Tom Baker's Safari
How Tom Baker’s passion for hunting put him in touch with the value of wildlife conservation, and brought elk back to Kentucky
Can someone have a passion for hunting safaris and still be dedicated to preserving wild animals?
Tom Baker thinks you can.
Baker, a Bowling Green resident and avid outdoor sportsman, has participated in more than 100 big-game safaris in North America and Africa. Each hunt requires a strict permitting procedure that can last months and even years before being approved. Since only a limited number of permits are available, an applicant can spend years on the waiting list for a permit to hunt for a specific animal in a specific location. Because the areas are so vast, in one case a million acres, there are no guarantees you’ll even see, much less shoot, what you have gone there for.
“Lots of people think a safari involves hunting endangered species,” offers Baker. “This is not the case at all. For instance, elephants and rhinos are not endangered in some parts of the world. Keep in mind that Africa is not a country, but a continent, and yes, they are endangered in some of those countries, usually as a result of civil strife. The military and rebels, too, have killed many of the animals to eliminate a food source in order to control the people.
“But there are many countries in Africa where the elephants are so abundant that they are destroying the forest. This is where the eco-system gets out of balance.”
Baker’s hunting quest has taken him on some of the most desirable hunting locations in the world. But it was an invitation from a brother-in-law back in 1984 to take part in a quota deer hunt at TVA’s Land Between The Lakes that launched Baker to hunt for something other than birds.
He had been deer hunting before, but never actually fired a shot at one, so hunting of any type was not high on his agenda.
“My dad had passed down to me his father’s 1935 Model 94 Winchester, which my grandfather had purchased in 1935,” says Baker. “That was the only gun I owned.”
The LBL experience turned out to be a life-changing event, especially after taking his first whitetail deer.
Twenty-six years later Baker has earned a statewide, as well as a national, reputation for his involvement in animal conservation and its effect on the eco-system.
As current chairman of The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation in Washington, D.C., current chairman of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, and past chairman of the board of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation based out of Missoula, Montana, Baker sees firsthand some of the nation’s efforts to implement wildlife conservation. One of the membership organizations he is most proud of is his inclusion in the Boone and Crockett Club. Founded in 1887 by Teddy Roosevelt, it is the oldest conservation group in the nation and is limited to only 100 regular (voting) members.
Kentucky is absolutely known as a hunting state. Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is instrumental in helping to fund, through licenses and fees, much of the fishing and hunting brochures distributed across the state, as well as conservation programs that protect animals and the habitat in which they live.
Thousands of highly diverse places to hunt—from the wetlands in the west, to the rolling hills in the central Bluegrass, to the mountains in the east—are available to Kentucky hunters. In other words, anywhere in Kentucky is pretty much open to hunting.
At one time, hunting was a necessity of life in order to put food on the table. And though the majority of hunters eat their kill, especially deer, hunting is classified as a sport. It is only during specific times of the year that certain animals can be hunted.
“The control of numbers and conservation of wildlife are very important, whether it’s here or anyplace else in the world,” Baker points out. “You don’t just go out and shoot something indiscriminately. There are quotas, limits on size and permits for various hunts.”
Baker’s treks have taken him to Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and all of the Rocky Mountain states in search of big game, and though he added a sizable trophy room onto his home in 2001, he is quick to point out that all of his hunts are about more than the kill.
“None of the animals are wasted,” he stresses. “The entire animal is carried out and processed for food in that area for the locals to eat. No meat can be brought into the U.S.”
Most of Baker’s hunts are about making memories, always adding to his story collection that one would expect from a worldwide traveler. And though there’s an adrenalin rush upon seeing deer or elk peek from the edge of a tree line near dusk in a Kentucky backwoods, it still may not approach the level when being charged by a huge Cape buffalo bull, or stalked by two male lions, or run out of a blind by a large black rhino.
“It’s definitely there,” he says. “But through experience, patience, and listening to your guides, it becomes part of the hunt.”
