Trophy hunting, game viewing both have ecological and economic pros and cons
The anti-trophy hunting campaign is in high gear, employing questionable ‘surveys’ while playing on the emotions of affluent suburbanites whose views of Africa are often shaped by Disney and Tarzan. Both hunting and game viewing have ecological pros and cons — and both have colonial and racist roots — points often lost in the fog of an emotive and agenda-driven debate.
The cow elephant was shot dead in September last year at close range in the Kruger National Park. She was of breeding age and her sudden death would have been a traumatic experience for a calf in her care, as well as the entire herd. One presumes that animal welfare NGOs campaigning to end trophy hunting would also mourn her passing.
But this cow was not the quarry of a trophy hunter. She was shot dead while charging a group of ecotourists on foot, whose armed guides had unwittingly, in thick bush, blundered into the middle of a herd. Our Burning Planet has spoken to a number of the people who were part of the group — they wish to remain anonymous — and they were also traumatised by the incident.
“It was quite upsetting. One member of our group immediately said ‘we should not have been here’,” said one person from the group.
The point here is that game viewing or similar bush experiences — part of the wider ecotourism sector — can also trigger the death of a large animal, including those of breeding age. This clearly has conservation and animal welfare consequences.
Campaigns to end trophy hunting, which got a massive lift with the killing of a lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe seven years ago, have gained new traction of late. Animal rights organisations owe a huge debt of gratitude to Walter Palmer, the US dentist who shot Cecil with a bow and arrow. His actions provided them with an endless vein of outrage to tap for cash.
And affluent people up north, whose own children are almost never exposed to the risk of megafauna attack, always know what’s best for African wildlife.
In June, more than 100 celebrities and heavy hitters signed a letter to former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging him to make good on his populist pledge to ban UK hunters from importing legally hunted trophies taken abroad.
Pro tip: If Boris Johnson embraces your cause, it’s probably not that noble.
“The killing of animals for entertainment is totally contrary to British values,” fumed signatory Dame Judi Dench. What, one wonders, does she think the Royal Family — surely a symbol of “British values” — gets up to at Balmoral?
Different branches of the conservation tree
The fact of the matter is that trophy hunting, or recreational hunting for meat, and game viewing or “photographic safaris”, all have their conservation and economic pros and cons.
This can be lost in the haze of terminology employed by animal welfare and anti-hunting activists. For example, hunting, fishing, game viewing, scuba diving, whale watching, bird watching — all of these and many other outdoor pursuits are “eco-tourist” activities. But hunting is often portrayed outside “ecotourism” even though it involves tourists pursuing an activity in the bush.
Full disclosure: this correspondent is a keen angler who sometimes hunts, but not for trophies. I like to eat what I shoot. As someone who does not hunt for trophies, I can understand to an extent the discomfort with it. And as a journalist, I feel the subject needs to be scrutinised from all angles.
The issue is also often misleadingly framed as a debate between “hunters” and “conservationists”, as if the animal welfare brigade alone is worthy of the “conservationist” tag — or as if hunters were also not concerned with animal welfare.
Both groups are in fact conservationists who happen to take polar approaches to the shared goal of preservation of wildlife and habitat, and there are many shades in between.
The “pro-hunting” and “anti-hunting” clusters both have legitimate voices in the conservation debate. They just happen to be very vocal — especially the anti-hunters — drowning out the many nuanced perspectives in between.
And they have similar roots which have branched off from a shared trunk. Taking a chainsaw and trying to cut one off from the conservation tree does nothing to spread the canopy of truth.
These twin roots are also largely Western and since Africa is the focus — for example, there is no musk ox named “Cecil” in Greenland where legal trophy hunting of the species takes place — they both, it must be said, spring from a racist and a colonial past.
The image of the “Great White Hunter” was clearly emblematic of Europe’s conquest of Africa which, among other things, ignored the many “Great Black Hunters” revered in African hunting cultures. The words “Great” and “White” speak to a stark perception of racial superiority.
On the other hand, the preservation of African wildlife in reserves where hunting was banned stemmed from a Eurocentric view that has often seemed to value the continent’s animals and landscapes more than its people, who in many instances have been forcibly removed to make way for wild flora and fauna.
Pioneers of the current rewilding movement included odious characters such as Joy Adamson of Born Free fame, who treated Africans with disdain. More recently, conservationists have celebrated the rewilding of Rwanda with rhinos translocated from South Africa and Kigali’s leading role in the global anti-plastic campaign, preferring to turn a blind eye to its horrific human rights record.
