The Development of Modern Bow Hunting in South Africa
November 2013, Volume 11-5&6

About three decades ago, bow hunting as a sport hunting activity was unheard of in South Africa. I myself had never heard of a compound bow, re-curve or long bow as recreational hunting tools. Hunting with a bow and arrow was prohibited by law in SA until the late 1980s. The compound bow was still relatively unknown in SA as a hunting weapon prior to this. However, the increasing popularity of bow hunting in the US gave cause to the authorities here to do their own investigations.

In 1985 the Natal Parks Board appointed 2 senior rangers to research bow hunting on South African game. Tony Tomkinson and Spud Ludbrook were given this task. They were well placed to do so as at that stage, the NPB had to cull many animals on an annual basis. They hunted and shot many animals with different bow draw weights as well as with different broad heads. Everything was recorded, from the impala to the buffalo they shot, as well as the effects of the different bows and arrows on these animals. Penetration through bone, angles and distances were all measured, compared and recorded. It was through their work that the guidelines for legal bow hunting was established in SA and still to this day, this research forms the basis of our comprehensive bow hunting policy in our nature conservation legislation.

Some interesting facts from this research which dispels some myths about bow hunting
• 29.7 seconds was the time taken to kill an animal with an arrow shot into the chest whereas with a 30-06 rifle the average time to death was 22.3 seconds
• The distance travelled before dropping was 100 meters with bow and 70 meters with rifle
• With an 80lb bow the average kill rate was 89% whereas with a rifle it was 92% (

It was clear that the right bow in good hands was as efficient at killing an animal as a rifle. A razor sharp broadhead is the key to the bow and arrows humane and speedy kill. A sharp broadhead causes a clean wound, profuse bleeding or hemorrhaging and relatively little damage to the surrounding tissue (important when comes to recovery of wounded animals) whereas a rifle relies on hydrostatic shock, massive bone and tissue damage which kills the animal.

It was through this ground-breaking work that bow hunting was legalized in South Africa and later in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Although hunting with a bow and arrow remains a restricted activity in the legislation, it can be conducted on a property with the necessary permits from the relevant Nature Conservation authorities. The landowner is given permission to conduct bow hunting on his property. The hunter does not need a license to hunt with a bow in South Africa.  All bow hunting in South Africa takes place on private land. There is very little hunting on government and provincial reserves and very seldom do they allow bow hunting, especially where tourists visit.

Towards the end of the 1980`s, bow hunting was still relatively unheard of in South Africa. However, it was popular in the USA and was rapidly growing in popularity. The demand from bow hunters in the USA led to some outfitters in South Africa to cater specifically to these bow hunters. This was the start of the bow hunting revolution in South Africa.  It didn`t take long for bows to start appearing in hunting and outdoor shops in South Africa. It was still a new form of hunting and most hunters had never even tried it, but it took hold on the hunting population and has grown tremendously in popularity in the last decade. It continues to grow today. Not only has bow hunting become popular with hunters, it has become increasingly popular with landowners.

There are numerous advantages of bowhunting over rifle hunting for the landowner and safari operator. It can generate more income from a given quota than can rifle hunting in that you can sell more hunting days. I soon discovered that the economics of bow hunting your own property far outweighed that of rifle hunting. As shot opportunities are fewer for bow hunters than rifle hunters, fewer animals were harvested per hunter and thus we sold more hunting days to take off the same quota of animals! On average a bow hunter was taking 6 animals in a 10-day hunt under natural conditions on our property, whereas a rifle hunter would take double that. If our annual harvest was 140 animals of varying species I could now book around 220 bow hunting days as opposed to around 120 rifle hunting days. At an average of $350 per day the difference was an extra 100 days at $350 or $35 000, with not much increase in costs.

It lessens the need to travel as bow hunters requirements can more easily be met than rifle hunters. I had also found that I made more money hunting an impala on our own property than taking a client to hunt a buffalo or leopard elsewhere. Mostly one covers your costs and make a small profit when hunting out and having to pay concession fees, trophy fees, travelling fees etc The costs of such safaris is high but the profits are often small, especially in South Africa where you have to pay a private landowner.

There is less competition for clients: The rifle hunting market for plains game in South Africa was very competitive and few safari operators were fully booked. Bow hunting was a niche market and was marketed through different channels than SCI in the USA. Things have changed over the years and now bow hunting is marketed at all the main conventions in the USA and not only the bow hunting conventions. However, for many years it was easier for bow hunting only operators to book clients than it was for rifle hunting operators.

