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Bowhunting and ethics

By Rean Steenkamp

“Give us a broad smile,” says the man behind the camera and the hunter complies while holding on tightly to the huge horns of the red hartebeest he has just taken down with his bow. “What a trophy!” he thinks, “It’s sure gonna impress the guys when they see it hanging on my wall.”

Yes, what a trophy. What a sportsman. This hunter shot his animal from a hide at 15 yards. The animal had little chance of surviving once the sportsman had focused the sights of his compound on its flank.

Was this really hunting or was it culling? I believe it’s the latter, since no hunting skills were needed by the bowhunter. He merely had to be a reasonable shot, and choose the right moment to pull the trigger. Why, then, is the animal viewed as a trophy after it has been downed? Is hunting, especially this kind, a sport? Or is it merely another form of killing?

Firstly, I do not believe this kind of activity to be hunting at all and secondly, I do not regard hunting as a sport, although it is certainly an activity. A sport usually requires at least two equally capable competitors competing against each other. They can be two teams, or two persons in direct competition, or each competitors can each do his own activity and then be allocated a score. The one with the highest or lowest score wins, depending on the rules of the game. These competitors are Homo Sapiens, or in the case of horse racing, humans and horses. The point is there is always a human competing against another human, never a human pitted against an animal.

Plainly put, a human using technology to compete against an animal is just not fair. In sport - real sport - competitors are usually not allowed to compete if they have an unfair advantage. Any sportsperson may purchase the best and latest equipment. Manufacturers of sports equipment are increasingly hard put to produce the best running shoes and rackets, faster and more accurate bows, faster cars or lighter-framed and more streamlined bicycles. Whether the competitor chooses to be part of the equipment race usually depends on his/her bank balance.

Animals do not have this advantage. They only have their instincts on which to rely and pit against the ongoing advances in hunting equipment. Bows are becoming increasingly faster and more accurate. Hunters make use of constantly improving equipment and techniques to make their hunt easier. Blinds are made sound and odour-proof and animals are lured to blinds and waterholes using feeding pellets and carefully planned strategies, such as blocking all other watering points on the game ranch.

It could be argued that the hunters are competing against each other, the winner being the one who bags the biggest trophy. But is this then not a sport of chance and finances? The size of the buck that visits the hide has to do with luck or the availability of trophy animals on that particular ranch. The more money the hunter has, the more frequently he can hunt, thus improving his chances to bag a record-sized animal.

Game ranching

What is important, however, is that game farming has become an industry, and as such is doing more for conservation than all other similar-minded attempts by all the anti-hunting groups put together. For game ranchers to survive and not return to cattle or sheep farming, which mostly excludes game on their farms, they have to make a profit. This means they have to get hunters to cull their excess game. Many of these hunters do not have the time, energy or inclination to acquire proper hunting skills or learn to walk-and-stalk in the limited amount of hunting time they have at their disposal. Additionally, many only have the money to pay for game when they are older and are no longer able to walk in the veldt for hours on end.

I have been to an abattoir many times and find the manner in which cattle, sheep and pigs are slaughtered rather disturbing. They know they are going to die, but cannot do anything about it. From an ethics perspective, how cruel can we get? We take animals and breed them to suit our needs, and modify them to suit our palates. After letting them live an unnatural life (usually in feeding pens), feeding them unnatural food and injecting them with chemicals to make them grow faster, we then send them off to the abattoir to have them be slaughtered, without any choice or fair chance. Few people have a problem buying and eating this meat, including me, although after seeing a TV programme on how unhealthy this meat could be, I have become more reluctant to buy it lately, because of the negative effect it may have on my family.

While game animals in South Africa are fenced in, they do run reasonably free and have a much better chance to survive by wit than do cattle and sheep. When they are hunted, either by being walk-and-stalked or shot from a hide, they usually die quickly if shot correctly. The point is they do want to live and do not care whether the hunter shot them after stalking them or waited in a hide. In both cases the animal did not see the hunter. When the arrow strikes the pain he feels is the same.

