“..and then in the mid-80s they officially made it illegal to eat pygmies!” exclaimed our host during a post-hunt discussion over coffee. Back in South Africa for ducks, geese and game birds, Ramsey chats with long-time friend and associate Mike Curry. As quickly as incoming driven guineafowl flying like black-and-white cannonballs, the pair run through lots of interesting highlights and stories to include hardest-of-hard species Ramsey finally managed to scratch off his list, tomato chutney, how locals prepare waterfowl, francolin home-range; South African rhinos, cheetahs, lions, and ivory; eating pygmies, the bush meat trade and poaching patrols. The things learned at duck hunting camps around the world never ends!
Hunting Spur-Winged Geese in South Africa
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, my daddy used to say home is where your hat hangs in for the month of August, it was hanging down in South Africa. Joining me today is Mr. Mike Curry, my long-term friend and associate down here in South Africa and man, Mike, I’m glad to be back in South Africa, I don’t know why I love it.
Mike Curry: It’s awesome to have you here, Ramsey. Always great seeing you and the friendly people you bring along with. It’s been a great month so far and hopefully it’s something leading forward, getting bigger and bigger. We seem to get more and more of your folks coming over. It’s been a busy season, that’s for sure. It really has been, it’s been a phenomenal season, both clientele wise as well as birds wise. I think obviously the couple of years of COVID, hanging everybody back, everybody’s now tired of being told what to do and they’re heading out and traveling. So it’s been great to have as many people from all over the world. I mean, we’ve had guys from quite a couple of French clients, couple of British clients, I’ve had some guys down from Africa coming down as well and then obviously your folks all coming over from the US. So it seems like the world is starting to open up and then get their wings back on and travel all over the place again, it’s been absolutely fantastic.
Ramsey Russell: Mike, I’ve been coming to South Africa since probably about 2010. I’ve never seen as many upland birds or waterfowl as I’ve here. What’s up?
Mike Curry: Yeah, we have had an absolutely phenomenal year, Ramsey, had great rains this year, long rains, so obviously great for the water fell, a lot of the marshes and the wetland areas are still inundated with water, so there’s a lot of habitat there. I think what could have also happened with the later rains coming on the upland birds, there’s a good chance we could have had a second clutch as well with all the food and everything out there, the corner is obviously standing a lot longer as well and all the insects are out, the graving and they eat a lot of insects in the early stages of their life, they needed high protein. So with all the moisture out there, obviously, the insects were all still out there and breeding conditions, there was lots of cover obviously, with everything out there, I think we got a second clutch out of a lot of our birds. And in fact, I can obviously certain of that because in May, there were still birds that are barely flying in May, which is very late. So, yeah, phenomenal year for the birds and their numbers have certainly shown it. Yeah, even the geese in this particular area up here in, we generally get good spur wing geese later on in our season. So going August into September, we generally get great spur wing geese, but we’ve had phenomenal spur wing geese all the way from May this year. So they’re birds that like to stay in the marshlands and that kind of stuff and then from there fly into the fields and feed. So I think with that excess water in those marsh lands, that’s giving them extra habitat and we’ve had spurs all year round, so that’s been great.
Ramsey Russell: And we accomplish something. We’ve been gunning hard for, I’ve been gun and hard for a long time and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But now that that little checklist is done, why do you think? Because, I don’t know. Spur wings make me happy.
Mike Curry: Teal makes me happy.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t know, what it is about it, it’s an ugly son of a gun, but man, I am ear to ear when I’m crouch down in those blind and I can see them big son of a guns getting closer.
Mike Curry: There is something about it. Yeah, I know you get nervous when they’re coming but I get excited when they fall down, there’s nothing greater than seeing a tank fall out the sky like that and they hit the ground with an incredible thud. But yeah, it’s an incredible bird. It’s one of our fastest flying game birds here, they don’t look it on the wing because they’re so big, but they are moving. And again, they’re challenging, they don’t decoy as well as you’d like them to. So a lot of the times you have to try and shoot them in a passing manner, we’ve had a couple of occasions where they’ve just locked in tight, remember that one evening they came into a duck dam that we were shooting and man, they were zigzagging and doing all sorts of crazy stuff coming down onto us there. It was quite spectacular to see about 8 or 10 spurs just dancing and weaving, coming into the water there, that is special.
Ramsey Russell: When they hit, even from 25, 30 yards because we’ve been hunting over decoy over the last couple of weeks when they hit the ground, it’s like a wrecking ball hitting that dirt, man. Boom. Like a bomb went off, just the dirt cloud, I love them, I don’t worry about them, but gosh, I love shooting those birds.
Mike Curry: They hit the ground hard when they hit there, I mean, it’s a big bird. But yeah, we’ve been very fortunate, as I say, they’ve been here year round, so we’ve had some great shooting on the spurs and obviously the Egyptian geese have always been resident as well. Again, as we well know, they’re resident birds, they’re non-migratory, they stay here the year round, they certainly do. I mean, they eat like nothing else. But with the water and everything around and the harvest been as late as it has, I think that’s kept them hungrier if you know what I mean? They eat a lot of soya as well, once the soya have been harvested, but when the maize harvest comes, they certainly concentrate on those maize fields. And that’s where we get our best decoying out there, there’s a bit of cover left in a maize field once it’s harvested so we can decoy them, whereas in the sway of fields, we have to shoot them passing and there’s a challenging bird for you right there, so it has been a phenomenal year on the geese most certainly and obviously the ducks have done just as well, we’ve had an incredible, yeah. Now there’s been a lot of fun, we’re very blessed with the birds this year.
Ramsey Russell: How has the abundant of birds – like, for example, I’ve seen more cape shelducks, I mean, they’re here but they’re kind of got an asynchronous breeding season, so they’re just not as common, I’ve seen a lot of them this year. I’ve seen, a lot more black ducks in the areas, you all were scouting for us to find a lot more everything.
Mike Curry: Just as you say waterfowl with the very weak –
Ramsey Russell: Like a Chichi plant, you add water and it grows. But here’s a question I’ve got for you. You have got in your house, I swear to God that is the largest chest freezer I’ve ever laid eyes on, it’s as big as a school.
Mike Curry: My wife and mother-in-law, when I got it back there, they said, what the hell are you going to do with a huge thing like that? I said, well, I do a bit of hunting and we’re going to get some meat in there. But I said, remember we got guys that are coming to shoot birds that are going to take them home, I need to have enough space to freeze them, I had no idea that I’d fill it up as quickly as we have.
Bringing Birds Back from Africa
I don’t think anybody really realized that they can take the African birds home with them.
Ramsey Russell: When you opened the lid the other day on something that big and I think you might have had a shoebox full of food or something in it for yourself and the rest were solid birds. We’ve had a great booking season, a lot of American clients coming this year, really good upland bird and waterfowl numbers. If you had to get how many of those birds are destined for taxidermy?
Mike Curry: Ramsey, there’s got to be well over 100 birds headed that way. But again, I mean, it’s just been one of those years where the birds have looked good too. So, later on in the season, we try and do these collection hunts where the guys want to take birds home, we try and do them later in the season with all the pin feathers that have grown out. So, the breeding season here will start in early September, they’ll start pairing off and obviously the males have got their beautiful colors on them then, so a great time to be doing it. And yeah, the birds have just looked good and lots of guys that arrive and they say, I’d so like to take these home and they said, well, we can send them to you, that’s not a problem at all, I don’t think anybody really realized that they can take the African birds home with them. They’re exportable, don’t take them with you, that might get you into trouble when you get home.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a big selling point, it is a lot of people – Argentina, you can’t bring the birds back, a lot of these guys, they may not be avid collectors but they want mementos.
Mike Curry: Yeah and they’re cool birds, they’re really are some beautiful birds.
Ramsey Russell: What would you say are the most or among the most popular species the clients laid their hands on over here and they just say, oh I got to mount that.
Mike Curry: Guarantee the shelduck. If someone sees a South African shelduck, the first thing, can I get this one home? They really are, they stand out. And interestingly enough, the red bill teal, we see it as a very common bird over here, they are probably one of our two most plentiful species. But when you get that bird in your hands and you open up, you have a look at the pink colors on the speculum, the bright red bill, most guys look at that and say that’s a damn good looking bird.
Ramsey Russell: It’s a sexy looking bird, both of them look wonderful.
Mike Curry: So definitely the shelduck is the first one, everybody says, man, I need to get that one.
Ramsey Russell: I guarantee you. I don’t know how you could pick up a shelduck and not just – they’re beautiful bird, they are beautiful. The hen is as pretty as a drake, but they pair together.
