It took one 54-year-old American about three hours to track and kill this fully grown giraffe. A few months later its stuffed head will adorn his living-room wall. Kevin Pilley joins the trophy hunters

JOHANN, the spotter, taps on the roof of the Land Rover. "Zombah!" he says in hushed tones, pointing up wind, through the mepone bush. Doc jumps out, flicks off his safety catch, kneels down and rests his Remington .338 on a rock. It takes him a few seconds to scope in on his target. Johann stands behind him. When he is satisfied that Doc is breathing regularly and that the animal's head is centred in his telescopic sight, he taps the hunter's shoulder and whispers, "Take him!"

The first bullet goes up the giraffe's right nostril, the second clean through his neck and the third, fractions of a second later, into his lungs. He hits the ground with a loud boom. A dust cloud rises into the air. Birds fly from the scrub. The big country of the Limpopo Valley suddenly comes alive. Warthogs scream on the run and mongeese flee for cover.

"I did good!" shouts Roger "Doc" Boughton. He starts to film the huge corpse with his Camcorder. "I've never been so nervous in the whole of my goddamn life as when we snuck up on that big son of a bitch. I wasn't expecting to get him so easy. My trigger is so sensitive that sweat can set it off. When I hit him he wobbled like a bag of jelly. He squashed a tree flat on the way down. Cracked another clean in half. Boy, what a rush!" Sitting down on the twitching, still-warm carcass, Doc poses for snapshots.

The skinning team arrives. Amos, the chief hacker, takes aim with his axe. It takes six men eight hours to skin, dismember and joint a fully grown African male giraffe (1.5 tonne, 5.2m tall). It took one 54-year- old American about three hours to track and kill it. One moment the giraffe's head is sticking out of the undergrowth in the veld; a few months later it is sticking out of a living-room wall in Louisiana.

The Venda skinners go to work cutting through the giraffe's 12cm-thick hide. Doc checks out the entry and exit holes of his three hollowpoint bullets. He has got what he wanted. For $3,225 (pounds 2,000) including taxidermy, post and packing, he has bagged himself the ultimate African trophy animal.

He shot his giraffe at 10.30am. Before evening it has been cut up into large pieces and taken to the skinning and disembowelling shed to be buried under a mound of salt. Then it is sent to Tony Rathbone, a field and stream taxidermist who works nearby in Louis Trichardt. Nine months later, there will be a knock at Doc's door and a mailman will require him to sign for one stuffed giraffe head and neck, a giraffe-skin rug, four giraffe-shin standing lamps and four novelty giraffe napkin holders.

"I could have had me some nice authentic giraffe-skin ashtrays as well," Doc says on the way back to the camp in the 4x4. "But I'm anti-smoking."

Nothing is wasted in big game hunting. On the day of Doc's kill, 1.5 tonne of giraffe meat is distributed among the workers on a nearby citrus farm. For once the workers get their pound of flesh.

Doc, strange as it may seem, is a vet. Stuffed animal heads adorn the walls of his surgery back home. "I'm not one of them coon-arse crazies," he says. "Blood doesn't come into it. I save lives, I don't take them. I was a hunter-and-country person long before I was a vet. The giraffe was a skinny 20-year-old sterile bull who had been disowned by the herd. He was no use. Someone had to put him down. I just used a rifle rather than a syringe."

Doc is one of a party of Louisianans on a 10-day hunt-of-a-lifetime at the Greater Kuduland ranch in Tschipise in Northern Province, not far from the Zimbabwe border. Another giraffe has been taken down by "Double-Rugged" Doug Miller, an oilfield engineer from the Deep South. "Dirty" Harry Anderson, and Doug's father, "Buffalo" Bill make up the rest of the party. Their nicknames were given to them on arrival at the ranch.

Greater Kuduland is owned and run by 35-year-old Howard Knott, whose family came to South Africa from England in 1820. When it opened in 1971 it was one of only two game ranches in the country. There are now 600. Fifty million acres in South Africa are devoted to big game-ranching, one of the largest growing sectors of the agricultural economy. More and more cattle farmers are moving into game ranching. Hunting brings in 6,000 foreign visitors a year, providing much a needed influx of foreign currency between October and April.

There are now 750 "licensed" professional hunters registered with the professional hunters' association. They have to attend a hunting school and pass written and practical exams set by the Wildlife Department of the National Parks Board. They must also serve an apprenticeship under another professional hunter.

Knott studied ranch management in Texas. His 50,000-hectare estate, in the foothills of Soutpansberg mountain, is home to four of the Big Five - leopards, rhinos, elephants and zebras, but no lions. Knott doesn't allow his rhinos or elephants to be hunted. But there is a price on the head of each of his bushpig, kudu, impala, vervet monkeys, red hartebeest, blesbok, nyala, steenbok, hembok and duiker. A baboon will set his customers back $50 (pounds 31), an ostrich $550 (pounds 343). For $450 (pounds 280) a day - including food, guides and "liquor in moderation" - he will organise hunting safaris lasting from four to 14 days. He also runs bow hunts and photographic safaris. His hunting ranch is considered to be one of the best in South Africa.