This perpetuates the damming perception that environmental agendas and Africa’s animals are regarded as more worthy than the region’s people by some wildlife and green NGOs.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “The Invention of Green Colonialism — the roots of Africa’s wildlife NGOs come under withering scrutiny”
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Rwanda’s rhinos are safer than its dissidents”
That does not mean that both perspectives are irredeemably racist or remain caught in the colonial past. Hunting is deeply embedded in many rural cultures worldwide, including in Europe and North America. The autumn rituals of partridge and deer hunting are among the backbones of my own rural and working-class background in Nova Scotia, and they are no longer as gendered as they once were. My mother was an able salmon angler by fly in her day and one of my nephew’s female partners hunts and has bagged bear and deer.
Many people — mostly those from urban backgrounds in the affluent North — simply cannot relate to this or see anything positive in such pursuits as they are not part of their experience. This can make vocal anti-hunters seem like out-of-touch hectoring urban elites. For their part, they would say they are opposed to cruelty to animals and see no need for hunting in the 21st century.
Such animal welfare concerns have Enlightenment roots from the 18th and 19th centuries, including the growing realisation that animals also experience pain, and Darwin’s revolutionary insight that humans are part of a shared tree of animal life.
Opposition to hunting from this perspective has its virtues. It is a legitimate point of view with merit.
Pros, cons and the hunt for public support
In the hunt for public support, both sides tend to inflate the economic and ecological benefits of their respective positions while ignoring or downplaying the bad. But animal welfare NGOs stand out for their whoppers.
A lot of debate is centred on the economic impact of hunting versus game viewing, or so-called “non-consumptive” approach to ecotourism and their respective roles in wildlife conservation.
There have been lots of studies alleging that the “non-consumptive” approach has far more benefits than hunting, and they are usually commissioned by animal welfare NGOs. One example is this 2017 study prepared for Humane Society International: The lion’s share? On the economic benefits of trophy hunting.
It found that a study commissioned by Safari Club International (SCI) had exaggerated hunting’s economic and job creation contribution.
But there have been more objective studies on the matter. A 2018 study in the peer-reviewed journal Global Ecology and Conservation – The economic impact of trophy hunting in the South African wildlife industry – found that “trophy hunting annually contributes more than $341-million to the South African economy and that it supports more than 17,000 employment opportunities. The agricultural sector benefits the most, holding important implications for rural development and poverty alleviation in the country”.
There is a reason why the South African government has not emulated Kenya in banning hunting — a move that has yielded questionable conservation outcomes — even as Pretoria has moved against egregious practices such as canned lion hunting, which has little support among the hunting fraternity.
Animal welfare activists must be applauded for their work in exposing the sham that is canned lion hunting, which pro-hunting groups — including those who felt it went against the grain of the sport — failed for the most part to take decisive action against years ago.
Several studies have also noted that trophy hunting is sometimes the only economically viable option in remote areas lacking amenities that photographic tourists may shy away from.
At the end of the day, photographic or game viewing safaris certainly do generate more income than hunting, simply because far more people are involved — though to dismiss hunting as having almost no economic value, as some critics have, is clearly not true. It has its own economic value chain including taxidermy, butcheries, guiding fees, accommodation and so on.
Tourism in all of its forms is generally seen as an economic good. Foreign tourists bring in hard currency and the sector is labour intensive, so it creates jobs. It also provides opportunities for businesses big and small.
The flip side in the African context in the wildlife sphere is that most of the jobs — though not all — that are generated are low skilled and low wage. One need only look at the poaching crisis in places such as the Kruger, which goes well beyond the slaying of rhinos for their horns. Countless animals are also being caught in snares there to feed the bushmeat trade.
The Kruger is simply not creating enough jobs and generating enough income in its neighbouring communities to make more than a small dent in poverty and unemployment. The same can be said with parks across the country and throughout Africa. Some employment and some opportunities are created, but hardly enough to lift rural communities out of poverty.
And what about the environment? The Custodians for Professional Hunting and Conservation (CPHC) estimates that 17.1 million hectares of privately owned land in South Africa is maintained through hunting and hunting-related activities. On the game viewing side of the equation, habitat on private land has also certainly been preserved, or transformed from farmland and other uses, for tourists who prefer a camera over a rifle in their pursuit of game.
Critics might say in both cases that this is mostly white-owned, perpetuating apartheid disparities in wealth. But the failure of almost three decades of land reform largely rests with the ANC and its shambolic approach to the issue.