Mike Curry: they pair together and certainly make a magnificent mount. Yeah, but definitely, that’s the one bird that when most people do harvest one, they’ll look up and they say, man, I’d love to get this home. So, yeah, with the way we’re doing it and taxidermist obviously doing a damn good job from your side there, Ramsey, we shipped them all out home to them over there, shipped them whole. And yeah, it’s quite a neat memento of your trip.
Ramsey Russell: Well, speaking of species, I’ve had a unicorn over here only because there’s – I can’t even say off the top of my head, how many waterfowl ducks, geese there is, it’s a bunch but let’s just say it’s 15 and there’s one like I was talking to my outfitter down in Zululand, he’s like Ramsey, my father hasn’t even seen one in 20 years talking about a maccoa duck. And last year we got a near miss because you had a pair on a pond, but the damn Egyptian moved in and chased them off and this year you call me with some great news, you said no promises, but I know where some at. And we show up to a massive wetland and there they are, I mean, just like they look in the pictures, I’ve been here a million times and I finally laid eyes on 3 pair of maccoa.
Mike Curry: It’s no mistaking when you see them. When you see that bright blue bull that male is a stunning bird.
Ramsey Russell: And then of course, they’re related to the Ruddy Duck that tail sticking straight up, even when you can’t see the colors, Boom, you see that tail sticking straight up. We didn’t have a shot at them that day, we go back the next morning and they are even further out across and I’m like, Lord, even with a high powered rifle, I don’t know that I could hit that thing and Hank suggests, well, let’s go look at some more ponds and we look at some ponds, look at the pond and we get up to this one little pond, it’s just like if ever you needed to sneak up on a bird, that was the pond, I go. It just wouldn’t do for one to be here and I glass it real quick, bunch of coots and lay it down and start playing on my phone, you go there he is. I go, huh?
Mike Curry: Your words were hardly called Ramsey, it was just too good to be true, there’s no ways you’ll be out there and sure as hell. And I think Hank and I were doing the same and we both had a look and as I spotted him, I looked over at Hank and said, there he is and Hank saw it the same time.
Ramsey Russell: He must have been under water when I glassed, because –
Mike Curry: It’s too good to be true, Ramsey.
Ramsey Russell: They’re ruddy duck, but what I’ve learned in all the birds we observed here this year, they like, I’m going to say waist deep water, that’s got a lot of emergent vegetation or fringe vegetation coming out because every single one I laid eyes on was feeding in that stuff, they dive on and feed on something.
Mike Curry: It is also a shy duck as well and I think that’s why we lost out on those last year is, they’d been there the whole season, I’ve been watching them and keeping an eye on them for you and as soon as those geese moved in they moved out. So I think they are kind of a shy deck as well and obviously you’ve done a lot more research than I have on them, I just know where they are and what they look like. But yeah, I think a very shy deck as well and very localized. So a neat little spot and a little gem that we’re going to keep and take good care of keep it there for future references and keep it going as best as we can, it’s a little population.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve shot ruddy ducks over decoys before on big lakes and stuff and I suppose if we went to that big lake and committed ourselves to putting out decoys with Mojo and everything else, eventually one might fly within range. But a lot of ducks around the world and here in South Africa, they just don’t lend themselves to conventional duck hunting methods, if you’re going to collect them, you got to be willing to sneak kind of hunt them like spot and stalk and where that bird was located. When I last laid eyes on him, we went around there, there’s no way he could see us above that levee, we were underneath it, we walked around through there just happened to be a couple of big cisterns or something that blocked our view, you went to one, I went to the other and started glass and I couldn’t see him. And so I waved over to Hank who’s still across the pond, he gave me a hand signal and I ease over and boom, there he was. I looked at you and you knew I was gone, I mean, I walked right up to him, I hate to say it, I may have missed him. I think I got a straight BB in him because he dove under and I really kept expecting him to pop back up, dead and he didn’t. But when do you think if I had missed him completely, he’d have flown off and instead he popped back up, he was right there at 40 yards swimming kind of sneaking.
Mike Curry: I didn’t think you were going to say that out loud on social media right there, there you go first comes to prove it. Yeah, something happened on the first shot. But you certainly smoked him on the second one. Yeah, it is a great shot and beautiful duck, it was quite interesting. I don’t know if you noticed the staff as well, how the staff looked at that and obviously the other blue bill duck over here, we get the southern pochard, which has a blue bill and all of a sudden they looked at this and they said that’s not the same as the other one with the blue bill. So they hadn’t seen one of those either, which is quite neat.
Ramsey Russell: I think they appreciated the significance or how I was so committed to that bird because they just treated it and acted very differently once they had that bird in hand.
Mike Curry: They knew what it was all about, they knew what it meant to both of us. So yeah, I think they were – and again, it’s not a species they see every day, so it was quite something. And also, once they knew we were collecting species, you could actually phone the homesteads and silence, there’s not going to be gunfire going off, we’re just looking for one specific bird out here, don’t be startled if you just hear one shot. So, yeah, that’s certainly different to your traditional duck hunts that we do where you’re shooting numbers here, we were certainly looking for that species, spotting and stalking. And also, while we’re doing that, we saw a lot of white backed ducks, which are quite interesting out there, obviously the partridges and the knob bill ducks, there were quite a lot of them around, so that is quite neat to see. When we do the higher volume shoots, obviously, you’re not looking at specific species, but when you’re sneaking up on ponds and species, you take note and you’re more cognizant of all the other species that are out there and that was really neat for me.
Ramsey Russell: The African black duck, I don’t know why it’s my favorite duck, probably because it was second only to the maccoa in terms of last, you know what I’m saying, it was right there towards the end, it’s not by any means rare, it’s very discreet, it’s very territorial, it’s very hard to find and I had to work for it, but it is a gorgeous bird and now that I’m collecting the biological data, it’s taking a new meaning. Right now, we’ve harvested the only four ever wild harvested genetic sample he’s got in his whole world mallard like database and it’s taken on a new meaning for me. So, we get a day and a half off between groups and you say, hey, I know where they are or Tofy knows where they are, he has walked some miles and found them.
Mike Curry: Those boys put in some miles making sure we knew where they were. I mean, we get the glory, you get the glory in shooting it. But boy, those guys, they cover some miles every day miles, every day, every morning they walk.
Ramsey Russell: And you said, never guide a guide, you said, I think you’ll have just relaxed this afternoon and we’ll go out for them in the morning, I’m like, well, I hate to get down to the last morning and come up short, so you said, well, go out and walk for them and boy, did we walk? It’s been a long time since I walked 18 holes of golf, but it was kind of like it, it was hot. And even Paul managed to say, well, I’ll go back and get the truck and meet you all up ahead and I walked at that and now I’m going to say this, it was beautiful, it was a beautiful walk through African Nature, found some beautiful waterfalls, I was tempted when that pair of cape shelducks was right freaking there, they did not want to leave could have shot them 100 times, I’m like, as soon as I pull the trigger on something like that, a black duck’s going break the cover and we walked and walked and saw some really cool stuff like, we got around this – I just knew that time of day they were going to be up in the shade so we’d get around this wild, this fire bush kind of hanging over, I just knew, boy, you better be careful, they’re going to be up in there but the inside of that bush where all that shade was would just explode, the birds would never fly out, but it was just zillions of these little what’s them little red bills you’ve got? It was amazing. It was like that bush was alive with hundreds of these birds, they didn’t want to get out in that sun. And boy, we walked this stretch it had a bunch of reads about a half mile stretch and I said, yeah, they could be up in them reads and about that time I glassed did not see anything, took one step and he said something in his native language and it said 3 ducks and I saw these three ducks start swimming and then my heart started – because he said there were three duck, my heart started skipping a beat, I raised up the binoculars freaking yellow bills and I knew right then the black ducks ain’t nowhere nearby because they would not allow that duck on their turf. So I’m like, well, I don’t know how far I am from the truck, but for a while I’m not going to see a black duck. But then the next morning, he’d seen these birds every day like clockwork like a bus schedule and I just assumed having walk that next day I knew where they were going to be, they’re going to be in that water spot, deeper water full of coon tail. And I’m kind of heading that way, you said, let’s start here. We had both walked past, the bank could not have been more than 2ft, it could not have been more than a 2ft shelf to the water, we had both walked by, the hen exploded from cover, we had him. And then in perfect timing, the drake got up, boom and they died a foot apart, they rested a foot apart and it was like, we’ve been at 5 minutes into it, not 18 miles, 18 holes of golf, 5 minutes into the walk, we had our trophy.
