Our Burning Planet


SA’s ‘R3.4-billion’ hunting industry – should a simple tourist levy replace recreational hunts?

SA’s ‘R3.4-billion’ hunting industry – should a simple tourist levy replace recreational hunts?
A proposal for a tourism tax wants to shut down captive lion hunts as well as other forms of ‘trophy hunting’. World Animal Protection, which has contributed to the study, is planning more research to test feasibility. (Photo: Unsplash / Prince David)

As the debate on the ethics of ‘trophy hunting’ rages on, a new international study claims to offer a proposal that would sound the controversial industry’s death knell — by taxing tourists a ‘lion protection’ fee. But is it really time for the entire hunting industry to disappear in life’s great rear-view mirror?

When it comes to South Africa’s charismatic megafauna, there are those who hold that a wild animal’s natural habitat is neither on a plate nor a wall. For some conservation and welfare groups, in fact, shooting high-profile or other species is abhorrent, and they worry the practice is damaging South Africa’s economy, even though the hunting industry may generate a rough spending stimulus of about US$180-million (R3.4-billion) a year. 

It might even be more, or less, than that, depending on who one speaks to. 

Yet, a new open-access study proposes an ambitious plan: a “modest lion protection fee” charged to international tourists — whether from overseas or other parts of Africa. The idea is to replace the money made by the recreational hunts of mostly large mammals — “trophy hunting” — by paying the hunters and their staff to go away, or to move to hands-off wildlife tourism such as photo safaris. 

The joint peer-reviewed study, co-led by Pretoria University and World Animal Protection, a welfare NGO, said they had found “universally strong” support for a levy of up to $7 a day. 

It also “revealed a desire to finance the protection of the nation’s iconic wildlife through paying a lion protection fee”, said World Animal Protection’s Dr Neil D’Cruze, a contributing author. 

Of the 900 respondents — frequent international travellers who either visited South Africa or considered doing so — 85% endorsed the mooted fee as either a “great” or “good” idea.  

Capitalising on the moment

These days, not only flag-waving activists say they are perturbed by the reputational implications of what they have panned as cruel hunting.

Last month, the South African government invited public input on the new draft policy on the “conservation and sustainable use” of rhinos, elephants, leopards and, indeed, lions. At the heart of the proposed reform, the draft argues, is the need to address damage to the country’s reputation no thanks to intensive breeding and shooting of captive lions. 

This joint study, which can be read for free in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, says it wants to capitalise on that momentum. 

“We set out to test whether inbound visitors to South Africa would be willing to pay a ‘lion protection fee’ that could compensate for any revenue from trophy hunting lost were it to be banned,” said Dr Tom Moorhouse, the lead researcher. “People’s willingness to pay was so strong it could generate enough funds to equal, if not exceed, those currently generated by trophy hunting.”

Based on predicted 2023 tourism trends, the authors claim this initiative could, ultimately, rake in $176.1-million every year — potentially eclipsing precisely what they suggest the hunting industry is worth. 

And the source of those funds, according to the proposal, would be international tourists. 

Respondents from France, Germany, the UK and the US said they would shell out an extra $6 to $7 per day. Southern African tourists were willing to pay no more than $4.  

While 900 people cannot necessarily be taken as a “universally strong opposition” or even representative sample of tourists visiting South Africa, the chosen respondents probably reflect the typical tourist, the authors conclude — especially since they hail from typical source countries. (In 2021, a separate survey found that more than 10,500 European tourists opposed hunting African wild animals.)

In theory, at least, the proposal secures a happy future for lions and South Africa’s other prominent wild ambassadors — plus a feel-good holiday for tourists. If a single traveller spent an extra $7 a day during a week-long break, those good vibes would cost them just $50. That is the price of a meal for two in an upmarket restaurant. 

The study moots other alternatives. Maybe a once-off air departure tax of about $50, which “should be sufficient to replace the entire revenue from trophy hunting”.

Safari tourists watch a lion on a game drive in Sabi Sand Nature Reserve, Mpumalanga. As wildlife tourism rebounds in South Africa, the industry is still impacted by negative perceptions. But lions cruelly shot at close range without fair chase is a result of rogue hunters rather than the regulated industry, a professional hunting organisation says. (Photo: David Silverman / Getty Images)

Cautionary tails

As much as the “lion protection fee” seeks to leverage the momentum of the new draft policy, the latter — years in the making — still envisages a positive socioeconomic role for potentially transformed aspects of hunting in South Africa.  

