Watch interview below:
Beneath is set out the lengthy question and answer session filmed in South Africa for the above TV program, of which less than 30 seconds was actually used in the program shown in Australia in December 2013.
1. Talk us through what is happening when you walk through the bushveld stalking a lion.
Firstly, let me say that there is more than one way of hunting lions other than track, walk and stalk. In fact, there are broadly four ways to hunt lion. The first, as you correctly point out, involves tracking, walking and stalking but this depends on the ground being sufficiently soft and sandy to hold a track as lions’ paws are soft, spread the animals’ weight and leave no sign on hard or rocky ground and, in thickly grassed Savannah, can be impossible even for talented trackers like Bushmen to follow.
The second method, which is very popular in West Africa, is to follow the sound of a roaring lion and it takes an expert to tell the difference between male and female roars. When lions roar, particularly at night, the hunting party usually wake, move to the extremities of the camp and mark the direction of the roaring on the ground in order to try and triangulate the sound, which is more difficult than it might appear given the deep, non-directional, bass notes of the roars. Before dark the next morning, the hunting party is up, out of camp and attempts to follow the roars as best possible if the lion(s) have kept roaring and, if not, then in the general direction from which the sounds were last heard. Once it is light enough to see, the hunting party leaves the vehicle and, if the lions are still roaring, follows in the direction of the sound, failing which in the direction from where the sounds were last heard.
Thirdly, and probably the method used most commonly throughout Africa, lions are shot when they come to a bait usually hung from a tree and too high for a hyena to reach, from a ground or tree blind situated anything from 30 to 100 metres away.
Lastly, there are opportunistic hunts where, while hunting something else, you merely happened to bump into lions accidentally.
2. What is going through your mind when you stalk a lion, described the experience (a long description is good)?
In a modern day, track, walk and stalk lion hunt in one of the huge, free range hunting concessions in Africa, in all likelihood, you will be hunting in a six man team, including the driver of the hunting car, a head tracker, an assistant tracker, a baggage man (who carries the water and sometimes doubles as a gun bearer) and a guide or professional hunter who is in control of and conducts the hunt. The role of the amateur or recreational hunter is largely a secondary one until the prey is sighted. He must, however, remained alert, focused and concentrated throughout as, when it comes to hunting the big cats, things can change in nano seconds and, if he is not concentrating, a key opportunity can be lost and I will come back to this in a moment. In his secondary role, he helps to look for tracks until fresh ones are found, at which stage the two trackers take over. Then he, along with the guide and baggage man look up and ahead to see if they can spot the lions or signs that they may be near, for example, birds of prey or vultures circling up ahead indicating that the lions may have killed something.
While to the uninitiated it may seem impossible to lose focus while tracking lions, if they are moving territory and/or the tracking carries on for a long time, particularly during the middle of the day when the temperatures can climb, it is not unknown for a hunter to lose concentration. You have to guard against this as, in all likelihood, when you spot the lion, it will already have become aware of your presence and be on the alert. It may only wait for a few seconds to confirm its suspicions before departing and, if it actually sees you and recognizes you for what you are, it may not stop again for a very long time. You need to be alert to take advantage of any opportunity that is offered.
On the other hand, if you have pushed the lion on a number of occasions, particularly in areas where it is very hot underfoot such as the semi-arid or semi-desert regions of Africa, the lion may eventually become irritated and decided that offence is the best form of defence, turn the tables and decided to hunt you. Although a lion will, more often than not, grunt at the start of a charge, this is not invariably the case and, although being big animals they will usually make a noise when they come, again, this is not invariably the case. A friend of mine likes to say that the only thing predictable about a lion is its unpredictability.
Butch Smuts in his iconic work on lions in the Kruger National Park timed a lion from lying down to 100 metres in under 5 seconds so, should something like this happen, you need to be alert, focused and have prepared mentally and physically for such an event because it will be too late to try and work out what to do if and when such a situation eventuates.
