The customary safari props were all in place: an apple-green dusk, just beginning to spread like Kodachrome over the hills north of Nairobi and hippos belching and mumbling in the chocolate currents of the Tana River. Herds of impala and zebra browsed through the heat amid thorn scrub on the horizon, while from the riverside brush arose a clamor of birdcalls so patently electronic, it seemed, that even Tarzan would blush at the racket. But not John Ani�re, 35, the resident Lord Greystoke who leases these 5,000 acres of game lands in the Ithanga Hills as a hunting concession.
"Those are kanga calling—guinea fowl," said Ani�re. "We'll pop in at the coffee shamba up on the ridge for a little evening shoot." Ani�re is one of a mere handful of East African professional hunters (the term "white hunter" went out with independence) who sees the ecological handwriting on the wall and is promoting small-game hunts on a continent where the future of big game is a matter of much concern to environmentalists. He is into a good thing. For the upland bird shooter in particular, East Africa is a hunting ground of such abundance as to make a Scottish grouse moor or Spanish partridge shoot resemble just another canary farm. Not even North America, in the halcyon 19th century days of the market hunters, could match the richness of Kenya today.
The region's upland game birds range in size from Lilliput to Brobdingnag. On the small end is the button quail, which is actually a bit bigger than that (about the size of a wren), while at the far end of the scale sits—or, rather, sprints—the long-legged Kori bustard, a 20-pound speedster that would rather run than fly, and definitely deserves a far less ludicrous name. No serious hunter kills either of these extremes on the African bird roster—the button quail is a weak, unchallenging flier, while the giant bustard is protected over most of its territory. Poachers, rifle-shooting meat hunters and, perhaps, evolutionary forces have reduced its numbers.
In between, however, there are more than 100 species of game birds that exist in abundance with no danger of overkill, and thus provide airborne targets that are as difficult as anything in Europe or the Western Hemisphere. Green pigeons in the dank, Podocarpus forests of Mount Kenya. Ring-necked doves and the heftier, more acrobatic sand-grouse over the water holes of the semi-arid game plains. For the walk-'em-up shotgunner raised on pheasants and ruffed grouse, there are the spur fowl and francolin, partridgelike birds that travel in coveys through the brushy ridges and dongas (dry riverbeds) of the lower slopes. In a single weekend of shooting and, with a minimum of traveling from one spot to another by Land Rover, a visiting hunter can experience the equivalent of a Georgia quail season, an Imperial Valley dove season, a Kansas pheasant season and a Maine or Michigan ruffed grouse season—and bag double those U.S. limits in the process.
But the target this evening was guinea fowl. "You'll find the kanga rather deceptive," said Ani�re as the Land Rover bumped its way toward the coffee plantation. "It's a cross between the pheasant and the B-17—slow off the ground, but hard as hell to bring down." Ani�re is a quirky, quick-witted Spanish �migr� whose family was on the Loyalist (i.e., losing) side in the Civil War. Like so many East African whites, he has patched together a livelihood out of many talents. For a time he worked as a surveying skin diver for the colonial government, snorkeling out of Pemba, a fiercely hot coral island north of Zanzibar. ("A boring place betimes," he recalls, "except for the breakfasts. I would get up at dawn and goggle out along the reefs, plucking oysters and shucking them into a plastic bag on my belt. Then home—which was a room above an Asian's noisy duka—for brekkers: oysters fresh in their own salty juice and a few pints of iced English ale.") Before that came the Mau Mau "emergency," Kenya's euphemism for its tragic but successful 1952-56 revolution. Ani�re served in the "pseudo-groups," bands of white Kenyans who disguised themselves in blackface, wore the slouch hats and long khaki army-surplus greatcoats favored by the Mau Mau, and patrolled the slopes of Mount Kenya in search of the real thing. "We had our own Africans along with us and tried to remain inconspicuous among them," he says, "but no European, however clever at disguise or anthropology, could really fool the Mau Mau bands. As a result, we were not all that effective, though there were some rather fierce, long-range battles up there in the fog and the bamboo."
Ani�re's hunting skills were honed down fine by that experience, but he has discovered since that it takes far more than a knowledge of game habits and a fine tracking eye to become successful as a pro. "You're a Jack-of-all-trades," he complains from time to time, "and Jack's a dull boy. Accountant, travel agent, tour director, camp counselor, bon vivant, raconteur and, occasionally, sex symbol to the ladies on safari. Give me a water bottle and a rifle and point me into the bush, and that's fine. But with people along, I don't know."
A metallic, cackling sound, reminiscent of the ring-necked pheasant's call, emerged from the coffee plantation as Ani�re parked the Land Rover halfway down the slope that led to the river below. "The kanga are working their way down the slope to their roosts," he explained. "I'll have the men beat down toward us, and we'll try to take them passing overhead. Merely try! They're enough like pheasants to double back between the beaters' legs or fly back over their heads after they're flushed. If you can call your shot, try for the head or the neck. These birds take a lot of killing." He sneered at the 20-gauge Beretta double-barreled shotgun he was holding; Ani�re would have preferred the larger 12-gauge, but his North American clients had selected the lighter weapons in order to make the shooting more challenging.
The harsh voices and thwacking sticks of the Wakamba beaters drifted down the hillside through the coffee bushes. Dark, turkey-sized shapes scuttled ahead of the line. Then the birds rose—a dozen, two dozen lumbering shapes, seeming clumsy and almost reptilian against the green sky. As one flapped past at close range, there was an impression of the long, naked, vulturine neck and the wet, quizzical eye. The shotgun swung up and along the bird, past it—the fatal kapow! A halo of feathers drifted past the muzzle—a good, solid hit—but the bird set its wings and sloped down a hundred yards farther on. It took a second shot on the ground to finish off the kanga's run.
With the dark settling fast, the hunters pushed down into the thickly grown river bottom, flushing guinea fowl out of the trees and killing them clean on straightaway shots. The birds were plump and large, weighing up to 12 or 15 pounds apiece, though most of that weight was in bone and viscera; the guinea of the wild is not nearly as meaty a bird as its domesticated, barnyard cousin. "We might encounter the odd buffalo in here," Ani�re muttered as he pushed through the brush. "They drift on down from the hills, just as the rains begin, and the rains this year are overdue. These little popguns would barely kill the ticks on a buffalo's ears, so if one comes, get behind a tree and keep running in circles." Then he shot his eyebrows and pulled his baboon's face. "Gives one a bit of a tingle, what?"
That night, over lies and camp stew, the evening shoot was critically analyzed. Two wounded birds—"runners" in the parlance—had escaped, though a decent retrieving dog would have gathered them easily. Unfortunately, gundogs are rarely used over birds in East Africa, partly because bird shooting is still so new a sport there, and partly because the country is hostile to dogs. "They don't survive long here," said Ani�re. "Snakes and leopards take their toll—old chui will pad right on into camp and past a fire to snag a dog out of your tent, and the first you'll know of it is next morning when you find leopard pugmarks in the ashes. Ticks and leeches are even worse. A leech up a dog's nostril will finish him slower but just as final as any leopard."