For instance, the draft policy says it wants to clean up the illegal harvesting of leopards — a species that makes international hunting packages “competitive”. The rosette-spotted big cats also hold cultural significance due to their skins, the policy contends. 

And while ecotourism can replace some hunting revenue, the fee proposal concedes, it may not be a viable solution everywhere, because it is precisely those easy-to-reach, jazzy private reserves that well-heeled tourists like most — possibly leaving vast previous hunting areas without a source of financial incentive for conservation.

There is a trenchant warning hovering in Botswana’s not-so-distant past: after that country banned hunting tourism in 2014, local groups saw their average yearly income plunge by 43%. Two of these groups had provided jobs for 150 local residents — so the potential to disrupt community livelihoods is real. The study acknowledges this. 

Would the real industry value please stand up? 

Suppose those tourists did pop out the $176.1-million golden egg that kills off hunting as we know it, there is still an elephant in the room. Just how much is the hunting industry actually worth? 

Due to limited funds, not many studies have attempted to glean an industry value — the figure used by the fee proposal was published half a decade ago, in 2018. Calculated by Northwest University, it was paid for, the authors of that study told Daily Maverick, by major hunting associations

However, the university’s Professor Peet van der Merwe told us the funding barely covered their expenses because they did not “have that kind of money to fund research”. (For his part, Van der Merwe also expressed his doubts that South Africa possessed the institutional capacity to manage the proceeds of “protection fees” while keeping corrupt big spenders at bay.) 

Another independent study has suggested that the value of the hunting industry may even be “massively overstated”. If that were the case, this fee proposal’s target could be within reach.

The US$176.1-million question is: What to do with the proceeds of the “lion protection fee” — that is, if the current proposal advances against the odds of hunting tourism that still enjoys formal policy support?  

As Van der Merwe pointed out, determining who gets the funds might pale in comparison to how they are spent — or misspent, especially if revenues fell into the hands of provincial governments already tainted by deep-seated corruption. 

“Once collected, the funds need to be appropriately allocated. How would this be done and who would do it?” asked Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a conservation economist and member of the IUCN’s sustainable livelihoods and African rhino specialist groups. “Governments in developing countries facing political and resource constraints are notoriously bad at doing this.” 

He also argued that assessing hunting’s national economic value based on GDP or general tourism figures was inadequate, emphasising the local benefits of ethical hunting tourism 

According to him, the role of legal hunting and its support for conservation was under-researched, poorly understood and even likely underestimated.  

For instance, legal rhino hunting in Namibia and South Africa generated substantial annual income, with at least $8-million per year from rhino trophy fees, he argued. This funding supported anti-poaching efforts and encouraged private ownership and conservation of rhinos outside state-protected areas, said ’t Sas-Rolfes. 

The debate against captive lion hunts has raged for years. Here, in 2014, anti-hunt protesters join a global march in Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Mary-ann Palmer)

Lions are already relatively healthy

Wilderness Foundation Africa CEO Andrew Muir cited past attempts at implementing voluntary conservation levies that failed due to lack of uptake.

He told us that the concept of a levy was a “good one”, but unlikely to get off the ground without national authorities and conservation entities running such a show.

“In South Africa we have healthy populations of wild and wild managed lions. While we always need funds for conservation purposes, these populations of lions are stable relative to the rest of Africa,” Muir said. “The problem we’ve got is with the captive breeding of lions and the potential contamination of captive-bred lions with wild lions — as well as reputational and other related issues. That’s a different kind of problem to what other African countries have. The solution here is to close the captive breeding of lions as per the government’s latest draft policy position.”

Closing down the industry in a financially smart way may present its own protracted problems, as the draft policy does not currently have a plan on how to do that. 

However, Muir emphasised the importance of transformation and involving local communities in conservation efforts, suggesting levy proceeds ought to go to communities. He also suggested repurposing hunting operations into nature-based tourism ventures.

Professional hunters: ‘Separate fact from emotion’

Dries van Coller, the CEO of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa, said hunting was swimming in misconceptions and lamented the challenges of changing public perception. 

