I have made two trips to Liberia, both with West African Safaris (WAS)/Tom Banks. In each case, I was after duikers from the group that are unique to West Africa (zebra, bay, black, Maxwell's, Ogilby's, Jolophil, and Jentkin's), water chevrotain, and golden cat with the unlikely possibility of a royal antelope, bongo, yellow-back duiker, dwarf buffalo, or giant forest hog. The first hunt was booked at the 1999 SCI convention. Liberia had been in turmoil for a number of years during which no trophy hunting was allowed. Banks secured permission to hunt from the new government and established a camp near Sapo National Park in the south-central part of the country. I was scheduled to hunt in April 1999, which is toward the end of the annual dry season. Unfortunately, the hostilities resumed, and my trip was postponed.
Banks and I went through a series of rescheduling and postponements while we waited for the fighting to stop. The main problem was communications. Either we were unable to contact the WAS staff in Monrovia to confirm that the country was "calm" and transportation to camp was available or we were unable to contact camp to confirm that the WAS people there were still alive and well. Summer rains started in mid-June, which effectively eliminated the prospect of hunting until November or December. However, Banks needed to visit the camp to "test" the new transportation arrangements and ascertain conditions there. I prevailed on him to let me come along on the understanding that, given the seasonal rain problem, we might not make it to camp and that if we did, hunting might not be possible.
I flew into Abidjan (Ivory Coast) in mid-August 1999 and met Banks there. His local representative had arranged for accommodations, etc. and everything went smoothly. We arranged to fly to Monrovia the next day on a feeder airline (Weasua). This operation was just restarting service following the period of hostilities and did not have a fixed schedule. However, it was the ONLY rational way to reach Monrovia at the time. We reached Monrovia, but the plane did not bring any baggage so we were stuck there for several days. We needed the time to get my paperwork set up, arrange for transport to camp, and to obtain supplies anyway, so the delay was not a problem. Banks had made all the necessary arrangements. The government people were cooperative, the hotel was fine (we were the only guests), the food was good and there was plenty of cold beer. It was, however, very hot and raining steadily.
Banks had arranged to rent a pickup truck from the Forest Development Agency (FDA) and, along with two or three WAS people, five or six FDA staff and a few people who just needed a ride, we set out for the camp. We made it, with GREAT difficulty, to the last river crossing where the bridge was totally gone. It was night, but we borrowed a canoe and crossed in hopes of finding another vehicle trapped on the other side. The canoe trip was difficult because it was pitch dark and Banks had stepped in an anthill. He was covered with ants, which he claimed were biting him. He refused to be still and we almost went in the water on several occasions.
On reaching the other side, the vehicle we had hoped to take had left, so we slept on logs along the road. It was raining, and there was no shelter and no liquor or food. However, there was a whole community of stranded people, and it was an entertaining evening. The following morning, we set off on foot but soon met up with a vehicle that was unable to cross the river going the other way and which we commandeered to take us to Greenville - the only halfway organized town anywhere near the camp. The roads were beyond description, but there were always people around to help push and we made it to Greenville. There, the local FDA office came up with another pickup that was lacking an alternator and had some other problems but was running. We bought food and shotgun shells and set off again for camp. The situation was so bad it defies description. However, it was clear that everyone was working hard to make things as easy on me as possible. We made it to a village near the camp (the end of the road) and went the last few miles on foot.
The WAS camp is a picturesque complex of tents and thatched structures near the Sapo River. Our arrival was not expected but Banks quickly had things set up and operating. We did not use the generator, so we had no running water or electric lights, but everything was dry and comfortable. However, almost half of our time was gone. We had foolishly reconfirmed our return reservations from Abidjan to the States while in Abidjan (meaning that if we missed the plane, we had to buy new tickets), so we were concerned about the prospects of getting back. Banks got to work on his organizational chores and I started hunting.
Banks had rented a single barrel 12 gauge from a native for my use. The gun was old but serviceable with a good tight pattern. I hunted two days and two nights. The procedure was the same each day. I would meet with a hunter from a local village in early morning, and we would walk trails through the jungle all day, stopping periodically to call for duikers. I did not know what I was doing, and communication was difficult even though everyone spoke some version of English; so, there were problems.