These animals belong to the game rancher, whose ranch may only carry a maximum number of animals. If there are more, the ranch degenerates. Consequently, he has to cull and some of the animals must die. How they die does not really matter, except that it must be done as humanely as possible. This means with as little suffering as possible. Whether he shoots them from a pickup truck at 200 yards, herds them into a kraal and injects them, walks-and-stalks them or takes them from a hide makes no difference. The animals are going to die anyway.

Unfortunately, man no longer needs to hunt for food anymore. I would prefer that an end be put to cattle farming altogether and that all the farms be converted to game farms. All meat on the shelves would then be venison. This is just a dream, however, and will never become reality, no matter how much I wish for it.

The truth is that game ranchers develop their ranches to make money. Although they apply conservation principles, they are farmers nevertheless who have to make a profit. For this they need hunters. Few hunters are good hunters, properly skilled in tracking and stalking. Most are probably not really hunters at all, but they have money, which the ranchers need, so they get the hunters to do the culling for them. It saves them from having to do it themselves.

If a hunter does the culling and the rancher is paid for the “service”, what difference does it make to the animal? As I stated earlier, the animal does not want a broadhead through his side, regardless of whether it is shot from a hide, treestand or by someone hiding behind a bush.

Bowhunting from blinds

If bowhunting from blinds is disallowed, many game ranchers will discontinue bowhunting on their ranches altogether, the reason being that rifle hunters are more successful, simply because it is much easier. They shoot more animals during a weekend hunt than bowhunters do from blinds. Walking-and-stalking is difficult and many bowhunters may not get their kill in two or even four days. To most farmers this is unacceptable. They want hunters who can get their kill so that they can make their money. There are few bowhunters today who can successfully walk-and-stalk – not enough anyway to meet the demands of the game farmers.

We want more game farmers to turn to bowhunting. Let’s get more bowhunting farmers and more bowhunters first, then we start educating bowhunters about proper hunting techniques. Currently the only consideration is that they know when to shoot and when not to, and how to make a clean kill. If they are not proper hunters it is better that they shoot from a hide. That way they stand less of a chance wounding the animals. Bowhunters should strive to win these blind hunters over to walking-and-stalking. Just as a baby first drinks milk and later moves on to solid food, the bowhunter should first hunt from a hide and learn to wait for the animal to present itself for a proper shot. The distance is known because it has been marked. If target panic can be overcome, the shot is almost certain. After a few kills this way, the bowhunter will be more sure of himself and will be ready to move from the hide to the veldt, and perhaps wait for animals from behind a bush. In time he will acquire the proper skills and will have become a real hunter, taking his animals by walking-and-stalking them.

A step backward

I am a great admirer of Jay Massey, the well-known American traditional bowhunter who died of cancer a few years ago. He did not even accept the compound bow as a bow, and called it an arrow-projecting device. He only hunted with equipment he had made himself and said that bowyers were trying to re-invent the rifle by constantly trying to improve the bow technologically. I agree with his views. When you chose to take up a bow, in a way you also choose to take a step back in time. You decide to take on the challenge to hunt in the same way hunters hunted 30 000 years ago. Why then would you want to start using technology to help make your hunt easier? Rather use a rifle, which is a perfectly good weapon. It is interesting to note that the modern compound predates the rifle, the atomic bomb, space travel and computers.

When I mentioned this to a fellow bowhunter, he replied that he does not hunt with a bow for the above reason, but rather because it is a silent weapon. When he promotes bowhunting to game ranchers, he usually points out the fact that bowhunting and game viewing can be done on the same game farm, since bowhunting does not scare the game. I am told that an arrow approaching an animal sounds very similar to a dove coming in to land. Apparently the game does not really know what kills them. I have also been told of the existence of a video, which shows a bowhunter taking five kudu in a row at a waterhole. One by one they drop dead in their tracks. As they did not know what was happening, they continued to drink until it was their turn to die. This hunter must have been an exceptionally good shot. However, why he would want to kill five kudu on one day (even in one year) is beyond my understanding. My first reaction is that this incident proves this method of hunting is unacceptable and should be banned. However, it does prove the point that bowhunting is not as unsettling to game as rifle hunting. Nor does it unsettle the anti-hunters much, since they hear no shots. I guess I have to admit that there is a place for compounds, provided the bowhunter uses it to hunt ethically. Besides, it certainly is a very accurate weapon.

Is traditional bowhunting ethical?