Terms like “blood sport” and “trophy hunting” were reductive and stigmatising, and ignored the practice of hunting in its entirety as a “heritage” experience. He distinguished between unethical practices like “canned hunting”, which his association condemned, and “responsible” hunting conducted on accredited facilities. 

“You’re not allowed to hunt a lion from a vehicle or over bait. You must do it on foot, and you can’t use artificial calling. There are a whole lot of rules we put in place to ensure so-called fair chase, so that the animal can evade,” he said.

He cited a model he believed had significantly contributed to South Africa’s conservation achievements, stressing that private landowners were motivated to safeguard their wildlife populations due to the economic advantages involved.

Without incentives, he continued, communities may resort to environmentally damaging practices like cattle and goat farming, undoing a decades-long success story that included hunting. For Van Coller, hunting and wildlife-related tourism provided a sustainable and environmentally beneficial alternative for communities.

For these communities, such an alternative was not only a lifeline, but an opportunity for economic improvement — some of the poorest villages survived next to Kruger National Park which has seen a 200% snaring surge since 2020. In part at least, this was likely due to pandemic-driven poverty, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy has said.  

“These are the poorest people that we see in the country. And how do they benefit in any way from their wildlife?” asked Van Coller. “At this stage, [ecotourism] is seen as a white elitist type of activity.”

For that reason, he said he wanted to see more local communities in conservation efforts. Like the latest draft policy, many promises have been made, but the reality was that communities often did not see the benefits. 

The “lion protection fee” could be valuable if used correctly. But its focus should shift from closing down the entire hunting industry to cleaning up “rogue” elements, seeking out conservation opportunities such as addressing potential overpopulation, and rewilding lions in regions where they were endangered or extinct. This approach would have a broader conservation impact beyond South Africa, he contended.

“It’s a nice ideology to try and say, well, we’ve got to save the lion because it’s endangered and we’ve got to save the lion because these are the challenges there,” he said, “but scientific facts and emotion must be divided.”

Initial insights

There is another critical consideration: what image-conscious tourists claim they might do versus the real-world act of digging into their pockets.

World Animal Protection’s Dr Neil D’Cruze, one of the study authors, agrees that wild lion populations are stable, but also highlighted what he called a material shift in global public opinion — driven by growing concerns for animal welfare and ethics. 

D’Cruze said the authors were flexible and open to alternatives such a levy name that emphasised conservation and community transformation. 

He also acknowledged the complexities of discontinuing the recreational hunting industry — and advocated careful planning.

“Discontinuing trophy hunting in South Africa presents challenges that demand careful consideration to prevent unintended negative consequences. Implementing such a plan requires diligent deliberation, addressing administrative logistics and adaptability to fluctuations in visitor numbers,” said D’Cruze, who indicated that they would do more feasibility studies.

“To ensure transparent and effective fund allocation, it’s essential to address issues surrounding the enforcement and evaluation of directives. Determining the responsible entities for raising and disbursing levies is also complex, and this must be taken fully into account, particularly given the current low levels of public trust in South African institutions. 

“But it’s important to note that the concept of tourism taxes we propose is not novel, as 22 countries worldwide already levy tourists to preserve their natural and cultural heritage, offering valuable insights for South Africa,” he said.

As for a lack of authoritative economic data, he said the study authors cautiously estimated a compensation target which exceeded Northwest University’s previous figures of US$153-million. The larger estimate “provides a conservative test”, he contended. 

Dr Herbert Ntuli, a contributing researcher from Pretoria University, said: “Trophy hunting is controversial. On one hand it can generate revenue and create conservation incentives for local communities. But others have argued that it can also damage the economy and conservation reputation if international tourists choose to visit elsewhere.” 

Ntuli noted: “Given the current situation, further exploration of a ‘lion protection fee’ should be carried out. It could be a vital piece of the puzzle to prevent negative consequences for wildlife or livelihoods in South Africa.” DM

Absa OBP

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  • Chris Lee says:

    All well and good – if the revenue were to be applied for the purpose – I think we all know that as soon as it gets anywhere near one of our government officials, that will be the end of that.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    A good article exploring many points of view. I feel the issue of canned hunting should be dealt with under our animal anti-cruelty laws – it should not be something used as an excuse to stop all hunting. Whether you are pro or against hunting, one needs to recognise that hunting takes many forms, from shooting game birds to antelope for the pot, to shooting jackal and rooikat to protect livestock, to shooting big cats, rhino, buff, large antelope and ellies for trophies, and for culling purposes. A tourism levy will not sort all of these issues out – you’re taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. It’s a really dumb academic idea with little attachment to reality.

