How to profit from a small hunting operation

Johann Erwee of Kuduwane Game Lodge provided Gerhard Uys with insights into what it takes to keep a small hunting operation economically sustainable, and its environment ecologically sound.

Game lodge
Johann’s facilities include a game lodge that can host families and photographers, and a hunter’s lodge. He says ranchers have to diversify their income streams, as running only a hunting operation is financially unsustainable.
Photo: Gerhard Uys

Electrical engineer Johann Erwee runs a small hunting operation near Bela-Bela, Limpopo.

As a part-time operation that he runs in parallel with his engineering business, it requires sound time and resource management to remain sustainable.

Johann explains that ever since he hunted his first kudu at the age of 12, he had wanted to run a farm. Initially, he had a Brahman stud on a farm near Bela-Bela, but the property’s layout made it difficult to manage and he later sold it.

READ National parks for all seasons!

He then bought Kareefontein, where Kuduwane Lodge is now situated. The previous owner had had a game camp that covered nearly a third of the farm’s 800ha, and this led Johann to sell his stud and begin a hunting operation in 1995.

Infrastructure
Johann’s first task was to install appropriate infrastructure. At the top of his list was adequate fencing, and enclosing 800ha was costly.

In addition, fencing has to be approved by the Department of Economic Development and Tourism, which issues an exemption permit after inspecting the fencing.

This is valid for three years and allows the owner to keep game and run legal hunts on the property. It also allows the owner to give hunters consent to convey the carcasses from the farm to their homes. Anyone stopped at a roadblock without such a consent permit is treated as a poacher by authorities.

Hunters have certain expectations of a game farm, explains Johann. For one, they want the animals they hunt to be removed from where they fall, slaughtered professionally, and the meat stocked in a cold room as soon as possible.

“I established the infrastructure gradually. Proper cold room facilities are a must from the start. Hunters also want a hot shower when they return from a hunt, a braai area, and somewhere to cool their drinks,” he says.

Stocking the farm
Stocking the farm with game in a sustainable manner meant asking for expert assistance. The Agricultural Research Council assisted Johann with assessing veld conditions and determining carrying capacity.

Johann says that in the 1990s, when there were relatively few game farms, some experts calculated carrying capacity based primarily on grass cover; they did not always take the forage value of trees into account.

His farm has many valuable trees that add to the carrying capacity, as the leaves are utilised by kudu, nyala, giraffe, impala and eland.

Kareefontein is situated in a sourveld area, with highly palatable red grass (Themeda triandra) and less palatable turpentine grass (Cymbopogon spp.) dominating. Browsers feed on karee (Searsia lancea), acacia, wild pear (Dombeya rotundifolia), vaalboom (Terminalia sericea), red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum), boekenhout (Rapanea melanophloeos), wildesering (Burkea africana), and sicklebush (Dichrostachys cinerea).

The farm is stocked with impala, giraffe, eland, red hartebeest, blue wildebeest, blesbuck, nyala, zebra, warthog and bushpig. Predators include leopard, jackal, brown hyena and caracal.

Johann benefitted from the fact that he had hunted a great deal before starting the farm. He wanted to target biltong hunters, who hunt solely for the meat, so he knew what species they were after.

Stocking the farm to acceptable levels of game took about five years. During this time he could allow only selective hunting.

He relies mostly on the natural population increase to keep the numbers sufficiently high for hunting, but buys in game when he is fully booked. Although this is costly, it introduces new genetics to the farm.

“When running a large operation, one can hunt specific areas on a farm and allow others to rest. But with my small operation, having hunters here every weekend, I have to manage hunting well, otherwise I’d have to buy in stock continually,” Johann says.

Lambing percentages of game are often low, and weaning percentages in the area even lower.

Leopard and caracal target impala, blesbok, nyala and blue wildebeest lambs. Due to factors such as predation, impala, for example, may experience only a 30% growth in numbers per year, even if all ewes lamb.

Price
Determining a price for game is a tricky endeavour at Kuduwane, as Johann has to balance the need to offer competitive hunting prices and remain financially sustainable.

According to Johann, biltong hunters prefer to hunt game species that slaughter out the most kilograms for the money they pay.

“A biltong hunter wants game as cheaply as possible, so they prefer impala and kudu. Blue wildebeest and blesbok are also popular. It’s often about perception. A giraffe will slaughter out over 800kg, which may translate into meat for as little as just R10/kg. Yet hunters often fail to see a giraffe as a cloven-hoofed animal, perhaps because of its Afrikaans name, kameelperd [camel-horse], but its meat is of good quality.

“One can look at the market to determine average prices, and compare that with what hunters are willing to pay. The difficulty is that the price they’re willing to pay and the cost of buying in game are unequal. I therefore have to rely on what’s bred on my farm for an income.”

When Johann needs to increase the population of a particular species, he raises the price of hunting it. If a client then chooses that species, Johann can afford to buy in new animals.

Guiding: a steadily disappearing skill
Guides are crucial to the success of the hunter and ultimately the entire hunting business, yet are often taken for granted, according to Johann.

A trophy hunter seeks an antelope with impressive horns, and guides should be able to identify whether or not an animal is of trophy size, regardless of terrain or distance.

Guides’ tracking abilities are particularly important when a hunter wounds an animal: it has to be put out of its misery as soon as possible, and the hunter needs to get the meat, as a wounded animal still has to be paid for.

Sadly, as society modernises, these tracking skills are being lost.

“Many guides grew up in rural areas in times when entire families lived on farms as workers. As children they’d learn tracking skills,” he says.

With his hunting experience, Johann can take new guides into the veld and teach them how to approach game, but admits that years of experience are needed to learn the finer points of detecting an animal in dense bush, tracking a wounded antelope, or identifying a species’ spoor in difficult terrain.

“There’s limited training for trackers to acquire the necessary skills. The hunting industry may find itself in trouble one day because of this,” he says.

Grazing
Maintaining optimal grazing and browsing is key to sustainability. In fact, Johann says that taking care of the grasses and leaves is more of a headache than managing the game.

He regularly sprays Seriphium plumosum, also known as bankrupt bush or bankrotbos.

“Game doesn’t eat it and its roots push out other plant growth. You can’t use mechanical means to control it, because its roots just redevelop. It requires continual management, and although this is labour-intensive, it means that more veld is opened up for grazing,” he says.

Although Kuduwane has a permit for year-round hunting, Johann allows hunts only from May until September.

This is to prevent disturbing the females during the lambing season and to protect the young and vulnerable offspring during the first months of their lives.

Recording as management tool
Johann stresses the importance of running the farm as a business, and therefore keeping accurate records. For example, he notes the species, sex and weight of each animal shot.

This, in conjunction with other methods, helps to monitor the number of animals on the farm and allow for interventions, if need be.

For instance, a sudden decrease in the average weight of a certain species would indicate a problem, such as grazing management, that needs to be immediately addressed.

Other records such as rainfall, additional feed purchased and used, fuel consumption, and electricity consumption have to be kept up to date.

Despite these strict controls, Johann has found it difficult to survive on hunting fees alone.

Thus, he recently diversified by offering family and team packages during the off-season.

These include game viewing, corporate team-building, and photo safaris.

Email Johann Erwee at [email protected]. Visit kuduwane.co.za.