Mike Curry: Rather be lucky than good. But as I say, the boys certainly put their miles in and said it makes a difference knowing where they are. And yeah, I mean, even knowing where they were, you guys had to cover all those miles and you still never saw them. So, they’re definitely lying up there, they’re secretive birds lying up in cover, lying in the shade somewhere during the heat of the day, obviously you saw how close we were to those two when they got up at our feet over there.
Ramsey Russell: It almost makes me wonder, could I have possibly walked by a one or two of them?
Mike Curry: That’s my thinking. I’m pretty certain if you can quietly –
Ramsey Russell: There you sat next to the deep bank and just sat there quietly and just let me walk by like a deer would do that.
Mike Curry: We almost did that the next morning too. He said, well, let’s just stay 10, 15 yards from the bank here, I said, Ramsey, you walk there, I’m going to stay on the edge of the water, you never know where they could be. And especially if there’s a breeze blowing, they could easily stay tucked up to a bank and you could walk right by them, they’d like that river and they like the flowing water. So there’s lots of place for them to hide and it’s not exactly as if you look at a pond out there and they’re going to be sitting in the middle, you’ve got to look for them. So yeah, we got lucky on that one.
Ramsey Russell: We got lucky. But we got lucky because you all work hard to pinpoint where those birds were. I mean, I don’t believe in luck, Mike, the harder you work the luckier you get.
Mike Curry: There you go. In South Africa, you got to listen to Gary, Gary said that, the harder I practice, the luckier I get. I practice the luckier I get.
Ramsey Russell: Now that I’ve got those monkeys off my back and I do want to – I don’t care to ever shoot more black duck, but I hope I get my hands on for more genetic sampling. But man, with that off my back, now I can just go focus on having fun and I got a question I want to ask you. This is my third trip down here with you, a lot of times like you mentioned, we pass shoot or you hunt just a little bit differently, we go back home a little more European fling, I heard you say last night that you all don’t really have a decoy or duck hunting culture in Africa, you explained to one of the clients and yet, but this year, the third time I came, I brought a mojo, I brought a flashback decoy, a couple of clients brought mojos, a former client left a mojo, last night, we had four mojos and a flashback going in that spread. And I asked you before the interview, had you ever physically hunted over mojo before this week? Have you?
Mike Curry: No, I have not.
Reactions to Duck Hunting Over Decoys
But boy, those birds certainly committed, I mean, there were some of those red billed teal were literally shot in amongst the mojo, it was phenomenal, they really locked in.
Ramsey Russell: I know what I saw. I want to hear from your – what did those ducks do for the last 4 or 5 nights and afternoons when they rounded the curve and saw them mojo? What was your reaction for those 2 things?
Mike Curry: There was no doubt about it, they came straight to those mojo, they didn’t even see, they weren’t worried about blinds, they locked in, they came straight in. Yeah, I mean, they got locked in so tight, there was a stage that I thought you guys were going to shoot the mojo. I was like, they locked in right in, I can imagine it would. But boy, those birds certainly committed, I mean, there were some of those red billed teal were literally shot in amongst the mojo, it was phenomenal, they really locked in.
Ramsey Russell: There were some big rain out yesterday afternoon, the wind was perfect, the sun was at our back, the wind was at our back, the mojo were in front and it was kind of in the middle to where when those teal came in and the first volley, everybody got to shoot. And I actually got an outfitter down in Argentina where baiting is legal down there and they practiced it heavily and I said, what do you need a mojo for? He says, I don’t use a mojo to attract a duck, he says, but with the mojo over there 10 or 15 yards, the birds are looking at it, not at the client that may or may not even be pretending to be duck hunting by concealment and it’s an advantage either way. Duck Creek decoy just came out with the hen painted flashback decoy and I said, that’s the one I want because it resembles the yellow bills. What did you think about that?
Mike Curry: That thing is lethal. I think it’s one of the most incredible decoys out there. We all look for a bit of motion in amongst the decoys sometimes on a still day, we’re all just using floating decoys out here, it’s all I’ve ever used. And we africanize the decoy spread a bit and some guys laugh at me when I got a heap of stones over there because on a quiet evening when there’s no wind as the ducks are starting to come over, I’ve got someone out there keeping an eye for me and as soon as I get their heads up, the birds on their way, I’ll often throw a stone or two in there just to get the ripples going in amongst the water when the water is still. Well, that flashback, even if you don’t see his head going into the water and his butt shaking up in the air there, he’s putting so much ripples out there that alleviates my job by throwing a stone into the water and confusing my dogs and all that stuff at the same time. So, when you pull that thing out, I looked up at Paul and I said this is the machine, that’s what really going to make a difference for us. So yeah, I think it’s an ingenious damn idea, whoever thought of it that he needs some brownie points over there, that is a brilliant idea, I think it’s phenomenal.
Ramsey Russell: It’s a real good bag of tricks we brought for you and the next bag of tricks for anybody listening, we decided and we thought of it at the same time, we need some of the wind socks, because the breeze is always blowing.
Mike Curry: Yeah, especially this time of year you get a lot, there’s not much trees here to break the wind, so in those cornfields you get a lot, even if it’s an idle wind, there’s always wind out there and that’s something I’ve been looking at them for a while and not quite knowing which way to go which ones are the right ones to do. So, I’m asking questions all the time, getting opinions from clients that have been here, that have used them, what’s the best way to go? What do you think would fit into the spread out here the best?
Ramsey Russell: I think a brown speckle belly, like for the Egyptians would be good enough mixed in with your static decoys and a dark or blackish for the spur wing.
Mike Curry: It’s got to be dark for the spurs, that’s the big deal there, it’s got to be dark on there. But you guys in the States with your waterfowl hunting culture that we don’t have yet, the only reason the guys here are shooting geese is because they’re hammering the crops and they’re doing it as a crop protection deal, we’re doing it for the sports and the challenge of decoying them in the way we do. So you guys have got so many tricks up your sleeve in North America, because you’re hunting migratory birds that are hunted all the way from the north all the way to the south and back again. So, your bags of tricks are a lot more loaded than mine are, that’s for sure. I am still using hand cut silhouettes on some of my spur wing spreads. So, I’d really like to see what the silo socks or whichever you call them, I’m not quite sure what the right name is for them. But those sock decoy I think would – it’s just the number of birds you could get out there as a decoy and it’s such a small compact deal –
Ramsey Russell: It would really be a game changer, not the we really need to shoot many more birds, but just in terms of presentation because at some point in time, it’s not about what I see is a big distinction in an American hunter versus a European type hunter is, Europeans want a presentation in terms of a flighted bird, we want to get them in that zone, you all just want to finish them, that is kind of the art of it, it’s not just the trigger pull, it’s the finishing part.
Mike Curry: Now, there’s the chalk and cheese or the European or the British way of shooting as opposed to the American way of shooting. The American way, it’s all about, how well can I them to get the perfect shot and then you kill him in the kill zone right there, done. Whereas the Europeans and I’m going to say the Europeans, I’m talking more the British ways, it’s more the challenge of the bird, how high is the bird and how fast is the bird, that’s more the challenge as it is to getting him right on your nose to be able to kill him. So that the past shooting that we’re doing is obviously to do with the British influence in our history over here. And then obviously we’re learning a hell of a lot from you guys that are shooting migratory bird on the arch of the decoy.
Ramsey Russell: I like it all, Mike. One of the first afternoons we were here, last week with another team was an incredible pass shooting set up. I mean, we were in between the feeding area and the roosting area, it was fast paced and furious and I actually heard one of clients say, I ain’t never using decoys again.
Mike Curry: I heard that, we both laughed at each other when we heard that.
Ramsey Russell: It’s just fun.
Mike Curry: It’s always something different and you’re coming all the way over here, it’s something different. Again as the repertoire, it’s something different to what you would do at home, so it all builds up to the experience and that’s what we want the guys going home with remembering it more for the experience than just the number of birds they killed. It’s so diverse and so different out here that, you want to go back with that experience and with the appetite and hopefully have the guys coming back for more.
A Love of Upland Birds
This is my business, this is my life, I’ve got to know that when I get out there, I’ve still got birds at the end of the season.
Ramsey Russell: Mike, what you all do have an enormous tradition and I know from looking at your backyard and knowing some of the most amazing bird dogs I’ve ever been around, that you raised. You all do have an upland bird culture and that is your personal heartbeat is upland birds. In just one day, we shot Swainson Francolin, Orange River Francolin, common quail and guinea fowl over dogs, that’s incredible. But that’s a vast landscape, I mean, it runs to the horizon which I think you and I estimated it was 20 something miles away of just good habitat. How do you know where the birds are? Are you just walking blindly behind the dog?
