Plains Game Hunts in South Africa
The Republic of South Africa was granted independence eight years after the end of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) by an act of the British Parliament (South Africa Act 1909). The Union of South Africa came into being on May 31, 1910. The Union was composed of the Cape, Transvaal, Natal colonies, as well as the Orange Free State.
South Africa covers an area of 471,445 square miles with over 1550 miles of coastline. It is four times the size of Italy, and has a population of over 57,725,000. Its climate is generally temperate due to being surrounded by the Indian and Atlantic oceans on three sides. A great variety of climatic zones exist from the extreme desert of the south to the lush sub-tropical climate in the east along the border with Mozambique and along the Indian Ocean. Winter in South Africa runs from early June to the end of August. The country is host to over 50 species of animals, including many different plains game species.
As a hunting destination, South Africa offers a tremendous variety of plains game. The country’s infrastructure means that getting around the country is easy. Many hunting camps are within two hours of your arrival point at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg. There are also more adventurous offerings like traveling and hunting in the 350,000 square mile Kalahari Desert, or exploring the mountains of the Eastern Cape.
The vast majority of all safaris in South Africa are plains game safaris, where the animal hunted is usually behind a high fenced area. Plains game usually refers to the many species of antelope that inhabit the plains and sub-Saharan African continent. However, basically any type of game that is not considered dangerous game can be considered plains game.
During the 1970s African hunting underwent major changes. First, Mozambique closed all hunting due to its bush war. Then Tanzania shut down, followed by Kenya, and a bit later by Uganda. Tanzania re-opened during the early 1980s, but the great hunting grounds of East Africa were gone. Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) had their own war problems, so they were off the board for all intents and purposes.
The time was ripe for South Africa to enter the world of big game/plains game hunting. Prior to the 1970s, South African plains game had been reduced to near-extinction. Sometime during the 1950s, South Africa’s game population reached an all-time low. There wasn’t enough wild game to support any type of hunting industry.
A new type of hunter began journeying to South Africa; one who was willing to hunt gemsbok, wildebeest, kudu, and the like. As the demand flourished, so did the hunting industry. Farmers watched the demand for huntable animals grow. They knew that the game on their farms belonged to them, and they could do with it as they wished. They soon learned that a plains game hunt could bring in more money than farming. So, they began doing what they always had done, raising a crop – this time a crop of game animals. They quickly learned that the bush was a much better place to produce game animals than the sheep, cows, or goats that they had been raising before. There was a good supply of excess animals in the big parks, so getting breeding stock was neither hard, nor expensive. As of 2019, the game ranch business has grown to such an extent that South Africa is covered in game ranches.
No discussion of hunting plains game in South Africa could be complete without talking about game-proof high fences. If you are of the opinion that hunting behind fences isn’t really hunting, then you will have to make some decisions about the type of safari you will encounter in South Africa. Most hunting in South Africa is behind fences, and there’s a lot of good to be said about that type of hunting. First of all, South Africa has a hunting season. However, it doesn’t apply to privately-owned ranches, so the farmers can, and do, offer year round hunting. If the hunter puts in some time checking out various outfitters, it’s very possible that he can hunt a ranch where the only fence he sees is at the entrance. Secondly, having the game animals under positive control makes for a healthier population.
South Africa Provinces
Since the election of April 27, 1994, South Africa has been divided up into nine provinces.
Each province within South Africa has a selected hunting season as to what animals can be hunted, and when. There are also daily tags that limit the number of animals that can be taken. Hunting African plains game is handled differently in different provinces due to climate, vegetation, and terrain; all of which can vary greatly. The individual hunting areas can vary from densely wooded savanna to wide open grassland. Each province offers a unique habitat, which is ideally suited to the specific plains game species, and holds its own challenges for the plains game hunter. In the bushveld, shots can be well inside 100 yards due to the thick cover. The open plains of the Free State may require shooting out past 200 yards. Get into the heavy thorn bush of the Kalahari, and shooting can be at less than 50 yards.
