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WILTZ: What is it like to go to 'the' hunting convention?

A lady on the elevator looked at my name badge and asked, “What is SCI?”

Las Vegas hosted the recent annual Safari Club International Convention Feb. 5-9. It was held at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Convention Center, which lies on the end of The Strip next to the airport. My partner Doug and I shared a room at the Excalibur and commuted to Mandalay Bay by way of the tramway or a courtesy bus.

Ten years ago I promised myself that I would never return to Las Vegas. Attending SCI meant that I had no choice. Why my disdain for Vegas? Imagine the Excalibur lobby — a dimly lit sea of blaring slot machines, craps tables, blackjack dealers and roulette wheels mired in a pall of cigarette smoke. Sleazy-looking patrons suck on beers or cocktails at 8 a.m. Ride the escalator up to the food court where a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut straddle the wedding chapel. What happened to holy matrimony?

Getting back to the elevator lady’s question, Safari Club International is an organization of hunters dedicated to preserving the world’s wildlife. So how do hunters preserve wildlife? To answer this I will quote the magazine article “Hunting in Africa: Separating Facts from Fiction.” It was written by Willem Frost and found in the Fall 2013 issue of African Hunting Gazette.

“Those countries in Africa that do not allow hunting have lost almost all their wildlife, due, primarily, to poaching.”

Poachers would decimate every last animal were it not for the law enforcement officers who safeguard them. Trophy fees pay these conservation officers. If our own South Dakota didn’t have hunting, there would be no license fee money to pay the officers who protect our game animals. It’s that simple. The hunting industry also creates thousands of jobs.

SCI does support scholarship programs and promote animal and habitat research. For me personally, visiting with guides and outfitters at SCI gave me a better understanding of what’s going on with our fish and wildlife the world over. I gained further insight into the Amazon basin’s fish, the wild cattle and swine of the Australian Outback, the wild sheep of Tibet and Mongolia, the great bears of Russia, the ibex of Spain and the future of African elephants.

As you might guess, as a result of this recent SCI experience, I have a new personal “bucket list.” I can only hope my remaining years of satisfactory health and funds exceed my list of destinations. Yes, I’ll share my new list with you.

I want one more African experience, and I’m working on it right now.

Waterfowl hunting in Argentina is near the top of my list.

Hunting roe deer and Russian boars in Eastern Europe, hopefully Czechoslovakia, is right up there.

Stalking big black bears, catching salmon and crabs — all this from a boat along Vancouver Island, would be a real hoot.

Fly to Darwin, Australia, journey into the deep outback of the Northern Territories and hunt wild buffalo, wild boars and wallabies — Could it get any better, mate?

What are my impressions concerning the recent SCI convention? I expected most of the hunters I would meet to be from either coast. They weren’t. Most came from hunting locales including Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico. Although they have their own European expos, foreign nimrods were evident. Everyone was anxious to share past hunting experiences.

Admission alone was over a $100 per day. SCI membership was also required. These visiting hunters weren’t window shoppers. They came to book hunts with the best outfitters in the world. They also came to buy high-end guns and related equipment. The presence of money was evident.

I’m thinking there were a thousand vendors. Most had brochures and DVDs to hand out. Colorful signs, hides and artifacts added to the décor. The hunting operations featured full or shoulder mounted trophy game animals, and many displayed actual hunt scenes on big screen TVs. Tables and chairs provided a place to talk business, and many had very comfortable furniture. Real guides and professional hunters manned the booths, not mere sales representatives. There must have been 100 African operations represented, with New Zealand and Argentina close behind.

Authors signed and sold their books. Artisans were plentiful — furniture builders, jewelry makers, furriers, artists, sculptors, leather craftsmen, engravers and taxidermists that included our own Pete’s of Burke. Guns were art objects — guns that cost six figures. Travel agents and trip insurance people were also on hand.

Many of the international hunt vendors donated hunts that were auctioned off during the show in a large adjacent hall. Generally, the auction hunts went for less than retail value. If my bucket list dreams come to fruition, it will be because of the auctions. Time will tell.

What didn’t I like about the SCI convention? I already alluded to the Las Vegas location. Food and drink costs were exorbitant. Sandwiches on the convention floor ran $13-$20. A small bottle of water cost $5. At the Excalibur other than the food court, fast-food establishments, including the McDonald’s that charged the same prices as our Mitchell McDonald’s, typical meals cost $35. Both Doug and I ate all of our breakfasts and most of our suppers at McDonald’s. We totally skipped lunch, and nary a nickel went to a slot machine.

In spite of rising hunt costs and a convention floor full of affluent sportsmen and women, African professional hunters were willing to sit down with me and work around my modest budget. When I get things hammered out, I’ll share my exact plans with you. If you have ever thought about an African adventure, there is room with Doug and me. The extensive groundwork is already done.

I’ll see you next week.