Mike Curry: Ramsey, I’m training dogs if I’m not hunting, I’m training, if I’m not training, I’m scouting, if I’m not scouting, I’m training them again, I know where all those birds are. This is my business, this is my life, I’ve got to know that when I get out there, I’ve still got birds at the end of the season. I’ve got to know where the birds are, how many I can harvest. Remember my birds are not migratory, so they stay here, they breed here, we hunt them here, they pair off again and they breed again. So I need to know what’s where and how many birds are out there. So, as I say, if I’m not shooting them, I’m scouting them, I’m counting them, most of my cubby are marked on GPS, the graving most certainly, my gray wing francolin in the mountains, I’ll go around probably 3, 4 days of a week. I’ll have the dogs out there running them practicing with them, getting them fit, getting myself up and my lazy butt out there getting fit again. And that way I can count and know how many birds you’ve got out there. So I realize that someone coming all the way across the ocean isn’t out here just to walk blindly across the hillsides and enjoy a sunrise and the sunset at the end of the day, we’re coming here to shoot some birds and if I’ve marked them and I know where they are, it takes the stress out of everybody. Yeah, I pride myself, my dogs are damn good dogs, I think they are, as they say, there are two things you never brag about your dogs and your children, they will let you down somewhere. But my dogs have done pretty damn good, they’ve done me pretty good and I love walking behind them, it really is something special to me. So, yes, I mean, it’s worked, but I thoroughly enjoy it at the same time, so I really don’t mind putting the mile –
Ramsey Russell: What would you guess the home range on some of those upland birds is? I mean, like back home, I think a Bob white quail is a mile to a mile and a half, that could be kind of home range, what do you think?
Mike Curry: It varies incredibly amongst the species as well. When you look at the Swainson, which is a grain eating bird, again, once the maize is harvested, they’re all going to be in the fringe habitat of the maize fields. So it’s hard to give it a certain size on their home range because the next year, those fields could be planted in soya and they would have moved on somewhere else because there’s not as much grain on the ground. But the gray wing francolin, I would certainly say at least a couple of miles per cubby, at least a couple of square miles per cubby, but again, it depends on the hillsides, they like the hillsides, not necessarily the steep tops or the sides of the hills, it’s all a rolling vegetation, they need some sandstone, they need some rock in there as well. And again, I say the important part is the chicks need a lot of protein when they are young, so they eat a lot of little insects. So you have to have springs or water courses nearby that attract those insects, it gives them that protein boost when they start. But then as they age, they don’t necessarily eat grain, they eat a lot more of the little bulbs, little wild bulbs that grow out there. So in an area like this where you’ve got cattle grazing, you’ve got some sheep mixed in between there, you’ve got guys planting maize, you’ve got guys planting soya, it kind of leads itself to everything and that the gray wing will concentrate more on the soya fields after they’ve harvested because it’s now it’s barren and you get little bulbs there, it’s easy for them to go and scratch them out and dig them up and that’s what they’re feeding on. So they concentrate on that. And then obviously onto the hillsides for roosting place and that in the evenings and the males need to get out there, they give their calls, they can hear their territorial calls all the time. Then again, come to the Swainson and they need the grain down on the ground, so the home range varies incredibly from species to specie.
Ramsey Russell: I heard you say something the other night at dinner and a lot of these topic, I’m asking you are just things I’ve heard throughout the week around this dinner table. How many birds do you try to pull off in area or a cubby? I mean, I know, I heard you say the other night it’s very precise.
Mike Curry: 30%, 30% is what I’ll try and work. Yeah, on the Swainson, I may take off a little more than that, but definitely on the gray wing I’m very strict, it’s a very fragile bird on there and if you overshoot them, well, I’ve got nothing left for next year. So I’m very strict on the gray wing, we will only take 30% of a cubby, and to me that’s why it’s important to be there preseason knowing how big the cubbies are. Some of the cubbies, if we’re hunting the storm mountains or the mountains of the karoo areas, those cubbies could be bigger up to 16, 18 birds, which it makes it a lot easier for the dogs to find and then you can shoot more birds. But where I am here, I’m sitting on an average of 10 to 12 birds per cubby, so I can only take three or four birds off there to make my 30%. So I’ve got to know what’s there before we take it off. And I’d tell the guys straight up when you walk up on the gray wing, if you drop one, do not shoot your second barrel because I know that mostly we got four guns here, if everybody shoots 2, there’s my cubby gone. So on the gray wing we’ll generally shoot one bird, don’t pull the second trigger. I know it’s neat to shoot doubles and that kind of stuff, but to me it’s more important to be able to have birds for next year that everybody share that special resource that we do have.
Ramsey Russell: And those birds are absolutely delicious. We showed up at your house not too long ago and waiting on us, you were making one of the – I don’t know, Francolin Stroganoff, I’d call it. It was it very simple, absolutely delicious, I think of it as your Hallmark. And then a couple of nights ago you fried some and I never had it. You cut them in strips, soaked them in milk, bath them in egg, but what did you batter them in before you fried them, because it was out of this world.
Best Recipes for Upland Birds
Mike Curry: The francolin, I don’t soak in milk at all, no not at all, it’s the white meat and very good eating meat. So just cut into strips, batter them, yeah, obviously the egg dip, egg wash dip to get the egg to sit on and that’s mostly flour and seasoned flour, a little bit of herb and spices and salts inside there and then cornflakes, Kellogg’s cornflakes and you can crush them up and it just gives a bit of a crunch to your bird over there.
Ramsey Russell: It was delicious. But what made it even better, because I ate several of them as they were. But you laid out some tomato chutney, never heard of it and I think I could have just eaten it for supper.
Mike Curry: I noticed that. I mean, I generally I bring a jar and I use it sparingly because I think it’s damn good stuff, it’s a tomato chili chutney that comes from my aunt, my aunt Linda came up with the recipe and it does vary a bit, some of it is a bit more spicy than the other, sometimes a handful is bigger than the other handful is. But it’s basically just tomatoes and chili.
Ramsey Russell: What kind of chilli, what kind of peppers?
Mike Curry: Just red chilies that we get, just pull the tip off. I have no idea, I go to the super market and whatever I find is I put in there. Ramsey again, like our duck hunting, you guy in America and especially in the south, you guys have got some crazy chili over there and all them by the scoville factors and all that stuff. Here, it’s the chili is the one, the red thing that looks like a little pepper dew or something that’s on the shelf, that’s what we call chili. That’s why I say sometimes they’re hotter than others because you never know what you get. But it’s generally going to be bullet peppers or habanero will be the two that will go in there.
Ramsey Russell: But you were telling me last night, a lot of the locals are Afrikaans don’t like spicy food, ketchup is too spicy for them.
Mike Curry: Well, that’s the thing. A lot of the Afrikaans cooking has got a lot of sugar and a lot of creams in it, so very sweet, very rich kind of a pudding but not necessarily spicy. The food will always have some sugar in it, so it’s more of a sweet than a spicy kind of a deal. So, yeah, especially Afrikaans cooking, which is the bulk of our meals that we having up here. Obviously, I felt quite a high concentration of Afrikaans speaking folk, a lot of the farmers here are all Afrikaans speaking, I kind of stand out of it being the only English speaking fellow in the community and the only damn professional hunter that shoots birds instead of shooting game all year. So it’s quite a – I do stand out a bit on the spectrum out there. But yeah, the food is damn good, I must admit, Adriana in the kitchen over here, she does a deal.
Ramsey Russell: It was awesome as unusual it was incredible. Mike, I get asked a lot because it’s a considerable bag over here, the geese, the ducks and we eat them, I fried some up, I couldn’t help it, I had two –
Mike Curry: You did a fantastic gumbo for us the other night too.
Ramsey Russell: I made a gumbo and wasn’t best, but it turned out pretty decent. But there’s a lot of hungry mouths here, a lot of people that are happy for protein and we dropped off 2 or 3, 4 big croaker sacks the other day in a little community and Children and mamas was coming out with, wheelbarrows and wagon to get them all and I was busy taking pictures and filming and kind of watching them and I didn’t hear you say, but you were explaining how they typically will prepare that meat. How do they cook that?
