Hunting the big ones
Chico man has traveled the world to kill dangerous game
“[They] were bringing…baskets…and…they
had stripped [the elephant] body almost to the bones by the
—George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”
“It was as close to stopping a charge as I’ve ever come. It was either going to be him or us.”
Jim Ledgerwood was recounting an incident that happened to him last June, in Zimbabwe, when a single-tusked elephant charged him and his trackers. As he spoke, he stood beneath one of the 20 or so animal heads that fill the newly constructed trophy room in his comfortable east Chico home. They include a cape buffalo, a water buck, a kudu, and two impalas. A entire stuffed lion dominated the room.
There isn’t a wall or a floor without an animal head, bear rug, zebra skin, lion skull, or some other animal part in Ledgerwood’s home.
Of medium height and husky build, and a bit famous for his “hunting T-shirt” wardrobe, Ledgerwood has a passion for hunting that borders on the religious. He’s hunted the world over, and his prey have included bear, deer, elk and other animals in Northern California, Wyoming and Alaska.
At home in Chico, he’s a successful real-estate developer with an M.B.A. from Chico State and also a widely known Republican Party activist. Since taking up hunting, however, he hasn’t been home as much as before.
Hunting is popular in Butte County, as it is throughout the rural North State, and Ledgerwood has done his share of hunting in these parts. A number of years ago, he learned about trophy hunting in Africa, where tribal people accept handsome fees from Western hunters who want to stalk and kill animals such as elephants or hippos.
Passionate about hunting big game (including dangerous game) ever since his first trip to Africa in 2006, Ledgerwood has since made numerous journeys to the continent to hunt. He’s aware of the stigma some attach to hunting, but he believes what he’s doing is not only justifiable, but also a contribution to a good cause. He pays dearly for his permits, and local governments sanction his hunts, which keep animal populations under control. The meat from the hunts goes to feed hungry villagers.
Some Americans believe just as passionately that killing an animal as magnificent as an elephant—or any animal, for that matter—can never be justified. Ledgerwood points out, though, that affluent Americans have no idea what it’s like to starve or have their children eaten by a crocodile down at the river where villagers collect drinking water. Most Americans have no idea what it’s like to try to survive in the bush, where an elephant’s trampling of a maize crop can mean severe hunger, or even death.
Human beings have hunted animals for food and other uses ever since the earliest hunters forged crude spears and attacked the wooly mammoth. Men continue to enjoy roughing it on hunting trips (and, maybe, getting away from their wives) and engaging in this age-old form of male bonding—although there are women who hunt, too.
For some residents of rural areas, hunting puts meat on the table—especially valuable in these times of economic difficulties.
Big-game hunting takes that backwoods practice to another level.
Ledgerwood was matter of fact in describing his first elephant hunt. It took place in the Binga tribal area of Zimbabwe, which, he says, has a level of poverty and primitive conditions that are unimaginable to most Chicoans.
“The elephant was a very different hunt,” he said. For starters, he and his scouts and trackers (who are always tribal men), along with the required professional hunter (who is always of Dutch or German descent), walked the bush for eight days before they finally came across the elephant they wanted to take.
This elephant had been raiding the crops of villagers who live a subsistence lifestyle in mud huts next to maize fields cultivated by women. The tribe is so distant from modern society that its men still consider women chattel, daughters are sold into marriage for the price of two goats and two cows, and people go to witch doctors to have curses placed on their enemies.
“The elephant was an older male, very aggressive,” Ledgerwood said. “In the end, it was very exciting when he charged us.” He took the animal down with a couple of well-placed shots.
What happened next fascinated him.
“When we harvested the animal, everybody from the nearest village showed up—within 15 minutes or less—and got in line. The trackers had big sticks in their hands, and they organized the villagers according to need. Everybody got a portion of the meat.”
Within two hours, he said, the elephant was completely gone. Africans eat everything, including all of the innards—nothing is wasted. People in the bush continually live on the edge of starvation, and an elephant kill means protein to them.
