Catch-and-Release Hunting Proves a Sleeper Hit

If elephants need tranquilizing once in a while, why not charge tourists to pull the trigger?

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Frank Molteno wants to take you hunting. You'll slink around the South African bush until you are face-to-flank with 5,000 pounds of white rhinoceros; then you'll shoulder a .32-caliber Palmer gun and squeeze the trigger. But instead of a bullet and a bloody kill, a straw-size tranquilizer dart will puncture the beast's behind, resulting in nothing more than a long nap and a nasty hangover.

"Nothing like sticking a rhino in the butt from about 20 feet," gushes satisfied Molteno client Steve Camp. Darting safaris, like the one Camp and his wife took last year, are the latest rage out on the veld. For the past two years, professional hunters like Molteno, head of Darting Safaris, a South African nonprofit, have charged clients $5,000 to $10,000 (about half the cost of a shoot-to-kill safari) to dart big-five game on private reserves in Botswana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Paying clients bring the animals down, and wildlife managers use the nap time to collect genetic samples or affix radio collars. This year, there will be several dozen shoot-and-release expeditions throughout Africa, and supporters of the continent's newest conservation practice are quick to brag that not only do the fees support nonprofits, but, as Molteno points out, "The hunt is a peripheral component of management procedures."

Those heading to Africa this month for the cool fall season, when darting is the least taxing to the animals, can choose from a plethora of safaris. Elephant hunters will be grinning like bwana wanna-bes while a vet with the Zimbabwe-based nonprofit group Save the Elephants fits snoozing pachyderms with GPS collars. And the aforementioned Darting Safaris specializes in collecting DNA samples from various species as a safeguard against population depletion.

Though this marriage of hunting and management appears to be a hit, not all tours, alas, are ecologically motivated. South African vets and above-board outfitters worry that profiteering reserve managers are allowing animals to be darted more than once a season, for sport. "My colleagues advise that yes, there are a few fly-by-nights," confirms Michelle Booysan, vice-president of Pretoria-based dart-safari outfitter Deepgreen.

Traditional hunters scoff, but dart hunting is no peashooter game. Given that the projectile will descend one foot for every 25 yards traveled, it's easy to miss. "When you stalk an animal and put a round in him with a rifle, you're impeding his ability to defend himself at the same moment you're making him aware of you," says Molteno. "With a dart gun, it's somewhat more anxious."