A Professional Hunter in Africa: What’s That Gig Like?

Posted by Michelle Zeug on August 26, 2014 in Conservation
Michelles kudu (16) copy Jacobus Ignatius DeWet, “Koos” for short, served as PH to the ATA's Michelle Zeug for 10 days in South Africa.
“My” PH, Jacobus Ignatius DeWet, “Koos” for short, was stuck with me for 10 full days. He grew up with an ecologist father, hunting most of his life. So, when he signed up for PH school, he thought it would be easy. That assumption quickly “came crashing down to earth.”

Editor’s Note: The ATA’s Michelle Zeug, who made the recent trip to South Africa along with ATA CEO/President Jay McAninch, offers a day-in-the-life look at the work of a professional hunter and the requirements it takes to become one.

Professional Hunter: This is a title some hunters claim for themselves because of their hunting prowess and success.

 But, it’s an earned title in Africa. On my recent 10-day hunt in South Africa, I met some wonderful professional hunters – or, “PH,” as they’re called. A PH is required to accompany every foreign hunter there. “My” PH, Jacobus Ignatius DeWet, “Koos” for short, was stuck with me for 10 full days.

 He grew up with an ecologist father, hunting most of his life. So, when he signed up for PH school, he thought it would be easy. That assumption quickly “came crashing down to earth.” The intensive 10-day school covers animal biology, habitat, hunting and tracking; as well as laws, cooking, skinning and treating skin, trophy preparation, and wilderness first aid. It seems they cover in 10 days what a prospective biologist might cover in several semesters at a university. To pass the PH exams, students must score at least 70 percent –  just like the test I took as a wildlife biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. However, the PH tests are practical, not multiple choice.

Upon surviving the school, PH candidates must serve at least 60 days under an experienced PH. This apprenticeship often lasts a year and is done working with an outfitter or on a game farm. A separate dangerous-game license – which covers elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo and hippo – requires at least another 60-day internship, where candidates must go on 60 dangerous game hunts with another PH. This can take years. I imagine it must be difficult to find someone to take you under their wings knowing they’ll be competition someday. Once experience is documented, you must apply for the necessary licenses, one for each country in which you hope to work, and sometimes for multiple areas in one country. For instance, South Africa has nine regions; which means a minimum of nine licenses, each from $5 to $30 annually.

Once PHs are “locked and loaded,” they work to find outfitters to hire them. Some PHs are lucky enough to find an outfitter to fill their season with hunts. Koos’ ideal would be to hunt in different camps to experience all of Africa, but it’s risky to not settle into a camp. PHs are also at the mercy of changes to hunting laws and properties. This year, Koos was supposed to spend the season in Mozambique, but the outfitter lost his concessions (outside properties used for some species), which canceled his entire season. Lucky for me, but it meant he had to fill the season with any work he could get.

In most camps, the PH is required to provide a reliable, high-quality truck. A good rig with four-wheel drive and plenty of seating for clients and gear costs $60,000 or more. Tires must often be replaced at the end of each season. Some PHs hire their own trackers and skinners. Some provide a good dog, like Rigby, who’s owner was a PH everybody called “Bone.” Rigby was our camp’s keen tracker, while Koos said his own tracking dog was legendary. A dog is still a man’s best friend.

A PH’s fee includes a daily hunting rate, plus meals, laundry service, fuel and mileage. That’s only half the story.

Because their clients come from all over the world, a PH must speak multiple languages. Specifically, English is required, as are Spanish, German and French. Although I don’t know but often heard them speaking Afrikaans – the official South African language, which is Dutch-based – I learned to decipher the meaning by their eyes, facial expressions and hand gestures. I also learned that B.S. is a universal hunting language, and I dished it when I could.

 The end of the hunting day does not mean the end of the day for a PH. They make sure the client is comfortable after the hunt. They don’t eat until the client is served, and they serve beverages and clean dishes from the tables. At our camp, we honored the PHs one night by asking them to eat first, a rare occurrence. And, as with most guides, they don’t get to shoot unless the client is a bad shot and needs the PH to cover his ass. (Saw that too.)

Finally, a good PH must read the client. For instance, I wanted a nice kudu, but made it known I wasn’t demanding a monster. I just wanted something I could show my hunting colleagues with pride. Also, I like to see animals while hunting; any animals. As the hunt unfolded, I had some nice animals come within easy range, but Koos never pressured me to shoot. I also learned some nuances of the PH’s language. For example, “Oh shit!” meant something big was coming.

I’m sure some clients prefer quiet, peaceful hunts, and probably put lots of pressure on their PH for a particular animal. Instead, I asked tons of questions about everything, and Koos accommodated with tons of answers. Our conversations continued from sunrise through the last drink. That makes sense, too, because much of the PH’s job relies on tips, and so a good PH figures out the atmosphere the client wants. In my case, I was on a mission to hunt and learn. Mission accomplished.

If a client comes in with an open mind, the PH will become a friend. At least two hunters in our group requested the same PH from a previous hunt. When we arrived, they warmly greeted each other like old friends. I left a bit sad, realizing I probably won’t have the same chance.

With that said, I want to thank all of my wildlife conservationist friends (and PHs) who made my experience so memorable at Wintershoek. This includes Johnny Vivier, Flip Coetzee, Johan Maritz, Hannes Vlok, Stuart Pringle, Yvan Nieuwoudt, Jeremy Scheepers, LeRoux Coetzee, Abrie Arlow, Bone DuPreez, Pedrie Van Jaarsveld, Strauss Jordaan and, of course, Koos DeWet.

May God bless you and keep you safe protecting and caring for Africa’s wildlife.

Did You Know?

To get a license, Professional Hunter (PH) candidates must complete an education requirement and then an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships vary in length and take place on game farms, where candidates learn practical aspects of game management. They also receive education in biology, ecology and natural history. Most apprenticeships run at least a year and candidates are trained in hunting techniques, using and caring for hunting equipment, tracking and trailing, skinning and processing and trophy mounting. 

Becoming a PH involves a written exam and practicum to acquire a license. PH licenses must be renewed annually and most PH’s hold licenses in several provinces in South Africa as well as in neighboring countries. PH’s can get an additional license for dangerous game (lion, cape buffalo, rhino, elephant and leopard).

A Good PH ensures hunters use hunting equipment effectively. Koos DeWet, the PH profiled above, was adept at calculating arrow spine and weight as well as discussing momentum and kinetic energy. Jay McAninch, ATA CEO/President, said during his time at Linksfontein he found that expertise common among the PHs — a great asset for bowhunters who are far from home.

PHs are a great source of information about plants and animals. In a place like South Africa, everywhere you look there’s a colorful bird, odd looking bush or darting animals. McAninch found himself talking for hours with Koos about animals and plants all over southern Africa. In two days of spot-and-stalk hunting with head PH Johnny Vivier, McAninch was treated to an in-depth, natural-history seminar. He and Vivier inspected areas where rhinos had marked their territory, trees scarred and broken apart by various horned species, and holes dug by aardvarks and other diggers.