And the non-hunting arm of ecotourism is hardly without an environmental impact — the carbon footprint of travellers by air is just one of many examples.
Non-hunting wildlife reserves tend to have more camps, roads and amenities, which also raise questions about the term “non-consumptive”.
“These photographic safari camps… there is nothing ‘non-consumptive’ about them,” Paul Stones, a professional hunter who is on the executive committee of the CPHC, said in an interview. “If you look at the eco footprint of hunting and the eco footprint of game viewing safari lodges, they are frighteningly different.”
“When you look at the Sabi Sands Game Reserve… when you look at Madikwe… it’s like there are islands of animals living among people. The volume of lodges is obscene. And then you look at water usage. Then you think of all the lodges with plunge pools, jacuzzis, outdoor showers, indoor showers… and we pump this water out of the ground.”
Then there is the off-roading in massive 4x4s to get the photo or the sighting.
“They find a kill and they bomb off through the bush in vehicles and the destruction to fauna and flora is immense,” Stones said.
“Look at the surrounding of predators with game viewing vehicles, cheetah especially. They are a very sensitive animal, a very shy animal. How many animals have died at the hands of photographic tourists from being chased away from their kills?”
Or, for that matter, how many have died because they presented a danger to tourists, like the incident outlined at the start of this article?
It is perhaps revealing to note that no tourist from the suburbs will go on foot in Big Five country without armed protection. This correspondent certainly would not — are you crazy! Yet, when Cecil the lion strayed outside the boundaries of a national park — there is no evidence that he was “lured”, as some anti-hunting activists contend — he was a potential danger to poor, rural villagers in the vicinity.
Such people dwell below what I have dubbed the “faunal poverty line” and yet their plight is seldom worthy of mention in accounts about Cecil. Being both poor and African, it is almost as if such circumstances are regarded as the natural order of things.
The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment said in an emailed response to queries that it did not keep data on incidents in which animals are killed when they threaten tourists — which is a pity.
“Let’s go one step further… forget about the walking safaris. How many animals are dispatched annually in what we call ‘problem animal control’,” Stones said.
“An elephant bull messing with the fences around the camp, hyenas coming into camp, hippos coming out of rivers onto lawns which are deemed to be dangerous. God help us if photographic safaris are the silver bullet.”
And such animals are killed regardless of their demographic profile. Trophy hunting targets older, non-breeding-age males — in the case of elephants, if done properly, animals who are on their last set of teeth that will starve to death in their old age.
This is sadly not always the case because of greed, corruption, human error and a lack of enforcement.
Objective scientific studies present a nuanced view on the matter. A 2016 study on “biological conservation” focused on the trophy hunting of lions in Africa — a study conducted against the background of the Cecil uproar — and found the practice had some conservation utility, but was also contributing to population declines.
“Trophy hunting plays a significant role in wildlife conservation in some contexts in various parts of the world. Yet excessive hunting is contributing to species declines, especially for large carnivores. Simulation models suggest that sustainable hunting of African lions may be achieved by restricting off-takes to males old enough to have reared a cohort of offspring,” the authors wrote.
“… we recommend seven years as a practical minimum age for hunting male lions. Results indicate that age-based hunting is feasible for sustainably managing threatened and economically significant species such as the lion, but must be guided by rigorous training, strict monitoring of compliance and error, and conservative quotas.”
I asked one of the authors of the study, Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota, who is widely regarded as the world’s foremost expert on lions and an objective voice on the trophy hunting issue.
He said it depended in part on the country or region.
“If lion hunting were restricted to males over six or seven years of age in Zambia, there’d be virtually no risk of over-hunting. The age-based system seems to be working in Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve where the rule is strictly enforced,” he said in an emailed response.
“However, there is little transparency in other countries. Age assessments are straightforward as lions are almost always shot at a bait, so it is possible to obtain visual cues before shooting the animal; and ages can be confirmed postmortem from tooth wear.
“But if the population has been habitually over-hunted, fully adult males may be rare in the population, so there may be a reluctance by the hunting companies to verify the ages of their ‘trophies’,” he said.
Ultimately, what is his view of trophy hunting’s contribution to African conservation?
“Hunting is increasingly irrelevant to wildlife conservation in Africa. There are a handful of places where hunting really does pay the bills, but for the most part, it has failed to protect those vast tracts of land that hunting was meant to conserve.