Zimbabwe has about 70,000 elephants on land that biologists estimate has a carrying capacity of 30,000, Ledgerwood pointed out. As a result, its National Park Service has put a culling program in place. Local people are prohibited from trading ivory, so the ivory from Ledgerwood’s kill went to the Zimbabwean government.
“If it weren’t for controlled hunting and tribal ownership of the animals,” Ledgerwood maintained, “all of the animals would have disappeared from Africa a long time ago—killed off by poachers. Everybody in rural Africa is hungry—they see the animals as food.”
Retired Butte County Sheriff Mick Grey is a long-time friend of Ledgerwood’s. The two have spent many a crisp autumn day hunting pheasant together.
In all the years he’s known Ledgerwood, Grey said, he’s never seen him angry. “He has a great sense of humor, and he finds humor in things most people have a hard time laughing about.”
Yes, Grey added, his hunting pal is quite the political animal—he’s worked hard on the election campaigns of many North State Republican candidates. But he has fun doing so and just laughs at clashes between the right and the left, while others get riled up.
Grey met Ledgerwood about 15 years ago, at a morning coffee group downtown that now meets at Bidwell Perk. He and another friend, Dr. Mike Ricci, accompanied Ledgerwood to a small village in Argentina a few years ago to hunt doves and pigeons. Ledgerwood enjoyed not only the Argentineans, Grey said, but their food and hospitality as well.
“He loved sitting by the campfire at night with his cigar and his glass of wine, talking,” Grey said. “He loves to talk and can hold his own in any conversation.”
There’s an art to killing an elephant—it isn’t accomplished easily. Ledgerwood said there’s “a pageantry” to being on a hunt in Africa—it’s like a scene from the movie Out of Africa.
Generally, a kill comes only after much difficult stalking, which means walking for miles every day over varying terrain, following up on lots of different animals. Ledgerwood depends on his trackers, locals who can determine minute and amazing details about an animal’s location and activities. Sometimes he and his trackers will come up to a lake or a river and see crocodiles or hippos on the side, lazing in the sun.
“There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in [the hunt] because it’s difficult to do, and I know it’s going to a good cause. You don’t see any fat people in Africa. When you harvest an animal like this, you know it’s probably the only protein they’ll get.”
There’s much more to hunting than the kill, he writes in a follow-up e-mail message. “I like everything about it. I like getting up before the sun rises, the smell of the crisp cold morning air, the excitement of travel, the exertion and physical effort, the dust and heat of a barren landscape.”
Hunting takes him places few people go to, he says, and gives him experiences few people have had. “I like the pure beauty of a truly savage land, and I like walking into thick bush where you do not know what is on the other side. I like the danger and excitement.”
How does he feel about the killing? “I sometimes feel sadness,” he writes, “but this sadness is mitigated by the fact that with the passing of this old animal many will benefit.” Besides the meat to eat, they will profit from the income generated by the hunt’s employment. And he knows that his hunting helps ensure the sustainability of a species.
Westerners don’t really understand the remote bush areas where he hunts, Ledgerwood said. “You have no idea what poor is. It’s so primitive that people are basically at war with their environment.”
In rural Zimbabwe, the primary food is sadza, a corn meal made from maize. If the maize crop fails or is leveled by marauding hippos, the villagers starve. “If it were up to them, they would kill all the animals,” he said.
Hunting is a win-win for the tribe, he said: It gets both the trophy fee and the meat. The money is used for schools, grain purchases, and other much-needed items.
There used to be more poaching, Ledgerwood said, but not as much since trophy hunting was instituted. Now the tribes have their own anti-poaching patrols.
“The advantage is that the elephant goes from a crop-raider to an asset. They view the animal as a resource, and now that the villagers own the elephants, they want to preserve them. If poachers come into the area, they get ratted out and shot.”