Mike Curry: Well, Ramsey, I mean, yeah, as you mentioned, I mean, there’s definitely a protein shortage in Africa, not just here where we are, throughout Africa, there’s a huge shortage of protein. So the folks have learned that when they hear the gunshots in the morning, my car is probably going to go by somewhere, if they stand on the side of the road, there’s a good chance they’re going to get some ducks and geese dropped off there. And to me, that’s important, none of these birds are going to waste, we have an incredible time shooting them, yes, we do mount some of them in taxidermy. But a lot of that goes to the local communities as well and they are so appreciative of it. But again, when we talk about eating, we were talking about gumbos and francolin’s breasts and all the good meat that we cooked up, the locals are not so much eating the birds for the meat, they’re eating it more for the sauce, the gravy that would come from it. So when they’re going to take that goose, they’re literally going to boil it down and they’ll break it down, but it’ll boil up to the sauce because they’re eating all of that with maize meal, grits as you would know it in the States. Pap is what it’s called over here, won’t quite be as dry as grits, it’ll generally be a little bit, more of a porridge type of a texture and they will take that, roll it up into a ball and then they’ll dunk that in the sauce and that’s what they’re eating. So they’re not necessarily going to eat the goose breast like you would look at a filet of a chicken breast, filet or something like that, that all goes into a sauce. So it’s all cooked off the bone and becomes a rich gravy.
Ramsey Russell: It just cooks down so much, it just becomes –
Mike Curry: It’s just flavor, that’s basically what it is.
Ramsey Russell: The goose becomes a gravy. It just breaks down into a gravy.
Mike Curry: And that’s what they’re looking for. So you might find them, you might have a pot where they’ve cooked this goose in and you might find two or three families sitting together around that pot and eating it, they’ll cook their maize meal at home and then they’ll come to the communal pot and they’ll all eat out that same pot. So it gets shared amongst the community that way as well. And someone asked the question and said, well, why don’t they freeze them? Well, unfortunately, they don’t have those facilities. So you got to do it now, otherwise it’s going to go bad. The other thing they will sometimes do is they will salt and cure it, they’ll try and salt, cure it and wind dry it like a kind of a jerky or biltong out here, that’s the only way they have to preserve that for a later stage. And even at that later stage, they’ll cut it or break it down into pieces and cook it into a stew and eat it as a gravy or sauce at a later stage.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve always felt like there’s a lot of communities around the world that eat meat extremely well done and I’ve always hypothesized that it’s probably because they don’t have access to refrigeration, like we take for granted for the last 100 years, I guess. I mean, they just don’t have that.
Mike Curry: I mean, I’ve seen it in Mozambique and it’s as cruel as it sounds, if you got a wounded bird where you either kill him or you ring his neck and he’s died. I was doing a shoot up in Mozambique once and you had a couple of winged birds and I went and I rang their necks and I put them down and the next thing, the boys came to me and said, please don’t do that and I was like, what, the bird’s going to run away if you don’t. They said no, they’ll take care of it. And if you’ve got a broken winged bird and he’s gone down, you go and pick him up and unfortunately these guys have got zero access to anything cold, but they also have zero access to any protein. So, what they were doing is they would walk out and they actually as cool as it is, they would break the legs so the bird could not run away, but they could keep that bird alive for another two or three days, so they could eat the dead birds today and tomorrow and then at a later stage, they could save that and eat it later because they couldn’t refrigerate to freeze it.
Ramsey Russell: I wondered, I’m telling you just the other night we were, down in free state, we were shooting, geese and ducks and the boys came up with a couple of live birds and I mean, they wanted to keep them alive and I didn’t understand why, now I’m like, they going to make a pet out of that thing.
Mike Curry: They certainly aren’t keeping him for a pet, they’re just keeping him for a rainy day if you want to put it that way. No, it is the harsh reality that are out there, things we take for granted and I mean, I grew up in Africa, I live in Africa and even I took that for granted until it’s exposed to you. So, yeah, it’s a different world out there.
Ramsey Russell: Every time I’m sitting around a dinner table with a lot of clients here in Africa, the subject of rhinos comes up. I mean, everybody knows there’s a problem, everybody knows that their horns are worth more than gold and diamonds. And every time I’m here, it’s a bigger topic of conversation, they’re in trouble, aren’t they?
Mike Curry: They are.
Greatest Conservation Success Stories
For South African conservation that has been our flagship animal is that how the private ownership of wild animals became the saving grace of the white rhino.
Ramsey Russell: Because you told the story the other night though and you were passionate Mike because you were saying that rhinos at one time, especially here in South Africa represented one of the greatest conservation stories, success stories on earth.
Mike Curry: 100%. For South African conservation that has been our flagship animal is that how the private ownership of wild animals became the saving grace of the white rhino. They were poached to minimal numbers at one stage. And then in the early 70s, the Natal Parks Board were the first guys to capture and translocate these animals and sell those on to private owners. And so the private owners started their own herds and this is not only with Rhino, this you can take to waterbok to black wildebeest to a whole bunch of common species nowadays. And that was our sort of shining light as conservation in South Africa, as the private ownership of wildlife and how those populations grew and grew. And obviously, there’s a huge capital investment um as a private land owner, when you go and buy rhinos, do you buy another farm? Do you buy a house as a solid investment use as a rental property or do you invest it in wildlife? And for those of us that are passionate about wildlife, it almost is like a no brainer, everyone wants to have them, but with the pressure put on them nowadays, I mean, do you want to go and put a million dollars out there and could be poached and gone overnight or where do you put your money? So the tough thing with the Rhino poaching now and it’s crazy as it sounds. Rhino horn is a renewable resource. It’s keratin, it’s fingernails, it grows back. You can harvest a rhino’s horn every 5 to 6 years and take 4kg or 5 kg of rhino horn off. It’s a renewable resource that we are not utilizing. And I talk about it like a commodity because we losing as South Africa, one of our keystone species from a conservation point of view just because we’ve been spiteful, short sighted, I don’t know what you want to call it, it’s a resource that’s out there that if we take a rhino’s horn off and I’m not saying it’s great driving around seeing a rhino with no horn on, but to me, it’s a hell of a lot seeing a rhino with no horn, then not seeing a rhino at all. It’s a renewable resource that we can release into the market, I’m not just talking about private rhino stashes or horns that have been cut off to prevent the poaching of it, you go to the national parks, the provincial parks, the Kruger Park, they’ve all got the stockpiles are there that have been there for years and years and if we slowly release that into the market, we’re going to drop the value of that rhino horn, it suddenly it doesn’t become worthwhile poaching anymore. You look at private rhino owners and the amount of money that they spend on looking after those animals, it is not just the Timbavati, one of the largest private game reserves next to the Kruger Park, they had one of their head rangers murdered in his home the other day, because he’s doing his job as a wildlife ranger looking after the wildlife, looking after rhinos. But the rest of the community are going to get a payment from someone if they could post rhinos and sell their horns off. And obviously they’re not getting the market price, you said rhino is worth more than gold at the moment, that’s not the price they’re getting on at ground level, they’re getting minimal money, it’s the middle man and the end user they’re spending the money, the poor villages around these areas.
Ramsey Russell: Don’t you think there’s got to be some government corruption driving this? For example, every time I think about this kind of subject with rhinos or elephant ivory, I think about the old days of prohibition, alcohol prohibition in the United States. And it really was not, if you look at history, it was not a morality law, it was a black market profit law here. And the politicians benefited and the mafia benefited everybody in that illegal trade benefited and they use the mothers against drunk dads to be the moral flag in the same way that the anti-hunters are kind of – I think they’re being exploited by the black market to keep this thing where it is, that’s just my thought.
Mike Curry: I agree with you 100% there. I mean, you came back all the way to prohibition in the United States, 2 years ago, we were a dry state here in South Africa during COVID, they shut down all liquor and cigarette sales in South Africa during COVID and do I understand the logic behind it, I understand some of the reasons they did, do I agree with it? Hell, no, I mean, I couldn’t even have a cold beer during that time, I wasn’t supposed to at least.
Ramsey Russell: One of the politicians went to jail over selling a cigarette or something as I recall.
