By Craig Boddington, SCI Columnist
This article was originally published in the July 2023 edition of Safari Times.
South Africa’s game managers, outfitters and ranchers are justifiably proud of what they have accomplished. They like to tell us that wildlife has increased by an amazing 30-fold in the last 50 years, and it’s true.
As late as 1970, South Africa’s wildlife was in a similar state to North America’s wildlife in 1900, tattered remnants in scattered enclaves. Norman Deane’s Zululand Safaris was the first pioneer outfitter, primarily focusing on South Africa’s dwindling indigenous rarities.
My first South African hunt was in 1979 with Gary Kelly, who apprenticed under Norman Deane. It was a short hunt that produced a great nyala. Back then, there wasn’t much going on in South Africa.
Things happened fast, due in large measure to South Africa’s privatization of wildlife. Thanks also to an eager and growing safari market, for which a fledgling SCI can also claim credit. In the 1980s the game ranching and outfitting industries exploded. South Africa soon hosted Africa’s largest safari industry, and still does.
For years, South Africa was the only country where the entire Big Five (and Dangerous Seven) could be hunted. How-ever, she was primarily a plains game destination. Opportunities for dangerous game were limited to isolated corners, with Cape buffalo almost unavailable.
Except for Namibia and South Africa, most safari countries (and companies) now operate on a “buffalo economy:” One buffalo on quota equals one safari. But not Namibia or South Africa. Both are major livestock exporters. Because of bovine dis- eases, buffalo were essentially eradicated by early settlers.
In Namibia, remaining buffalo are restricted to the far north. A “red line” was created (north of Etosha), south of which buffalo are not allowed. Namibia has great buffalo hunting in Caprivi and other north-ern enclaves, but availability is low, and prices are high.
South Africa had essentially the same problem. Her primary remnant buffalo were in the Kruger Park corridor, plus a few other parks and reserves. Availability was low, so few outfitters had access to buffalo. Genetics were (and are) awesome, but prices were extremely high: Trophy fees alone were nearly twice the total cost of a buffalo safari in Mozambique or Zimbabwe. Such was the status quo as recently as 20 years ago.
South African game ranchers had an advantage. There wasn’t any red line, but there are stringent veterinary restrictions and testing requirements to bring buffalo anywhere near cattle country. Game managers and ranchers teamed-up with scientists: Find, isolate and breed up disease-free buffalo.
The process was slow and costly. At first, certified disease-free buffalo were scarce and frightfully expensive. Buffaloes are slower breeders than domestic cattle, aver- aging a calf every other year.
So, proliferating buffalo that could safely be introduced into game ranches took time. In fact, changes were so gradual that I just about missed them.
Cape buffalo are also slow growing. A bull needs a full decade to mature and have fully hard bosses. Few grownup bulls were available which meant, not so many years back, too many South African bulls “need-ed another year or two.”
However, genetics are spectacular. South Africa has always produced big bulls, and better now since selective breeding is part of the science.
Regardless of age or size, South African buffaloes were, in my view, too expensive. Great buffalo hunting was available else-where for so much less that it didn’t make sense. I ignored what was happening, but the work continued, and time passed me by.
Things have changed. Game ranchers and outfitters gave it 20 years, and I did not. Today, buffalo have been widely introduced onto suitable properties into all provinces across South Africa. Unlike a decade ago, most South African operators now have access to buffalo. With availability, prices have dropped.
South African outfitters have advantages: Simplified logistics, good roads, internal flights and a widespread supply.
Privatized wildlife means that landowners set their own quotas. If a landowner feels he has a buffalo bull to spare, he can sell it for hunting or take it to the meat market.
It’s a market economy so, while extra-large bulls command a premium, average prices for nice, mature buffalo bulls have fallen. At the same time, costs have escalated at a faster pace elsewhere in Africa. These include transport, charters, supplies, area fees on government concessions, li-cense fees, trophy fees, the works.
I didn’t see this coming: From few and too-expensive just a few years ago, South Africa now has the most available and af-fordable buffalo in Africa. Moreover, after decades of careful breeding, it also boasts the continent’s best horn genetics.
This is not new; going back 20 years, the most beautiful buffalo bulls I have ever seen have been South African “breeders.” Such bulls are not hunted; they are care-fully maintained in small pastures to pass along their genes.
Unable to think of Cape buffalo as live-stock, I missed the point: Those bulls are throwing calves that are going to properties all over the country. A few years later, those calves are throwing calves, and so on. Fast forward, and today South Africa’s outfitters aren’t just in the plains game business. They are in the “buffalo and plains game” business. Or, for hunters who dream of just one nice buffalo, South Africa is now sol-idly in the “buffalo safari” business, with easy access, competitive pricing and excel-lent horn quality.
So, why would any sensible hunter go anywhere else? Well, virtually all South African buffalo are restricted. Properties vary from medium to huge, but in South Africa, there is no place for completely free-range buffalo.
That is not a negative, just a fact. Even massive Kruger is fenced. From the land-owner’s standpoint, fencing serves to protect your animals from poachers, and from wandering onto a neighbor’s property where you can no longer protect them.
Many of us, me included, place a premium on free-range hunting. Our SCI record book maintains categories for free range and “estate.” Most South African buffaloes fall into the latter category. Fortunately, we have plenty of free-range options for buffalo.
However, quality of experience isn’t based on the presence or absence of a fence, nor on any set acreage. Terrain and vegetation matter. Whether for impala, kudu or buffalo, the area needs to hold appropriate habitat so the animals can move and feed naturally. It also needs to be large enough so they can use their senses and abilities to evade us.
How we hunt also makes a difference. Regardless of horn size, hunting buffalo is all about the experience. There is nothing wrong with glassing from a vehicle; it’s done all over Africa. For a buffalo bull to be meaningful, at least the final approach and shot must be on foot.
Some properties are bigger than others, and the buffalo is a large and visible animal, so size matters. A buffalo hunt is always ex-citing. However, hunting on foot in thick, natural habitat, it doesn’t take more than a few thousand acres to be difficult and challenging.
Yes, the buffaloes are restricted. They know that. They also know every rock and tree, and exactly how the prevailing wind blows. After years of dismissing South African buffalo, my first experience gave me my comeuppance.
I bought a hunt at an SCI auction, just because I wanted to see if I’d been right. I was wrong. We tracked for six days, time and again coming up on buffalo, unable to get a shot. A stray puff of breeze, a stick underfoot, buffalo exploding.
Start over. I finally got a shot on the last day.
I did it again very recently, hunting with Jose Maria Marzal (Chico & Sons Safaris), out of their lovely Tsessebe Lodge in north-western Limpopo, joining Jim Gent and his brother-in-law Dan Poland on a hunt they booked at our Nashville convention.
The first day, we tracked a small group for three hours, and had a close encounter but no shot. The second day, we got on tracks early and followed them for nine hours. Plagued by shifting wind, we heard them crash off ahead of us, but never saw a buffalo.
Jim got his bull on the third day, stalked and shot on rare open ground. I got my chance a couple days later, tracking a bull through thick cover. The hunt ended with a quick shot in the brush. Both were wonderful bulls – mature, heavy bossed, wide enough and exactly what we were looking for.
That kind of success can come anywhere in Africa where buffalo are hunted…or not. Depending on luck our bulls could have been larger (or smaller).
The point is: Buffalo hunting in South Africa has come of age and it’s good. It is just one of several sound options when you get ready to make your dream of a Cape buffalo come true.
Col. Craig Boddington is an author, hunter and longtime SCI member. He is Past President of the Los Angeles Chapter, a decorated Marine and C.J. McElroy Award winner.