South Africa Plains Game Animals
The abundance of antelope species in South Africa make it an absolute paradise for hunters looking for medium-sized game. Below find a partial list of animals that can be taken when hunting plains game in South Africa.
Black wildebeest – These are normally hunted on the central plains of South Africa. They are considered the clowns of Africa due to their outrageous behavior – leaping and prancing, running wild, for no other reason than that they are wildebeests. Almost extinct, they were brought back in record numbers by committed conservation. The income derived from trophy hunting them contributes to the conservation of the black wildebeest in South Africa.
Blue wildebeest – These are among the most popular game species in South Africa. Often referred to as a “poor man’s Cape buffalo”, they have numerous similarities to the larger bovine when hunted.
Common blesbok – These are among the most populous of animals that can be hunted in South Africa. They inhabit open plains with nearby water. Sometimes long shots are necessary. Calibers suitable for hunting common blesbok are flat-shooting, fast bullets on the .30 caliber range.
White blesbok – The white blesbok is a color variation of the common blesbok. They inhabit the same plains as their relative. Their stalking and shooting procedures are identical to the common blesbok. When mounted as trophies, the two animals make a striking display.
Bontebok – These are one of the rarest antelope that can be found in South Africa. They are similar to a blesbok, but with a few distinctions. The bontebok has a white blaze that runs from its forehead to the tip of its nose. They have a similar white blaze around the tail. Bontebok are normally only hunted by extreme African trophy collectors.
Bushbuck – Bushbuck are the smallest of the spiral-horned antelope that can be hunted in South Africa. They can be quite elusive and difficult to see in the brush. The males are solitary and prefer to stay hidden. They are normally seen during the late afternoon. They can be quite dangerous if wounded, as they come with a very nice pair of assegai (spears) mounted on their skull that they would be more than happy to stick in you at just about groin level.
Bush pig – not an antelope, but usually included with plains game, and hunted at night when they are most active. They prefer the dense forest, and can do a lot of damage to a farmer’s field in a single night. Male bush pig can be dangerous as they weigh over 300 pounds and are quite aggressive. You should always have a backup when hunting bush pig in South Africa.
Caracal – This small wild cat is very wide-ranging in South Africa. They can be hunted by using callers, or with hunting dogs. Baiting is not effective, as they don’t return to kills.
Common reedbuck – Common reedbuck are widely distributed throughout South Africa. They are nocturnal animals, and best hunted in the early morning hours, or late afternoon. They are called reedbuck due to their habit of hiding in tall reeds and grass during the day. Common reedbuck are easily identified by a white patch on their rump that is visible when running away. It’s sort of like having a moving bullseye for a Texas brain shot.
Duiker: blue, red, and grey – these are the smallest antelope that can be hunted in South Africa. These tiny animals favor coastal forests along South Africa’s east coast. They are normally taken if the opportunity arises while on a hunt for a different animal. Duiker are best hunted with a shotgun, or a large caliber rifle with a solid bullet. High velocity cartridges loaded with expanding bullets can damage the hide to the point where it is almost worthless.
Cape eland – Cape eland are the largest of the antelope species that can be hunted in South Africa. They occur in the bushveld, eastern Free State, and Kalahari. Large males can be easily identified by their blue necks and large dewlaps. They normally have a thick tuft of hair on their foreheads.
Livingstone eland – These are not as common as the Cape eland. They tend to the Lowveld, and can easily be distinguished from their larger relative by stripes that occur on their sides.
Giraffe – The tallest land mammals in the world. They have excellent eyesight and acute hearing. When they move, they hardly seem to be exerting themselves, almost traveling in slow motion, but disappearing at a rapid rate. The giraffe has thick skin, and a heavy caliber like .375 H&H, or larger will be required.
Grey rhebuck – This is a medium-sized animal that lives in the mountainous terrain of the southeastern part of South Africa. Their hunt can be quite a challenge due to the high altitude and rough territory they inhabit.