Another thing you’ll be thinking of when looking ahead of the trackers is the fact that lions blend easily into the background African winter colours of different shades of beige, brown and grey and, furthermore, have the ability to flatten themselves and hide behind cover that, after the event, you would scarcely credit could have hidden a rabbit. So, you need to really look through and under the vegetation up ahead and on either side of the direction in which the tracks are heading. You cannot and must not merely scan the vegetation else you will miss the critical flick of an ear as the lion dismisses a fly or the twitch of a black tipped tail as it expresses its annoyance with you for intruding into its fight or flight circle.
You will also need to remind yourself that, should you unexpectedly come face to face with a lion, you must not open your eyes wide and stared intently at it as cats will take this as a threat display and, particularly if you have given it a fright or there are young ones around, this may well trigger a real or a mock charge. In these circumstances, if you want to avoid a confrontation, you need to be sufficiently in control of yourself to half close your eyes, tilt your head to the ground and blink frequently while backing slowly away yet nevertheless keeping a careful watch on things.
When you find signs indicating that the lions may be near, for example, you may find fresh urine or scats or impressions on the ground, in the shade, indicating that the lions had been lying down and have just left or you may hear them. In this case, the head tracker will take over followed by the guide and the hunter and the latter needs to be absolutely sure he is ready to make a clean, one shot killed. He must be certain that there is a cartridge in the chamber of his firearm. He must be sure that the safety catch is off and make doubly sure the rifle is pointed in a safe direction. If he is one of those hunters who uses scope covers to protect his telescopic sight, he should have remove these a long time ago but, if he has not done so, he must do so now.
He must focus on putting his feet on the precise spots vacated by the boots of his guide to ensure he makes no noise but not be so focused on this that he forgets about overhead branches or neighbouring thorn bushes which can hook and entangled his clothes and result in noise or unnatural, sudden movement.
He must be looking up ahead for possible cover to hide behind and places he can use as a rest for his rifle. If he has a bipod attached to the reinforced front sling swivel, he should have extended the bipod to the maximum extent and be ready to folded it down to provide a rest behind which he can sit or kneel.
In all likelihood, adrenalin will have suffused his body, his heart will be beating faster and he will be breathing quicker and shallower. His muscles will be tense and, were he to open his hands, his fingers will have developed a slight tremor. It is vital that, in these moments, the hunter consciously breaths deeply, relaxes his shoulders and does what is necessary and what has worked in the past to control his mind and body in situations like this.
The tracker will usually spot the lion first and point it out to the guide if he has not already seen it. At this stage the guide takes over and you and he move forward alone. Now you need to be absolutely 100% certain you know where the lion is and, if there is more than one, which is the one that the guide wants you to shoot. Your attention should be focused on moving into a comfortable, steady position from which you can make a clean, one shot kill and you need to remind yourself, yet again, that nothing bad happens until you pull the trigger. Even if it is the last hour of the last hunting day, it is far better to decline the shot and lose the opportunity than make one when you are uncomfortable, unsteady and uncertain. All that usually happens in circumstances like these is a wounded lion which will put not only you but the rest of your hunting team at serious risk.
You also need to remind yourself to re-chamber a round immediately after you have fired and to keep on shooting at the lion for so long as you can see it and it is still moving or until the guide tells you to stop.
3. How does it feel?
A whole complex array of emotions washes over and through me at times like this such as I have never experienced in any other situation. When hunting dangerous game liked lions, relief that no one has been injured or worse is usually at the forefront of my mind, followed quickly by awe at and admiration for the marvellous animal; happiness that I have been successful and a quiet sense of achievement that we have beaten the animal by fair chase means on its own terms and on its own home ground; sadness that a magnificent animal like this has died but tempered by the fact that it was killed instantly or almost instantly with one shot. During these moments I like to be left on my own with the animal, to be able to examine it closely and carefully in my own time and allow the emotions of the moment to play out in me without any need to put on a face for the hunting team who may or may not share them.