"We've only had five giraffes shot here in 20 years," he says. "We don't hunt indiscriminately. We have 45 giraffes, and we take out 5 per cent of the total population: we just take off the excess. It is all carefully managed. We do a helicopter head count every year to see how many animals we have and how many we can lose. If it doesn't pay, it can't stay. Sustainable utilisation, the Yanks call it."

The rules are strict. Rifle hunters must prove themselves marksmen before they are allowed into the hunting areas and have their gun sights checked on the range. Shooting from the truck is not allowed: the animal must be stalked on foot. A professional hunter is allotted to each customer. Once he is sure that an animal is old enough he gives permission to shoot. If the holidaying hunter only wounds the animal, the resident hunter fires a back-up shot.

Doc brought three boxes of bullets with him. He has fired 13 times so far, taking out nine animals, including the giraffe. It was double the size of his previous best, a 1,500lb moose in Alaska. Mostly, he tells me, he shoots white-tailed deer.

"Dirty" Harry Anderson, a 61-year-old salt-mining engineer from Avery Island, Louisiana, has had a successful hunt so far too. "I've overshot, overeaten and overdrunk. I've got myself everything I want, including some real perty sand grouse and partridge," he drawls, satisfied. "This is as close to heaven as you can get. If I enjoyed myself more, I don't think I could stand it."

Anderson owns 33 guns and has hunted all his life. He has ridden the bayou, shooting alligator, and shot parrots in Argentina.

"I'm not going to take up golf until I'm through with fishing, hunting, drinking and fucking. I'm not a rich man but this is worth every penny. We're talking around $20,000 (pounds 12,500) in cash for the ultimate adventure. But I'm just as happy walking around collecting rocks, picking me up a porcupine quill and seeing the animals. I've been outrun by an ostrich, seen Hartmann zebras, wildebeest and elephants. I've had Cape buffalo charging at me like freight trains, like you wouldn't believe."

"Buffalo" Bill Miller, a retired pharmaceutical salesman, decided to be an observer on this trip. "Plain games or big game doesn't do anything for me. I've shot thousands of birds since I was an itty-bitty kid. Mostly dove. We still have dove in gravy on New Year's Day. I remember sitting on my dad's head and wading out into a river to shoot birds. But I only shoot what I eat. Period. We're all sportsmen - we respect what we hunt. This safari ain't macho bullshit stuff. Hunting these animals barefooted with a spear like the natives did is macho. That's real hunting.

"What isn't hunting is pheasant hunting, using all them beaters and drivers and people. Here we're controlling the numbers of animals so the habitat is not destroyed. Them environmental wackos think of a giraffe and they think of some cutie with long curly eyelashes. They don't see a pest. It's amazing how radical liberals can be. You can give them all the evidence, all the stats and all the information and they won't change. They're right and you're always wrong. They just like to protest. They can't get their fist out of their arseholes to do anything else."

His 28-year-old son, "Double-Rugged" Doug, rants in the same vein. "Jesus H Christ, man, mountain lions are eating kids back home. They ate a lady recently and they were more concerned that the animal got shot! Get real!"

Big game hunters are prone to exaggeration. Like fishermen, they like to tell tales. By the end of the day, Doc's giraffe has grown and put on weight. The distance from which it was shot increases and so does the time taken stalking it.

"I ain't killed me anything today but I'm going to kill a six-pack," says Doug, gulping a lager.

It is halfway through the trip, and Doug is suffering severe trophy hunters' withdrawal symptoms, having gone three days without firing a shot from his Dakota. He had thought that big game would be unmissable. Doc shot four animals in one day and then bagged his giraffe. Harry has been averaging one per day. There are still spaces to be filled on the walls of Doug's trophy room back home, and his trigger finger is starting to itch.

"I can't leave here without a friggin' zebra," he says. "Tomorrow I want me a different Land Rover jockey to put me on to something good. Every time I see something, I'm told not to shoot the goddamn thing because it's too small or not old enough or something. And then the critturs are spooked as soon as I get close enough to put up my sticks. It might be the butter beans. I'm farting like a Missouri mule and it's scaring the animals off."

His Zimbawean guide, Pieter de Villiers, says that Doug's quarry, the Eland antelope, is the biggest animal on the reserve and amongst the hardest to track and shoot. De Villiers' own ambition is to hunt cougar in Utah, and he rates stag hunting in Spain as the best in Europe.

"We get a lot of Spaniards here," he says. "They shoot more for the thrill than the tape measure. The Germans are more ethical. They like to out- think the animals. Zebras are the smartest and most elusive. Wildebeest are fairly easy because they are deaf. Elephants are hard to track on hard soil because they have flat feet. Kudo will flag you goodbye with their tails if you break a twig 200 yards away. Impala are the easiest because there are so many. We call them the McDonalds of the bush.

