What's considered big game?

By: Maria Trimarchi
Much of the appeal of hunting big game like wild boar comes from the risk and thrill of hunting large animals.
Tomas Hudcovic/isifa/Getty Images

Although shot by Vi­ce President Dick Cheney during a weekend hunting expedition, campaign contributor Harry Whittington is not big game. Rather, big game refers to large, wild animals that are hunted for sport, and the catalog depends upon where you're hunting.

In the United States, big game includes moose, elks, caribou, reindeer, musk oxen, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, pronghorn, bears and peccaries (also known as javelinas, a type of wild boar). However, individual states can classify any other species within their state boundaries as big game, and since habitats vary around the country, lists vary from state to state. Let's look at a few examples. Arizona considers Coues deer, mule deer, buffalo, Arizona turkeys, pronghorn antelope, javelinas, elks, black bears, mountain lions, big horn sheep and bobcats to be big game within its state boundaries. West Virginians, by contrast, hunt for black bears, deer, wild turkeys and boar. Some states classify wolves and even alligators.


What's considered big game changes outside of the United States, and one of the most popular big game hunting locales is South Africa. African big game hunting safaris allow hunters to pursue a long list of species, including some that are perhaps unfamiliar: wildebeest, blesbok, cheetahs, giraffes, impala, kudu, tigers, warthogs and zebras, among others. Additionally, Africa has its "big five," the most notoriously difficult species to hunt there: lions, African elephants, Cape buffalo, leopards and rhinoceri.

Big game hunting is big business. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 12.5 million people 16 years old and older hunt within the United States, about 10.7 million of them hunting big game [source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]. The industry is also booming in South Africa where about $280 million is generated annually [source: Tsui]. Let's hunt down more information about how and where big game hunting happens, next.


Big Game Hunting

The author Ernest Hemingway was famous for hunting big game. He posed for the cover of Picture Post with a dead leopard.
Earl Theisen/Picture Post/IPC Magazines/Getty Images

Just as the list of big game varies from place to place, so do the regulations and permits for huntin­g. Big game hunting in the United States is done on public and privately owned wilderness hunting regions during a specific time frame called open season, with or without a professional hunter as a guide. Each state determines when and where hunting is allowed, as well as who is able to hunt -- states impose age limits and kill limits (known as tag limits), place residency restrictions on hunters and restrict the total number of permits issued. They also regulate the hunting season to specific times of day and months of the year. Nebraska, for example, issues different types of big game hunting permits to residents, resident landowners and nonresidents. All hunters must wear hunter orange clothing for safety, and hunters as young as 12 years old are eligible to hunt some types of big game when accompanied by an adult -- there's no age limit for turkey hunting.

Choosing the right weapon depends on where you're hunting, what you're hunting and what you're comfortable firing. Local governments designate legally acceptable weapons for killing animals on the big game list, including archery rules and caliber types for firearms (shotguns, rifles, semi-automatics and muzzleloading rifles). Bigger isn't always better when it comes to guns, and in many instances, it's not the weapon used but where the animal is hit that brings it down. Regardless of the weapon, hunters must obey local firearms laws -- which vary from state to state.


Hunting big game in Africa is a different experience from U.S. hunting. Tourists accompany professional hunters on safaris that include amenities such as meals, lodging, transportation, tracking and field-guide services, hunting licenses and field trophies.

In a report of the 2003-2004 season, 6,700 tourists in Africa killed nearly 54,000 animals [source: Mkhamba Safaris].

Controversial in both Africa and in the United States are canned hunts and trophy hunts, where hunters pay big bucks for the privilege of killing rare or exotic animals on private hunting reserves. Canned hunts guarantee kills because they typically take place on small, enclosed lands. Trophy hunters compete for the prestige of killing rare animals and often sell hides, tusks, body parts and bodies to interested parties, including museums. The controversy is with both hunters and with animal rights activists. The latter are opposed to shooting animals within small enclosures; the former oppose hunts that don't involve a fair chase. There are no laws against canned hunting other than those imposed by local governments.

To learn more about hunting and fishing, please see the next page.


Lots More Information

Relat­ed­ HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "§ 25.12 What do these terms mean? Chapter 1: United States Fish & Wildlife Service, Part 25 - Administrative Provisions." Code of Federal Regulations. Justia.http://law.justia.com/us/cfr/title50/50-
  • "Big Game Hunting Guide." Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. State of Nebraska. http://www.ngpc.state.ne.us/hunting/guides/biggame/biggame.asp
  • Bush, Dana. ""Cheney accidentally shoots fellow hunter." CNN. 2006.http://www.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/02/12/cheney/
  • "Cheney's Canned Kill, and Other Hunting Excesses of the Bush Administration." The Humane Society of the United States.http://www.hsus.org/legislation_laws/wayne_pacelle_the_animal_advocate/cheneys_canned_kill_and_other_hunting_excesses_of_the_bush_administration.html
  • DeWitt, Robert. "ROBERT DeWITT: Gambril darts rhino to complete Africa's 'Big Five'." The Tuscaloosa News. 2008.http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/article/20081116/NEWS/811150287
  • "Hunting News & Information: Big Game in Alphabetical Order." BigGameHunt.net. http://www.biggamehunt.net/biggame.html
  • "Hunting South Africa." Mkhamba Safaris.http://www.africanhuntingsafaris.net/hunting-south-africa.html
  • "Stop Canned Hunts." The Humane Society of the United States.http://www.hsus.org/wildlife/stop_canned_hunts/
  • ­Tsui, Bonnie. "Trophies in a Barrel: Examining 'Canned Hunting'." The New York Times. 2006. http://travel.nytimes.com/2006/04/09/travel/09heads.html
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "Hunting Statistics and Economics." 2008.http://www.fws.gov/hunting/huntstat.html
  • Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Big Game Hunting Auction and Raffle Program." 2008. http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/hunter/auction_summary.htm
  • West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. "Definitions of Terms Used 2008-2009 Hunting Regulation." 2008.http://www.wvdnr.gov/Regulations/hunting_genregsdefinitions.shtm