Ipsa scientia potestas est
21 April 2014 15:01 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Give hunting a chance

  • Ivo Vegter
Hunting wild animals evokes strong emotions. Some are entirely justified, but tears have a tendency to blur our vision. What might seem cruel sport to some of us is a visceral challenge to others, and the economic incentive hunting creates is critical to the welfare of many animal species.

From time immemorial, man has hunted beast. Whether it be for food, to protect farms and villages, to improve his competitive social standing, or simply to prove his ascendancy over nature to his own self, it is ingrained in the collective psyche of most cultures.

Apologies for using the male pronoun. While I can sometimes be tempted to stoop to the grammatical crimes and stylistic dissonance necessary to preserve an accurate and fair gender-neutrality, I’ll wager that few female hunters will object to the notion that historically, hunting has been both by nature and by numbers a mostly male endeavour. There are, of course, exceptions, as we shall see.

But back to our potted history. As society advanced, humanity betook itself to cities, fenced off its farms, and left the tough business of meat production – and keeping those domesticated animals safe from predators – to a select few farmers who had the stamina for it.

Having built fences, roads and cities, however, this left us with a unique responsibility to conserve and manage our natural resources.

Some are of the view that what is left of nature should be left untouched, a holy shrine to the Earth Goddess. The more extreme among them are positively misanthropic, decrying human overpopulation and prosperity, while granting animals rights that trump those of human beings.

Others are of a more pragmatic bent, and are comfortable with the idea of managing the environment responsibly with sound economic objectives in mind, and that this, besides farming animals for meat, may well include recreational hunting.

The hostility between these groups is legendary. Witness the vile to-and-fro on a Facebook page set up to object to sport hunting photographs posted online by US Olympic shooter Corey Cogdell. (See? Women do hunt.)

The anti-hunters portray hunters as cruel, violent thugs whod shoot Bambi right in her doe eyes just to watch her head explode. The hunters, conversely, portray anti-hunters as petty-fascist, addlepated bunny huggers without a clue where their leather shoes come from.

In each group, there are extremes that do fit these descriptions. But forgotten in the heated rhetoric is a calm, rational view of hunting and its potential role in conservation. There is no reason why conservation and hunting need to be mutually exclusive, and why they cannot fulfil complementary functions in a sensible environmental management regime.

The core difference between the two sides is that one wishes to limit the economic value of wildlife reserves to photographic tourism, while the other believes responsible hunting also has an important contribution to make.

David Mabunda, the CEO of SanParks, in a speech last year, addressed the myth that there is a clear distinction in terms of environmental impact between hunting and photographic tourism. “Hunting is an extractive part of ecotourism, and it is for this reason that it is often argued by some members of the public, opposed to hunting, that photographic tourism is a non-consumptive activity and that it is, therefore, better than hunting. This is a myth. On the contrary, photographic tourism is a consumptive activity; it affects the natural footprint.”

Lets consider the numbers. Dr Gert Dry, the deputy president of Wildlife Ranching South Africa, broke them down for a green economy conference in 2010. Of South Africas 122.3 million hectare land area, 7.5 million hectares, or 6.1%, are protected by government as national parks. Much more – 20.5-million hectares or 16.8% – is owned by private landowners who operate commercial game ranches. Half of these ranches are in Limpopo, with another third in the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape. This compares to 100.6 million hectares of agricultural land, representing 82.2% of the countrys land area. 

A typical game farm, according to Dry, employs three times as much staff as a comparable livestock farm, and pays three to four times more, to boot. Over 100,000 people are said to be dependent on the wildlife farming industry. Considering that they are concentrated in South Africas poorer provinces, it seems rash to dismiss this socio-economic contribution.

Most game farms are located on land that is marginal for agriculture, turning much unproductive land into commercial wildlife and eco-system conservation operations. Per hectare, these game farms produce almost three times as much income as the same land would have produced under conventional livestock farming.

Hunting is worth between R2 billion and R3 billion per year, depending on whom you believe. Commercial wildlife ranching brought in a total of almost R8 billion in 2009, reckons Dry. There are no figures for the contribution of photographic wildlife tourism as a sub-segment of the R70-billion tourism industry, according to Mabunda. One might assume it is significant, but Dry estimates its turnover at only R2 billion.

However, hunting and photography do not necessarily overlap. The latter can occur in national parks, while the former cannot. Conversely, hunting often takes place in remote areas on marginal land, which is less attractive to tourists. The needs of the two sets of customers also differ. Whereas some game farm facilities are adequate for hunting safaris, they are not good enough to cater to the more luxurious tastes of typical eco-tourists. The business economics of the two sectors are very different, and many areas cannot accommodate both equally well.

As Mabunda says: “As a developing country, it would be suicidal to want to make trade-offs between hunting and photographic ecotourism. We dont have the luxury of choice. We need both.”