"But you don't fuck with a water buffalo," he adds. "They are mean aggressive mothers. They want to fuck you over and like a face-off. A nyala will ram its horn up your arse as soon as look at you. If a leopard gets you you can kiss your arse good bye. If the shock or bite doesn't kill you then the gangrene will. But black mambas are the worst. When you see three yards of snake hauling arse at you the heart beats like shit. That's adrenalin."

In the evenings, over dinner and beers and whisky around the campfire, the hunters like to talk about the size of each other's horns. Hunters are all after a record-breaking horn: a big spiralling horn is a real status symbol. Doug's kudo horn was an inch smaller than Doc's 54-incher. Doug, the immature male in the pack, can't stand being upstaged. "Yeah, but I got my giraffe right between the eyes. One shot and wop! I dumped that mother good and proper. I smoked him plenty good."

The talk stays on the subject of trophies. "One of our clients had an elephant fully mounted," says Knott, over a plate of roast impala. "He had it shipped home and had to hire a crane and lift the roof off his house to get him in. No home should be without an elephant!"

The cook at Kuduland is Stanley, known as "Spider". He wears an apron adorned with the message, "The meal is ready when the smoke alarm sounds." He plays kudu horn in church, and on request performs an after-dinner turn. Spider cooks everything but snake and zebra. His clients favour antelope, because of its venison flavour. "I'm too scared to catch the snake, and zebra is just a horse in pyjamas. Nobody likes to eat horse." The Louisiana trophy hunters have brought their own Creole sauce to liven up the food, and pour it over everything.

They go to bed early and are up early, leaving the camp the next morning at 6.30am. When they come back for lunch, Doug has a blue wildebeest which he had stalked for 22km and for four hours. "That's a beautiful animal," says Harry, looking at the bleeding corpse in the back of the pick-up. A dead baboon is next on Doug's hit list. He doesn't have time for a leopard, because a leopard hunt takes two weeks and has only a 40 per cent chance of success. South African law allows only 45 leopards to be shot every year. Knott charges $2,700 (pounds 1,680) for a leopard. He has a long waiting list.

Together again in the evening, the hunters take dinner in Knott's own trophy room. They return to their favourite subject, the defence of their sport. "This is a protein-starved country and there is a lot of surplus protein out there," says Knott, at the head of the table. "I've seen elephants picked clean by natives in two days."

Knott also runs South Africa's oldest wild animal auction. Last June he sold about 1.6m Rand (pounds 170,000) worth of game stock. A buffalo fetches 1,000 Rand (pounds 106), a hardwater Cape springbok 2,500 Rand (pounds 264) and a giraffe 10,000 Rand (pounds 1,060). The most expensive is a Roan antelope: a single animal costs 40,000 Rand (pounds 4,240). Knott owns the largest breeding herd of Roan antelope in the world. "These animals damage the crops and hurt the land if they are not controlled," he says. "They destroy other animals' habitats. More prey means more predators. But still we are thought to be cruel by killing off the excess. What's crueller," he asks, "shooting them or letting them starve to death?"

Knott has had some close calls with death himself. He shot a charging wounded buffalo from a distance of four feet. He shot a mamba in his bed. He saw his father gored by a kuda antelope. And, he tells us, he recently tracked members of the British SAS whom he discovered to be staging night manoeuvres on his land without permission. They had cut the 7,000-volt fence which keeps his animals in and the poachers out. If poachers do get in, Knott gets out his gun.

On the final day of the shoot, Doug shoots himself a baboon. But still no eland or zebra. Thirty-one animals have been shot by three men in 10 days. They all agree that it has been the best hunting they have ever done. "In the US you can do a bison hunt in four minutes," says Doc. "Businessmen arrive by plane, take their jacket and tie off, roll up their sleeves and plug a bison. Then they put their jacket and tie back on and off they go." He shakes his head. "This is the real thing."

"In South Africa, a lion hunt costs $2,500 (pounds 1,560)," says Knott. "Some farmers are breeding lions in captivity here just to be released to be shot. It's a farce. They can hardly run. But lions, too, need to be taken out. A wild lion is only interested in one thing, screwing. He'll kill his own cubs just to get a lioness randy. He doesn't allow anything near his kills. Lions need to be controlled just like any other animal. Don't give me any of that European Greenpeacer 'King of the Jungle' shit. They don't understand nature.

"A hunter got himself a lion here once. But it was late and so they covered it up, intending to pick it up the next day. The next morning they came back and the whole thing had gone. The only thing left was a little bit of the lion's tail. The professional hunter picked it up and gave it to him and said, 'Congratulations, you've shot yourself a $2,500 key ring!'"

Doc screams with laughter and falls off his chair, just as though he had been shot by a high-velocity rifle. Right: a collection of big game trophies ready to be shipped to their new 'owners' Below: the hunters bond over a campfire drink Left: carcasses are cured by being buried under salt

Below: an antelope in the process of being skinned by ranch workers

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