Bronwyn and Stewart Dorrington of Melorani Safaris
Stewart Dorrington started Melorani in 1986 converting it from a family cattle ranch to the wildlife paradise it is today. He became a professional hunter in 1988 and has over the years gained much respect within the industry for his commitment to high standards of ethical hunting. He has also served the industry well, having served for three years as president of PHASA, the largest professional hunter association in the world. He has twice been the winner of the PHASA trophy of the year award and has also won the bowhunter trophy of the year. In 2009 he was awarded the Coenraad Vermaak award for service to the Professional Hunters Association of PHASA.

Stewart is married to Bronwyn and they have two boys, Roscoe and Richard.

Why we Hunt:
Stewart Dorrington, 3rd generation owner, tells the story of Melorani:

Private land will always tend towards the activity that provides the best economic return on the land. Our farm history shows exactly that.

Our family farm was undeveloped and devoid of wildlife in 1918 when my grandfather bought it. He started crop farming -ploughing was easy enough as it was savannah veld back then. There was no bush encroachment. He then switched from feeding crops to cattle and running commercial cattle for export beef. Later on my mother started stud farming and became nationally recognised as a leading stud breeder and cattle judge.

Bea Dorrington - Stud FarmerGame had little or no value during this period. Many farmers in the district entertained guests and clients by offering free hunting. On weekends, the postmaster, the bank manager, kooperasie bestuurder and even the stationmaster took part in the hunt. Very few animals were actually shot because there were very few. It was more of a social event that gained the farmer a growing number of friends, besides, it didn’t cost the farmer a cent.

Yet many of our neighbouring farmers were still growing crops. Wheat in winter and maize or corn in summer. During winter it is almost impossible for a wild animal, running on dry veld, to resist the green crops of wheat or oats. The few animals that roamed the bush at that time were shot quite legally. The farmer, to protect his crops, would simply get a “damage control” shooting permit. Quite understandable given the damage that some animals can do to crops. Farmers simply could not afford the losses.

During the years my mother ran her stud cattle on the farm, we had a small population of kudu and warthogs. Bushbuck and Impala were very scarce. We never hunted them. We tried to protect them and leave them undisturbed. This made us quite unpopular with our neighbours. We were protecting pests that did so much damage to their crops.

One of my  greatest passions is wildlife. Even during my school years, I used to prefer visiting the Kruger National Park during the holidays while my friends chose to go to Plettenberg Bay or Umhlanga.

In 1984 I decided to join my mother on the cattle farm. It was my dream to convert our 5000 ha into a game farm, but we just could not afford it. The capital needed to fence in the area with a game fence and building a camp was huge. Besides, the value of wildlife was so small (a white rhino cost a mere R800 back then) so there was little to gain financially from the investment. Nature Conservation was giving away excess game from their reserves for a nominal charge – mostly just to cover the cost of catching and translocation.

Some of our farming friends started making a little bit of extra cash on the side from hunting with local hunters. The concept of paying for hunting was just starting to catch on. It was also becoming a corporate entertainment activity. This was encouraging from a business perspective. If we could offer some hunting we could earn enough to cover the fencing costs.

Around this time we experienced a big drought and had to translocate our cattle to Natal. Back home our property was empty and our labour force had no work. We made a life changing decision. We decided to sell one of the stud herds and to use the capital to fence the property. This was a monumental decision as this particular stud herd was the one that had built my mothers reputation as a stud breeder. She was recognised as one of the top stud breeders in the country and was the first qualified woman judge of cattle on the Rand and Pretoria shows. We fenced as cheaply as we could, using reject materials but meeting the minimum standards required by Nature Conservation. At last, the game that remained on our property was finally ours to look after.It’s amazing how quickly the kudu population increased now that they weren’t being shot out in the wheat and oat fields.