I thought I should see the animal clearly (species, sex, and size) BEFORE I shot it. That does not work. When a duiker comes to the call, there is only a moment to shoot before the animal is gone again. There was some frustration, and I missed (failed to shoot) several animals, including one that almost trampled me, before I got the idea. All told, I saw four duikers in the two days - one zebra duiker (I think) and three bay duikers. I shot one bay duiker, and we had a very close encounter with a large cobra. The number of animals was disappointing, but we were limited in our range (due to the vehicle problem), and it was raining steadily, which made everything difficult.
The night hunting consisted of walking trails near the river with flashlights. I shot a chevrotain and another bay duiker the first night. We also saw a civet and a crocodile (while wading in the river). The second night we got lost and blew the whole night getting back to camp.
Banks had several skinners on hand who, while not polished, were adequate, and I was satisfied with the care of my specimens. Food in camp was excellent, there was plenty of cold beer, and we even had hot water. Again the local people did everything possible to make me comfortable.
On the third day, we set out again for Monrovia. By this time the borrowed vehicle was in REALLY bad shape, and the trip back was pretty much a repeat of the journey out. We slept in the truck or by the road and were held up by washed out bridges, etc., with the biggest holdup being a Catholic relief truck full of cane liquor that was stuck to the hubs in the middle of a very narrow bridge! Cane liquor is quite heavy, and it took a while to lighten the load, even with a large number of people helping. We eventually made it back, got cleaned up, did our paperwork, and returned to the US via Abidjan.
My skins were VERY wet and both skulls were crushed, but I was able to arrange to ship the skins directly from Abidjan to a taxidermist in South Africa (Highveld). They completed the processing. The taxidermy issue is one you need to consider carefully if planning a hunt in Liberia. Since very few people have shot some of these species in recent years, there is little information available on body proportions, etc., by which the taxidermist can do his work. Dieter Oschenbein needed to do a bit of research to get the necessary information for my water chevrotain. He has now done most of the Liberian species for me, and I am really very happy with the results.
Banks was quite disappointed that I had so little time to hunt on this first trip, as was I, so he invited me to return for a second go-around. I was to pay my airfare, license and trophy fees and any costs associated with the hunting, and he would waive the daily fees. I agreed and arranged to make the second trip in late February and March 2000 (the height of the dry season). Banks and I met in New York with the intent of flying to Dakar and then on to Monrovia. The plane did not go on schedule so we had to overnight in New York and, of course, missed the connection in Dakar. We eventually got to Monrovia where we were met by WAS staff. We overnighted in Monrovia, picked up my license and some supplies and were enroute to camp early the next morning.
There was no comparison with the earlier trip. We had a sound vehicle, it was not overloaded and the roads and bridges were great. It was, however, VERY hot. We completed the trip in one long day. Again there were periodic military roadblocks, but the troops were disciplined and polite. At the end of the road we got a pleasant surprise! The natives had cut the road all the way into camp eliminating the two-mile hike from the village. The camp was unchanged - dry and comfortable. Banks arranged for a shotgun for me (another old but serviceable single shot) and I started to hunt the next morning.
The hunting process was much more organized than the earlier trip. Each of the local villages has cut one or more "trophy hunting" trails through the area of jungle where they (that village) are controlling local hunting. Some basic information on distributions of the various duiker species has been accumulated based on local knowledge and the successes or failures of earlier hunters, and it was possible to plan a schedule around the animals that I most wanted to shoot. Each morning I would meet a local guide and FDA staff person at camp, and we would go to a specific village. There we would meet the hunter for that village - the individual responsible for marking and maintaining the "trophy hunting" trail for the village. He would guide us along that trail, stopping periodically to call for duikers. The village hunters were all expert callers as were the guides provided by WAS and there was always a competition between the two. The FDA people were also knowledgeable of the area and the hunting process and were an asset in the bush (this had not been the case during my first hunt).
