We beat conventional wisdom with a stick
28 July 2017 00:34 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Dishonest environmental campaigns will harm lions

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

In the emotion-laden debate about hunting, environmental campaigners do their cause no favours by accusing others of errors and word play, while doing exactly that themselves.

In the wake of my column about lion hunting, prompted by the global outrage over the illegal killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe, a major anti-hunting campaign tackled me. I was “just plain wrong” and “just didn’t get it”, they told their social media audience.

Unsurprisingly, the Global March for Lions (GML), a protest group launched last year by Christine Jordaan in support of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH), wanted to discredit the column I’d written. After all, they oppose trophy hunting, while I do not.

Their general view, that a ban on trophy hunting and private or public restrictions on trade will “save lions”, is a subject I dealt with in that column, and won’t repeat myself in detail here.

My case is made much more eloquently in a short film on the Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe. This was once a huge cattle ranching farm, but has been converted into a thriving game conservation area where big game thrives as part of a sustainable ecosystem, supported by hunting alone. Anyone who is inclined to jump to emotional conclusions about hunting should watch this first.

In expressing its disagreement, the GML made public claims about my article that were, quite simply, false. Speaking to thousands of followers around the world, it asked where I got my statistics from, as if I had cited no support for them. It accused me of failing to distinguish between captive-bred and wild lions. It said I gave Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa cover for “abusing definitions” by not bothering to mention the applicable laws. It challenged my observation that lions are classified as vulnerable – a status less than endangered – by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, claiming that lions are endangered. It said I was “going as far as trying to highlight what hunting brings to (an) economy”.

All these claims are untrue. I responded to them, because my opinion on hunting is controversial enough without having an activist organisation trying to falsely discredit it.

Implying that I’d just made it up on the spot, the GML questioned the basis of my claim that on a typical hunting farm, between 2% and 5% of male lions are actually shot by trophy hunters, and that academics consider this rate to be “sustainable and low-risk if well-managed”. They did so despite the fact that I supplied a link to my source, a study by Lindsey et al, published in the journal Conservation Biology. I consider that dishonest on the part of a global campaign that publicly attacked my command of the subject. My columns do not contain links to sources for nothing.

The GML activist wrote: “Saying that SA's wild lions are captive bred is plainly wrong,” pointing out that there are 3,000 wild lions and 8,000 captive-bred lions in South Africa. But I never said that, I did made the distinction, and I also quoted similar numbers.

The Biodiversity Management Plan for Lions, published in April 2015, and to which I linked, estimates the total number of captive-bred lions in 200 facilities across South Africa to be 6,000, while the wild and “managed wild” population amounts to 3,155. Captive lions are those that exist on commercial game farms, where they generate revenue. Lions are considered to be wild if they exist in formal national parks, where their populations “are largely unmanaged, stable and viable”. Lions are classified as “managed wild” in smaller reserves, where population growth is actively limited and genetic diversity is maintained. Threats to these populations in South Africa “are generally low”, and they have “increased by 30% in the last three decades.”

Saying that I confused these groups is plainly wrong. By contrast, anti-hunting campaigns do conflate poaching with hunting, trophy hunting with “canned hunting”, and South Africa’s lion conservation issues with those of other countries.

I was accused of not quoting the Threatened or Protected Species (Tops) regulations in my column, thereby helping Molewa “abuse definitions”. Of course, a campaign that seeks to ban trophy hunting altogether is likely to disagree with Molewa about what exactly constitutes prohibited “canned hunting”. However, I do not have to parrot their opinions. More importantly, I did quote the relevant legislation. I cited the regulations specific to lions, which were published in April 2015, and therefore supercede the more general Tops regulations of 2013. I provided the requisite link so I did not have to quote legislation verbatim. Suffice to say that these rules prohibit a range of practices that constitute “canned hunting” in section 72. The GML believes these rules to be “incorrect” and that they constitute “a play on words, but it is not a failure on my part not to say so, and not to rail against a minister whose department actually supports both the GML and the CACH.

The GML’s assertion that lions are “endangered” because their numbers are akin to those of rhino is patently false and reveals a grave lack of understanding of conservation issues. Absolute numbers are not the sole indicator of the health or conservation status of a population. The IUCN classification is clear. Lions are not endangered, no matter what the GML says. As I wrote, South Africa may not even have the carrying capacity for more wild lions. In fact, the management plan co-developed by the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and Panthera, a respected conservation group, argues that a stable population of mature lions greater than 1,500 – as South Africa has – should not even qualify as vulnerable, and the IUCN should downgrade the status of this sub-population. The only reason the GML wants to convince people that lions are endangered is to get its IUCN status upgraded, and to get it listed under the US Endangered Wildlife Act. This is patently dishonest.

