by Karen Mehall Phillips - Saturday, February 3, 2024
One of the reasons we hunters look forward to attending hunting shows like the Safari Club International (SCI) Hunters’ Convention in Nashville, Jan. 31-Feb. 3, is to mingle with others who share our lifestyle and passion for wildlife. We take pride in knowing we are America’s top conservationists, in part, simply by how we willingly pay the excise taxes and hunting license, permit and stamp fees that fund the state wildlife agency programs responsible for securing the future of wildlife and their habitats. But there are always a few among us who stand out for using their personal resources to play an even larger conservation role on the world stage. One such hunter is Hungarian Béla Hidvégi, 87, recipient of the prestigious 2023 Weatherby Hunting and Conservation Award presented at the Dallas Safari Club (DSC) Convention last month and this year’s SCI International Hunter of the Year—impressive honors especially for someone who went on his first safari at age 56.
When I met up with Hidvégi at the SCI show, he talked of how his dream to go hunting began decades earlier. Born in Nagyszénás, Hungary, in 1936, he was 9 years old when his father told him they would go to Africa and hunt a bongo. Then came World War II. The government seized his family property and they had to flee to the other side of the country.
“In the war, they took everything away from us and again in 1956,” he said, sharing what life was like during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 against the Soviet-controlled Hungarian People’s Republic. Hidvégi’s father was imprisoned as Soviet tanks and troops killed thousands of citizens and many, including Hidvégi, fled the country, leaving behind life at the Agricultural University in Keszthely at age 20 to study in London.
But Hidvégi continued to dream of hunting as his father had dreamed. Smiling, he recalled, “I chose girlfriends whose parents had farms that I might be able to hunt.” He earned a degree in food engineering, and began working in America’s food industry, building ties with the food industry in Hungary.
“Then came life and working more and more,” he said. “I started organizing hunts back in Hungary and used my commission to start hunting,” noting that 56 years later, his father’s dream came true when he went on his first African safari in the 1990s at age 56 and hunted a bongo. This new chapter in life was all due to his big break—in the form of canned corn.
“I started sweet corn in Europe—like Green Giant in America,” he said. “I made 6 million cans a year when I started.” When his manager bought him out in 2000, it was finally time to really start hunting. “I joined SCI and Ovis and learned more and more from them,” he said.
Those who know Hidvégi are not surprised that his motto is “determination, stamina and humility.” “This is why hunting, and receiving the Weatherby Award are so important for me,” he said, showing grace and humility regarding the honor considered to be the pinnacle of worldwide hunting and conservation achievement. “This proves to myself what I can do, and it shows the younger generation that all is possible,” he added.
Eighteen years ago, Hidvégi was so driven to prove what he could do to promote hunting and protect wildlife that he launched the SCI Hungarian Chapter and served as founding president. In 2017, he became an SCI international director, continuing to look for ways to give back.
To bolster hunting’s cultural acceptance, Hidvégi conducts media interviews on hunting and conservation and serves as a guest speaker in several countries. His extensive international collection of wild game animals consisting of 560-plus full-body and shoulder mounts is on loan to two museums in Hungary. In gauging the educational impact of his gesture, more than 100,000 people visit these museums each year, including students and children under age 16. He personally enjoys escorting visitors and explaining the importance of ethical hunting and why his favorite hunting is in the mountains and rainforests.
Today Hidvégi has 11 books to his name, three on the topic of mountain hunting. According to the Weatherby International Foundation, late Ovis President Dennis Campbell named Hidvégi’s book Beyond the Mountainsone of the 10 best hunting books he had ever read. Three of his books have been translated into English and one into German. One of the books available in English is book No. 11, titled Volt egy álmom, or I Had a Dream. Referring to the book’s cover, (pictured below), he said, “It shows me dreaming of the Weatherby Award many years ago,” proving that success and determination have no age limit.
When it comes to Hidvégi’s favorite hunts, he said that what he enjoys most is hunting spiral-horned animals and what he fondly calls “Mickey Mouse” duikers, referring to some of the smallest African antelope species. As he shared that there are 24 spiral-horned species recognized by SCI and that he has taken 22 of them, it is a given that hunts for the last two are on his list of upcoming adventures.
For those wondering how many species Hidvégi has taken in a mere 30 years, he said he has taken nearly 400 while traveling around the world and contributing to wildlife conservation. “I do a lot in conservation, go to many hunting shows and do conservation projects,” he said, sharing how much of his work is accomplished through his Béla Hidvégi Hunting Foundation launched to help provide for hunting and conservation into the future.
“In Mozambique, I have a friend and we do a project together with honeybees and honey,” he explained. “I supply the hives. The village keeps half and we send the other half to the big city to sell and fund anti-poaching work.” His work includes a five-part anti-poaching video series on anti-poaching in Mozambique and a two-part anti-poaching series in Cameroon. Hidvégi actively demonstrates how it is the hunter-conservationists who provide hope for wildlife’s future as the protectors of wildlife and wild places.
As shared by the Weatherby International Foundation, Hidvégi now has won three of the most prestigious awards in the hunting world—the 2016 Pantheon Award, the 2021 Conklin Award and now the 2023 Weatherby Award—as well as the 2013 Hungarian Cross of Merit, the highest Hungarian civil award, for his conservation work. It also applauds him for making an introductory speech promoting the international video “A Conservationist’s Cry,” produced by the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa and noted African professional hunter and TV host Ivan Carter outlining conservation-based solutions to ensure the future of wildlife and their habitats. Hidvégi also was featured in an animated video for children. To date the two videos have been viewed by six million-plus people in six countries.
When news of Hidvégi winning the Weatherby Award reached Hungary, “Hungary Today” commended him for outstanding and lifetime achievement in the field of hunting and conservation. Zoltán Kovács, State Secretary for International Communications and Relations, praised him for the fact his ideas and determination were a major inspiration for the success of the recent World Hunting and Nature Exhibition in Budapest.
When I think back to Hidvégi’s Weatherby Award acceptance speech at the DSC show, the crowd heard what was in his heart as he underscored his lifelong love of wildlife and a commitment to perseverance. “In my country, one of our great hunters once said, ‘I finally got up to the top of the cucumber tree.’ I have the same feeling now,” he added, as he thanked those who supported him along his hunter-conservationist path, starting with his two daughters and his grandchildren.
Considering that the Weatherby Award recognizes a hunter-conservationist who is dedicated to its mission to educate youth and the non-hunting public about the benefits of ethical hunting and its contribution to wildlife conservation, those who know Hidvégi recognize that the award could not have gone to a more deserving hunter. We salute Hidvégi for dedicating the last 30-plus years of his life to all the above—and for achieving a childhood dream beyond measure.
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