Some villages were doing a better job than others in controlling poaching but, on balance, the areas set aside for trophy hunting had well defined trails and minimal signs of local hunting pressure (snares). Banks has accomplished this by a system of rewards. If a hunter is able to shoot a duiker on a particular village's trail, there is an immediate payment of a "trophy fee" to that village. When I arrived this fee was set at $25 per animal shot, but Banks upped it to $50 for some species in light of the amount of work that was clearly being done by the villages. This money, along with whatever tip the hunter might give to the village guide, represents quite an influx of cash to the local economy. The political structure of the villages is complex, and the payment of the local trophy fee was quite a significant event, but it was clear that the local people enjoyed seeing the fruit of their labors and that they are anxious to do what they can to ensure hunter success.
The actual hunting is difficult - a great deal of walking over rough terrain and in intense heat and, sometimes, rain. There are snakes, but few biting insects, except for ants. You cover considerable distances, and the bush can be quite thick. Some of the hunters have found this to be too difficult and have chosen to purchase specimens rather than shoot their own. This has confused the local people and especially the village hunters and it is clear that they have come to the conclusion that it is easiest for everyone if they (the local people) do the hunting while the "white hunter" relaxes in the village. This probably does ensure the maximum "trophy fees." I preferred to actually hunt and, while they might not have fully approved of my decision, nobody objected, and they put their full energies into finding animals.
The natives have a truly amazing knowledge of the local ecology and, since they speak a form of English, it is possible to share somewhat in that knowledge. The Liberians in general are intensely interested in seeing that you enjoy your stay in their country, and they go to considerable effort to ensure that you are comfortable.
I saw many more animals on this second trip. Bay (black-backed) duikers were especially common everywhere, and I shot another one. Black duikers were also very common, and I shot a pair. I also obtained Maxwell's and zebra duikers. I saw an Ogilby's duiker but did not get a shot at one. I did not see a Jentkin's or Jolophil duiker or a yellow back duiker although the natives had a fresh yellow back skin and skull available. We saw a considerable amount of giant forest hog and dwarf buffalo sign (tracks, dung, and disruption - identified by the local hunters) but never actually saw the animals. We also saw what the natives said was bongo sign on several occasions. There were a lot of bushbuck (harnessed) in the areas around the cassava fields, and I believe that one could shoot one by sitting at night (you have to get close enough to the animal to kill it with light buckshot). Banks was in the process of constructing some high-stands over farm fields while I was there. I also saw civet, crocodile and pangolin. I did not do much night hunting on this trip because I already had a chevrotain and the natives reported that the golden cat were very scarce. Also, I was generally exhausted by the end of the day. I did make time to take a short canoe trip on the Sapo River and do a bit of looking in the Sapo National Park. It was necessary to keep ones eye open for ants and, of course, snakes, but there were very few mosquitoes or annoying insects of any kind. The camp skinners had gotten a good deal of valuable experience by the time of my hunt and did an excellent job of preparing the specimens.
The return was uneventful. Again the flight on Air Afrique was a nightmare, and it took three days to make the trip; but most of that was due to late or canceled flights. I had arranged for Fauna & Flora to meet me at the airport and take charge of moving my skins through Agriculture and US Fish & Wildlife inspections. Banks was much better prepared to handle the processing of specimens on this second trip and my skins were fairly dry and well packed.
Because our flight was delayed and it was very late at night, the Fauna & Flora people were not at the airport nor were the Fish & Wildlife staff. The Agriculture people took possession of my skins and held them in bond. They were VERY cooperative and made the transition easy. A Fauna & Flora representative met me at my hotel in the morning, took over the paperwork and moved the skins though Fish & Wildlife the next day without problems. I received the skins by UPS three days later.
Hunting in Liberia is certainly a more difficult endeavor than is hunting in southern Africa. In large part this is because it is just getting restarted after years of warfare and because there are not many people doing it. The Liberian government is still working out procedures, and there are very significant problems with transportation. Liberia is a very poor country, so everyone there is trying to make a buck by whatever means possible, and it is up to you as a wealthy westerner, to help fuel the local economy.
The US State Department has expressed concerns about the level of military discipline. On both trips, we encountered numerous military checkpoints while traveling to and from camp and in Monrovia. The troops at these checkpoints were consistently courteous and cooperative. I believe that WAS may have made some small contributions to smooth the process, but we had no problems. The situation at the airport in Monrovia is a circle jerk of truly West African proportions, but the WAS people do their best to get you through, and it just requires patience.