Fallow deer – Fallow deer were introduced around Cape Town in 1869. Over the years, the population was established in the highlands of Mpumalanga, and the Eastern Cape. They can be taken on an opportunistic basis.
Gemsbok – Gemsbok are one of the most impressive plains game trophies to hunt in South Africa. They are native to the Kalahari Desert, but can now be found in many different provinces. They can go for days without drinking, as they derive most of their liquid needs from the food they consume.
Impala – Impala are the most common antelope species found in South Africa. They can be either gregarious or territorial depending on the climate and geography. They are found in woodlands and savannahs, always with a water source nearby.
Jackal - The most common jackal hunted in South Africa is the black-backed variety. They are quite popular trophies for African hunters. They have a reputation as scavengers, but are quite proficient at hunting their own small prey. Jackals are mostly considered animals of opportunity and vermin, which is why they can be hunted for free.
Klipspringer – These tiny antelope are hunted in rocky terrain, or up in the mountains. They have incredible agility in the rocks, partially due to their hooves. The hoof tips are almost circular and the animal stands on them when it jumps onto a tiny rock projection. Due to their brown coloration, they can be very hard to spot.
Kudu – Often referred to as the “gray ghost” in many parts of Africa, it’s on many plains game hunter’s wish list. The kudu is extremely wary, and a great challenge to hunt. Kudu occur widely throughout South Africa, where they favor heavily-brushed, broken, or hilly terrain. As big as they are, they can be very hard to spot if they remain motionless.
Red lechwe – Not native to South Africa, these beautiful antelope have been introduced to the Free State, and Eastern Cape of South Africa. Only the males wear horns. They stay close to water, and can best be hunted by walking and stalking their habitat at peak activity times in the early morning, or late afternoon. A good trophy will have horns with thick bases and a wide flare before the horns curve forward.
Mountain reedbuck – As their name implies, these animals prefer hilly, or mountainous areas where they congregate in small family groups. Only the males carry horns. Hunting mountain reedbuck in South Africa is very challenging with a lot of climbing involved. Long shots with varying elevations are often required, and the best choice of rifle would be a flat-shooting, fast cartridge.
Nyala – A mature male Nyala is one of the most beautiful spiral-horned antelope that can be taken when hunting plains game in South Africa. Their traditional habitat is the higher-rainfall eastern parts of South Africa where they inhabit heavily-wooded savannah. Due to their weight and size (240 pounds, 50 inches at the shoulder) the minimum caliber for hunting should be in the .30 caliber range.
Red hartebeest – This is one of the fastest antelope in South Africa. In his habitat on the open plains, the red hartebeest is fatally curious. When spooked, he will hesitate before taking off. This gives the hunter just enough time to get a shot off.
Roan – This animal, at one time almost extinct in South Africa, has increased in population primarily due to the number of breeding projects that have appeared over the last 15 years. They are the second-largest of the plains game animals that can be hunted in South Africa.
Oribi – Oribi resemble a tall gazelle. These small animals are generally hunted when the opportunity arises while hunting something else. These would normally only be hunted by the most avid of trophy collectors.
Ostrich – The world’s largest living bird (and probably the meanest) is very popular for the high quality of its hide; its feathers, and its high-protein meat. Usually, they are hunted as animals of opportunity. They are considered an easy, fun diversion from hunting other animals. However, this hunt can turn into a real hard battle of wits, with much swearing and expenditure of ammo. This bird has excellent vision, great hearing, and can pretty much keep ahead of a safari truck.
Sable – The beautiful sable is most active during early morning and prior to sunset. The male’s distinctive coloration makes them easy to spot, even in the thickest bush. Their scimitar-shaped horns are probably the most prized of all the game trophies when hunting plains game in South Africa.