He adds: “In remote areas where these properties are located, it is not easy to establish viable photographic ecotourism. In cases like these, recreational hunting provides the owner with the incentive to manage and maintain his land under conservation. Hunting is a component of modern wildlife management, and it is often used to maintain a healthy population of animals where reserves are too small to allow natural regulation of populations or where hunting is a key part of the financial objective of the area.”

Thats not to say the hunting industry has no problems. Associations that cater to hunters, such as the Professional Hunting Association of South Africa (PHASA) and the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association, are often the first to admit it.

Citing problems such as lack of understanding of biodiversity needs, and most importantly, failure to adhere to the ethical principles of a “fair chase”, the then-president of the PHASA, Stewart Dorrington, said in 2005: “We have to clean up our act. Hunting must be understandable and acceptable to the public. PHASA has embedded in its constitution a high level of sportsmanship. Our code of conduct and constitution are aimed at keeping hunting clean and wholesome. To this end, PHASA has taken a very strong stand against the hunting of captive-bred lions, and we reject the hunting of any captive-bred large predator under any conditions. This is taking a higher ethical stance than the proposed government draft document relating to the same issue. We dont want canned lions! It discredits hunting and it serves no conservation purpose!”

As one might expect, no measures are perfect – and indeed, a hunting ban would not cure all problems either – but both government and hunters claim to be working at eliminating the worst excesses. If they succeed, what is the impact of hunting on threatened species? 

Last year, an international outcry over lion trophy hunting made it into the Guardian. Animal activist groups including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Humane Society and Born Free, called upon US authorities to declare lions as “endangered” and prohibit the import of trophies. Opposing views from one of the main hunting lobby groups, Safari Club International, were allegedly submitted to the newspaper only to be sidelined. In any case, the numbers simply dont add up.

According to the IUCN Red List, lions are merely classed as vulnerable, which does not prohibit licenced hunting. Populations are hard to determine, and with low certainty, the IUCN cites numbers ranging from 16,500 to 100,000. Lets assume its somewhere in the middle, at 40,000. This concurs with the Guardians numbers, and is indeed lower than the 200,000 that once roamed the sparsely inhabited African plains. However, short of shooting half a billion Africans, which seems rather less defensible than shooting wild animals, there is no simple solution to the animal-human conflict that occurs whenever populations compete for space.

More importantly, it doesnt seem that these numbers are declining in areas where they are well-managed. In the Kruger Park, for example, numbers of all the big five – elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions and leopards – are rising at a healthy clip. No large mammals are under imminent threat, according to SanParks. There is, of course, no hunting in this reserve, but the actual numbers of hunted animals outside game reserves are also low by comparison with their populations. In 2009, for example, 325 lions were killed by hunters, and ratios for the others are similar. 

Even if you include poaching, which has been rising for some species, notably rhino, at an alarming rate, the story is not (yet) one of calamity. The birth rate of white rhinos, for example, continues to exceed the rate at which they get killed.

Environmental economist Michael t-Sas Rolfes has written a paper documenting the contribution that hunting has made to saving the white rhinoceros. In 1900 they were on the brink of extinction, with only 20 specimens remaining. By 1991, there were just over 5,000. A change in legislation occurred in that year, and since then, their numbers have nearly quadrupled, to over 20,000, making them the most populous rhino species on earth.

“Saving the white rhino from extinction can be attributed to a change in policy that allowed private ownership of wildlife,” he concludes. “While protecting the rhinos encouraging breeding, the ranchers were able to profit by limited trophy hunting.”

It might seem tempting, despite the detailed arguments t-Sas Rolfes offers, to dismiss this as an isolated anomaly: the exception that proves the rule that the private game farms, the profit motive and recreational hunting are bad for the survival of threatened animal species. Tempting, but wrong.

There is an even more spectacular example involving exotic African animals. It took place far from our shores, however. The largest concentrations of exotic and endangered species on earth can be found on game ranches in the US state of Texas. They exist, in healthy, growing numbers, for the sole reason that they supply a market for hunting.

The CBS show 60 Minutes did a fascinating investigation of the cases of three species: the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax and the dama gazelle, all of which are extinct in the wild, but roam the Texas plains in their hundreds. 

While the opponents of hunting cling to idealistic fantasies of herds running free across the African savannahs, unthreatened by human encroachment, the reality in many countries where these animals ought to have been native is one of widespread poverty, occasional war, lack of institutional capacity and ultimately, political indifference. Theres a reason theyre extinct there. The anti-hunting lobbyists dreams had no chance. Meanwhile, the supposedly cruel hunters are the ones that have saved the species.

Who are the true conservationists now? DM

PS: It has been brought to my attention that Dr Gert Dry has become president of Wildlife Ranching South Africa since giving the speech quoted above.

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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