Mike Curry: Yeah, and one of the other ones made billions off it, so it goes. But the reason they closed it down here in South Africa is, we buy the African dumpy, the cork bottle, which is, I don’t know how many ounces it is, you guys talk a different language over there but often times like we talk about eating out of a communal pot where they do the sauce, you’ll buy one big beer and there’ll be four or five of you sit around there and you share the beer. So that’s the way it was done and they thought during COVID that was a way of stopping the transmission of the disease because everybody was doing that. So, in principle, I agree with it and the same with the cigarette. You buy a cigarette, you go and buy a single because not all the folks have enough money to buy packages or cartons of cigarettes, so they might go and buy a single cigarette or a losy as they call them here and they’d share it among 3 or 4 of them. So I understand the reason that they didn’t want this disease to spread and all that kind of stuff, but all that it did was push the price up. I mean, we all still had alcohol, everybody here had cigarettes, they would walked across the borders, you saw guys making backpacks out of cartons of cigarettes that were, I don’t know, probably 10 12ft tall, they don’t weigh anything, so they strapped into their backs and their photographs of 10 to 12 people carrying these cartons of cigarettes coming down from Zimbabwe across the river. So the demand is always there and coming back to your rhino horn, the demand, I don’t know if everybody understands what the people are wanting rhino horn for and everybody says, yeah, it’s an aphrodisiac and this, that and the next. But when you get to the nitty gritty of it, the people in the east often use it as a cure for cancer, they believe in it. Now, I don’t care what you say, does it work, does it not? But if you believe in something it’s going to work. It’s all you have. If mom or dad or granddad is dying of cancer and you think that’s the only thing that you have to stop granny or grandpa’s or aunt or uncle, whoever it may be suffering is to use the rhino horn in the grinding bowl like they do through generations and generations. Well, of course, you’re going to spend the money and try and save them. If you look at the amount of money that’s spent on medication, chemotherapy, radiation, all that kind of stuff, it way surpasses the amount of money that they spend on a rhino horn. But if you don’t have access to that, you’re going to spend the money on the rhino horn in hope that someone will be cured of the cancer. So yeah, it’s a sad deal in that the demand for it because of the prevalence of cancer is so high in the east, the demand for the rhino horn is so high. But coming back to it, if we were to release rhino horn in restricted trade to a market like that and flood the market all of a sudden, not necessarily flood it, you’d release it, so you still have a value on your animals and the rhino horns in the storages, at least you’re protecting the live ones and to me that’s the most important. I mean, I come from a conservation background and doing the right thing sometimes take someone to stand up and say something and do something different and I personally believe that if they do open up a limited trade in rhino horn from legally harvested, which you can do in a 5 year rotation if they need to be microchip scanned, which they all done anyhow, so you can follow their movement through the users, I can’t see why we shouldn’t be doing it. I really think we are now cutting our own noses off to spite our faces as far as that goes. And yeah, and there’s no fun seeing a rhino with no horn on him, but that is cutting the nose off to spite your face.
Ramsey Russell: Along those same lines, we get into elephants. And according to the greenies, they’re endangered but they’re anything but.
Mike Curry: Anything but. Yeah, as we were talking the other day, I mean, Kruger Park is so overpopulated, Botswana is so overpopulated, parts of Namibia are populated, but the problem is everybody sees the elephant African population as one elephant population. Yes, they are poached in Sudan, they are poached in the Congo, they are poached in West Africa, Cameroon, I’ve seen them literally wiped out of some of those concessions that we try to protect. But you have to look at the populations where they are. The Botswana population in its entirety is way too high and that’s why they’ve reintroduced, the hunting of elephants in Botswana. South Africa in the National Parks is way overpopulated, you’ll see climax trees, climax tree species, if you go and look in the Kruger, there’s very seldom you’re going to see those massive, big, beautiful trees in the Kruger because they’re all taken out by the elephants. Unfortunately, an elephant eats itself out of habitat, it’s an eating machine, I don’t know the numbers but they are eating machines, all they do is they strip bark and ring bark trees and get the bark and break the trees down and unfortunately, those big climax trees are just being taken out because there are too many elephants. Botswana, the Chobe bushback is almost extinct in Botswana because there’s no river and vegetation left elephants have taken it all out, dependent on water. So they always along the rivers. And that’s obviously bush back habitat and now that’s been taken out. So it’s an awkward deal. Africa, if you look at Africa as a whole certain populations and I’ll talk about the West African population for sure, I’ve seen it wiped out in CAR, I’ve seen it wiped out in Cameroon in shit. I went up to CAR in 2006, the last year I hunted there was 2009, 2010, I think the last year I went out there in those 4 years, that whole population was gone, wiped out by poachers. Cameroon, I thought I’d be safer going across there, they wiped out that population in the 6 years that I hunted in one game on the east side of that. And Ramsey when we talk about that, I mean, it’s not just hunters hunting them, these are poacher guys chasing them down on horseback, they’re poachers, poaching them on horseback, they chased down herds of elephants with AKs and just wipe them out.
Ramsey Russell: Is it fully ivory?
Mike Curry: It’s awfully ivory, I mean, you just see that the tester chopped out the whole caucus lies there, it’s an absolute waste.
Ramsey Russell: And one of the coolest things I ever heard the other day that I never thought about is when you think about virtue signaling ivory protection, we’ve all got it, we all conjure the thought of a mountain of ivory tusk being lit on fire as a statement. What happens to ivory when you burn it, Mike?
Mike Curry: Nothing, absolutely nothing. What happens to a bone when you burn it? Nothing happens to it. But when you see a stockpile of ivory, you just see these huge massive plumes of smoke, black smoke and big red flames and all sorts of crazy stuff.
Ramsey Russell: It’s just the diesel burning off.
Mike Curry: Diesel and oil put on top there.
Ramsey Russell: And it ends up where? Probably in a government warehouse or in somebody’s back pocket?
Mike Curry: It really goes back to where it came from, back to the government storage facilities just in a more brittle state than it could have been. Again, I mean, let’s talk about elephant ivory, you’ve spoken about Rhino, there’s a huge market for carved elephant ivory, there’s a huge culture of carved ivory and why not release some of that stuff to them? It’s there and now we want to try and make a huge documentary and burn down these stockpiles of ivory, why? It’s a resource that’s there.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. And just like a lot of, be it timber or cattle or tomatoes, it’s a renewable resource if managed.
Mike Curry: Yeah. I mean, we looking at – I’m sorry, I’m interrupting Ramsey, here, we’ve got two totally different things. Live rhino’s horn grows back, elephant ivory does not. But we do have a stockpile of ivory through generations that’s been put into every country, it’s got huge stockpiles of ivory that’s sitting there, literally sitting on a gold mine, if they were to release some of that, money that could be plowed back into conservation, money that could be plowed back into conservation efforts, establishment more national parks, human elephant conflict, there’s massive problems as far as that goes.
Ramsey Russell: So, you got those stockpiles that you could trade, but at the same time, you’ve got sport harvested or community harvested for me, enough elephants and an overabundance of them that they could be managed forever, take some and leave growing stock, same as timber, same as anything else.
Mike Curry: I mean, you look at Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe have been very clever with the national, what they call the National Parks quota. The National Parks quota and I’ll talk about typically the National Forest I’ve hunted a couple of elephants, a friend of mine’s got concessions there and I do my hunts in Zimbabwe through them. Obviously, the license, as a South African outfitter, I cannot legally hunt in Zimbabwe without a licensed Zimbabwean professional hunter. But national parks sell their allocation, they get a ration of elephants. So they’re allowed to shoot so many elephants per season per year for staff rations and instead of just going and shooting that themselves, they sell that to the outfitters so I can take clients up there and I’ve done this with 7 or 8 clients already, we can go up there and hunt a National Parks quota elephant. So you get to experience the whole safari vibe, you go out there, you hunt your elephant, you just don’t own any part of that elephant. They’re harvesting that for the meat. So the staff employees from Zimbabwe National Parks, there’s the allocation of meat for that month and they could shoot 3 or 4 a year, I don’t know what the numbers are, but there’s their meat ration. So you’ll go buy and every piece of wire or tree or anything around there, there’s got meat drying in and so they dry it and cure it and that goes to their staff as rations, the leather from that elephant gets sold. So that gets turned into briefcases, boots, gun bags, whatever it may be where you’re needing elephant leather, that goes to the tannery. So again, they’re getting a profit from selling that leather onto it and then obviously the ivory stays National parks property gets stamped and it stays national parks. But you get to have the whole safari, you get the whole experience and everybody wins. So yeah, it’s a need resource that if managed correctly is certainly a very viable resource.
Goose Hunting in South Africa
In 1988 it was officially declared that it was now illegal to eat pygmies.
Ramsey Russell: I got a question, I just got to bring this topic up. The things you hear at hunting camp, so that the great goose hunt and it takes a while for the staff to get the decoys and get everything sorted and put up the blinds and because it’s quite a production goose hunting here in South Africa, you lay out a table, you bring some coffee, we drink coffee, eat a few cookies, whatever, sit there and BS or drink beer, whatever. But anyway, so as we’re sitting around BS and I don’t know what I was doing, but boy, this got my attention, when you say something to the effect, eating pygmies was only recently banned, I’m like, what? I just got to go there, man, that’s a crazy story I think I’ve ever heard while goose hunting.