Springbok – black, white, copper and common – the springbok is the national animal of South Africa. The white and black springbok are just color variations of the common springbok. These antelope are hunted on open land where the exceptional eyesight of the herd makes a close approach quite difficult. Another case where a hard-shooting, flat trajectory rifle is necessary.
Steenbok – These are a fairly common small antelope found over wide areas of South Africa. Only the males have horns. Normally, they are taken when on a hunt for another plains game animal.
Tsessebe – The fastest antelope in South Africa, the tsessebe are part of the wildebeest and hartebeest family. Like their cousins, the tsessebe has the bad habit of running a bit when spooked, but stopping and looking back to see what riled them, which gives the hunter a shot. A good tsessebe trophy depends on horn length, thick bases, and symmetry.
Waterbuck – As their name implies, these animals tend to stay close to water. They have a shaggy coat with a distinctive white circle around their tails. Only the males have horns which are uniquely v-shaped. Make sure to approach a downed waterbuck from the rear, as they can be very aggressive, and use their horns to do a lot of damage. Horn length can only be judged from the side of the animal; a long horn length before it turns forward is desired.
Warthog –Warthog are widespread throughout South Africa. Their meat is excellent, their tusks impressive, and watching them trot through the bush with their tails raised straight up is quite amusing. They can be found around waterholes and pans.
Burchell’s zebra – this is the most common zebra found in South Africa. It’s typically found on open plains, sometimes in company with wildebeest, or acting as eyes for a Cape buffalo. Zebras are highly dependent on water and never stray far from a water source.
Mountain zebra – The cape mountain zebra is slightly smaller than the Burchell’s, and lacks the Burchell’s shadow stripe. Mountain zebra are typically hunted in the mountains of the Eastern and Western Cape provinces.
Safari Firearms, Ammunition, Optics
Nothing stirs up hunters more than a discussion about suitable firearms for hunting plains game in South Africa. The best general rule is to use the rifle you are most familiar with. For plains game 150 pounds and under, whatever rifle the hunter uses on deer would be adequate. Larger animals will require larger calibers. What’s more important than exact caliber is that the hunter becomes competent shooting it at various ranges. Odds are that you will be shooting off sticks while standing. Making a set of shooting sticks is fairly easy. Then practice setting them up and shooting at various ranges. A very general rule of thumb is to sight the rifle so it’s hitting 1-2 inches high at 100 yards. That will put it a bit low at 200 yards, and might require a hold-over out at 300 yards. When you arrive at the hunting camp, you will have a chance to sight in your rifle again. This accomplishes two things. One, it insures that your scope is still accurate; and two, it shows your PH that you really can shoot.
A lot of outfitters recommend a rifle in the .30 caliber range. Something with similar ballistics to a 30-06, or .300 Winchester Magnum would be perfect. If larger animals are on your list, like eland, kudu, or similar, a .375 would fill the need. In all reality, a .375 caliber rifle, be it H&H, Ruger, or other, would be an excellent choice for all plains game hunting in South Africa.
What ammo? Simple. Buy the best ammunition available. Remington, Norma, Hornady, Winchester, and others, offer ammunition loaded with premium bullets for African plains game. For instance, there are over 70 different cartridges with 180-200 grain bullets available for the .300 Winchester Magnum. This writer recently used the Nosler Trophy Grade Ammo in .300 Winchester Magnum with Nosler’s own 190-grain bullet to stop a cow kudu. No drama, no wounding, just dropped right there.
What optics? Here again, get a quality product. Most African plains game hunters are using a variable-power scope with 3-9x, or thereabouts, magnification. If you will be in the bush most of the time, you would be better off with a variable scope with a lower bottom end – something in the 1.5-2x range. Shots will be quick, and at higher powers, the field of view is compromised, and target acquisition can be slowed. The main thing is to get the scope on the rifle, then shoot the wheels off of it. Scopes are pretty reliable these days, but leaving the iron sights on the barrel is a good idea. Dropping a scope onto rocks on a riverbank really plays hell with its accuracy (don’t ask!). If your scope fails, at least you still can use your rifle.
