Back in the mid-1970s I devoured Jack O’Connor’s account of what turned out to be his and Eleanor’s last safari. It was in an out-of-the-way place then called South West Africa (SWA). Hunting with pioneer outfitter Baasie Martens, they had taken kudu, gemsbok and other plains game, and it sounded like they had a great time. O’Connor also made it clear that their safari was inexpensive as well as successful. I was in my mid-20s then, so inexpensive was attractive. This little-known corner of Africa moved up on my growing bucket list!
Professor O’Connor passed away in early 1978, followed by Eleanor a few months later. It was the next year, 1979, when I made my first hunt in the country that would become Namibia. I hunted with Ben Nolte, a great guy and wonderful outfitter. As the O’Connors had, I hunted kudu and gemsbok, adding springbok and such. I found a strikingly beautiful land, sparsely populated with broad deserts and thornbush plains dominated by tall, rocky ridges. It struck me as similar to much of Arizona; I reckon the O’Connors, native Arizonans, felt perfectly at home.
I returned in the 1980s. At that time few Americans had visited the country that would become independent Namibia in 1990. I loved it; as a western hunter and Coues deer addict I have always felt at home in Namibia’s rocky hills. After that first visit I wrote about the area a lot and tried to promote it, but the truth is few American hunters were interested. Although his two sons are now successful Namibian outfitters, Ben Nolte went on to other pursuits, at least in part because the safari market didn’t yet exist for Namibia.
Mind you, South Africa’s game ranching and safari industries were emerging at the same time, with different dynamics. Namibia is a large country 318,000 square miles — a lot bigger than Texas! With a human population of less than three million. It is high on the list of the world’s least-populated countries, but it is also one of the world’s more arid regions with two great deserts, the Namib to the southwest and the Kalahari to the southeast. Animal densities cannot be as high as areas with more rainfall. Species diversity is also impacted. Namibia’s “game list” is shorter than many countries. Her few indigenous rarities include Damara dik dik, black-faced Angolan impala and Hartmann’s mountain zebra.
I saw Damara dik diks in 1979, but they were fully protected then. I took one on a later hunt, in 2003 and I took a black-faced impala in 2011. In 1979 Ben Nolte pointed out a Hartmann’s zebra standing defiantly on a finger ridge descending from the spine of the Erongo Mountains. I was enchanted, so in 1981 I insisted that we must hunt a mountain zebra. At that time game ranching was in its infancy and the mountain zebra was scarce. Starting at dawn, we hiked to the height of the Erongos and found fresh spoor, but the ground was too rocky to track. Instead we heard zebras whistling, got above them and, after an agonizing hour—from almost straight overhead—Ben was finally certain of the stallion. That remains one of my most memorable African stalks!
And Nobody Cared…
In the 1970s and well into the ’80s you could hardly give away a Namibian safari in the American market. To this day I’m not sure why. There wasn’t as much wildlife as today, but there was plenty, the country was beautiful, the hunting areas were large and trophy quality was superb. I can’t explain it. Namibia was a popular destination with European hunters, in part because many Namibians speak German, but that is not a full explanation because the American safari market has been dominant since post-WWII.
Purely as a guess, allow me two related hypotheses. First, the average safari was longer than today, usually with two or three members of the Big Five as primary goals. At least through the 1980s Namibia was competing directly with Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia, and in those days Namibia was not a dangerous game destination. Her primary habitat for buffalo, elephant and lion is in the far north; the Caprivi Strip, now the Zambezi Region, wasn’t open to safaris until after independence.
Namibia had growing populations of both black and white rhinos, but until her game ranching industry came alive, also after independence, most rhinos of both species were in Parks. Leopards are found throughout, but when I first visited Namibia leopards were scarce and had been persecuted for a century. Namibia’s growing safari industry would place value on leopards, and they have increased dramatically in the past quarter century, but in the 1970s and ’80s leopard hunting was tough.
Although sort of parallel, a second limitation to the growth of Namibia’s safari industry is that the “plains game safari” hardly existed back then. The short, inexpensive safari for several non-dangerous species developed in the 1970s and blossomed in the ’80s as did the demand for this African experience. South Africa led the parade, but with plentiful plains game on private land — and limited dangerous game — Namibia fell naturally into this niche.
Look At Me Now!
Through the 1990s and continuing today, Namibians have worked hard to develop their wildlife on private lands, in Parks, on tribal lands and in newly created conservancies. Uniquely, Namibia’s constitution stipulates wise utilization of her natural resources. Thus, Namibia is a hunting country that endorses and supports sustainable use of her wildlife. I was impressed by the amount of wildlife I saw in 1979, but today Namibia probably holds 20 times more. As her safari industry grew, the world market responded. From a quiet backwater Namibia is now the second-largest safari industry on the African continent and thus the second-largest in the history of African hunting. South Africa remains the leader, but in recent years the gap has narrowed. Namibia now hosts some 6,000 visiting hunters, about a third of the continent’s total.
The majority are plains game safaris. Gemsbok are the most widespread and most plentiful large antelope and Namibia produces the largest gemsbok. Periodic rabies outbreaks have knocked the kudu back, but the southern greater kudu is still widespread and plentiful and Namibia continues to offer some of Africa’s best kudu hunting. Big Kalahari springbok and warthogs abound. Red Cape hartebeest are numerous and grow large. Blue wildebeest, eland and both common and mountain zebra are widespread, likewise southern bush duiker and steenbok. Waterbuck, once uncommon, are now plentiful. Special permit antelopes include Damara dik dik, klipspringer and, in the Zambezi Region, red lechwe, common reedbuck and sitatunga. Game ranching has done wonders for the sable and roan antelopes, and both species occur free range in the north. Namibia has, I think wisely, restricted further introduction of non-native species, but blesbok, black wildebeest, southern impala and nyala have been widespread for years, and there are a few herds of tsessebe.
