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2 August 2014 04:16 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

In defence of a lion killer

  • Ivo Vegter
The outrage about an American hunter, Melissa Bachman, who bragged on Twitter about bagging a splendid male lion, was terrifying to watch. Terrifying, but also deeply troubling on many levels. Emotive outrage and smug judgmentalism are no substitute for rational thought and pragmatic policy.

Every year, game hunters travel to South Africa, pockets stuffed with dollars. Most of them are men, who quietly come and go, leaving behind them R6.2 billion in industry revenue, according to Environmental Affairs minister Edna Molewa.

But when one hunter, an American television host named Melissa Bachman, dared to boast about her wonderful African hunting safari, posing with a dead lion, she got more than she bargained for. Her Facebook page and Twitter feed were over-run with vicious hatemail. She was described as the most hated woman in South Africa. Ricky Gervais was scathing, though cleverly so: “Spot the typo”, he wrote, about her boast, “What a hunt!”

I don’t know Ms Bachman, so I can’t speak for her character. I’ve seen no suggestion that she failed to obtain a legitimate hunting permit, complete with the required CITES documentation. The Maroi Conservancy which hosted her seems legitimate too, although its website has also been barged offline by angry internetters.

I can’t say I’m a big fan of hunting either. I’ve been invited on hunting trips, but declined for two reasons: one, I prefer to avoid media junkets, lest I be accused of being a shill for Big Hunt; and two, I prefer to avoid killing animals personally, even though I happily eat meat.

It is quite reasonable to dislike sport hunting. It is an emotional subject. But is it not curious that a perfectly legal hunt justifies crudely insulting a woman in sexist terms?

Writer and artist Sarah Britten wondered if it would have had as much impact if it was a male hunter with a lioness. She says she doesn’t like hunting, but likes the reaction to Bachman’s lion photo even less.

The answer seems quite obvious. Loads of men shoot loads of lions all the time. None of them make it to that interminable aggregator of dodgy viral clickbait, Buzzfeed.com: “TV Presenter Melissa Bachman Angers Entire Internet After Shooting A Lion”. None of them get called sexist names by Ricky Gervais. (If you crave a glimpse at the vile misogyny that awaits women who offend the smug left-liberal elite, read Rebecca Davis’s piece elsewhere on Daily Maverick. I agree with her, up to where she calls the hunt “canned”, and says the outrage is justified but ought to be directed at our government.)

But let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that we don’t like hunting, and we don’t like Ms Bachman. Does this justify the ugly, hypocritical anger? If her hunt was legal, what did she do wrong? Should it be made illegal?

In 1960, there were only three game farms in South Africa. There were only half a million head of game. Changes in the law to permit private ownership of game and commercialise big game hunting coincided with the sea change that we see today: 10,000 game farms, supporting 20 million head of game on as many hectares. By contrast, the government formally protects only 7.5 million hectares as national parks.

The game farm industry employs 100,000 people, which is reportedly three times more than employment in ordinary livestock farms. Income from game breeding stock sold at auction rose almost 15-fold in just six years, from R60 million in 2006 to R864 million in 2012.

Is that mere correlation, or is there some causation at work here?

The knee-jerk reaction of the chattering classes is that you don’t protect animals by killing them. That seems self-evident, but, as Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The notion that hunting harms the survival of species, or the environment more generally, happens to be false, and demonstrably so.

Commenting on Botswana’s recent decision to ban professional hunting in the hope that it would stop poaching, professor Melville Saayman of the North-West University observed: “...the problem is that it is going to have a reversed effect.”

Says Saayman: “Kenya followed the same path. They also banned hunting and currently have a huge game poaching problem, so much so that some of their species face total extinction. The strategy proposed by Botswana is short-sighted and is not going to work. Game numbers will decline and this will have a serious impact on the hunting and game farm industry in the country.”

In Kenya, hunting was banned in the late 1970s, but it has since lost 85% of its wildlife. Go figure.

“Case studies from South Africa,” says Saayman, “have shown that as soon as the hunting of a species is allowed, it leads to the breeding as well as conservation of the particular species. Botswana's policy is definitely going to lead to job losses.”

In the early 1990s, I was on a guided tour of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. I looked around me at the devastated landscape, with nary a tree taller than a man. The ranger told me the park had sixty elephants too many, but that nobody wanted them, because they all had their own elephant problems, and transport was too expensive.

“So what are you doing about it?” I asked.

“We hunt them, from the north of the park, out of sight of the regular tourists, who tend to get terribly upset about it,” he replied. “The revenue helps, but we can only host one hunt a month, which isn’t enough.”

The upshot of the misinformed anti-hunting and anti-culling sentiment of the dinner party set was that an entire park ecosystem was put at risk, just to “save” a few elephants, of which there were plenty.

