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Qualifying as a Professional Guide in Zimbabwe

Advice from the Zimbabwean Professional Guides Association

What are the characteristics of a Professional Guide1?

First and foremost, a professional guide displays confidence, competence, knowledgeability and passion, providing clients with entertainment whilst disseminating accurate information and keeping them safe and comfortable.

A professional guide’s job description should be enough to put off almost anyone.

A guide has to be:

  • Young, extremely active and up for a physically hugely demanding lifestyle;
  • Single (or have an incredibly understanding family back at home that is content not to see you for many weeks on end);
  • Content to spend the bulk of their time in remote rural areas;
  • Content with low and infrequent pay, often highly seasonal;
  • Content with no medical, dental or life insurance and no retirement benefits;
  • Expert in people skills, dealing patiently and positively with the mental, emotional and physical demands of clients who are not experienced in the rigours of the African bush and are relying on you to give them the (positive) experience of a life time;
  • Sociable and a skilled storyteller and teacher without liver trouble, well-grounded in philosophy and in African history;
  • Unflappable in potentially life-threatening situations and with an excellent working knowledge of 1st Aid, medicine, toxicology and pharmacology;
  • Expert in bartending, catering, butchering and braaiing, capable of producing a succession of high-quality meals under extremely difficult conditions;
  • Experienced in plumbing, electrics, boreholes, solar systems, carpentry and building, so as to be able to physically hold together a camp deep in the bush;
  • An expert on botany, zoology, ichthyology, mineralogy, entomology, geology and climatology;
  • An expert on mechanics and off-road driving, wayfinding, navigation and radio operation;
  • An expert on gunsmithing, ballistics, tracking, marksmanship and hand loading, taxidermy, optics and photography;
  • Experienced as a professional bodyguard; 
  • Experienced in labour relations and able to keep a team together deep in the bush, under difficult circumstances;
  • Able to speak at least three languages, preferably one of them African and one other modern European tongue apart from English;
  • Able to supply weapons, and vehicles (or hire them on a per diem basis).

Does it seem that we are trying to put people off from attempting to becoming a Professional Hunter/Guide? That is not the case. It is important, however, that when you start out in the profession you understand what you are getting yourself into. In short, if you are not deeply passionate about being a Professional Guide/Hunter then being in the field is not for you.

There are some questions commonly asked by people who are venturing into the field, such as:

  • “How do I proceed into this industry?”
  • “What do I need in order to write my learners exam?”
  • “What do l need to accomplish before attending the proficiency exam?”
  • “How long will it take?”

Outline of the steps towards qualification as a Professional Guide or Hunter.

STEP 1First Aid Certification

The first step in this lengthy process involves obtaining a valid First Aid Certificate. First Aid knowledge is a vital part of the industry, given the risks and danger involved on safari This knowledge will be tested further along the qualification process, both in the oral interviews and on the proficiency exam later on. So, it is vital to be conversant with basic First Aid.

You will be required to sign up at any of the well-known First Aid providers, such as A.C.E. Air and Ambulance, M.A.R.S., E.M.R.A.S, St Johns, Red Cross and so on. (You can do this certification whilst at school too.)

Courses range from two to five days, and certification is usually valid for a period of two years. (N.B. National Parks are no longer accepting one day courses as valid, or courses for nurse aids.) Most of the providers undertake refresher courses for those whose certificates have expired and who wish them to be renewed. These can last from a morning up to two days, depending on the company.

STEP 2The Learner’s License

Whether you wish to pursue a career as a Walking Guide, a Hunting Guide or a Canoe Guide you will be required to pass what is known as the Learners Professional Hunters (L.P.H.) License, which is a license issued by the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

The requirements to sit for the learners exams are as follows:

a) A valid First Aid Certificate, (as obtained in STEP 1)

b) Your identification, whether it be National Identity Card, passport or drivers’ license. N.B. You must be a Zimbabwean resident to write the exam.

c) Your receipt from National Parks to prove you have paid for the examination

The exam consists of four papers including Law, Habits and Habitat, Firearms and a General Paper. You can also write an additional Canoeing paper if you are preparing to become a Canoeing Guide.

For the Law paper you will be expected to be fully acquainted with the Parks and Wildlife Act, 1975, and the amendments accompanying it as well as a number of other pieces of legislation concerned with things like trapping, tourist accommodation, and the import and export of trophies. You are expected to be able to understand the specific meaning of terms used in the legislation as well as respond appropriately to hypothetical cases presented in the paper.