It improves trophy quality: Bowhunters are normally far less selective as to size of horns and trophy quality than rifle hunters. The bow hunters are generally far less discriminating and will in most cases harvest any mature male of a species that presents a killing shot opportunity. Even if they see a magnificent kudu in the veld, they cannot make it come to the blind nor can they get off the vehicle and simply shoot it at 150 yards. So those big kudu are always out there now and breeding. We have been doing bow hunting only for 15 years on our property and we still are taking off wild animals with a bow that would set the record books alight. A bow hunting property that is well managed will find it easier to maintain trophy quality on a sustainable basis than if the same quota was hunted annually with a rifle.

There is little disturbance: Another factor that we considered and liked is that bow hunting is silent and does not disturb the game much. This factor is especially relevant to those game ranchers that do photographic tourism and is another reason why bow hunting has become so popular amongst landowners too. The game remains accustomed to vehicles and do not associate them with hunters. Bow hunting and ecotourism are more compatible than rifle hunting and ecotourism. This has lead to a growing supply of bow hunting destinations in South Africa to both the local hunters and international hunters.

Firearms Control Act (FCA): What further fuelled the bow hunting industry in South Africa was the implementation of our draconian “Firearms Control Act” or FCA. This act made owning a firearm an onerous task and obtaining licences became and remains a task of note. Many avid hunters in South Africa then explored bow hunting and many have become bow hunting enthusiasts. We now have bow shops all over the country, even in the small towns. No licences are required. Although there are minimum specifications for bows and arrows for differing species, the authorities lack the capacity to monitor the local market. It is up to the landowner to monitor what happens on his property and to his animals, and most landowners do so as it all has economic implications and he risks losses if he doesn`t.

Wounded animals recover: There has been some criticism of bow hunting as the wounding rate is perceived to be higher than that of rifle hunting. The figures given in the research will show otherwise, that the wounding rate is comparable to rifle hunting. However, there is another side. The physical recovery of wounded animals is very high. If not fatally wounded, the animal usually makes a full recovery. An arrow does not cause the hydrostatic shock, nor the destructive bone and tissue damage that a bullet causes. The wound is usually clean as the broadhead blades are as sharp as razors and even slice through the ribs and smaller bones. The bone doesn`t splinter into fragments and destroy tissue. The arrow usually falls out or snaps off immediately or shortly after impacting the animal. Many times we have shot animals years later and have recovered broadheads embedded and grown over in heavy bone, with the animal in full health and showing absolutely no ill effect of having been wounded. I imagine the recovery is also aided as the animal has not been severely stressed by the wound as many times the animals do not know where or what hit them, and even after an animal has been shot, the rest of the herd often mingles around not knowing what the fuss is all about.

Taking the above advantages into consideration, you can see why more and more landowners are offering bow hunting on their properties. It is a challenging and exciting form of hunting as one has to get so close to the prey. The number of local bow hunters in South Africa continues to grow year to year.

The bow does have some limitations. Around 20 years ago a moratorium was placed on hunting rhino with a bow. It was legal with the necessary permits, but it was discovered that the wounding rate was unacceptably high. There was little objection from the landowners or hunting outfitters. In fact, no pachyderms may be legally hunted with a bow in South Africa. This comes from the recommendations of Tomkinson and Ludbrook back in 1985 and has never been challenged even though it is possible for a skilled and strong bowhunter to kill an elephant, rhino or hippo with a bow. The perceived likelihood of wounding remains unacceptably high.

Bow hunting in South Africa has evolved over the past 30 years, shaped by economic forces as well as social and political pressures and the parameters set by legislation. It has grown in popularity with local hunters as well as landowners and as a bow hunting destination for foreign bow hunters, primarily American, where bow hunting has been practiced for years. As long as hunting remains popular in South Africa, bow hunting will continue to grow as a challenging means of hunting.

It must also be mentioned that there is tremendous potential in Europe and elsewhere to grow this activity. It takes a change in mindset of those in charge of policy formulation, but with a bit of research and support, they can get all the information needed to justify this activity to the hunting fraternity as well as to the general public.
The information and statistics are all out there and it has all already been scrutinised in the USA and South Africa and passed the tests necessary to justify it as a legitimate form of hunting. It may also stimulate more people to become hunters, as it has done in South Africa.
Another reason to support bow hunting in Europe and other countries, is that it places another obstacle for the growing anti-hunting lobby to tackle. It is getting one back from them. We all know that the anti-hunting lobby is attempting to take down hunting bit by bit and if we give them more issues to deal with it will make their task of trying to stop hunting more difficult.

Author: Stewart Dorrington