Trophy hunting also provides much-needed employment for scouts, trackers, skinners, and hunting camp personnel, in countries where the unemployment rate is 95 percent in some areas. If there were no hunting in these areas, Ledgerwood said, there would be no currency, and with no currency the people would quickly revert to poaching. “The hunting industry is an economic engine that gets down to the poorest of the people.”
Grey said that during pheasant season, he and Ledgerwood run their dogs probably two times a week, either out by Corning or at one of the hunting clubs by Ord Ferry. “He doesn’t care if he gets a bird,” Grey explained. “He just loves to get out and work the dogs.”
Although he hasn’t accompanied Ledgerwood to Africa yet, Grey said he’d love to go there. Last June, when he took Ledgerwood to the airport to begin the long journey to Zimbabwe, Grey was surprised to see the traveling hunter with considerable baggage.
Ledgerwood didn’t explain the baggage until the airport check-in personnel questioned him about it. He then pulled out a document showing he had medical supplies he was delivering for Project Save in Chico to a remote medical clinic. Grey said that was just like Ledgerwood, to quietly go about the good things he does. Ledgerwood opened the bags and showed everything to the airport officials—antibiotics, bandages, and more—and they waived the hefty extra fee they’d been talking about charging him.
Grey has heard many a hunting tale from Ledgerwood over the years, but he said one in particular sticks in his mind. “It was a big male lion, in Zimbabwe,” he explained, “and it charged him. A lot of people would have run, but he stood his ground and took the animal.”
He mentioned another notable kill—a man-eating crocodile. “That croc had been killing kids, and when Jim shot it, they found fishing nets and personal belongings in its belly,” Grey explained.
Not everyone, of course, thinks hunting is a positive activity—in fact, some people vehemently oppose it. Meredith Turner, the media-relations person for New York-based Farm Sanctuary, which owns and operates a sanctuary farm just west of Orland, made that clear.
Farm Sanctuary focuses on farm animals, Turner said, but she did not hesitate to speak by telephone interview about its stance on hunting: “As an organization, we do not condone the hunting or killing of animals for any purpose.”
Turner said hunters’ claims that hunting keeps animal populations in check is simply a rationalization. “No one is in danger of deer running amok—[the idea that hunting controls animal populations] is a popular myth perpetuated by people who enjoy killing animals.” Turner said “incredible cruelties” are inflicted on farm and wild animals alike, but that people are “waking up.”
Gene Baur, founder of Farm Sanctuary, echoed Turner’s sentiments. Author of the best-selling Changing Minds About Animals and Food, Baur said that at Farm Sanctuary’s Orland farm, as well as at its upstate New York farm, hunting season gives his staff a lot of extra work, as they encounter many problems with hunters.
“We’ve had bullets ringing off the barn at the Orland farm,” he said, and they’ve had to deal with hunters who shoot errantly onto their land, act belligerently, and trespass.
Baur said there’s evidence that humans can live well without killing other animals, and that when herds do get out of balance, it’s largely due to human activity. “Hunting is not a sustainable solution—not in the long term,” he said.
Baur concurred with Turner that there’s simply no justification for killing other species. “Killing animals is never the answer.”
Bill Connelly, a Butte County supervisor from Oroville, first met Jim Ledgerwood in the political arena. A few years ago, he accompanied his friend on a trip to Africa, where they hunted various animals, including a lion. “He’s a good sportsman and very easy to get along with—he’s really a gentleman in all things,” Connelly said.
Not all of Ledgerwood’s friends are fellow hunters, however. Former Blue Angel and retired Navy Capt. Vance Parker joined the Bidwell Perk coffee group a few years ago. There he and Ledgerwood found a common bond in their military backgrounds (Ledgerwood was a major in the Air Force). Since then, the two have hiked, snow-shoed, golfed, and taken trips together. “He’s a great friend—a really honest, ethical guy,” Parker said.
Parker noted Ledgerwood wasn’t raised in the hunting lifestyle—his dad was a banker, a highly respected businessman who liked to golf. Ledgerwood found hunting in his adult life and has chosen to learn it well. “Jim’s not a dilettante hunter—he’s very serious about what he does.” Ledgerwood went to a special school in Texas, Parker explained, to learn to hunt dangerous game. “He wanted to know what he was doing.”