After 2 years I booked the first few hunters. They didn’t seem to impact on the growing populations of kudu and impala and so the next year we booked more. We used the income to build a camp, basic but with all the necessary facilities, nothing luxurious. The cattle remained the main source of income to cover the running costs of the farm while the hunting income was just an added bonus. The second year of hunting doubled the income from the previous year. Now we were able to look at bringing back species that used to occur in the district. The drought had broken and the cattle prices spiked leaving most of the income earned from hunting to be reinvested in new species. Eland then Gemsbuck and hartebeest. We even managed to buy Zebra and Tsessebe from Nature Conservation.

It became increasingly difficult to make a profit from cattle due to sky-rocketing costs. Inflation was around 20%, cattle prices were either stagnant or declining and our currency, the Rand, was starting to slide against other currencies.

The game populations on the farm were beginning to compete with the cattle. We found the internal cattle fences a hazard for game – they were constantly breaking through them and stud farming was becoming impossible. We either had to reduce the cattle numbers substantially or start culling game. The economics of it all became very important. With a labour force to maintain, vehicles, pumps, water lines, firebreaks, insurances and a host of other expenses that nobody ever considers, we had to make sure we could meet all of these. The property had been in the family since 1918 and I didn’t want to be the one to blow it all because of my passion for wildlife.

The biggest disservice we can do for wildlife is to make it a welfare. If game cannot compete financially for land use, it will disappear gradually and by subsidising it on the land, as many corporates and businessmen do, its future is not secure.
To solve the problem, we had a sale of cattle which generated a good income which we invested into rare species. We bought 5 disease free buffalo from the Willem Pretorius game reserve. At the time that amounted to about 40 cows each! Many of our friends and neighbours thought that we had “lost the plot”. How long would it take to get a return from 5 buffalo, 2 bulls and 3 cows? We then also took things a step further with the cattle. We leased a farm nearby and relocated all the remaining cattle there, leaving our own property exclusively for game. The income from the cattle during these transition years was vital for our survival. It also allowed the game numbers to build up to a level where we could start hunting  them on a sustainable basis.

Within 2 years from starting hunting, we found our booking sheets pretty full and the income from hunting growing substantially. We also then turned to look at the trophy hunting market. With the sliding Rand, the idea of earning dollars became increasingly attractive. I did my professional hunters and outfitters exams in 1988 but never conducted any hunts until 1990 when my first US client and his daughter visited for 4 days.

It was not just my neighbours who now wished that they also had a game farm. Many farmers were noticing the changes too. Those that could afford it also began fencing and purchasing game. We were able to capitalise on this too. Game prices were rising rapidly as the demand grew and we now found ourselves in the very fortunate position to sell game into this market. Already, after a mere 4 years of fencing, we needed to remove about 60 kudu per annum of which we only hunted half.

When we switched to trophy hunting, we were able to sell still more as the sustainable trophy take-off was a mere 5% and the increases in populations were normally between 20% and 30%. One of the biggest advantages we found with game farming was that our income did not drop substantially in drought years as the demand for hunting remained constant despite the weather. Cattle on the other hand saw prices of livestock drop and feeding costs rocket during drought years. The market was always oversupplied in dry years.

We continued investing and bringing in more rare species. Sable antelope from Zimbabwe and another group from Hoedspruit. They too started breeding very well. We added another 3 buffalo to our herd of 9. And finally we brought in 5 white rhino.

We were now firmly established in the hunting market, both locally and with a growing demand internationally. The economics of cattle farming continued to decline, especially in the bushveld, and in 1998 we decided to sell the remaining cattle on the leased land and become totally dependant on our game farming. Thus the transition was complete.

A fully developed cattle stud farm is now a game reserve – and it was funded largely by hunting.

Private ownership of game and the ability to trade in game has been the key to the South African success. Game now has an economic value. The higher the value the more secure the species. Remove value and you remove the conservation incentive on private land. The rest of Africa’s wildlife is in decline as it is not privatised and therefore holds no value to the local populations.