“The problem now is to find alternative sources of revenue, such as carbon credits or even biodiversity credits that would provide incentives to local communities to conserve them,” he said.
That will require money at a time when the global economy is fragile, to say the least. But it provides a sensible framework for allowing hunting where it still pays the bills, while looking at other measures beyond both hunting and game viewing to address the conservation of African wildlife, especially megafauna which poses a direct danger to humans that live in its proximity.
None of this excuses the blatant propaganda campaigns launched by animal welfare activists, and a couple of recent examples among many stand out.
One was an HSI-commissioned survey of 3,599 people from a range of racial, class, gender and regional backgrounds in South Africa about perceptions of trophy hunting.
The other by World Animal Protection reached the questionable finding that trophy hunting somehow put South Africa’s tourism industry “in peril”.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “End trophy hunting in South Africa, or we won’t visit your country, say tourists”
The HSI survey found that 68% of respondents were “fully opposed” or “opposed to some extent” to trophy hunting.
Both surveys have been panned by experts who regard their findings as anything but authoritative.
“I have three related concerns about these survey results. First, the surveys were commissioned by animal protection groups that are strongly ideologically opposed to trophy hunting, raising strong suspicions that they were seeking a particular outcome,” Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a research fellow at the African Wildlife Economy Institute at Stellenbosch University, said in response to queries about the surveys.
“Second, it is very easy to frame questionnaires in such a way as to steer respondents toward responding in a certain way, especially if they are somewhat ignorant about the issue. I have observed the Humane Society do this quite blatantly with at least one past survey on trophy hunting.”
His third concern stemmed from the weighting given to respondents.
“Should the opinion of a 17-year-old teenager living in a sheltered urban environment far removed from the realities of rural life (and who isn’t even entitled to vote) carry as much weight as the opinion of a local rural person who understands the realities of living with and managing populations of large wild mammals?”
I asked HSI about its survey, which used global polling firm Ipsos, and if it was a large enough sample to draw the conclusions that were reached.
“In general, many political polls conducted to gauge the feeling in a country have smaller sample sizes. These types of polls are widely accepted,” spokesperson Leozette Roode said in response.
Fair enough, but ‘t Sas-Rolfes’ second point about the framing of questions gets to the heart of the matter. Let’s take a political poll, for example, which asked South Africans to name their 10 most pressing concerns during an election.
In a country with an unemployment rate of over 30%, rising hunger, surging inflation, glaring income disparities, rampant crime, corruption, rolling blackouts and a failing state, would opposition to trophy hunting make the list? If it did among a handful of respondents, you can bet your bottom dollar that it would be “Karens” in the suburbs — it’s a “First World” problem driven by the angst of the affluent. It’s clearly not a priority for shack dwellers or subsistence farmers in the former homelands.
In the late 1990s, I recall covering a “protest” in Pretoria organised by an animal rights NGO about elephants being sent to the Tuli Block in Botswana that were being mistreated — I can’t recall the exact details of the issue or the NGO, but I vividly recall trying to interview one of the “protesters” holding a sign, a black man in blue overalls, and the poor guy had no clue why he was there. Then, a white, middle-aged woman intervened in a scolding manner — she was clearly the madam and he likely worked in her garden — and insisted I interview her.
It was a transparent rent-a-crowd, and such surveys are equally transparent in their agenda.
The survey about tourists not coming to South Africa if it continues to allow trophy hunting is clearly risible, framed to reach a desired outcome.
Perhaps a question could be framed this way: would you rather go and view wildlife in Rwanda despite the fact that its government kills dissidents, or in South Africa, as a tourist, which has trophy hunting?
An anecdote: this correspondent has a very good childhood friend in Canada who is totally opposed to hunting — trust me on that score! — and yet she has visited South Africa three times and plans to do so again. The fact that South Africa allows trophy hunting is hardly going to stop her from coming back. That is not a survey and I make no such claims, but my gut feeling is that she is hardly an outlier.
As a final point, it is surely worth noting the lopsided nature of this debate. No hunter that I am aware of is opposed to non-hunting ecotourism. Indeed, they acknowledge its value as well as its drawbacks. Hunters are not taking a chainsaw to other branches of the conservation tree in a bid to stifle debate.
In their use of misleading terminology, questionable surveys and a failure to often address the plight of the African poor who are exposed to megafauna attack, animal welfare activists may advance their own agenda.
This does little to advance the facts, the truth or the wider cause of conservation, which we all share. DM/OBP/BM