Outside of the duck blinds or the forested hillside, hunters tend to meet up at hunt shops. David Ebright, one of the owners of The Sportsman’s Den on East 20th Street in Chico, sees a steady stream of hunters who invade the shop in search of ammo, camos, rifles and other necessities. Several breezed through as Ebright talked, and he intermittently paused the interview to banter with hunters about getting into the duck blinds at dawn and listen to them grouse about licensing fees.
Ledgerwood, not surprisingly, is no stranger to The Sportsman’s Den. Several photographs on the store’s bulletin board show him with one trophy animal or another, including the mammoth crocodile he shot in Africa.
Like other hunters, Ebright, who was raised hunting and fishing in the North State, said if it weren’t for hunters there wouldn’t be any animals. “Controlled hunting is a necessity—if we didn’t have it, there would be so much uncontrolled hunting.”
Hunters are environmentalists, Ebright said. He cited organizations such as Ducks Unlimited (DU) and the California Waterfowl Association (CWA), which contribute much toward wildlife conservation, particularly by purchasing old farms and ranches and turning them into waterfowl refuges. “Jim has been active in both groups, a good contributor,” he added.
Without controlled hunting, he said, there would be an overpopulation of animals, poachers would proliferate, diseases would wipe out herds, and the black market for selling game would explode. “It would be just like what the white man did to the buffalo.”
Ebright lauded the state Department of Fish and Game, saying the revenue received from licenses is spent on habitat restoration and conservation research and programs.
Hunters do not advocate the wanton killing of animals, Ebright stressed, as he rang up the purchase of a duck-hunting license. “If you shoot something, you eat it.”
True hunters, he said, do not allow any game to go to waste, but there are “rotten apples” in anything, and some people fall short of that ideal. He believes, however, that most hunters take care of their game. He said he’s always felt that back when people were living off the land everything was kept in check. “We are part of the system—we are at the top of the food chain. We have to be counted as part of the system.”
One of Ebright’s hunting buddies strolled in while Ebright was talking, and he agreed the best part of the hunt was “just being out there at daybreak seeing the ducks fly up—and it’s a bonus if you get one.”
Like Farm Sanctuary, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) advocates against hunting. Assistant Director Kirstie Phelps, at PETA’s Oakland-based development office, said generally speaking PETA’s position is that hunting is cruel, it breeds insensitivity to the suffering of other species, and it can disturb animal populations and damage ecosystems as well.
“The contention by hunters that they’re helping to regulate an animal population is incorrect,” Phelps said, “because if left alone, animal populations will regulate their own numbers based on many factors, such as predator-prey relations and available food and habitat.”
Hunters’ contention that they kill animals because they might otherwise get sick or starve is just a senseless excuse for slaughtering them, she said. Hunting can over-stimulate animal populations by encouraging breeding and exterminating natural predators.
Agencies such as the Department of Fish and Game, Phelps said, exist primarily to sell hunting licenses so they can propagate species—“so there’s a steady supply of animals for hunters to go blow up.”
Hunters truly concerned about wildlife, she said, would donate money to conservation and anti-poaching efforts without expecting a dead body to put on their wall as a trophy. She cited an organization, Care for the Wildlife International, whose scientists claim culling is not a good way to manage elephant herds and that elephants are not a threat to biodiversity. This organization has a number of suggestions for humane, sensible alternatives to animal kills, she said.
Not many people feel compelled to go to Africa to hunt dangerous game, and some of the Westerners who do go each year get killed—a fair number by elephants.
What is the draw for Ledgerwood? “I like a challenge! Do I get scared? Yeah, but I like the challenge,” he said, noting it’s difficult to explain to people who don’t hunt.
Dangerous game animals can kill you, he said, so it’s exciting to hunt them. “If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you have no business being there. If you miss a shot—it could be your last shot.”