Culture: Goodwill Hunting

Big game safaris swap rifles for tranquilizer guns

By Kiera Butler

Vet-safari participant Saskia Murray (left) and wildlife workers carry a tranquilized cheetah

So far, green hunting has not been as popular as the Henleys had hoped it would be. In the five years since they came to Save the Elephants, only seven people have gone on green hunting safaris. Steve Henley thinks the cause might be a perception problem of sorts.

“We’re called ‘Save the Elephants,’ and maybe that puts hunters on the defensive,” he says. “All the hunters we’ve had have been completely enthused about it. But some hunters think it would lack a sense of completion. To them, actually killing the animal is important.”

For those who are not so excited about shooting an animal (even knowing it will get up and walk away a few minutes later), there are also vet safaris, on which a trained professional tranquilizes the animal, and then allows participants assist with research tasks while the animal is unconscious.

Dr. Peter Brothers, the veterinarian who runs Brothers Safaris in Pretoria, South Africa, hosts such safaris for both veterinary students and tourists. Brothers works with researchers all over South Africa. “We screen the projects very carefully,” he says. “We assess why it’s being done and how it’s being done, and if I consider it a good ethical reason, we might get involved.” For tourists, a Brothers custom-made vet safari can cost between $2,000 and $4,000, accommodations included. Like the Henleys, Brothers puts part of the income toward the research.

This is not everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who dream of getting up close and personal with leonine molars, a vet safari is about as good as it gets. One Brothers vet-safari alumna, 30-year-old Saskia Murray, gushed, “Ordinarily you’d never get the opportunity to touch a lion, let alone look in its mouth!” She rapturously recalls luring a lioness and waiting for her to approach as darkness fell in the bush. “There were all these noises: squealing wildebeests, frogs, and birds, and eventually, we heard crunching noises. Very carefully, Peter shined the light down and darted the lion.” The group then helped change the animal’s tracking collar and looked at its teeth and claws. Then they watched from afar as the lioness woke up. “It was absolutely incredible,” she says.

Unlike Murray, Irish was not particularly interested in the research—for him, the draw was the excitement of the hunt, and the knowledge that “from an ecology standpoint, you’re pretty much helping the elephant.” Still, he has often found himself wondering what Classic Charlie, the elephant he stalked and darted three years ago on his eco-hunt, is up to. “I talk to Michelle from time to time to see how he is,” says Irish.  “I heard he’s doing fine.”

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Issue 25

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