If you plan to go, you need to pick your time carefully. I think it is better not to be the first hunter in for a new season and, certainly, you should avoid the rainy season. Don't try to save money on peripherals - fly a major carrier if possible (avoid JFK International Airport, Air Afrique, and Dakar), have tickets that allow you to change flights or transfer to another airline if necessary, leave as much time as possible to deal with procedural problems in Monrovia, work with the skinners and camp staff to make sure your skins are dry and properly packed and labeled, verify that your CITES paperwork is correctly filled out, and use a customs broker to smooth the transfer through US Fish & Wildlife once back in the States. Don't try to sneak anything into the country (slugs or heavy buckshot), as the inspection at the airport can be quite thorough.
Getting to camp from Monrovia can be a problem. The roads can be bad, and the bridges are only temporary structures. There are not enough vehicles, and the vehicles are not in good shape. This is not specifically a WAS problem, there are not enough vehicles in Liberia, and ALL the vehicles there are in poor condition. However, WAS is not always ahead of this problem. Once in camp, West African Safaris does a pretty good job of putting you in a position to hunt, but it is up to the hunter to follow through and your ultimate success will depend partly on luck and partly on how well you can interact with the local people.
Anyone making the trip has to understand that the whole thing can go sour (quickly!) for reasons that nobody can control. There are no "professional" hunters involved in this operation. Banks is basically an outfitter - he makes things work with the government, helps you get to and from the camp, and coordinates things for you while there. His operation is generally well run - especially considering the conditions he has to work with. However, the operation is not "deep." If something goes wrong, Banks may or may not have a backup solution available on short notice. The Liberians themselves are used to living in desperate circumstances and have absolutely NO appreciation for the unrealistic expectations that some hunters bring with them. They are generally wonderful people who will do anything to make your stay enjoyable, but they have no concept of many things that are routine to Americans. They are communal people (communists), which means that it is natural for them to share everything and, since they have almost nothing and you (the hunter) have everything, there can be problems.
You can expect to be comfortable in camp. There is a generator, so there are lights, running water, flush toilets and refrigeration. The tents are comfortable (I understand that Banks is getting even better tents AND some full-length beds - a major improvement), the food is good and there is plenty of cold beer. There is laundry service, and things generally run smoothly. There are things to do other than hunt - particularly you can canoe the river or go to Sapo Park. I understand that Banks is getting some inflatables with small motors so that hunters can use the river to get to more distant hunting areas. Medical services are totally lacking, and you are a long way from help. Communication between the camp and the outside world is unpredictable and depends on assistance from a variety of third parties.
The quality of the hunting varies greatly between village areas and between the different village hunters. Some villages are doing a good job of controlling poachers. Some are not. Some village hunters are more competent or easier to work with than others. The natives generally do not understand "trophy hunting," a problem that has been compounded by some hunters buying specimens rather than going to the trouble of "fair chase" (one needs to experience the conditions first hand before being critical of this shortcut). The native hunters (guides) and the FDA observers do not have even the most basic equipment (flashlights, batteries, backpacks, water bottles, knives, etc.), and no matter how many times they are reequipped by WAS or by individual hunters, they quickly sell, trade, or ruin everything. And you cannot expect this situation to change. It is up to the hunter to supply the full kit. What you bring is what you use. You need to know the basic skinning and drying techniques of trophy preparation and have the necessary equipment to carry it out. There are adequate native skinners and plenty of salt available, but you have to understand that things dry VERY slowly in Liberia and you must verify that things are properly done. Unfortunately, your problems are not over when you depart Liberia. The US Fish & Wildlife people are not always as helpful as they should be - especially at JFK - and it is essential that you use a broker and fully understand how the CITES process works.
The Liberian government is still feeling their way along as regards the regulation of hunting. Practices and fees are constantly changing, which adds a confusion factor to the hunt. However, in no case have these people been unreasonable in their requirements (like some of their central African neighboring countries or our Fish & Wildlife Service). You can expect to see much evidence of the recent war, and there is a profusion of troops, especially in Monrovia. However, I had absolutely no problem with the military, either in Monrovia or in the countryside.
If you are planning to go and would like further information on my trips, I would be pleased to speak with you.