Traveling to South Africa
There are a few medical concerns to take into account when traveling to South Africa, like vaccinations and malarial prophylaxis if traveling to a malaria area. You will need to talk to your personal physician, or seek out a travel clinic near you. If you have personal prescriptions, bring your meds in their original bottles. South Africa has world-class medical facilities, and excellent doctors. You might want to check out a company like MedJet or Global Rescue that can provide emergency medical attention and evacuation transport to a hospital near your home.
South Africa requires a number of documents to bring a firearm into the country. You will need:
Return airline ticket
Letter of invitation from your outfitter
Completed SAP 520 Form (gun permit – don’t sign until in front of customs official)
Proof of ownership: US Customs Form 4457 – Certificate of Registration
You cannot bring any automatic or semi-automatic firearm into the country. Ammunition is limited to 200 rounds per firearm. Contrary to popular opinion, handguns can be used while hunting plains game in South Africa. Your humble author has had the privilege of taking a Smith & Wesson .500 Magnum on two safaris in South Africa. Used it on an old stink bull giraffe – worked as advertised.
When to Go on a Plains Game Safari
The best time to hunt plains game in South Africa is during the winter months from May into September. Normally, South African winters enjoy mild days with frosty nights and mornings. The grasses die down, improving visibility when hunting, and water sources diminish which makes it easier to track and navigate.
The bushveld in the North West, Limpopo and Gauteng provinces is a popular hunting area, as it’s close to Johannesburg and Pretoria, which saves on travel time and extra flights. Usually, your PH will pick you up at the airport, then drive you to camp. Average winter temperatures range from a low of 39 degrees to a 66-72 degree high.
The eastern plains of the Free State tend more to cooler temperatures due to the region’s higher altitude. Nights can get below freezing, and days peak at 66 degrees. Pack a coat, and be sure to get a chair close to the campfire.
The Lowveld, near Kruger National Park, is the warmest area in South Africa. Daytime temps can run up to 80 degrees; nights seldom get below 44 degrees.
Summary of Plains Game Hunting in South Africa
Plains game hunts in South Africa offer an incredible variety of huntable species in a wide variety of terrains. The breadth of the offerings for plains game huntsi in South Africa are unequaled anywhere in the world. At one point in the near past, many species of South Africa's game were in trouble. The numbers of animals had shrunk to very low numbers. South Africa adopted a conservation model that allowed for private ownership of game. If a high fence was erected, the landowner could claim ownership of the animals inside the fenced-in area, and could manage the populations as they saw fit. The rest is history! South Africa’s game populations rebounded to astonishing levels. It is estimated that there are over 25,000,000 huntable plains game animals in South Africa, and those numbers are growing rapidly. This incredible number of animals makes taking plains game hunts in South Africa highly productive for the modern day hunter.
Plains game hunts in South Africa can cause a hunter to lose their senses and return home with many more trophies than they originally sought. The sheer abundance of plains game on many hunting concessions boggles one’s mind. Everywhere you look there are animals. You never know what plains game animals you will see when you round the next corner or top out over a hill when taking plains game hunts in South Africa. A hunter that wants to collect all of the huntable plains game species will have to take multiple trips to South Africa. After taking all of the daytime plains game trophy animals, there are still quite a few nocturnal animals that can be hunted.
Each province of South Africa offers something unique. Gemsbok can be hunted on the dunes of the Kalihari Desert in the Northern and Northwest Province. Huge kudu are taken each year in the Limpopo region. Kwazulu-Natal features some of the largest nyala on the planet. The Eastern Cape offers highly sought after small antelopes such as the oribi, blue duiker and Cape grysbok, along with the once endangered bontebok. The Free State offers hunting for some of the largest springbok in all of Africa, along with world-class wing shooting. The Western Cape offers both plains game and wing shooting within a couple of hours of Capetown. Plains game hunts in South Africa are a smorgasbord of hunting choices that should not be missed!