News story

Safari Club brings the largest convention in Reno history

Norman Schwarzkopf is expected to be on hand for this year’s Safari Club convention.

Norman Schwarzkopf is expected to be on hand for this year’s Safari Club convention.

Photo by Peter Hutchin

Some of the world’s deadliest and richest big-game hunters will descend on Reno for the annual Safari Club International convention next week. It is expected to be the largest convention ever hosted in Reno.

The four-day show, which begins Jan. 29, will also mean a return to Reno for such luminaries as former President George Bush, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and legendary flier Chuck Yeager, event organizers say.

For the last two years, Las Vegas hosted the hunting club’s convention, while Reno Convention Center construction was underway. The temporary move to Vegas was little appreciated by many of the club’s members.

Jan Botha, a renowned hunter, guide and regular SCI show attendee, said he’s excited about the return to Reno. Botha was not impressed with last year’s venue.

“It will be great to be back in Reno,” Botha said, taking a break from preparation for a five-day guiding trip. “The more time I spent at last year’s Las Vegas show, the more uncomfortable I felt. It was like a jungle to me.”

The 43-year-old, South African ex-rugby player spends much of his time in the wilds of Tanzania and Botswana, hunting some of the fiercest animals on the African continent. Still, he says, he’d rather face an out-of-control water buffalo than cope with Las Vegas drivers.

“The buffalo is reasonably predictable in his behavior, which is more than I can say about Las Vegas motorists,” he said. “At least Reno motorists give you a fighting chance.”

Botha’s delight in returning to Reno is shared by many of the hunting enthusiasts gathering for the 31st annual convention, which is expected to be bigger than last year’s record-breaking show in Vegas, with an estimated 15,000 attendees and more than 1,000 exhibitors.

As exclusive as the Safari Club is, Northern Nevada residents have the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the greatest hunters and adventurers alive today—but at a price.

The non-local public can join SCI for $55 a year, a membership that puts them into a club in which almost half of the 34,000 members have annual incomes in excess of $100,000. Entry to the Reno show, however, requires liberation of a few more dollars. A one-day door pass is $125, a two-day pass is $200 and a three- or four-day pass a princely $300.

Northern Nevada residents, though, get a special deal. Locals who want to visit the show are being offered a special “Sportsman’s Advocacy Membership” for $30 that will allow them to attend on Feb. 1.

“It is our way of attracting Nevada residents to the show and saying ‘Thank you’ to them for their support over the years,” said Jim Brown, public relations director for the Tucson-based SCI.

Once inside the 700,000 square feet of exhibition space, first-time visitors will likely be shocked by the show’s sheer enormity.

SCI Director of Conventions Tom Stevenson says exhibitors are expected to show products valued at more than $50 million on the floor during the four days.

“It is difficult to put a monetary figure on the merchandise, but you just have to take into consideration that the items up for auction this year are worth nearly $6 million alone,” Stevenson said.

“High Society,” a painting by renowned animal artist Craig Bone valued at $105,000, and another by Eric Forlee, a Chinese artist who spent six years in a Chinese labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, are among the donated items to be auctioned. Forlee’s painting of two bull elephants is valued at $51,000. Also, firearms manufacturer John Rigby has donated a 20-gauge, 3-inch, side-by-side rifle valued at $56,000.

This is a convention like few other conventions held in the United States—or anywhere else for that matter.

“The product on show here is very specific to the hunting industry,” Stevenson said. “We all know that hunting is a cost-intensive sport, so the product is going to reflect that. It is not uncommon to have rifles on sale worth many thousands of dollars.”

It is the taxidermy, however, that leaves first-time visitors frozen, with dropped jaws and glassy eyes. On display at the convention are some of the finest stuffed animals in the world.

SCI is not just about guns, art and dead animals. The annual convention, and the organization itself, reaches beyond the realm of hunting.

“SCI is as much a forum for political thought and lobbying as it is an organization for protecting endangered species and much needed worldwide conservation,” said Gary Bogner, the group’s president.

With members in more than 40 counties and all 50 states, it’s particularly influential in North America and Africa, where the organization’s stand against poaching has bought it considerable international attention.

SCI’s political weight is evinced by the fact that more than a dozen United States senators and congressmen are expected to attend the Reno convention—some of whom were financially supported by the organization during the recent elections.

While an obvious target for animal lovers, SCI has never been a major target of animal-rights activists in its 31-year convention history. Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is suing the California Milk Advisory Board for its Happy Cows advertising campaign, has never taken much of an interest in the hunters group, organizers say.