The Firearms Act, and sound knowledge of firearms, weapons handling, ballistics and so on, form the basis of the Firearms paper. Further information on ballistics, definitions etc. can be obtained from Ballistics in Perspective by Mike La Grange, and other related publications. There is also an emphasis on firearm safety.

Habits and Habitats is a paper which is hard to specifically learn for because it is so vast in its scope. A wide range of questions may be asked on any part of the bush and the wildlife and their habits – trees, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, the topics are endless. Start trying to absorb everything you can get your hands on, read widely, research on-line, get into the bush, ask questions. Study books like Beat about the Bush, Game Ranger in your Backpack, Snakes by John Marais. Check out the various birding apps, e.g. by Sasol etc.

The General Paper will contain questions on any other topics which can in any way be related to the industry. Study current events, when was the last CITES meeting, what was decided there and suchlike. Study the IUCN, the Red Data Book, who are the relevant ministers governing the industry, who is the Director General of National Parks, and so on. It can all make into the General Paper.

For your information, Study Packs may be obtained from the Z.P.G.A. offices, in Bulawayo, Victoria Falls and Harare. These contain most of the information you will need to know but studying other reference materials and receiving tuition is also recommended.

The L.P.H. Exams are held twice a year, in February and September and alternate between Harare and Bulawayo. At present the cost is $50USD or the equivalent per paper.

Once you have passed your L.P.H. Licence it is valid for one year and the holder will be required to renew it annually. This renewal application requires the presentation of the last year’s licence and receipt as well as a letter from one’s tutor for the preceding year.

With a Learner’s Licence you are permitted to do the following (printed out on your Learner’s Licence.

STEP 3Apprenticeship

This is a tricky stage for many holders of L.P.H. licence. They need to find a tutor who will take them on as an apprentice – and these positions are not plentiful. Furthermore, it is important to find yourself an apprenticeship position with a recognised, reputable safari company.

Who you decide to work for can make or break you because it is just as easy to learn the wrong way as the right way, and it is vital that you get yourself off to the best possible start in the industry. And it is also tempting to put up with a less-than-ideal situation because you cannot see an alternative.

How can you tell a reputable outfit from one you should avoid? Keep talking to as many people as possible in the field – you will soon recognise the names of the respectable players in the field. You will also find out where L.P.H.s do not get a good deal.  Listen to the experiences of L.P.H.s who have gone before you. Were they hired by a company that only hired L.P.H.s, with no one at Professional level to tutor them? Was the tutor they were signed up with actually operating at the other end of the country and not available to tutor them? Were the L.P.H.s just being used as labour, without being given any professional mentoring? Were they treated disrespectfully, sworn at and belittled if they made a mistake? Were they charged money for the supply of the annual Tutorship letter? (You can also see whether a potential tutor is a member of the Z.P.G.A.)

There is another way to judge the respectability of a company. Are they scrupulously careful about the safety of all concerned.  Or do they have a reputation for putting the clients into uncomfortable confrontations with animals, under the guise of providing a really exciting experience? (Always remember that approaching wild animals too closely – to the point where they are in ‘fight or flight’ mode – effectively signs their death warrants because you have now put the clients and that animal’s life at risk because you can never assume you know how they will react … either the client or the animal.)

This apprenticeship lasts for a minimum of two years though is often far longer. During this time you will be required to assist in every aspect of the camp’s activities (and therefore of the guiding/hunting industry) from attending to the basic care of the clients’ needs in camp to accompanying clients on safari, tracking, hunting, skinning and butchering kills, etc

Apprentices receiving instruction

STEP 4The Shooting Proficiency Test

During the course of your apprenticeship, it is an obvious requirement that you obtain, and become proficient with, a rifle. This is a necessity. When accompanying clients, whether hunting or guiding, it is inevitable that one day you will be faced with a dangerous or even deadly situation where your weapon makes the difference between life and death.  Learning to keep clients, staff and yourself safe is the single most important part of the whole training regimen. So, buy the best and most safe rifle you are able to afford. This weapon must be of a suitable calibre (minimum .375) and is going to cost you in the region of $2000. If need be, seek financial help from your family or friends or even the company you work for. 