That’s the plains game picture, but Namibia today is much more than a plains game destination. She is one of just two countries (with South Africa) where it remains possible to hunt the entire Big Five. Leopards continue increasing with a current CITES quota of 250 sport-hunted leopards. Namibia is cattle country. Because of bovine diseases buffalo are restricted to the far north and Namibian ranchers are not allowed to breed buffalo. South African game ranchers have been breeding up disease-free buffalo for decades, so Namibia lags far behind as a buffalo destination. Against this, Namibia’s buffalo genetics are excellent in both the Zambezi Region and isolated pockets such as the Waterberg area. Although habitat is limited, buffalo are plentiful where they occur and trophy quality is excellent.
Elephant habitat is also limited to the far north, but Namibia’s elephant population is growing rapidly. Sport hunting, both trophy permits and “own use” meat hunting, is a critical part of Namibia’s elephant management, and Namibian elephant trophies remain importable into the United States. In a recent interview, the Hon. Pohamba Shifeta, Namibia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, told me that the elephant population has grown to 25,000, now exceeding carrying capacity. This situation is exacerbated by a long border with Botswana, which hosts 250,000 elephants in a grossly overpopulated situation. Unlike the large amounts of plains game on private ranches, more than 70 percent of Namibia’s elephants are on tribal lands and conservancies; human/elephant conflict is escalating, so the Ministry and Parliament are considering options.
Lion hunting is very limited, but there are areas with intermittent quotas, plus the occasional problem lion permit. Rhino hunting is also limited (and costly), but Namibia hosts several thousands of each species, and hunting is possible. Hippo and crocodile are primarily limited to the well-watered Zambezi Region; both species are on license in conservancies up there.
In today’s African hunting there are lots of choices. All are good, but each has its own character and advantages and, I suppose, disadvantages. Namibia offers big, beautiful country, broad vistas and lots of game. Windhoek has grown a lot since I first saw it 40 years ago, but it’s still a small city with a frontier feel and it remains Namibia’s only settlement large enough to rate the title “city.”
Today, Namibia is generally not the least costly safari option, nor does she have the continent’s most robust game list. Against this, costs are reasonable, success is high, quality is excellent and Namibian guides and professional hunters are excellent. Licensing is rigorous; a Namibian PH license is Africa’s second-most difficult (after Zimbabwe) to obtain. It’s a stratified system with multiple levels, requiring apprenticeship, experience and testing. Namibia’s “dangerous game” PH license is so difficult that only a handful hold it—but those who do are well-qualified.
The system is well-organized, with generally good cooperation between the hunting industry, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (METT) and the Namibian Professional Hunters’ Association (NAPHA). Every visiting hunter must be licensed. Typically, the PH or outfitter obtains it, but there is a genuine hunting license. The “standard” license includes the property or area to be hunted, normally showing a limit of two each for the common species. Special license animals include dik dik, klipspringer, sable, roan and all the dangerous game. Much hunting is year-round, but gamebirds have specific seasons and bag limits, and Namibia has awesome wingshooting. Peak “safari season” is probably May through September, but April and October can be excellent depending on game sought. November through March are hot months, and that is the period when Namibia receives most of her sparse rainfall. In autumn and winter, May through August, perfect cloudless skies are normal. Keep in mind that central Namibia is a high plateau — elevations similar to Denver are normal — so while middays should be pleasant and sunny, evenings chill quickly and morning frost isn’t unlikely.
I’m often asked about my favorite African country. That’s not a fair question and doesn’t rate a specific answer. It’s all good! To some extent it depends on what I’m hunting and who I’m hunting with, but Namibia is a favorite. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been there, and I hope to return many more times. I will probably never again hunt Damara dik dik; one seems enough. I’ll probably never take a sable or roan in Namibia; I hunted them elsewhere and there’s no need. But there are reasons to return. Kudu and gemsbok remain favorites and climbing for the Hartmann’s zebra in true mountain habitat is special, likewise stalking springbok on foot, so much like pronghorn hunting.
Dangerous game hunting isn’t new to Namibia, but I hunted none of the Big Five there until after the millennium. Since then I took what I consider my last lion and my last elephant in Namibia; I have neither need nor desire to hunt either again, and I will never take another rhino. But I’m not certain I’m done with leopards, and I’m quite sure I’m not done hunting buffalo. On leopard there are no sure things, but I’ve been successful in Namibia two of three times, and Donna got her leopard there (after failures elsewhere). So, I’m convinced that, at a good time with an experienced cat hunter, Namibia is as good as anywhere and less costly than most options. I have no need and shouldn’t be greedy, but I’d like to match wits with Old Spots one more time. If I do, it will probably be in Namibia.
There are many great places to hunt buffalo. My experience in Namibia is limited to just two recent hunts in the Zambezi Region in 2017 and ’18. Quality is excellent, but there are also many places to find good bulls. What I found in Namibia was sort of old-fashioned buffalo hunting, calm and unmolested buffalo that could be evaluated and approached. Both my bulls were shot with double rifles within 20 yards. That was fun, and exciting! Honestly, after all these years, Namibia holds few secrets for me, but I still have excuses to return and there are plenty of reasons why she has become Africa’s second-most popular safari destination.--Craig Boddington