Certainly, I did “go as far as trying to highlight what hunting brings to an economy”. In my previous column about hunting, I also noted that the industry was worth a not inconsiderable R6.2-billion. It is a part of the debate, and one that I believe is important.

They may choose to ignore what hunting brings to an economy, because they believe that a lion’s life cannot be worth that much, but merely raising the issue in debate does not make me biased, as the GML claims. It recognises that the needs and wants of communities living closest to wildlife should be taken into account by policy makers.

I’ll admit, I do not have a very high opinion of well-off white people who simply dismiss what hunting brings to an economy. I think such people are elitists who implicitly value animal life more highly than human life, which is only underscored by the scale of the internet outrage over animals compared to the outrage over humans who are killed, abused, or mired in poverty.

When I said that dishonesty in fundraising should be illegal – on the grounds that selling anything under false pretences constitutes fraud – the person behind the GML’s Twitter account replied “luckily we’re a campaign and don’t fundraiser (sic) then”. It added that it was not part of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, as it appears. But it supports the CACH, which does call for donations to pursue its cause, it clearly aims to support the CACH in raising funds. Instead of its own web address, the CACH’s address appears on the logo banners of the Global March, and the CACH in turn promotes the GML. They explicitly admit to being closely associated – in fact, the CACH is first on the GML’s list of participating organisations, as its founder’s inspiration. To suggest that the group’s claims are not made in support of fundraising is disingenuous in the extreme.

The danger is that the uninformed public will gladly believe anything such a group says. The pressure on governments to act is fuelled by exaggerated claims, false accusations and rash presumptions. Worse, private organisations may find the public pressure to restrict the sale and transport of legal trophies too much to resist, whether the cause is justified or not.

Respectable media pick up these claims, and repeat them with a dash of sensationalism. Who is going to dispute National Geographic, when it says: “Up to 7,000 lions are living behind bars in South Africa“? That is simply not true.

Who will explain that only a small percentage of captive-bred lions are in fact hunted for sport, and that of those, only a fraction can be described as “canned hunts”? Who will tell them it is not at all clear that banning hunting, whether for sport or game management, will “save our lions”? Who will tell them of places like the Bubye Valley Conservancy, where lion conservation is exclusively dependent on the success of the hunting industry, and will end if trophy hunting is banned?

Who will tell people that restricting imports of trophies, or pressurising American Airlines, eBay or FedEx to refuse to facilitate trophy sales will backfire, because it will lead to a decline, not an increase, in the lion populations of many African countries, as it did in Kenya?

Who will explain that the biggest threat to lion populations is habitat destruction in countries where the animals have little economic value, so anti-poaching efforts are not worth it, and to convert game farms to cash-generating crops or livestock has more value to both farm owners and the local population?

Who will correct Time magazine when it conflates hunting with poaching, as if they are the same thing? They are not. Much revenue generated by lion hunting is used to fight the threat of poaching. Even if you believe that hunting farm owners do not care about conservation, they do care about protecting their assets from thieves.

Who will warn those readers that Time magazine, like the GML, conflates rhinos and lions, as if the two animals face the same conservation issues? Does anyone notice when activists and journalists write about Africa as if it is all just one big country, and lion populations everywhere face the same pressures?

By all means, campaign against canned hunting. There is a good case to be made that inexperienced hunters do sometimes hunt animals from the back of vehicles, while the animals are in enclosures or under sedation, and that this is unnecessarily cruel. There is a good reason to campaign against this practice. Even the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa has called upon its members to step up their game in this respect, if you’ll excuse the pun.

But if you’re making that case by exaggeration and falsehoods, in support of a larger goal like banning all sport hunting, then you do not deserve the support – or the money – of the public. That, simply speaking, is fraud, and it discredits the conservation cause which you claim to support.

Besides, nobody has the right to whip up internet lynch mobs to destroy the careers of individuals, as GML explicitly does. If what those hunters did was wrong, they are entitled to a fair hearing. Mob justice has no place in a civilised society. For someone who is willing to sit in judgment upon others to call me “arrogant”, as GML did (in a message that appears to have been deleted), is rich.

Besides ruining lives and livelihoods far beyond just the hunter in question, such campaigns bring about over-compensation in public policy. This throws out the baby with the bathwater. While activists celebrate moves to prohibit trophy hunting, they do not actually help lions.

These groups only satisfy the knee-jerk emotions of internet mobs and their own campaign funds, while ironically, they accuse others of barbaric greed. Whether well-intended or not, they are no better than the caricature they draw of trophy hunters. Except that hunters are more honest and cause less harm to lions. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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