  • José Lueje says:

    In my opinion, all levies imposed for a very worthwhile project, are very soon misused, and abused.
    In my short experience in RSA since 1965 , that I remember I have leaved with a
    1 Fuel levy, to build & maintain all roads in the Country. That eventually ended paying for the war in Angola, before disappearing within the general administration income.
    2 Tourism levy, 1% added to all Tourist services started in the (90″s?), as a voluntary contribution to the worldwide marketing of our Country. It has become a compulsory charge on all hotel & related services. My companies have contributed millions to it. Used for what ?.
    3 Now a new one to eliminate the hunting industry ?. Eliminating hunting has been on the agenda, we can now say for centuries. If you have the money, you will find your lion, or your new kidney. The levy will need administrators, the only beneficiaries.
    I am against any levy on a Tourist. It’s difficult enough to bring them to our little spot, in a big wide world ?. Pay them to come, not try to fleece them, when they visit !.

  • John Nash says:

    1. South Africa has over 40 million acres of private hunting ranches. Those ranches contain more than 10 million wild animals ranched for hunting. Over a million are shot every year for meat, producing some 60,000 tons of organic, low carbon, low water, free range meat annually according to the govt. Game Meat Strategy (page 22), but the harvest is less than the wildlife birthrate, so numbers keep going UP not down. That’s what farmers and ranchers do and do well.
    60,000 tons of meat produces a whole mountain of horns and hides, most of which are destroyed, becoming animal feed and industrial derivatives, not trophies. The meat, of course, is eaten. If some foreign visitor wants to come to SA and pay well to hunt and take home horns or skin for his collection, it adds hugely to farm bottom line. The meat stays in SA. Trophy hunting income therefore tips the balance into hunting rather than cattle. Take away the trophy hunting and the favour tips back towards cattle. These are working farms, not charities. Hunting makes them proud, working SA taxpayers, not subsidy-seekers.

    • Rich Field Field says:

      Well put. Let’s not ignore the fact that with restricted habitats (due to human settlement and development) we have to manage populations to ensure sustainability. If populations are left un checked, they will eventually starve themselves due to overgrazing and the inability to move/migrate.
      This is a conservation reality – and if this can also be a premium income generator for the industry (and the peripheral industries of tanning, taxidermy, export etc) then why not make the necessity an incoming generating business.

    • Johan Buys says:

      40 million acres (16 million hectares) of hunting ranches? Have a look at a map of SA, one that has the national parks in green. That big green chunk on eastern border is Kruger National Park. It is 2 million hectares. Paint in another 8 Kruger Park areas and show us where our agriculture and other national parks fit. There are lots of farms that also have hunting and some are massive in Karoo and Kalahari – but they are by no stretch of the imagination “hunting ranches” in sense of hunting being their primary source of income.

      Switching from high intensity sheep/boerbok/cattle has definitely helped the ecology in places. Drive from Colesberg to Port Elizabeth past Jansenville and you can spot the veld quality and erosion difference from a mile.

      By all means, animals must pay their way, so hunt captive bred lion and surplus antelope etc. But lay off shooting the dominant male lion / leopard of a territory.

      The fee is anyway a joke : it will NEVER be applied to its intended purpose. Just another tax.

  • John Nash says:

    2. More important from a SA civilian point of view is that SA’s 40 million acres of “game farms”, twice the area of SA’s National Parks, also contain billions of indigenous animals, birds, reptiles, plants and trees that are not hunted and don’t need govt. support. That is a world-class conservation windfall and a wonderful model for the rest of Africa that SA can be very proud of. Without trophy hunting, much of it would be turned back to traditional farming, the sad story of the Amazon.

