OPEN LETTER: RIGHT OF REPLY
Elephant hunt at Balule was lawful, should be seen in context of regulations governing sustainable resource use
While we empathise with those who consider controlled hunting inhumane, its benefits to conservation and biodiversity are substantial, as the revenue is funnelled back into conservation initiatives. Properly managed hunting revenue provides much-needed funds for reserve maintenance, anti-poaching efforts, wildlife research, and community upliftment. This is Balule Nature Reserve’s response to WAPFSA’S open letter to Minister Barbara Creecy.
Dear Honourable Minister Barbara Creecy and Conservation Community Members and Stakeholders,
Balule Nature Reserve (Balule) recognises its responsibility and is privileged to play a role in managing and conserving the biodiversity of our shared national heritage. We believe in fostering a culture of open dialogue and would like to address the concerns raised by WAPFSA in its Open Letter to Minister Creecy.
Global conservation best practice
Balule Nature Reserve is unwavering in its commitment to international best-practice conservation. It has for the past 30 years and will continue to protect and conserve the flora and fauna of the 50,000-hectare reserve under its management to the highest global standards and in accordance with the biodiversity, environmental and socio-economic objectives of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA) Co-operative Agreement.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Balule trophy hunt — how not to shoot an elephant
The GLTFCA Co-operative Agreement was concluded in December 2018 and it established the conservation area of some 2.6-million hectares, known as the Greater Kruger or the Open System. All 16 signatories to this Co-operative Agreement represent the entire landscape that is open to each other and the Kruger National Park. SANParks and all the Associated Private Reserves (APNR), including Balule, are parties to this Agreement.
The GLTFCA Co-operative Agreement sets out the biodiversity, environmental, socio-economic and wildlife research objectives and the management and evaluative framework for the Greater Kruger conservation area and all its landowners. This Co-operative Agreement recognises sustainable resource use and animal off-takes as legitimate conservation tools (Clauses 6.2.2 and 220.127.116.11). All our practices are informed by research and scientifically formulated protocols. The animal off-takes are subject to the Greater Kruger Hunting Protocol adopted by the Joint Management Committee (the body responsible for the implementation of the GLTFCA Co-operative Agreement).
As a result of our collective efforts, including our expertise and significant financial investment, Balule has ensured a thriving elephant population on the landscape under its management. Balule has a carrying capacity for some 250 elephants to allow for all the other animal and plant species to be maintained at sustainable levels. Currently, Balule has 1,581 elephants (September 2023 aerial census). Of these 1,581 elephants counted, 381 elephant bulls were not with the breeding herds counted. This translates to 6.5 times the number of elephants that the reserve can sustain without impacting its biodiversity.
The extensive tree survey conducted earlier this year indicated that the region lost approximately 65% of its trees, above three metres tall, of 10 essential tree species surveyed. The impact on, and decline in numbers of, other tree-dependent animal species is marked, such as vulture and raptor nests, giraffe, kudu, bushbuck and nyala populations. The overpopulation of elephants significantly and negatively impacts the region’s flora and fauna biodiversity. Balule would be irresponsible to favour one species over all the others in the ecosystem that it is charged to conserve and protect.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Conservationists appeal for end to hunting of elephants in private reserves bordering Kruger
The role of hunting in biodiversity conservation
The Greater Kruger Hunting Protocol and the scientifically formulated categories of elephants specify what bulls may be removed. These categories are designed to remove inferior bulls from the system. None of these animals are large old bulls or tuskers or could be scientifically regarded as animals with good genetics. The controls and reviews are in place to ensure this is the case.
Statements regarding the “well-being” of elephants being negatively affected by hunting are unscientific, emotional and certainly not supported by the facts on the ground. Removing this small number of bulls, relative to the reserve’s elephant population, has not adversely affected the elephant population. Quite the contrary, each year, the total number of elephants on Balule has increased due to immigration.
The percentage increase in elephant numbers per annum on Balule exceeds the average breeding growth rate. It is clear that elephants still choose to migrate to Balule, notwithstanding these hunting quotas. Elephants would not migrate in such significant numbers if they felt the area was a risk or were traumatised in any way. The numbers for the last five years as per the annual aerial census are as follows:
2019 – 721 elephants
2020 – 883 elephants
2021 – 1,053 elephants
2022 – 1,376 elephants
2023 – 1,581 elephants
Therefore, hunting when done in a sustainable manner has tangible benefits on many levels. This can be seen in countries, such as Botswana, that banned all hunting in favour of photographic safaris, only to reopen hunting years later after the perceived socio-economic benefits this avenue promised never materialised.
The overpopulation of elephants has reduced the life span of elephant bulls due to competition and fighting. Incidents of elephant bulls suffering long agonising deaths due to wounds sustained from fighting have increased substantially over the past five years. These, too, are difficult to witness.
While we empathise with those who consider controlled hunting inhumane, its benefits to conservation and biodiversity are substantial, as the revenue is funnelled back into conservation initiatives. Properly managed hunting revenue provides much-needed funds for reserve maintenance, anti-poaching efforts (wildlife security), wildlife research, and community upliftment.
Not all areas are suitable for lodge development and photographic safaris. Without the revenue from hunting, some areas would be more economically viable with a different land use, such as agriculture or other forms of development, which could be more detrimental to wildlife populations. Revenue is channelled to local communities, supporting schools, health clinics, and much-needed infrastructure. It also creates a sustainable source of healthy protein that is distributed to communities (as is the case with the Maseke community). Such programmes can only assist in reducing the impact of indiscriminate snare poaching for meat that is an ever-increasing problem for protected areas. These very tangible benefits foster a positive relationship between conservation areas and their surrounding communities.