Traditional equipment is viewed by some as unethical because no sights are used and it is probably impossible to shoot as accurately with a recurve or longbow as it is with a compound. A good traditionalist can shoot better than a poor compound shot, but as far as I know, no traditionalist has shot a higher score than a compound shot at the world championships. As a rule (and learning from my own experience), a traditionalist cannot shoot the same groupings as compound archers, especially over longer distances. Does this mean that the traditionalist will wound animals more often than compound-shooting bowhunters? Yes, of course and no, not necessarily.

A traditionalist should be aware of his weapon’s shortcomings. He should never hunt over a distance further than he can accurately shoot. He should train much harder than a compound archer. When hunting, buck fever or the position from which he is forced to shoot can adversely affect a bowhunter and can compromise his shot. If he shoots from a shorter distance than he can accurately shoot, these influences will have less of an effect.

The crux of the matter is the treatment of the animal, and the degree of cruelty involved. When an animal is killed, it should be done as humanly as possible. Can killing be humane? Is it not cruel? Personally, I don’t think so. To kill an animal is to be cruel to it – how can it be anything else? The answer has to do with causing as little pain as possible in as short a time as possible.

Why do you kill?

I often wonder why sportshunters shoot game. It probably has more to do with morality or philosophy then ethics. The subsistence hunter kills because he is hungry. Meat is an excellent supply of protein and by hunting an animal the hunter can feed his whole family, sometimes even a few families. He kills to support his own life and that of his family. This is found everywhere in nature. The activity cannot be wrong in itself, since this would imply that nature is wrong, and we would have to eradicate all predators.

Why does the sportshunter kill? Frankly, I don’t know. There are probably various reasons. One may be for food, although I think this is only a secondary reason. The most likely reason is a need to kill. Somewhere inside us lurks the urge to kill something. One could reason that it is an inherent urge most men have; an inbuilt survival mechanism that has no outlet in a modern society. The problem with this hypothesis is that not all men seem to have it. Women apparently also have this urge, since there are many women trophy hunters. The majority of men and women do not seem to have this need to hunt, however. Are we to deduce that they are suppressing their urge to kill? Or it might be that only some people have an urge to kill, for some reason we are unaware of. Perhaps this inherent urge to hunt is stronger in some people than in others.

The sportshunter may also hunt because he loves nature and enjoys being in the veldt. The problem with this is that one does not have to kill to enjoy nature. Many people do photography or birdwatching, which gets them outdoors for up to days at a time without killing anything. The same goes for hikers, campers and mountaineers.

Let’s be frank, a hunter likes chasing an animal, pitting his wits against it and then killing it. He does not stalk the animal until he is within five yards and then take a photograph. Nor does he shoot it with a blunt or some other nonlethal weapon. Instead, he kills it; the animal has to die.

Again, this brings me to the problem of blinds. As the hunter enjoys the challenge of pitting his wits or hunting abilities against the animals’ instincts, why does he try to make it as easy as possible for him to get the animal? If the enjoyment lies in the challenge, why not make it a real one? Is it really challenging and fair chase to sit in a hide at the water where the animal has little chance against the bowhunter? Earlier in this article I tried to show that it isn’t fair chase. I am now pursuing a different issue, namely why we hunt.

Does the hunter who sits in a hide have an urge to kill? Perhaps, but I think there is another reason, which has to do with the ego. The hunter wants to kill game to be able to say he has done so. This puts him in a league above his peers, and enables to create the impression that he is a great hunter. He has killed this and that. That the kills were made as easy as possible for him is ignored, as is the fact that the trophy animals killed at the hide walked in purely by chance.Let’s compare these two situations .

First scenario:

The hunter is dropped off at the airport and picked up by a professional hunter driving an air-conditioned twin cab, or flying a light aircraft. Either way he arrives at the ranch in relative comfort. Early the next morning he is dropped off at the hide, where he finds a hook on which to hang up his bow and a comfortable chair. The water is 17 yards away from him and the feeding pellets 15 yards. At 20 yards is a licking block. In the bag he has brought with him is enough food and drink for the day. The hide is well designed and the prevailing wind is blowing in his direction. It is relatively soundproof and in the shade. The hunter looks through a small port.