Although Baker has created a reputation for big-game hunts, his biggest legacy might very well be his involvement with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“The purpose was to establish a chapter in Kentucky,” says Baker. “I really became interested in elk and the fact that they had completely disappeared out of Kentucky.”
Baker says the elk had been hunted into extinction.
“Back then in the 1850s this was a frontier state, and because there were no game laws, the people here had eliminated all of their food supply,” he says. “The elk had gone the way of the buffalo.”
Getting involved in this conservation program, Baker soon became a driving force in restoring elk to Kentucky.
Initially there was some hesitancy on the part of the state, because it was thought elk in the East were prone to a parasite called brain worm. However, Baker and others countered that elk had been plentiful here before being overhunted.
Finally, 29 elk were trailered in from Canada and released into 750 acres at Land Between The Lakes near Golden Pond.
“Today the number is up to 75,” Baker adds. “It would be more, but that’s the number they want to keep it at because it is considered a demonstration project.”
He soon found himself fully immersed in bringing more elk back to the state.
“I was so obsessed with the elk project that for over a year I almost forgot about my regular job,” says Baker, a commercial real estate agent.
As more and more people began to visit the LBL elk reserve, it quickly became apparent they had become a tourist attraction.
Soon, Baker began to receive calls from a few people in eastern Kentucky asking if a similar thing, but on a much grander scale, could be done in their area of the state.
“Tom Baker has been a tireless advocate for free-ranging elk in Kentucky for nearly two decades,” says Commissioner Jon Gassett, Ph.D., of Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “In the mid-90s he joined forces with commission member Doug Hensley, raised public support to restore the elk to eastern Kentucky, and convinced the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to donate $940,000 to fund the effort.”
Baker’s fund-raising on behalf of the Kentucky elk population has brought in approximately $2.4 million to date.
So on a cold day in December 1997, with more than 4,500 people looking on, seven elk imported from Kansas were released in Knott County in what was the first of several preplanned stages.
In the beginning the goal was 1,700 elk on more than 3 million acres in 20 years, according to Baker.
“That’s larger than Yellowstone National Park,” he points out. “And Yellowstone has over 30,000 elk on a million less acres.”
Today there are an estimated 10,000-12,000 elk roaming some 16 eastern Kentucky counties, covering a total of 4 million acres, and Baker says it is estimated the elk project brings in more than $23 million a year in tourism revenue.
“In 2009, more than 46,000 hunters applied for 1,000 hunting tags offered by the state,” Baker says. “Now think about the economic impact from all of these people coming to hunt, hire guides, outfitters, meals, and lodging. It all adds up.”
Baker also talks about the black bears that have returned on their own to several areas of eastern Kentucky, and the fact that the state now has a limited season on them.
Last December 19-20, the state offered, for the first time, a two-day hunt on the bears in Harlan, Letcher, and Pike counties. However, a heavy snowfall kept hunters away and no bears were taken in what had been a 10-bear quota.
“Hunting them is what keeps them wild,” he adds. “If we didn’t, they’d lose their fear of people, and that would lead to a real problem.”
Tom Baker has an understanding and respect for the fine balance between conservation and the hunting of big game. And because of his involvement over the years, thousands of Kentuckians for years to come will be able to enjoy the state’s oldest sport, even if they never travel to a safari in another country.
Getting To Zimbabwe is not exactly a pleasure trip. From Bowling Green, Tom Baker says it requires three hard days of a combination of driving and flying.
A 6 a.m. departure from home to the Nashville Airport; an hour’s flight from Nashville to Atlanta; Atlanta to Dakar, nine hours; Dakar to Johannesburg, another eight hours; Johannesburg to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, two hours; a three-hour drive from the airport to the safari area; and another hour to the camp site.
“I planned for this trip three years out,” he says.
Then called the Lemco Safari Area of Zimbabwe, it consists of 1 million acres of safari area.
“At the time I booked this hunt, only two lion hunting permits a year were given for the entire safari area,” adds Baker.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: KENTUCKY DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE RESOURCES
For more about Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources funding, youth hunting and trapping, as well as number of employees and what areas they manage, go to KDFWR.