It is true that some lion populations in Africa are under pressure. However, a recent academic study undertaken by Peter Lindsey and others, finds that even in countries where the threat is severe, prohibiting hunting – instead of just issuing fewer permits – would prove counter-productive, by reducing habitat protection, reducing tolerance for lions among local populations, and reducing funds available to combat poaching.

Some time ago, I wrote about a story out of Texas, where hunting ranches host large herds of endangered antelope like addax and dama gazelle, which are extinct in the wild in their native Africa. The reason they’re there? They pay their keep, by supplying the hunting industry. What will happen if hunting these animals is banned? They will cease to exist. Entirely.

As it happens, that story also involved vile vitriol directed at a professional hunter, Corey Cogdell. That hunter was also female. Coincidence? I think not. It looks like Britten and Davis are right. Bachman’s big mistake was not the hunt itself, nor even bragging about it, but being female.

Let’s consider the story of the Maroi Conservancy, where the hunt in question occurred. It consists of a number of private properties along the Zimbabwean border in Limpopo Province, that have agreed to pull down the fences between them.

A profile of the conservancy is quite clear about the change that hunting has made: “In the past, parts of the conservancy were intensively farmed for citrus and other crops, and some landowners tried running cattle. None of them managed for game. Poaching was common, with people cutting the fences to trespass. Now, all the meat from animals that are hunted goes to the local community to encourage them not to poach.”

In other words, where there used to be a few crop farms with poaching problems, Maroi is now a fully-functional breeding game conservancy, supported by revenue from hunting.

Presumably, Maroi charged Bachman in the region of $30,000, which is the going rate for a full-maned lion. By comparison, most animals cost under $10,000. An elephant typically goes for $100,000, and a rhino – yes, hunting them for trophies is legal – fetches even more. And here’s one for the trivia buffs: What is the cheapest animal on a typical trophy price list? Even cheaper than an impala female, a jackal fetches just $100. Poor put-upon vermin!

In terms of their vulnerability, lions aren’t under nearly as much pressure as rhinos. What has hunting done for the rhino population? Extending full private property rights to the animals and legalising trophy hunting has arguably saved both the black and white rhino from going extinct decades ago, according to a detailed study conducted by environmental economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes.

As we all know, rhino are not out of the woods, and the recent spike in poaching is a grave concern. However, the solution is not to continue the ban on trading in rhino products, which is failing, but to lift it, and to let rhino farmers like John Hume breed the animals for their horn. It is gratifying to see that minister Molewa thinks along the same lines, and will apply – against all odds – to CITES to lift the ban on the trade in rhino products.

As a child, on game viewing holidays, I remember learning how rare the roan antelope, bontebok, sable antelope and black wildebeest were. Today, they are relatively common, and the Professional Hunters’ Assocation of South Africa (PHASA) names them among the species that once were on the brink of being wiped out, but are today thriving on private game farms supported by hunting revenue.

“I am of the firm belief that the hunting industry and the game farming industry are important partners, who play a key role in terms of conservation, tourism, and economic development," Molewa told a hunting indaba in 2010.

Earlier this year, she reiterated the government’s policy to promote South Africa as “a destination of choice for hunting”.

David Mabunda, the CEO of SanParks, agrees: “As a developing country, it would be suicidal to want to make trade-offs between hunting and photographic ecotourism. We don’t have the luxury of choice. We need both.”

In light of all this, does the massive outcry about Melissa Bachman make sense? No, unless you’re a misogynist or simply dislike American braggarts. Her public boasts about her kills may be tacky, and decidely ill-advised, but frankly, see appears to be someone who is passionate about the hunt, and isn’t ashamed of her prowess.

This is not about her feelings. Anyone who dresses up like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider is probably tough enough to handle the hate directed at her by Internet trolls. If she’s at all typical of professional hunters, she can comfort herself with the knowledge that she is more in tune with nature and its conservation than most of the haters.

Her detractors might brag about “shooting” animals with cameras, but if my safari-company contacts are any guide, most of them are shallow tourists who demand to be driven about in air-conditioned luxury, to see all of the big five in one day, as if that is a more informed reflection of nature than a professional hunt.

South Africa officially considers Bachman a welcome and valued visitor, and rightly so. Even if you disagree, and you arrogantly think you have the moral authority to judge her arrogance, the real story is this. Your smug superiority risks depriving South Africa of tourism revenue and employment. It risks depriving the country of much-needed funding for conservation. It risks reducing the value of our wildlife, which reduces the incentive for private farm owners to breed and protect game. Hypocritical anger is a greater threat to conservation than Bachman’s rifle will ever be.

Think about that, the next time you pen a bullying comment, safely hidden behind your screen. Moral superiority cuts both ways. DM

  • 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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