    Still sceptical? Kenya listened to interfering foreign NGO’s, banned hunting thirty years ago and has since lost 70% of its wildlife, killed by civilian kindness and replaced by more valuable cattle. SA embraced regulated hunting thirty years ago, made wildlife valuable, and has increased its wildlife by 2000%.
    Yes, hunting is uncivilised. That’s the point. Men evolved to go out of civilisation to hunt. When hunting, they become part of nature, predators. It is extremely exciting and predators, unlike charities, are normal in nature. Civilians will never understand this and charities know it – hence this “report”.

  • John Nash says:

    3. Now lions. There is a local and Far East demand for lion derivatives. Raising them for sale is no different to raising other animals, except the fencing, for good reason. If some are sold and shot by trophy hunters, it doesn’t affect the wild population, but it does bring in valued foreign exchange and even more important, it fills the demand for derivatives. If you stop the legal hunting, that demand will fall on the wild lions in the National Parks, just as it has on rhinos. If you stop lion hunting, you hand a monopoly to criminals.
    Don’t even ask what will happen to the money from a levy….that will evaporate faster than a Hotazel puddle in midsummer.

    Doctor D’Cruze knows all of this but would rather paint the picture for a kindly but gullible civilian viewpoint – 80+% of readers are urban civilians. It is hardly surprising because it’s his job, and his organisation, WAP, pulls in £38 million pa (R882 million) in donations and legacies from animal-loving civilians (UK Charity Commission).

    That money might be better spent positively, helping lions in SA rather than negatively, trying to use SA’s hunting tourist industry to blackmail SA’s wonderful civilian tourist industry.

    • Johan Buys says:

      The hunting guy said “ You’re not allowed to hunt a lion from a vehicle or over bait. You must do it on foot, and you can’t use artificial calling.” I have on two occasions destroyed hides right at border of national parks (no fence) with quarter buffalo hanging from tree and a pile of cans and bottles inside the hide. Distance from hide to buffalo meat is so short the “hunters” could resort to throwing bottles at the lion / leopard instead of shooting them. Not saying all hunters do this, but the industry has problems.

      • John Nash says:

        If the hides are on hunting property, why did you destroy them? Many National Park are surrounded by hunting grounds as buffer zones, removing wild animals before they reach farms or villages.
        Leaving litter in them is gross and a separate issue. It doesn’t sound very professional. A short range suggest a bow hunter (or poacher). They were definitely suspect.
        It is common and accepted practice to ambush hunt on foot (or sitting in a hide, but not in a vehicle unless disabled) – and to lure secretive or crepuscular animals to a bait – to a known spot and at known accurate range, covered by a camouflaged hide. It may not seem fair to a civilian, but then the point of hunting is the hunt, be it foot pursuit, walk and stalk, or ambush.
        Close to parks, it may result in lion “lure outs” from the parks, but even those can’t be hunted willy-nilly without a very special permit normally issued only for old dispersal lions. Since more than half of all wild lions are killed by other lions, any “territory gaps” inside a park caused by attracting a lion out, are quickly filled. Those that aren’t attracted out are pushed out anyway. Such wild-born lions are subject to the strictest possible permit controls and number only very few every year because they are so precious. Ranched lions, released to be hunted as ferals, are a different matter and are private property anyway.
        If you are not the property owner, I hope you notified the Kruger authorities about the hides.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    It is really a simplistic view. What is next, cattle breeding te be banned?

    Every action has a definite reaction and the moment you give government the excuse to levy another tax, they will keep on increasing it because they keep on stealing it.

  • Kevin Leo-Smith says:

    Beware always of the “law of unintended consequences”. Collecting a central levy fund has cost and will be riven with inefficiencies of collection, collation, errors and miscalculations. Then the real problem starts – how to find the private farms and communities where hunting takes place to effectively replace the revenue on site where the hunting took place.

    I can only assume these researchers and advocates actually applied their minds to how this money directly pays for the maintenance of these former huntings areas?

    One obvious scenario is a ranch that earned say R2 million from hunting would get R2 million from this fund? The fund assumes that the hunting revenue is matched by this tax on tourism – but after costs this will be some 25% less so therefore either these properties will get less than before or the levy will have to be higher.

    If I get revenue for essentially doing nothing then the incentive will be to collect the revenue and not do the work (anti-poaching, water point maintenance, fire breaks, road maintenance etc.) and keep the money. Perverse incentives always destroy pie in the sky ideas that get implemented.

    In short this is a terrible idea.

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