modicum of sanity (brief as I’m sure it will be), there are once again direct flights from Atlanta to Johannesburg. This is the way to go. I have yet to take this flight, in either direction, when it was devoid of other hunters. You can get a lot of help at the airport from them and lying about your hunts to each other makes the trip go faster.

Flying inside the continent, or even inside different countries in Africa, can be a lot trickier. Ask your guide to purchase your tickets for you. Make sure that you are allowed to transport your firearm as many airlines do not allow this. That said, even if you do everything right, there can still be issues.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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For instance, I recently flew from Pietermaritzburg to Johannesburg, only to find that my beloved Ruger No. 1 didn’t make it to the baggage carousel. It turned out that the airline I was flying changed ownership that day, and some baggage handlers walked off the job, leaving my rifle on the plane, which flew back to Pietermaritzburg.

I called my guide, who drove to the Pietermaritzburg airport where he found my rifle still on the plane, waiting there on the tarmac. He put it on the next flight to JoBerg and I picked it up personally on the tarmac (for a modest fee) when it landed. This kind of thing is far more common than you would hope, and the moral of the story is…again, still…get a good guide.

Everywhere I’ve gone on the continent I’ve hired a driver, whether I’m hunting or not. Part of this is because I get lost easily and part of it is that whole left side of the road thing is terrifying. And so are the drivers throughout southern Africa. There are no rules of the road there, only suggestions.

Getting your trophies home

If you already have a US-based taxidermist you want to use, contact them before your trip. They will provide you with a form to give to your guide service. You’ll pay for a “dip and pack” service in Africa for your hides and horns, which will be sent through a customs broker to a tannery and then to your taxidermist back home. The broker I use is Cindi Rulon at Pro Cargo USA and I cannot possibly recommend her more.

Alternatively, you can have your trophies mounted there. If you get to inspect the work of the taxidermist while you are there (usually in the lodge of your guide service) and you find them acceptable, there’s no reason to expect you’ll get a poor-quality mount. I’ve done it both ways now and I’ve gotten great results every time.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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That said, the cost of shipping trophies back home can be…extreme. For instance, I had one pedestal mount and four hides and European mounts shipped home. The total cost of shipping was just over $3,000 including the various customs and wildlife department/agriculture department fees in each country.

As before, don’t expect your taxidermist in Africa to take credit cards.

I’ve learned that if I just want hides for rugs and European mounts, I have them done in Africa. My shoulder or full mounts are usually done here in the US. (I use either Conroe Taxidermy or Animal Art Taxidermy of Austin.) Expect “dip and pack” service to run around $200 per animal. Crating and documentation fees depend on the size and number of animals, but expect an absolute minimum of $500.

Bows, Handguns, and Front Stuffers

Unlike in the US, muzzleloaders are treated just like any other rifle throughout southern Africa. Getting the powder and primers over can be a much bigger challenge than the actual firearm. Ask your guide service if they can source them locally, and if not, ask them for suggestions on how to get those items over there. Be advised, there may be no legal way to do this.

Bow hunting safaris are well established now. I took my stick and string over and had a ball. With a bow, spot and stalk is less common than blind hunting, and hunting from a built-up pit blind near a watering hole can be extremely effective. It’s also a great way to see lots of game, especially at night.

There are specific regulations in some countries for arrow weight and speed depending on species. Your guide service will advise you there.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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Handgun hunting still raises eyebrows, even in South Africa. Self-defense or “military style” handguns can’t be brought into most countries you would hunt in, and semi-autos are right out. Single shot, bolt action, and revolvers can be brought in, as long as they have a scope attached. A factory Ruger Bisley Hunter is verboten. Attach a magnified optic to it and it’s just fine. I have no idea why.

As with animals everywhere, recovering game shot with an arrow or a pistol round can be a challenge. Before you go, ask what the process and fee is for hiring dogs (or in some cases a helicopter) to find wounded game.

I was ready to pay for dogs to find an impala. My guide and I both agreed the shot was good, but the dude just vanished. There was no blood on the ground, other than on the arrow that had passed clean through.

The trackers were stumped. I had to leave that day and time was running out. I was ready to pay a hefty sum for tracking dogs, when the guide kindly told me no, he’d find it that day or the following, dip and pack it, and send it to me. It was laying in the road on the way back to camp, not far away, but in the opposite direction we’d seen it run.

Is it safe?

Kinda. Depends. And no.

Even the safest countries in southern Africa aren’t generally as safe for visitors as most places in the US. Johannesburg is a big modern city, and I wouldn’t bring my family out there after dark. In fact, other than Cape Town, I can’t think of any of the big cities throughout southern Africa I’d feel really good about wandering alone after sunset.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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The countryside is generally safer, as there are fewer humans, although you should understand that infrastructure just isn’t available in many rural locations. Roads are often washed out, electrical power is often intermittent, health care is rarely good, and law enforcement is simply unavailable.

On one of my trips, I was attacked by a rabid bat. It took me three days to get to a hospital that had a rabies vaccination available and then I had to pay the doctor $600 cash for it. The “nurse” didn’t know rabies was fatal.

Bribery is also commonplace throughout every country I’ve visited on the continent. Police are the worst, but government workers, ticket agents, really just about anyone in any kind of position of authority will expect a bribe. Accept that it’s just the price of doing business and interact with them as little as possible. Let your guide do the talking.

Hunting in Africa how to hunt African game
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There’s only one way to find out

Everyone who hunts in Africa, me included, falls in love with it. You’ll be planning your next hunt before you leave the first one. There’s a beauty in the wildness of that land that we’ve done our best to stamp out here in the west. You find you miss it, that beauty, that wildness. Save your pennies and spend your time. Africa is worth it.



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