Mike Curry: I don’t know how he came across the subject, stuff comes up from everywhere. But if I’ve got the dates correctly and I’m pretty certain I’m quite correct on the date it was 1988, the government gazette was published in the Central African Republic and those days were still the Central African Republic previously known as the Central African Empire. But the central African government published a notice and it was obviously, nowadays it goes out on email or it goes in the government gazette, the government gazette and CAR was a news tree in every little village. So any government notice that went out, it had was like a notice board and it got pinned up against the tree and that was the official document. In 1988 it was officially declared that it was now illegal to eat pygmies.
Ramsey Russell: But prior to 1988 it was legal to eat pygmies.
Mike Curry: Yeah. I don’t know if you had eaten fried or boiled or how it was, but it was legal in 1988, it was frowned upon by certain tribes and certain tribes saw it as a delicacy.
Ramsey Russell: That’s hard to believe that, when Van Halen was hard on the tour in 1984 that eating pygmies was legal and that some people just, oh it was a delicacy.
Mike Curry: I mean, everybody looks at the pygmies or the short little guys with the sharp and chisel shaped teeth and obviously I had quite a bit with them in Cameroon and Congo, I’ve spent lots of time out in the bush and they’re fun little folks, they really are. I mean, an adult male pygmies is probably about 4ft tall, let me get that right, about 4ft tall with the mental capacity of a 10 year, 11 year old kid. So easily amused, funny, humorous kind of people, very fond of the tree of knowledge if you enjoyed marijuana and that kind of stuff, pygmies are never far away from it. And I think that was a lot to do with their downfall. The tribes that would mostly eat the pygmies were known as the Zandi, the Zandi tribes which were famous for poisoning people. And they would, obviously, if, once the marijuana gets in the alcohol gets in there, they would sort of slip a branch or two or some leaves or –
Ramsey Russell: Were they just another tribe up there?
Mike Curry: They were tribe, yes. The Zandi people of the Central African Republic, yes, it’s different tribe. So they would sort of lure these pygmies in and slip them some poison and have them on the breakfast table the next day. But the Pygmies to try and frighten the people, obviously they are small people, they are timid people, anybody comes walking up to you and you are 3 or 4ft taller than and you kind of hunk it down and you respect the bigger man in front of you and the pygmies were that way as well. And because they saw their people being killed off, they thought the only way to try and do this was to try and look aggressive. So they would literally chisel their teeth and you watch them doing it, I watch the guys doing it for a documentary where they literally sit with a little hammer and a machete and they will chop your teeth, well, not yours theirs into these little sharklike teeth. And the reason they did that was to try and intimidate these other tribes to stop messing with them. As everybody looks and think damn, these pygmies are, they were the cannibals, they’ve sharpened all their teeth to eat more meat and blah, blah, they actually did it as a self defense mechanism more than anything else to try to frighten people away. So, yeah, it’s a wild country out there.
The Evil Past of Africa?
Ramsey Russell: Well, tell me if I can’t go here, but do you think that the slave trade is still alive in parts of Africa?
Mike Curry: Do I know for a fact?
Ramsey Russell: I mean, it’s a hot topic back home and this day and age of enlightenment and we all have an evil past.
Mike Curry: Ramsey, do I know for a fact? No, I do not. But I do know that when we talk about these elephant poachers that I experienced up in central Africa and those places, we never ever used to have women and children in our hunting camps, it just created a problem, it created friction in camp. And so we only had our men working in camps, our trackers, camp staff and the men did all the work in those parts of the world. But when those elephant poachers came in and when I say they came in, they came in caravans of camels and donkeys and horses, you name it armed to the teeth, I think I mentioned to you that they actually rode into the camp and tried to sell us arms and ammunition, the one day, they said they had too much to carry, they come from so far and –
Ramsey Russell: Some kind of military something?
Mike Curry: That’s the warlords coming out of Sudan. So the Sudanese warlords would come across that way. And from that year on, we actually allowed the trackers because it became an issue for us to try and keep our trackers in camp, when you hear the gunshots and you see the tracks and there’s poaching going on, they know full well what’s going on and the next thing that the trackers would be disappearing and you get out to go hunting the next morning and there’s like 5 or 6 trackers missing, that’s all where they gone. Now, they’ve gone back to the village, what the hell are you doing in the village? Works here. Now they’re going back to look after the women and children because in those days and I’d go back that have been in 2006, 2007.
Ramsey Russell: In the 2000.
Mike Curry: They were petrified that the Sudanese, if they didn’t have the ivory that they wanted, they would take back women and children as slaves to the slave markets in Khartoum. Do I know for a fact that that was true? No, I never experienced it but the trackers over there were fully aware that they were not going to let their women and children stay at home.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve been going through customs several times, once in Atlanta, once in Houston, I believe in Dallas and like, inevitably when I’m going through checking birds or checking guns or whatever I’m doing, several times it’s happened that somebody from Africa, they open up this suitcase and there’s all this big chunk of bloody newspaper. And one time I asked one of the agents, I’m like, what in the heck is that? He goes monkey meat. I go, and I guarantee the guy is going to a wedding, what’s up with that, Mike? I mean, I guess, if pygmies were eating, now we got monkeys, I mean, is that a big thing over there?
Mike Curry: Yeah, definitely a big thing. Yeah, flat out. No, they certainly eat a lot of monkey meat, they certainly do. And it’s quite freaky to watch them do it. Again, we’re going back to cooking the sauces. So you find a monkey skull floating around in a pot, it kind of looks very human like, it’s a bit intimidating when you see it, but it certainly is a delicacy.
Ramsey Russell: Have you eaten it?
Mike Curry: No, not that I know of, let’s put it that way, not that I know of, I haven’t eaten intentionally but who knows what happens in some of those villages. But not just taking it back home Ramsey, the Bush meat trade, smoked meat, that’s poached out in the forest, poached out here in the Savannahs anywhere it is, makes its way to the ports, makes its way all the way back to London, Manchester, New York, Los Angeles, you got no idea where that stuff goes.
Ramsey Russell: Where there’s a lot of African immigrants, is that why?
Mike Curry: I imagine, obviously, yes, there certainly is. That’s where the demand comes for it and coming back, why the hell would you take a rhino haul all the way to China or why would you take it all the way to the east? Not specifically China, if that’s what you believe in and that’s what you crave is something from the motherland, that’s what you’re going to pay for. So when you and I would look at that piece of bush meat when it arrives in New York or London or wherever it may be, the first thing you’re going to do is run outside and throw a thing a mile away, it smells and you’re doing anti-poaching, you know when you’re around at an active poacher’s camp, you could smell that meat. They call it smoked meat, cured meat.
Ramsey Russell: But it doesn’t smell like smoked bacon.
Mike Curry: Hell no, it didn’t smell like anything that you would have put anywhere near a dinner table.
Ramsey Russell: Anything’s up for grab, I mean, if they’re walking through the woods, monkeys or anything.
Mike Curry: Ramsey, that’s why they call it bush meat, it’s meat from the bush, it could be anything at all. It could be monkeys, it could be pangolins, it could be gorillas, it could be duiker, it could be elephant, it could be anything, it’s the bush meat is what they’re really craving.
Ramsey Russell: And it goes back to how you’re talking about some of these locals eating a bird, if they can’t preserve it, they might just be trying to salt, cure and smoke it but still become putrid.
Mike Curry: It does eventually. I mean, you look at those pieces and you can imagine if that thing’s been sitting on a ship because you’re not going to get a container of that stuff onto a plane and fly back to wherever it is going, it makes its way over there in ships and shipping containers. So, yes, it’s smoke cured, but certainly not in the way that you would create a nice, beautiful seed, a smokehouse and you get to smoke it over cherrywood or Applewood, this is just smoked, any smoke that goes through and they will, I mean, they get a fire going and they’ll put wet leaves on it just to get more smoke out there just to try and cure it for that much longer. But I can guarantee if you shake it hard enough, there will be a whole lot of maggots falling out of it too. So, yeah. Between you and me, we’re going to throw that thing a mile away, but for someone that’s been separated from the mother country for however long it may be, they see it as a delicacy.
Poaching Patrols to Protect Africa
…the amount of unregulated hunting not for fun, to eat, to sustain, to make a meager living and how detrimental that unregulated form of hunting really is…
Ramsey Russell: Talk a little bit about some of these poaching patrols. I mean, you’ve done that?