At precisely 7:30 a large kudu appears out of the bushes close to the drinking hole. It stops and scans the area. The bowhunter carefully takes his bow from the hook and knocks an arrow as silently as possible. His heart is beating like an African drum. This is the biggest kudu he has ever seen and he does not want to mess up his chances to take it. One wrong move and the kudu will be gone. He waits. The kudu waits.

Five minutes later the kudu walks closer and after taking one suspicious look at the hide begins to feed on the pellets. He stands slightly quartering away from the hunter. The hunter’s heart rate doubles. For a moment he wonders how long his heart can keep up this pace. He lifts his bow and tries to relax, taking a couple of deep breaths and looking for a specific spot on the animal’s flank. He makes sure the animal is relaxed. He puts the 20-yard pin on the spot and slowly starts to squeeze the trigger. The bow bounces slightly in his hand as the arrow leaves the shelf and hits the kudu right where the hunter aimed.

Second scenario:

The bowhunter takes a map from his pocket and studies it. He checks his compass and gazes his surroundings. This is it, the area where the rancher said he saw the large kudu. He walks a little further and crosses a well-trodden buck trail. He checks the spoor and notices that a few kudu have passed, walking in a southeastern direction. He follows the spoor, walking slowly and stopping frequently to listen for familiar or unfamiliar sounds.

At 9:30 he stops suddenly to study a spoor. This might be it! This kudu’s spoor is big and the imprint deep, indicating a large body mass. Could this be the kudu the rancher saw?

The hunter follows the spoor until he notices fresh droppings on the track. The kudu is just ahead. “Am I lucky or what?” he thinks. He pulls the camouflage net over his head and walks closer, very slowly. Ever so often he scans the area with his binoculars. Then he spots the kudu 80 yards away in the distance, standing in the shade of a tree, feeding on the leaves. He stares in wonder at the huge horns.

The stalk is on. Using the trees and brushes as cover he slowly and silently closes the gap between himself and the kudu. Every time the kudu looks in his direction he freezes. Every time the kudu feeds or looks in another direction he takes a few steps, ever careful not to step on a twig or loose leaves.

After what feels like an age only 25 yards remain between him and the kudu. “Shucks, I wish I had a compound,” he thinks. He doesn’t want to take a chance. He will have to get closer, but cover is a problem. There is only one small bush between him and the animal. The hunter silently gets down on his belly and with his bow resting on his forearms slowly begins to leopard crawl. It takes him 20 gruelling minutes to cover the distance to the bush. To his relief the kudu is still happily feeding in the shade.

He slowly gets onto his knees, then carefully takes an arrow from his back quiver and knocks it. Choosing a spot in the crease behind the kudu’s front leg he focuses, draws and releases. The arrow flies true.

Which of these two hunts challenged the hunter the most, and which hunter deserves his record animal? Certainly it cannot be refuted that the hunter in the first scenario was lucky. He is a good shot and does have some skill and knowledge on animal behaviour, but compared to the hunter in the second scenario this is minimal. The second hunter really chased the animal and got it owing to his hunting skills. Sure, he had a little luck as well, but the trophy that hangs on the wall is a true reflection of his hunting abilities.

After all this, what am I really trying to say, I hear you ask? Truthfully, I don’t know. I am certainly not saying you should stop hunting. Perhaps I am merely asking bowhunters to stop a moment and think before they kill an animal; just do a little soul searching… then release the arrow.

Updated: Wednesday, February 1, 2006 2:29 PM


About the Author

Rean Steenkamp

Rean Steenkamp

Rean Steenkamp, editor and owner of Africa’s Bowhunter magazine, is an enthusiastic traditional archer and bowhunter. He started hunting with a longbow in 1997 and has since bagged many African plains game with traditional bows, compound and black powder rifles. He also dabbled in bow building and published a bowhunting book titled “Let loose the arrow!”

Rean started his career in journalism in 1984 at a newspaper in Pretoria, South Africa. He interrupted his career at the end of 1991 when he joined the 37th weather team expedition to Gough Island, where he worked for 14 months as the communicator. The team consisted of only seven people living in isolation on the seven by 16 km island. Rean started the Africa’s Bowhunter magazine in 2000 while working as editor for the Game and Hunt magazine.


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