Have Fun; It’s Serious – Springbok Culling in Africa

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The Morning Bustle Before the Hunt

One would think that after my first trip resulting in not only the peeling burn, but the subsequent tan line partitioning my head like some far away horizon separating light from dark, I’d learn that the application of sunscreen in Africa isn’t so much suggested, but strongly encouraged and for good reason. Though I would think about that later in the day while sitting in the wide open with no shade for a full eight hours, I failed to heed that warning once again as I packed my things and situated my gear. It was easy to forget while half asleep, scrambling to get myself in order while in almost complete darkness. The sun would still sleep for another 2 hours or so, hiding from our view and leaving a damp chill all around us. There’s an urgent pace, almost a rush, in everyone’s cadence of movement; mostly because no one wants to be the last man to their truck, holding up the party. A sin you’d likely hear about for more than just the first hour of the day.

Another explanation for the rushing was the excitement coursing through all our bodies looking for any place to escape. Everyone plays it cool. A desire to look seasoned and nonchalant amongst one another, especially the locals, is just enough to stifle the excitement and keep you from bursting at the seams. We all had an idea in our minds of what may be to come in a few hours but none of us truly grasped it. All we knew was that we’d spent the last nine days hiking up and down mountains, navigating through Acacia and bushes with thorns the size of the fingers on your hand. Putting stalks on some of Africa’s most sought-after plains game; sometimes successfully, and sometimes not. There was no shortage of hard work. Real work. Today would be different though. Today we were setting up on one of the thousands of sheep farms within South Africa and we would be culling wild springbok.

The Necessity for Culling Wildlife

The culling of wild animals, especially in the US, is something that isn’t even so much misunderstood as it is unknown. Once you present the idea of a cull to most people in our culture, it is often met with a sense of disgust and disdain. They wonder why you would ever systematically kill what seems like huge numbers of these animals, especially in a place that we’re told almost constantly, is home to so many endangered and borderline extinct animals. Those who do know though, understand how important culling is to the conservation of both wildlife and habitats.

Culling is a practice that’s as old as civilization itself. At its root, culling is the act of separating organisms from a group according to desired or undesired characteristics. In wild animals, this means the killing of groups of animals based on individual characteristics; often sex or members of a species and as a means of increasing herd productivity and preventing infectious disease transmission. In most cases, culling wild animals helps achieve sustainable populations within a habitat. If a particular species becomes too large, that species becomes a threat to not only itself, but to other animals as well. An example of this within South Africa is the culling of 14,562 elephants between 1967 and 1994. Without this, it’s estimated that by 2020, the number of elephants in these specific areas would have exceeded 80,000, leading to mass starvation of both the elephants and other species in the area.

On the farm we were at specifically, there are hundreds of sheep. While there may be hundreds of sheep, there are also multiple thousands of springbok roaming freely in and out of these pastures. Coincidentally, the springbok and the sheep eat the same food which, as you can imagine, creates an issue. Not only can the springbok eat most of the sheep’s food, but their overpopulation will rapidly increase the degradation of their habitat. Sheep aside, the area is only so big and having too large a population of springbok can and will harm them. They have very few natural predators in the area, so if left unchecked, they will eat all of the food causing that mass starvation. Infectious disease will spread, making the herds unhealthy and any sort of genetic defects found in the older animals are highly likely to be passed down through breeding. Working with wildlife management organizations in the area and understanding how many animals an area can sustain helps give a science backed and data driven number of how many animals need to be culled from the herd to help strengthen the population and conserve the habitat.

Culling is an extremely important part of conservation and something that needs to continue to happen to keep habitats and wildlife healthy and prevalent. The idea of having to eliminate one hundred plus animals from a herd always sounds somber and something one has to tread lightly around when discussing. Many people and many big outdoor companies who are a part of this current “holier than thou”, purist, “you shouldn’t be smiling while you hunt” culture we’re currently in will tell you that a cull IS a somber and overly serious event. I’m here to tell you that each one of them has their head up their ass.

Efficacy, Respect and Some Fun

This group of people I was with, documenting through photo and video, were all aware of the importance of this cull. They were all serious hunters and outdoorsmen. The respect they have for every animal they kill is beyond evident. That in mind, it was nothing but smiles and laughs and high fives the entire day. Every person involved was excited and full of joy. Laying in wait on different parts of the farm while men on horseback rousted the springbok and sent them running into the field of fire. You and your buddy with a professional hunter sat next to you coaching you and guiding your aim. Cheering each other on in muffled voices each time you take an animal. “How many did you guys get!?” was the phrase of the day.

After the shooting stops, everyone pitches in and helps collect the animals. As they see the fruits of their labor, there are still those smiles and high fives. There’s an understanding that the real work is about to start. The animals aren’t left out there to spoil in the hot sun. They’re gathered up and dressed and hung by everyone as they wait to be loaded into refrigerated trucks to be brought to a butcher. The organ meats are separated and given to many of the trackers, indigenous men who help the hunters. This is a welcome feast by them and their families. The other meat gets butchered and much of it gets sold at the market. Some of it is kept by the farmer to feed his family and some of it is donated to local shelters and orphanages. Everyone wins. The herd stays healthy, the habitat stays lush and fruitful, the sheep can eat and so can everyone else involved. While it’s not lost on us that we did a good thing for the animals, the environment and the people involved, the main things that we all took away from the day were the laughs, the smiles, the camaraderie, and the best of times.

It’s important to remember during all of this, that while doing such a serious and important task, it’s okay to have fun. Much like with sunscreen – or lack thereof in my case – it is strongly encouraged that you are not afraid to smile and laugh with your companions. Take photos, come back with stories to tell your friends and family. We all know that you respect the process and the animals. Have fun with it. Be unapologetic. Do it to the best of your ability and remember it every day of your life.

Photographer & Adventure Seeker – Jay Pelletier

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