After U.S. waterfowl seasons have I closed, where does a hunter go to shoot all the ducks he can point a gun at, with no limit, no license and no likelihood of apprehension? The answer is simple: he goes south, to Mexico, where millions of ducks winter each year and where, for a price, most rules protecting them can be waived.
There is, of course, a legal waterfowl hunting season in Mexico. It is a long season running from Nov. 1 to the end of March. There are also liberal legal bag limits—10 ducks per weekday, 20 a day on weekends. As for licenses, they are hard to get, but they do exist, and a hunter armed with pesos, patience and passport pictures can eventually find one. He may never have to show it, but it makes a good souvenir.
One would think the long season and liberal limits would produce enough shooting to keep most hunters in Mexico honest. The majority in fact are, but invariably they are forced to share the blame with game hogs who work hard at spoiling the sport of hunting for everyone.
Commercial hunters used to be the culprits, but this has changed in the last few years, thanks to the protests of conservationists on both sides of the border, who finally succeeded in cutting back market hunting by cutting back the market for the birds. Persuading the owners of restaurants not to serve game birds, and therefore not to buy them from native hunters, took a lot of selling and a lot of shouting on the part of U.S. hunters who were outraged at the idea of their birds being slaughtered like so much poultry.
Technically, of course, the birds belong to the U.S. no more than to Mexico or Canada, since all three countries contribute substantially to their existence. But we have always had a tendency to nationalize the waterfowl that pass within our borders. As a result, the U.S. press has repeatedly criticized the Mexican government, Mexican game laws and, most severely, Mexican hunters, for killing birds it claims belong to the U.S. Such criticism has not tended to improve international relations or the tempers of already beleaguered Mexican authorities who struggle against overwhelming odds to make any kind of game-management program work. Nor does it help solve the underlying causes of excessive waterfowl killing in Mexico.
To begin with, one must understand the fundamental differences between American and Mexican attitudes toward game. To the average American the duck he shoots is a reward of his sport; to the average Mexican, who cannot afford the luxury of sport, it is meat on the table.
This is difficult for most Americans to appreciate. In our society there is no necessity to hunt in order to provide food. Hunting is sport. More than 15 million Americans, representing every social and economic level in the U.S., hunt each year for recreation. Starting at an early age, these hunters are educated to the multiple values of wildlife and to protecting and propagating it for future generations. All hunters contribute financially toward this goal through taxes on sporting arms and ammunition, which are then funneled directly into wildlife management. Many belong to clubs and organizations dedicated to conserving game.
The situation is quite different south of the border. Although a Mexican branch of Ducks Unlimited was formed two years ago, there are few clubs, no public conservation-education programs and neither funds nor personnel to implement game management. There are some Mexicans with sufficient money and leisure to hunt for sport, but they are few and they have little influence upon hunting habits.
The average Mexican is poor, and when winter comes and great concentrations of plump waterfowl flock into his area, no sportsman, club or treaty on earth will convince him that these birds were not put there for his pot. And there is no real reason why the hungry native should not shoot them for this purpose. But this rationale no longer applies when the kill exceeds the demands of the hunter's own table.
If the waterfowl watchdogs in our country were once outraged at Mexican market hunters, they are even more so today at Mexican guides who promote out-of-season, limitless, licenseless duck shoots for a fee. This further "abuse of American waterfowl" for commercial gain has launched new and vigorous criticism of Mexican hunting practices.
There is no question that illegal waterfowl shooting does occur in Mexico. During the legal season the most frequent game-law violation is overshooting the daily bag limit. Most of the guides who take out recreational hunters do not understand the philosophy behind limiting the number of birds that may be shot, for there are thousands in the area. But they do recognize the practicality of looking the other way when a client decides to down more than his share.
The Club de Patos in Yucatàn, which operates five-day duck and quail shoots for Americans in conjunction with Winchester Adventures, ran into the problem of clients overshooting when it first began operating. The club's owners finally gathered their native guides together and gave them an ultimatum: stick to limits, don't accept bribes—or no more job.
