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The History of Hunting in South Africa

The early settlers and first recorded hunting in Africa

As the history books will tell you, the first European settlers arrived on South African shores in 1652, led by Jan van Riebeeck with the objective of building a refreshment station at the tip of Africa for the growing shipping trade route between Asia and Europe.

Before this new chapter, it was only the Bushmen, known as the Khoisan, that roamed the land while living off natural plants and hunting game with arrows and spears. These indigenous people, nicknamed Hunter-Gatherers, perfected their hunting and tracking skills over centuries. Hunting was the main activity for most men who illustrated their hunting stories by way of rock paintings when they returned home to their families. These paintings have lasted for centuries in caves and on mountainous regions throughout the country, including the koppies of Greater Kuduland.

With the refreshment station up and running, the Dutch settlers soon realised the need to hunt big game that threatened their livestock and crops, with the biggest thieves being Cape Lion and Hippo, which van Riebeeck noted in his personal diary.

Exploring Big Game Hunting Grounds Further North

By the 1700s the Dutch began exploring the surrounding areas of the Karoo and Klein Karoo, where they were able to live off thriving herds of Kwagga, Blessbuck and other antelope that inhabited the region.

By the early 1800s word spread of the fertile lands, vast national resources and wealth of diverse game that roamed the country and by 1820 the English arrived on the Cape shores. It was soon after their arrival that a group of men saw the value of professional hunting rather than taking the traditional route of tradesman or farmer, and began hunting purely for the profit ivory could bring.

The start of hunting by Westerners in South Africa in the 1600's

The Dutch spoken in South Africa at this stage had developed into Afrikaans, not only a separate language but different culture altogether, and they never accepted life under English rule. The Afrikaners or Dutch Voortrekkers wanted their ownland and farming settlements free of British rule so they moved north in what is now known as the “Groot Trek”.

The North had its challenges with a hot climate, dangerous game, diseases, and unknown and aggressive local tribes. It was only until the Zulu and Besothu tribes were defeated by the boers that a safe passage could be formed beyond the Vaal River for the Voortrekkers and their livestock explore. This area is known as the Transvaal or the Highveld which not only contained fertile farming land but also the largest and richest game hunting grounds which ever existed.

By 1860 hunting in South Africa was known as a hunting mecca, and even Prince Albert, son of Queen Victoria, got involved and arranged a “Great Hunt” in the Free State during this time.

The Discovery of Gold and Diamonds

Gold and diamonds were discovered in the Highveld region which led to severe habitat destruction as people came in droves to chance their luck with pick and shovel. This large migration of people required additional farming land and farmers looked to the Great Limpopo Valley, a region fairly untouched at this stage due to the summer heat and threat of malaria. But even with these threats, farmers soon came to love the mild dry winter climate as well as the magnitude of game that lived in this region.

Greater Kuduland lies in the Great Limpopo Valley and hunters continue to enjoy the mild winter periods when the bush isn’t as thick and the dry air keeps the bugs and flies away. Along with its diverse terrain and abundance of wildlife, the region has become known as the best hunting ground in South Africa.

The gold rush led to vast amounts of habitat destruction but also resulted in the discovery of the Great Limpopo Valley, a region known for its picturesque scenery, diverse wildlife and big game hunting.

A Shift of Focus to Conservation and the Boer Wars

The great wildlife herds of South Africa were thought to be so strong that the hunting activity would have little effect on populations, but in reality big damage was being done. The love for hunting shown by both the Boers and English lead to a large reduction of heads of game, and something had to be done. In 1884 president Paul Kruger proposed to parliament that a wild animal reserve is crucial to protect the natural wildlife. Soon after his proposal, the famous Kruger National Park was established, a 2 million hectare area in the north-east of South Africa, with the aim to protect the natural habitat and indigenous animals.

After decades of unregulated hunting in all regions of South Africa, the biggest devastation to game populations was yet to come. The turn of the 20th century brought about the Anglo-Boer war between the Afrikaners and the British who had disputes over the mineral rich land in the Transvaal and surrounding areas. After losing the first battles, the British war changed tactics and began scorching large areas of land. These actions devastated wildlife to such an extent that the midlands of South Africa lost all its game. Thankfully, the efforts of Paul Kruger remained and protected national parks were able to help restore the country’s game populations after being devastated by the War.

The scorched earth war policy of the British during the Anglo-Boer War devastated South Africa’s game population

Post War Era and the Re-establishment of Professional Hunting

There was now little money in professional hunting during most of the 1900s which was largely due to the fact that game could not be privately owned. This enabled populations to recover but there was still a major threat of habitat destruction as large areas of private land were being used to farm cattle and crops. Certain species were still highly endangered including the bontebok, sable, roan and black wildebeest, but there was little done to breed these species back to healthy numbers.

The introduction of private game ownership was passed in the early 1970s which enabled the private sector to introduce legitimate tourist hunting. This became the single most important factor in restoring the health of game populations as it created an incentive to safeguard herds and their natural habitats. Peter Benjamin Knott was one of the first farmers in the country to see the benefits of game farming and founded Greater Kuduland Safaris in 1974. Peter introduced the first disease free buffalo to the area in 1975 and enabled other rare game species to breed on what was once a cattle farm. The numbers don’t lie, and currently South Africa is home to the largest population of game since the days before the European settlers arrived, when the only big game hunters were the local Khoisan.

Read more about the link between hunting and conservation in the article: The Relationship Between Conservation and Trophy Hunting in South Africa


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