I have no problem with hunting, provided it is done ethically and with compassion towards the animal. A good hunter will always try to minimise suffering and always aims for a quick kill.

Private ownership of game and the ability to trade in game has been the key to the South African success. Game now has an economic value. The higher the value the more secure the species. Remove value and you remove the conservation incentive on private land. The rest of Africa’s wildlife is in decline as it is not privatised and therefore holds no value to the local populations.
When looking at ethics of hunting, one must put it into perspective. What are the alternatives to hunting? In our case it was, and is, cattle ranching. This results in animals being fed in a feedlot, trucked to an abbatoir, pushed down a shoot and shot in the head with a retractable bolt while standing in a crush. I think this is more stressful for an animal than hunting an animal in its natural environment, often killing it without it even being aware of your presence.

Remembering the beginning of our journey, unprotected wild animals that entered crops were shot on sight. In the evenings farmers would park on the edge of the fields to shoot warthog, kudu, duiker and bushbuck to protect their crop. Even porcupines. These animals were considered “pests”. They had no value. On top of that, the ground was ploughed and fertilized, crops were sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. These all have the effect of directly or indirectly killing animals, insects and birds. The cost in blood to produce these crops is high, not to mention the ecological damage done by the herbicides and pesticides when they leach into the soils and river systems and kill our estuaries. Truth is many people have no idea that producing these crops have a very negative effect on wildlife. It is no coincidence that the areas that produce the most food are also areas that have the highest carrying capacity for game. Game that has over the years been wiped out and replaced by crop farming or stock farming.

Where are the enormous herds of blesbuck, springbuck and black wildebeest that used to roam the highveld? They have made way for maize. The springbuck of the karoo have made way for sheep, the nyalas of Natal have been replaced by sugar cane plantations, and the diverse fynbos of the Cape have become vineyards that hardly even support a bird.

Who holds the moral high ground? The hunters that pay handsomely to hunt creating a high commercial value for the animals which directly creates a protective conservation industry… or the traditional farming methods that had largely destroyed the natural environment these animals used to thrive in?

A common question I am asked is “why hunt, the animals are so beautiful and the farm is so peaceful. Don’t you prefer looking at a live animal rather than killing it? Why not tourism? Surely tourists will pay to repeatedly photograph an animal rather than shoot it once?”

It simply comes down to economics. There are significant costs in keeping a reserve. Employing people is a moral obligation in the rural areas where there are so few employment opportunities. So one has labour costs, feed costs, vet costs from time to time, machinery maintenance, water maintenance, firebreaking costs and a host of other costs which few realise exist for us in the bush. Tourists want to see the big five. In order to have the big five you need a huge piece of land. Very few farmers have that land available. They also need a lodge, preferably a luxury lodge and vehicles. That requires an additional investment of many millions. Most farmers don’t have that. They also want to be on a tourist route, like near the Kruger Park or other areas of attraction. The reality is that most farmers are remote from all these facilities. If you look at who is investing in these lodges you will find it is mostly corporate groups or businessmen and that making a living from it is not their aim. In fact, it is most often subsidised from his core business, which has nothing to do with farming. The biggest disservice we can do for wildlife is to make it a welfare. If game cannot compete financially for land use, it will disappear gradually and by subsidising it on the land, as many corporates and businessmen do, its future is not secure. The more people who need the income that game can provide, the healthier the future of those animals will be.

I am passionate about wildlife and wild areas, more so than I am about hunting. But I have no moral issues with hunting done in the correct manner. It is the best means economically to return wildlife to the land.

As we see game areas declining in the rest of Africa it has grown tremendously in South Africa with many benefits to tourism. The animal rights groups have been successful in banning hunting in Kenya more than 30 years ago. Since then, Kenya has lost 70% of its wildlife and habitats (Dr Lawrence Frank). During the same period, wildlife and areas under wildlife in South Africa has reached levels not seen in the past 150 years.

Hunting has been the main driver – I support it for the sake of our wildlife.”