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The Birth of a Hunter

Hunting is a gift that is in our blood at birth, but true hunters are not born  – they are made. I am of the firm belief that the instinct to hunt is present in every human’s DNA, albeit deeper down and less amplified in some. But I also believe it is something that needs to be nurtured and brought out of a person. The raw instinct to shoot the arrow or fire the rifle might live within you, but the why, the how and the what now? are skills and values that must be carefully taught and passed down through generations. Jackson Engel

Throughout human history there has been an unbending pattern of parents, or other mentors, raising the next generation of hunters: teaching and equipping the young for the moment when they themselves would become hunters as well. The act of hunting is an extremely complex thing that not only requires a high level of skill and knowledge but, more importantly, also a deep sense of respect for nature and an understanding of the impact of one’s actions. These are things that my father learnt on his own hunting journey, and they are the reason why the task of raising me and my sister to become hunters was something that he did not take lightly.

Being born into an environment of hunting and raised by a passionate hunter set me on a predestined path of learning, but the fundamental hunting skills and detailed understanding of wildlife that I have today were seeds intentionally planted by my dad. From simply spending time outdoors together to watching hunting DVDs and drifting off to sleep while he read Death in the long grass and other famous hunting books to me, my dad continued to stir my instinct and stoke it into a passion – getting me ready for the day I would become a hunter. If I had had things my way, I would have gone out and hunted my first animal as soon as I was able to pick up a weapon, but my dad knew that there were things I would not be able to understand until I was older, and until that day came he wouldn’t allow me to pull the trigger on a big game animal. Now, at 24 years old, I can see the value in his patience.

One of the most influential components early in my journey of becoming a hunter was a 1989 documentary film called In the blood. In this film, George Butler artfully documents his son Tyssen’s journey of becoming a big game hunter while on safari with legendary professional hunter, Robin Hurt, in Tanzania. The story shows Tyssen’s growing understanding of conservation and his acquisition of hunting skills, culminating in the hunt for his first big game animal, an old Cape buffalo bull. When standing by the fallen bull moments after it had happened, 13-year-old Tyssen was shedding a few tears. Noticing this, Robin said to him, “Today you are a part of nature. But now you know what it’s like when you take an animal’s life; it’s also a sad occasion.” He then reached down and dipped his fingers into the buffalo’s blood, saying, “Tyssen, this is the most serious part. Do you know what you’ve just done? You’ve just taken your first animal, and it’s a special moment.” Robin then proceeded to smear the blood on Tyssen’s face, turning him to face the hills as a reminder that they were standing where that buffalo had lived his whole life. Even at the tender age of six, when I first watched this film with my dad, I was moved by this powerful scene and anxiously looked forward to experiencing the same thing myself one day.

That moment came around a year later while we were on safari in 2006 with some of our closest family friends. This wasn’t our first family safari together, but there was something different in the air on this trip. I knew it was my turn to be initiated into the hunting community. I will never forget my first stalk of the hunt, when we were able to sneak in to a mere 15 yards from a large warthog boar. My heart was racing, and I wanted nothing more than for it to be my moment, but I couldn’t see his vitals clearly through the grass, so I did not pull the trigger. This was not only the closest I had ever gotten to a wild animal, but I distinctly remember the pride exuded by my dad in recognition of the patience I showed (not common in a 7-year-old). He had taught me well, and this stalk only confirmed to him that I was ready. Which was a good thing, because a few days later when my moment did come, he would have to trust me that I would show the same level of discernment.

After several days of riding around in the vehicle with the hunting team, flip-flopping between observing him on his own hunts and going on some unsuccessful stalks on warthog for myself, we decided it would be best to change plans and let the warthogs come to us. Our friend and PH, George Hallamore, knew of a secluded pool of water in a mostly dry riverbed with a perfect spot to place a pop-up blind in an elevated position overlooking the water. After brushing in the blind, my dad and I along with one of the trackers, Solomon, settled in for the waiting game. Several hours passed with the occasional visit from a non-target species or young warthogs, but we had yet to see the kind of boar we were looking for. I was enthralled by the opportunity to watch the animals at such close quarters while remaining undetected – it was a form of hunting that I had never experienced before. That being said, the 7-year-old boy in me was beginning to die a slow death of boredom wondering when the right pig would show up. I was probably in the middle of counting the doves at the water for the 87th time when I felt my dad tap me on my shoulder. “Jack, there’s a nice warthog coming in,” he whispered, “get ready, we are going to take this one.” Suddenly all I could hear was my heartbeat echoing in my head and my hands began to shake despite my best efforts to stop them. The moment had come.

We watched the boar slowly meander down the riverbed and begin drinking at the pool of water. He was facing directly towards us, which meant no shot. So we waited. When he had finished drinking, he started walking directly away from us and I began to experience the familiar feeling of defeat. To my surprise, though, he suddenly dropped to his knees and began rooting around for insects in a small depression in the sand. The angle was perfect, but there was one problem – I could only see half of his body. Being on his knees in a pseudo-hole, the ground between us was covering most of his lower half. Much of his vitals and the key reference points for shot placement that my dad had taught me were out of my view. To make matters more difficult, the warthog was shifting back and forth as he dug deeper in search of his next bite. I could tell that my dad was nervous with the situation and wanted me to wait for a clearer shot, but when he heard me say confidently, “I can take him there!”, he knew he could trust my judgment. I settled the crosshairs on the boar’s shoulder just above the wall of dirt and began squeezing the trigger with the soothing sound of my dad’s voice in the background repeating, “Just take your time… taaaake your time.” 

The sound of the shot and the recoil of the rifle left me in complete confusion. I looked anxiously for the warthog, but he seemed to have disappeared. “Did I get him?” I asked intensely. When my dad informed me that the boar was down, I looked again and saw dust coming up at the “hole” from a few final kicks from the pig. I remember feeling something that I had never felt before in my life. It was a torrent of almost nauseating adrenaline, intense pride, and instinctual awakening. I had graduated from an observer to a participant in nature  – from a hunter to a hunter – and that is a feeling deep in your soul that you can never understand until you experience it yourself. I jumped up and gave my dad a huge high-five, thanked him immensely, and told him that I couldn’t have done it without him.

A few minutes later, I found myself taking part in that special tradition that I had observed on the TV a year earlier. My dad gave me the same talk that Robin had given Tyssen and smeared the warthog’s blood on my face. In that moment, in the blood suddenly became something much more real and meaningful than a figurative saying about our instincts. When we returned to camp, I was welcomed with congratulations from my mom, my sister and my friends – not because they had seen or heard that I had shot a warthog, but because they saw the blood on my face and knew what it entailed. It was beyond description to know that what I had done was real. It wasn’t just something that I had felt. It was something that I wore on my face for all to see, and even though my mom made me wash that blood off before bed, it had left a permanent mark on me that can never be taken away.

A few years later I moved to Namibia where I experienced countless more memories in the bush with my dad. He and other mentors, including some of Africa’s best PHs such as Jofie Lamprecht and Dirk de Bod, continued to teach me. The opportunities that I was presented with during my years in Namibia allowed me to grow as a hunter in ways I never could have imagined on that day in 2006. However, I know that even today I still have many more miles and lessons ahead of me on my hunting journey. That day was simply the first page of a new chapter, and I look forward to learning from the chapters that still lie ahead of me. Hopefully, one day I can be a part of writing someone else’s book as well.

From the 2024 issue of Huntinamibia

Read the full 2024 issue here