Hunting also incentivises wildlife value. One needs only to compare the distribution of elephant in SA compared to a species such as blue wildebeest. Devaluing wildlife by banning all forms of hunting has proven to have a hugely negative effect on total wildlife numbers in areas where this has occurred, particularly in Kenya. [See here and here.]
WAPFSA’s assumption that the fences were dropped and now the APNR has “access” to the KNP animals is ill-conceived. These private reserves were well-established “Big 5” reserves before any fences were removed, many of which were world-renowned for their status as premier Big 5 destinations. The fences were not removed to give these properties “access” to Big 5 animals but to encourage the natural and unhindered movement of these animals through a larger and more diverse landscape. Furthermore, for WAPFSA to state that that there is no agreement in place in respect of hunting in the Open System, or that “SANParks has never addressed this problem” is factually wrong — the GLTFCA Co-operative Agreement and the Greater Kruger Hunting Protocol recognises and regulates this as a sustainable resource use.
The Balule reserve comprises some 50 000-hectares of the Open System and serves as the most westerly boundary of this GLTFCA conservation area. The Maseke region is situated north of the Olifants River in the northwestern section of the Reserve. The Maseke region is 8,000 hectares of communal land owned by the Bankome CPA (The Maseke community).
For WAPFSA to aver that the approved animal off-takes do not either “deliver significant conservation and community benefits, or that it positively contributes to the sustainable use of wildlife in South Africa” ignores compelling scientific data.
Balule has 100 kilometres of fence that serves as the far western boundary of the Greater Kruger. This fence requires constant maintenance to protect the animals within and the communities surrounding the reserve. A large portion of this fence is located on the Maseke property, and the Maseke region bears this maintenance cost directly.
Balule protects a large rhino population and is also home to the largest black rhino population outside of the Kruger Park within the open system. This, too, comes at a considerable cost to our landowners.
The hunting revenue Balule and its member regions earn is spent on conservation, wildlife security and community upliftment. Last year, Balule’s regional member reserves spent more than R10-million on wildlife security, protecting all the species it is home to, including our critically endangered rhino. We are proud to report that we have lost only two rhinos in the last three years, and on both occasions, the poachers were caught and arrested.
We can also report that of Balule’s total operational budget, hunting revenue only accounted for 11% last year and 14% in 2021. The landowners carry the balance of these operational expenses. Hunting directly contributes to the socio-economic issues facing the Maseke property and fulfilling its conservation obligations, particularly the costs of maintaining the western boundary fence of the Greater Kruger’s Open System.
The meat from all elephants hunted in the Maseke region is distributed to the Maseke community’s children and elderly via the drop-off creche. The halting of this ecologically sound and sustainable resource use will only deprive the community of this vital source of protein that occurs on their land in abundance. Therefore, allegations by WAPFSA, that “these animals are being killed for the benefit of a few wealthy white landowners” and that hunting “privileges Western elites” are baseless and inflammatory.
All forms of environmental tourism consume resources, and it is naive and irresponsible for WAPFSA to be ethically opposed to hunting and favour photographic safaris. Photographic safari lodges also have an environmental impact, with significantly higher water consumption, carbon emissions and infrastructural impact than hunting, with the number of guests and game drives per day, particularly when comparing income generated per guest. Furthermore, photographic safari operators are not required to spend and account for revenue generated, as applies to hunting income generated.
Water is one of the most important and scarcest resources in our ecosystem and is consumed at a rate of 400 litres per guest per day. Our ecosystem cannot environmentally sustain the development of more photographic-based tourist lodges to replace its hunting revenue.
Committed to ethical and sustainable conservation
The hunt conducted on Balule was not unlawful, nor did it contravene any court order. It was conducted in terms of a permit lawfully issued by Limpopo Economic Development, Environment and Tourism.
From time to time, there will be hunts that do not go according to plan, and the appropriate measures must be (and are) deployed to minimise these instances and minimise the suffering of any wounded animal and sanction irresponsible behaviour contravening the Greater Kruger Hunting Protocol. It was Balule management that reported the irregularities to the relevant authorities regarding the incident cited by WAPFSA, where a collared elephant was hunted and the warden was criminally charged and convicted.
The incidents listed by WAPFSA, while unfortunate, distasteful and in some instances completely unacceptable, must be viewed within the context of the total number of animals and their migration within the Open System.
Balule, together with the other APNR reserves, as signatories of the GLTFCA Co-operative Agreement, are critically and regularly assessed each year. The results of these assessments clearly indicate our deep commitment to conserving the biodiversity of the landscape under our management within the Open System.
Ecosystem health is a shared responsibility
Balule acknowledges the broader public interest in the Open System and takes its statutory and contractual obligations extremely seriously. Notwithstanding the passionate opinions of WAPFSA and its members (none of which have any direct contractual, financial or statutory obligations within the Open System), we remain committed to the environmental and socio-economic objectives of the GLTFCA Co-operative Agreement. Working with all our stakeholders, we can ensure that the richness of the Greater Kruger’s ecosystem is preserved for generations to come.
In particular, we will continue to support the communities within and bordering the reserve through Balule’s outreach programmes. We reiterate our commitment to managing the ecosystem in accordance with the GLTFCA guidelines and scientifically determined best practices.
Balule is conscious of the experience of both Botswana and Kenya in the banning of sustainable resource use. Of particular concern is Kenya’s widespread and comprehensive loss of wildlife since its ban on hunting, with a 60% – 70% decline in its large wildlife numbers. [See here and here.]
Balule cannot emphasise enough that if hunting is halted within the Open System, as WAPFSA advocates, the socio-economic and environmental consequences will be highly detrimental to the animals and the biodiversity that Balule, and all its the APNR partners protect; and most importantly the communities that depend on our conservation efforts. DM
Vince Ryan, Chairman Balule Nature Reserve.