Here is another way in which the Z.P.G.A. can be helpful to you. You can ask a Professional to check what you are buying by way of a firearm and make sure that you are getting the best value for money and something reliable and accurate, since your life and those of others may depend on it. Many Learners have made expensive mistakes trying to buy a weapon on their own, without advice.

And then you have to make sure you are proficient with your firearm. Practise, practice and practice more. Only when you (and your tutor) are really confident of your proficiency should you attend the Shooting Proficiency tests.

Three shoots are held per year, all in Harare at the Cleveland Range, in February, May and September. It is a requirement that the shoot must be conducted in full safari gear, binoculars, ammo belt and the like included, i.e. full kit.  You will be required to furnish:

a) A valid Learners’ Licence

b) A receipt for proof of payment for the shooting test, from National Parks

Four shoots in different disciplines are held, designed to ascertain your speed, accuracy and competency:

1) Jungle lane

2) Charging lion

3) Stationery

4) Run-down

Your total scores and your times are taken and an aggregate score arrived at. The passing score for Hunting Guides is 120 and for Walking Guides is 85. A separate shoot for Canoe Guides is held the same day.

A lot of practise is needed to pass this exam. Rifle glitches, feeding problems and incompetence all become very apparent, very quickly.

STEP 5:Oral examination (Interview)

By the time you reach this interview stage, you should be well on your way to qualification. The purpose of the interviews is to ascertain the eligibility or suitability of a candidate to attend the final Proficiency testing.

The oral interviews are held twice a year, in February and September alternating between Bulawayo and Harare. Each interview lasts 30 to 45 minutes.

Requirements for interviews

a) Valid First Aid certificate

b) Logbook (obtainable from ZPGA) with proof of minimum of two years’ experience signed by your tutor or whoever authorised or accompanied you. (Any write-up not signed or vouched for will be ignored.)  All your experience needs to be logged, with your tutor’s comments on your performance. All the details must be filled therein:- for Walking Guides, your walks and approaches; for Canoe Guides, your logged hours; and for Hunting Guides approaches and harvests you were party to. Photographs must accompany the write up. (Remember that your logbook is a reflection of yourself and your professionalism, so put some effort into it.)

c) Dangerous game shot (and details recorded in your logbook) as follows:

i. Four for Walking Guide candidates including elephant and buffalo

ii. Five for the Hunting Guide candidates including elephant and buffalo or cat

d) Receipt as proof of payment for the exam fees, from National Parks

e) A valid Shooting Proficiency exam certificate

f) Tutor’s letter attesting to their confidence that you are ready to pass the proficiency exam.

As with the logbook, your appearance is a reflection of your professionalism. First impressions count so please arrive in neat clean safari gear, with a well-presented personalised logbook.

You will be questioned about your experience, your logbook, your safari administration knowledge, the Parks and Wildlife Act and other laws, fauna and flora, habits and habitat, and any other topics the panel of examiners may deem necessary.

After a brief discussion during which you will be asked to wait outside, you will be informed of the panel’s decision, whether to welcome you to undertake the Proficiency exam, or whether you need to address certain issues before proceeding. These issues will be made known to you in order that you can correct them before the next interview.

STEP 6:Proficiency Exam

If you have managed to get through the above steps and are invited to the proficiency exam itself, you have already accomplished a good deal in your career and that means that you have, at the very least, a chance of passing this final hurdle. It is no guarantee that you will pass, and in fact many still will not, but you have a chance.

The Proficiency Exam is a seven-day practical exam, held once a year, usually in the first week of November. The venue is set by the department of National Parks. It is usually held in one of the Parks and Wildlife estates, such as a Safari Area.

The Proficiency Exam week is extremely demanding. Examiners will be looking for confidence, safety awareness, planning ability, initiative, hard work and other characteristics which will be key later on when dealing with international clients. Do not simply “go with the flow” in your group. Rather aspire to be the “stand out” candidate in your group during this grueling week.

The idea of the exam is that you, the candidate, should prepare a tented camp at the designated venue and host the examiners, as if they were your clients, for the duration of the exam period. All of the tents, bedding, kitchens, ablution and laundry facilities, fridges, lights, vehicles, first aid, food, drinks and fuel must be supplied (and erected) by the candidates.

