Changing face of the hunter

“It’s a symphony, a ballet”, said the hunter enthusiastically as round and round, in the African bush, more than 20 impala joined in a giant circle of jest and frolic watched imperiously by giraffe and nonchalantly by a group of maribou storks, standing around like the 12 apostles.

The performance was rare but it was not the menagerie alone that attracted my interest. It was the descriptive passion of the hunter, one of the most experienced professionals in safari operations in Zimbabwe.

For this is a memory of Jeff Stutchbury and his response to the impala bounding in unison was a fairly good symbol of the bridge which the hard men of the bush have had to cross in order to survive in this modern era.

Many no longer deal exclusively with animals. Today they are in the domain of people. And while the modern hunter may carry his rifle on the trail with him, its purpose is protection rather than threat.

Strawhatted and bearded, Jeff Stutchbury who sadly died in his beloved Afica, would have fitted the part of the Hemingway hero if he were 20 years younger. He seems to have spent a lifetime in the wild places of Africa since at the age of 18 he lived with rod and rifle in a dugout canoe on Lake Nyasa to see how he could survive.

Over the intervening years he built a classic reputation in the southern Africa region, first as a game warden in National Parks, a Government conservation organisation which was then fighting to save the black rhino from extinction in Zimbabwe.

I met Jeff at the beautifully-appointed Hwange Safari Lodge, where he was helping to train professional rangers, but he had also been involved in the development of wild life enterprises such as Bumi Hills, a cliff top safari lodge overlooking Lake Kariba, and Chikwenya, an elite safari camp on the Zambezi River, which he lovingly supervised with his wife Veronica.

Jeff’s life pretty well illustrated the changing face of Africa’s wild life industry. Though there are some whose job it is to shoot to kill under licence or even to capture animals, more and more are finding their livelihood in photographic or just plain tourist safaris.

Jeff put it into perspective. “There are many professional hunters qualified to run such operations.They are skilled in zoology, botany and bird life, truly experts in their fields. They know everything there is to know about the bush. But the master question is whether they can pass that knowledge on to the people. “

People mattered little in the old days. But then, it seemed, neither did animals. The whole region was abounding in great herds of game during the days of Livingstone ‘ a great zoological garden, as one contemporary noted.

One big game hunter, Roualeyn Gordon Cumming, ranging through Africa in the 19th century, “ran riot among them all, giving chase to everything that could rouse his blood and fought many a duel with the biggest monsters of the forest.”

Cumming’s slaughter of wild life was without precedent, exciting “sickening horror”. Yet many including the Nile explorer Sir Samuel Baker and Frederick Courteney Selous who pioneered and hunted in the area of Zimbabwe, pursued a great quest for game with Victorian licence.

The result was a huge decimation of the big game by hunters who often returned trophy-laden in a blaze of glory to the British Isles while on another level the gentler plains animals were victims of a dramatic onslaught by native populations hunting for food and skins. It’s fair to say that Africa has never recovered.

Today hunting is controlled by National Parks in Zimbabwe and even most of the private estate owners carefully monitor their game populations and hunt accordingly. Although it may appear to be controversial, hunters and their safari clients, through their presence in remote areas, actually discourage poaching which has been so destructively rife to the north.

Jeff had a tremendous knowledge of this and one of his biggest concerns was protection of the environment. He felt he could best do this by introducing the great heritage of Africa to people from around the world.

“You’ve got to have enthusiasm”, he once told me. “For me it’s thrilling to go out every time. Even the changes of light, the beautiful colours, the changes in vegetation are stimulating. And my job is to share it with the people I’m with”.

Jeff never forgot that maxim. He was always the child with his first toy but at the same time ever ready to leap into a defensive position in the face of a charging elephant.

“There is still so much to learn”, he said modestly. “Taking the people on our Landrover trips is an art. You have to ‘crack their faces’ first and then you’ve got them. People are mostly responsive because they’ve come here to enjoy the wild life but occasionally you have to be a magician. You even get people asking what time the elephants are coming.”

The impala we encountered were in the Dete Vlei, a Dutch term for a small marshy valley, overlooked by the Hwange Safari Lodge and resplendent in the animals of the plains.

It was the night patrol and Jeff was taking his guests to a bush camp, an impressive resting place in a hidden clearing (now Sable Valley) where they spent the night 30ft above the ground in treetop houses.

Already a leopard had been sighted in a big acacia tree and we had put all our American, Japanese, British and Australian energies into finding elephants ‘ not an easy task during the rainy season.

By open Landrover we began crisscrossing various trails hoping to pick up spoor that would tell us where the elephants were. Jeff suddenly halted and dropped to the ground. “That’s the smell”, he said. “Horrible but beautiful”. There were big droppings around and he proceeded to sniff them rather like the scouts in the John Wayne days.

Jeff gave a hearty sigh of approval. Four hours, he said. They’ve gone right to left across the track.

Then he placed a beetle the size of a fist, dripping with the unmentionable, on the Landrover’s dashboard. It was a dung beetle, a magnificent scarab that spends its time searching for elephants and thriving on the manure. It’s also a flier so that you have to be careful not to get one in your eye when you are travelling at speed. And on the subject of smells he adds that we have just run over a colony of Matabele ants. Touch them and they’ll burn you.

“You can go on learning all your life in this business”, he added. “A new plant or flower will pop up that you’ve never seen before”. On the ground again he finds giraffe footprints and a little later hyena marks.

The elephants are still elusive. They are in the bush all right, happily eating the vegetation. Jeff could guarantee us sightings during the dry season because they come down to the waterholes which have been especially primed by boreholes. But not in the early part of the year when it’s been raining and the vegetation is wet and to their liking.

So elephant stories must suffice. Over a cool drink we hear of elephants virtually sitting on the Landrover bonnet. “This is where I get nervous over the clients”, said Jeff, “thinking what they are going to do.

The elephants here seem to have a great affinity with Landrovers. They come out of the bush and they suddenly see this thing and they think ‘let’s go and have a look’ and they come right up to the vehicle and they’re rather large.

“And then out of the bush came a young bull.

He took one look at the Landrover and promptly flattened a couple of trees with his forehead, hoping to disturb us. But that’s a bit of show. They have never been dangerous to our safaris. However, they can make a mock charge with their ears full out and make a lot of noise, trying to scare us away. “

Such action is what the tourist longs for. Jeff instinctively would know when to move them out of danger. It is just one reason why he and other hunters and rangers like him in Zimbabwe are considered within their profession to be among the best in the world.

April 2007
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