4. What danger signs do you look for?
I think the first danger sign is merely putting yourself in the presence of free range lions on their home turf because, as I said earlier, the only thing predictable about them is their unpredictability. Clearly, if they behave in a confrontational or aggressive manner this is not a good thing but I have only once experience a charge and then an unprovoked one by a lioness which bit the front bumper of the open Land Cruiser in which I was travelling. I did notice, however, that before she came, her tail flicked straight up in the air once or twice and I have since been told that this always presages a charge.
I also look for tracks of lion cubs when hunting because lionesses are very protective of their young and I also do not want to shoot a pride male. Another danger sign can be bumping into thin, young, hungry nomadic males looking for a pride to take over, quite often, as they have being pushed from pillar to post and beaten up by the larger and more experienced pride males and, without you knowing it, may have decided to take no more nonsense from anyone.
5. What is the worst thing that can happen (I know this sounds strange but is good to have the hunters say it)?
Without doubt the worst thing that can happen is that the lion kills you or one or more of your hunting companions.
6. What goes through your mind when you see the lion?
Power, awesome, coordinated power, followed by respect and an ancient remembered fear.
7. What are you thinking when you shoot it?
My mind is totally focused on the picture in the tube of my telescopic sight and it is calculating the precise spot on the animal which I must hit in order to drive the bullet through its heart or spine.
8. What happened when you shot your lion or lions?
It is more than 15 years ago since I shot my last lion in Tanzania but, as I remember things, the hunting team were overjoyed and made a big fuss of me. It had been a long and difficult hunt. The lion outwitted us a number of times and, over the two weeks, there were many times when we were ready to give up. But we were eventually successful and it was a very big, old lion whose skull subsequently measured well in Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game. When we got back to camp the staff all rushed out to greet us, picked me up and danced around the camp with me and, at night held a big party. I must admit that I also had a scotch or two. that evening and, the next day, local villagers came from all around to see the lion and there were some competition to buy the fat and meat.
9. How does it feel as soon as you have shot one?
I think I have answered that question already.
10. Why do you want to shoot a lion?
Well, I suppose you could just as easily have asked why do you want to shoot any animal? I can give you a whole lot of rational and cogent reasons why hunting is critical for the conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitats in Africa, which echo the reasons advanced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the United Nation’s top conservation body and the Convention on Biodiversity to which many countries, including South Africa, are members but I suspect your viewers already know them and, besides, they do not explain to me why I hunt the animals I love so much and for whom I have devoted almost all my discretionary time, effort and money to conserve and preserve.
The best I can do is suggest that for most of the 200,000 years that mankind, as we know it today, has been on this earth, men and women have hunted to provide for and protect their families. Agriculture only began a mere 10,000 years ago and refrigeration has only been prevalent for less than 300 years. As such I think that some men and woman are more genetically predisposed to follow in the footsteps of their forebears than others and, like my other major passion, writing, all I can say is that it satisfies something deep within me that is beyond my ability to explain. Having said that, hunting has coloured my entire life. It gets me out of bed every morning to exercise so that I may remain fit enough to hunt. It dictates the books I read, the art I admire, the places I visit, the people I befriend and the subject matter I write about and film.
For most people, the Big Five – rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion – are the top of the hunting totem pole and, before I discovered the top African trophies like bongo, mountain nyala, giant eland, forest sitatunga and Abyssinian greater kudu, I thought it was completely natural to want to test myself as a hunter against the most challenging and dangerous of African game animals in their natural habitats. Today, if you can afford it, because a lion hunt is the most expensive hunt in Africa, some of them costing in excess of the $150,000 with no guarantee of success, I think it is almost your duty to hunt lions and try and ensure that as much of this money as possible reverts to the communities who live cheek by jowl with these magnificent animals and who, but for this money, have no incentive not to kill them by all means at their disposal, including poison, leg traps, snares and fixed guns over bait. In fact, it is my firm belief, based on all the studies I have read, all the empirically established evidence I have mustered and everything I have seen while hunting in 17 sub Saharan African countries that, if you want to ensure the extinction of all lions in Africa, the surest way would be to ban lion hunting.