Other common in-season violations involve hunting without a license, baiting, illegally moving birds by means of air-boats, automobiles, firecracker charges and speedboats, and muzzle-loader ambushes. The abundance of food and the bluebird days of Mexican winter make some stirring up of the birds necessary if a hunter is going to get any shots at all, since most ducks are reluctant to fly when they can feed and rest all day. It is perfectly legal to stir up birds by poling or paddling through lagoons or circling a pond or marsh on foot. But when gentle stirring is transformed into a mechanized military attack, it definitely ceases to be legal.
The handful of private shooting clubs such as Club de Patos that operate in Mexico abide fairly closely by all the rules. The majority of hunting guides in Mexico, however, are independent. They operate out of hotels, airports or the backs of VW buses, and they are seldom investigated by anyone. These guides do not ponder the philosophy of game laws—not when there are people willing to pay for the services they can provide.
Illegal hunting in Mexico is remarkably open. One day this April, for example, it was possible to walk into several large hotels in Mazatlàn and, through the travel agents there, set up a waterfowl hunt for the next day. The season was closed, but not one of the many agents queried mentioned the fact. Nor did any of them ask for the information and passport pictures that would be required to obtain a license.
The best-known guides in Mazatlàn are the Aviles brothers, who also rent cars, fishing boats and water skis and run jaguar-hunting safaris. If they have any worry about being apprehended for guiding hunts out of season, it is certainly not evident at their small shop on the main street of Mazatlàn. Signs outside proclaim "plenty of pintail, mallard, green-and blue-winged teal, blue-bill, pichichin (big Mexican duck) and shoveler."
There is no mention of season or limit, but it is noted that "transportation, licenses and English-speaking guide" are included in the $50 price for a half-day hunt. People who have hunted with them cannot recall ever seeing a license or even an application for one. For $5 more a hunter can rent a pump, automatic or double-barreled shotgun. Most guides charge only for the ammunition used. If a client chooses to shoot several hundred shells at that many birds, no one will stop him—not the guide, of course; not the police, who depend upon the guide for part of their living; not the hotels, which depend upon the guide to keep the tourist happy. "It is the way here in Mexico," says one guide. "Everyone helps everyone else." Everyone is happy, except the ducks, who have a hard time of it.
And so another demand is supplied. To the guide the illegal hunt is nothing more than an economic reality, a fact of life he long ago accepted. He sees himself not as a criminal, but merely a small businessman working within the system. He tries to make a living.
If the system is corrupt, one must look to the source of the corruption. One must look, painful though it may be, to the American game hogs who finance and foster this corruption for their personal pleasure. They do not by any means represent the vast majority of American sportsmen nor should they be classed with them, but their actions reflect upon all hunters everywhere.
The worst offenders are Southwesterners, who fly into Mexico in private planes for weekend shoots. They come equipped with thick wallets, unlimited ammunition and plenty of whiskey. They often bypass the cities, landing at remote strips near Los Mochis or Culiacàn or Eldorado, where they are met by guides who take them directly to the shooting areas. These are some of the finest waterfowl wintering grounds in the world, and birds concentrate in the rich grainfields in astronomical numbers. Many of these weekend shooting parties have been known to average 300 birds a gun.
Since an American can legally take home only 10 birds, that leaves quite a few extras. Most are grabbed up by local people, but when the shoot takes place miles from the nearest community, as it usually does with private-plane hunters, heat and humidity often get to the birds before the natives. Large mounds of decaying birds have been found after such weekend shoots. This is an appalling waste of a valuable natural resource, and a grave indictment of American hunters.
The privileged fly-in shooter is not the only offender. Every tourist who books an illegal hunt through his hotel or travel agent is also guilty, even if he claims ignorance of the game laws he is violating. In Mexico, as in his own home state, it is the responsibility of the hunter to know the rules and to respect them.
It is also the hunter, and only the hunter, who can eventually put an end to illegal waterfowl shooting in Mexico. As long as Americans continue to create a demand for illegal shooting in that country, there will always be Mexicans happy to oblige them. It is time U.S. critics of Mexican waterfowl shooting faced facts and took a new look at an old complaint.