Mike Curry: We all do Ramsey. I mean, when you got these government concessions, it’s part of it. If you do not look after your hunting areas, they’re going to poach the hell out of it and you’re going to end up with nothing left there. And if you look at most of the African National Parks, I mean, it’s a beautiful looking green place on a map with very little happens. And I’m probably generalizing East Africa, Southern Africa is totally different to where I do a lot of my operations up in West Africa. West Africa Greenpeace in a map is literally, that’s where nothing happens, but it’s a national park. There’s no animals there, there’s more cattle herding in there than anything else. But the way that the conservation model is structured is that the National Park is sort of the core of the wilderness area and then they’ll have all these hunting concessions around it and that is what we tend around. So those monies go to the government, you lease that from the government, but is your obligation, you have an obligation to look after the area and to look after the communities around it. So you do a lot of anti-poaching, because the poachers are around there or the local villages, there’s a shortage of protein in Africa and there always will be. So you have to look after your areas and those poachers, it’s not just walking around and trying to catch people, you’re not playing cops and robbers, these guys are armed and I say armed, you might laugh at it, but they’re all, everybody out there is carrying a homemade shotgun as crude or whatever it may be, that thing still shoots and that’s what they’re poaching with us, now firearms more so than just snares.
Ramsey Russell: If you ever seen a homemade shotgun or rifle, describe it just in general term.
Mike Curry: Ramsey, it will just be a regular half inch pipe, your 12 gauge shell falls exactly into a half inch pipe and the rim sits on the outside. So, all you need is something to fold up around there, they do carve a stock that you can maybe try and aim something, there’s a very crude little bead or something on the front with an external hammer that comes to a release with a trigger. So very crudely made, very basically made, but efficient, they certainly do work. And the reason they use shotguns, obviously not nearly as high pressures as rifles, shotgun shells you can find anywhere, yeah, they generally use back shot incredible hunters. If you can sneak within any that kind of a range from whatever you’re shooting, you’re a damn fine hunter. I’ll tell you that much.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, punt gun killed scores of waterfowl in a single shot and it was just kind of like you say, a homemade shotgun.
Mike Curry: Yeah, basically that. Yeah. So on a half inch steel pipe, that’s the length of your barrel and a firing mechanism on the back spring to hold the hammer back and a trigger to release it. The trigger could be the hammer itself, you just pull the back and let it go or it could be, you could cock it like an old hammock gun and have a trigger to make it work.
Ramsey Russell: All of us listening are recreational hunters, we go out, we hunt for sport, ducks, geese, deer, whatever, we bring it home, we eat it, but just a little bit of the conversation – just my mind’s wondering about not just Africa, but worldwide, the amount of unregulated hunting not for fun, to eat, to sustain, to make a meager living and how detrimental that unregulated form of hunting really is to who cares if a pangolins endangered or a rhino? It’s meat, man, it’s a monkey, it’s meat. That’s crazy man, that in this day and age that just the last 20 years of my life eating pygmies have been illegal, there may be some slave trading going on the continent still and just the scale of a lot of mouth to feed, going out with homemade shotguns just to eat with maggots in it, I mean, that’s crazy.
Mike Curry: The biggest problem on this continent, unfortunately is the population and it is exploding population and yeah, you’ve been around a little bit longer than I have and the sun don’t do us any good. But even in my time that I’ve been operating in West Africa, I’ve seen that population explosion, it’s visible, and when I say that it’s probably 15, 20 years, so it’s a visible population explosion. First time I went up to central Africa was 2005, so in 17 years, that population explosion has been visible. Coming back to mouths to feed and pressure on the local resources and coming back to national parks and the protection around it. So, in a roundabout way, we’re getting back to where I was getting to is these hunting concessions all around a national park and it is up to you as an outfitter to take care of that hunting area that you are now leasing from the government. Although you’re paying the government for it, all you’re paying for is access to the area between that mountain and that river and that river. What you do inside there, you have an obligation to the community, be it a me a medical obligation where you’re going to put clinics and provide them with medication, be it a social where you going to provide schooling and all that kind of stuff, those are all obligations that you as an outfitter, when you take those areas on, those are your commitments to the government and the populations around it. Although you’re helping the populations that surround it, they still need to live, they still need to eat and that is where the problem comes in. I’m trying to look after my animals, they’re trying to eat my animals. So it becomes a sort of a push and shove contest out there and coming back, we had guys with shotguns, guys with AKs, there’s folks all over the place. Anti-poaching missions are not just a walk out there, I mean, you spend sometimes you spend a week, 10 days out under the stars, patrolling, looking up rivers, walking, looking for camps, looking for people that are sort of their penetration areas, you might set up ambushes along there and again, a for guys sitting in the armchairs watching TVs it looks like a great continent out there, but it’s not fun. You damn cold and it gets damn dangerous. I had 2 of anti poaching staff killed in CAR, they got into a situation with the guy and the one guy, he shot him with a shotgun and the other guy killed another guy with an AK-47. And it’s quite intimidating when you are a long way away from home, in those days, I was still in my 20s and one of the lead anti-poaching guys came to my camp and I’d seen the poachers camp the night before coming back, I saw the smoke out there where they’d been sitting around a campfire and I sent the anti-poaching team in there and the next evening when he got back from the hunting, the guys came and said, Andre, I still remember his name and face clearly, there was a big smile on his face and he said, no, they had an accident with Andre and bearing in mind, this is my 1st year up in CAR and my French is very broken. I said, what happened to Andre? No, they found the poachers camp and then they had an accident and I said, oh, what happened? No, they shot him and I said, okay, well, where is he? Is he all right? No, he’s here at the back, but he’s dead. I was like, what do you mean, he’s dead and so two of them walked in and there he was, he just dropped him in front of me, being shot through the stomach. And obviously everybody else took flight and then finally, even when someone shoots at you, you get the hell out of dodge. And finally they plucked up the courage to go and see where he was and there he was dead and they carried him back. I don’t know, probably about 8 to 10 miles to our camp. And they knew they were doing anti-poaching, they realized the risks and you don’t realize that when you’re sitting at home, but it’s very real that, yeah, it’s a life and death matter out there, it struck home. It really did.
Ramsey Russell: Thank you for sharing that, Mike. We’ve still got some time, we’ve got some clients at camp, we’re fixing to – we’ve got 4 stops, just got rid of this one, now we’re fixing to go shoot guinea fowl and upland birds in the morning and ducks and geese in the evening, before continuing on. And it has been an absolutely amazing week, it’s been amazing couple of weeks with you in terms of species, in terms of hospitality and that’s something important. We talk about all this crazy stuff, rhinos and poachers and I just find it fascinating because it’s so different to my own backyard. But it ain’t nothing like that down here in South Africa. I mean, everybody I’ve met is smiling and friendly and helpful and fun, but it is Africa, it is fun to talk about this stuff.
Mike Curry: No, for sure. It is. I mean, we do see the dark side of things because it’s a reality out there. But done in South Africa we are blessed with the most amazing country, I mean, people say to you, where else would you go? Nowhere, I’m going nowhere, this is my life, I love it out here, we call ourselves a rainbow nation, we’ve got the world in one country over here. So, yeah, very blessed and loving people.
Ramsey Russell: Everybody that comes back smiling ear to ear, most of them have already planned another – it’s something about Africa and I’m warning you guys when you come to Africa the first time, it ain’t the only time I promise you there’s something in the dust or the air or something that gets you and you just keep pulling you magnetically back to the continent because it’s such an amazing place. Like a lot of these guys here are collecting birds and I tell everybody you’re not going to kill all the species in one trip, you can’t possibly, unless you’re going to live here for a year, you just can’t possibly do it, but as a consolation you get to go back.
Mike Curry: That’s the best of it.
Ramsey Russell: That’s the best of it, Mike. And you do such a wonderful job and I thank you very much for your hospitality. You got a lot of balls jogging at one time, but you manage to keep them in play and I really appreciate you.
Mike Curry: Thank you very much and as always, we always enjoy having you guys here and out of all your folks that have been here, I know when you get back, you’re going to get emails from everybody again because everybody’s spoken to me about coming back. So yeah, and lots of guys come out in their first time and they said, well, I’m going to come back next year, but I want to bring my wife and Children and can we do some safari stuff? Of course, we can, we got all the game reserves around here and could we do a side trip and do Cape Town? Could we go and see the Vic Falls? It’s all there.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, there’s a million things to do here it’s paradise.
Mike Curry: So, we are very fortunate as I say. And just wonderful to have the opportunity to meet fantastic people from all around the world and we thank you for the introduction to these amazing people.
Ramsey Russell: Thank you, Mike and folks go to getducks.com. Look up South Africa, it has become a cornerstone of our website along with Argentina and Mexico. But buddy, South Africa has a lot to offer ducks geese, whether it’s high volume or species collecting upland game birds, sightseeing mix in some big game animals that it’s all right here, go to getducks.com and check it out. Thank you all for listening to episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.