You are more than welcome, possibly even advised, to form teams. Groups of four or five candidates are the norm. Groups enable you to pool resources, to share the labours and to split the costs and the responsibilities. But between you, everything will be expected to be handled professionally. (Lone candidates are also welcome but will have to show a high degree of initiative and energy to manage everything on their own.)

The examination team consists of examiners from both the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and from Z.P.G.A.

You will be expected to host dinners for one or two of the examiners every night on a rotational basis (you will be told when, in advance) and perhaps lunches too, even though you will usually be in the bush.

You will be split into examination groups which will not be the same as your camp groups. The groups will consist of a mixture of Hunting Guide and Walking Guide candidates and there will be a Parks and a Z.P.G.A. examiner with each group.

Each examination group must have a vehicle (you may rotate this) and will be expected to cater for that day’s lunch and refreshments.

Each day you will be bombarded with a barrage of questions on all you have accomplished and learned to date. Your knowledge on trees, birds, fish, law, firearms, First Aid, safety and professionalism will be stringently tested during this intense exam period. The standards are high, so this is where your training and ability will stand out.

Camps, vehicles, first aid kits, personal gear including backpacks are all expected to be in good order, as are rifles. They will be inspected.

Each Proficiency Exam has a quota of elephant and buffalo to harvest, so the day’s tasks are to track, stalk, and approach these animals. This gives an idea of your confidence (or lack of) around dangerous animals. On shooting, your skinning and recovering will be tested.

Once it has been deemed by the examination team that each candidate has been successfully assessed the examination period is officially closed. Candidates may then begin the dismantling of the camps and leave exhausted but hopefully fulfilled.

What Does The Process Cost?

So, we already understand there is probably a 4-year apprentice program (though officially it can be done in two years) but let us explore what it costs. You may be lucky enough to get sponsored one way or another but there is still a cost.  Below are suggestions for some of the costs.

➢ Basic First Aid course US$50.00

➢ Basic pre-LPH tuition US$100.00

➢ Transport and Accommodation (Pre-exams) US$100.00

➢ LPH Exam US$200.00

➢ LPH License Fee (assuming you do it in 4 years – US$50 per year) US$200 for four years

➢ First aid course every two years (Basic) US$50, US$100 for four years

➢ First Aid kit or box US$500 per year, four years – US$2,000

➢ Rifle – US$1,500 – 3,000

➢ Ammunition, a minimum of 40 rounds shot per year, US$15 per round, US$600.00 per year, US$1,200

➢ Ammunition, a minimum of 20 rounds for shooting test, US$15 per round, US$300.00

➢ Binoculars US$200

➢ Shooting test entry fee US$50

➢ Transport and Accommodation (Pre-exams) US$100.00

➢ Oral Interview entry fee US$50

➢ Transport and Accommodation (Pre -exams) US$100.00

➢ Proficiency entry fee US$50

➢ Proficiency costs US$2, 000 when sharing with 4 people

➢ Books US$500 minimum

➢ Clothing/boots  US$500

➢ Drivers Licenses (PSV) (Re-license after 5 years)➢ Medical, yearly US$20 – US$80 for four years

➢ Personal medical insurance US$1, 440 will give you Zim’s best cover or US$5, 760 for four years

So basically, before living expenses and family support, you are looking at between 16k & 25k. If we take the lower figure of 16k that works out at 4k per year or US$334 per month that you need to find. Not an easy task and I doubt before now anyone has broken it down in this way. As mentioned earlier you may be lucky and have someone support you, maybe even give you your first pair of binoculars or your first rifle but all of these gifts have come with a cost to someone.

SUMMARY

The journey from initial First Aid course to qualification as a Professional Guide/Hunter is a lengthy and often expensive one. It can take many years and even then not everyone will make it. The dropout rate is high, and so too is the failure rate. Only the most determined and capable will make it. The quality of your training is vital and you need to endeavour to be trained by recognised, reputable companies and honest hardworking, ethical tutors. Only in this way will you achieve the high levels expected in this very demanding industry.

Once you qualify, that is not the end, but rather the beginning of your career.

The onus for safety, honesty and ethics will now fall upon your shoulders, and it will be incumbent on you, the Hunting Guide or Walking Guide, to maintain and to enhance, the truly great reputation of Zimbabwe’s safari fraternity.

Sample Professional Hunters Licence

  1. The process for becoming a Professional Hunter involves the same steps as are required of a Professional Guide. ↩︎
John Laing

Chairperson of ZPGA

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