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Don’t let Hollywood decide Africa’s hunting policies

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.

Africa’s position on hunting and conservation is a mess of contradictory actions and confused policies. If this isn’t straightened out in a hurry, much damage will ensue, to both conservation and the hunting industry. Worse, the decisions will be made by the stars on the cover of People magazine.

The hunting industry is in turmoil, with two major hunting associations in South Africa at loggerheads over ranch lion hunting. A court has ruled that domestic trade in rhino horn may continue, while the government has slapped a ban on leopard trophy hunting. Kenya and Tanzania are burning their massive stockpiles of ivory, while elephant poaching numbers are reaching alarming heights.

If you follow just the headlines, you’ll probably know that musician Elton John, actors Leonardo di Caprio and Nicole Kidman, financier George Soros and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg will be the star attractions at an anti-poaching summit to be held in Kenya in April, during which a stockpile of ivory worth $270 million will be ritually burned.

You may know that the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA) has publicly bowed to public opinion, and made a stand against captive-bred lion hunting.

You may also have read that the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) in South Africa has imposed a one-year ban on leopard hunting, pending better information on the status of the country’s leopard population, and the threats facing it.

You may have read that some 100,000 African elephants, out of a likely (but uncertain) population of between 500,000 and 700,000, were poached in the three years from 2010 to 2012, despite a ban on ivory trade imposed in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

But what didn’t make the headlines is that while Kenya and Tanzania are prepared to sacrifice several hundred million dollars in potential revenue – which could fund conservation or socio-economic development – the same study that highlighted the extraordinary failure of the ban in ivory trade also says: “illegal killing increased markedly after 2008 and was correlated strongly with the local black market ivory price and increased seizures of ivory destined for China.”

CITES itself disputes that one-off auctions contributed to the illegal ivory trade by boosting demand: “The analysis of seizure data shows no correlation between the controlled ivory sales and an increase in poaching. In fact, levels of illegal ivory trade decreased in the two years following the first one-off sale. Poaching levels appear to be more closely related to governance problems and political instability in certain regions of the continent.”

Economically, of course, this makes perfect sense. Elephants get poached because there is a demand for ivory. When this supply gets seized by anti-poaching authorities, more elephants need to get poached to meet the demand. The price rises, rewarding poachers handsomely for this task. This turns a potentially sustainable business into an unsustainable criminal enterprise.

Kenya has long supported the ban on ivory trade, but then, it has also lost 85% of its wildlife to poachers since instituting a ban on trophy hunting in 1979. Its policies are not models of unqualified conservation success.

The fixation on maintaining a ban that has failed reached new heights of absurdity last year, with a call to place woolly mammoths on the endangered species list. Yes, they are already extinct (although scientists may yet revive the species), so protecting them seems rather silly. But the reasoning is that their tusks, of which massive numbers remain buried in the Siberian tundra, are being used as an alternative to elephant ivory. Some “experts” with no expertise in economics believe this is bad news, despite the fact that the two kinds of ivory can fairly easily be told apart. They think that banning the trade in mammoth ivory will protect elephants. Someway, somehow.

Rhino horn trade, about which I’ve written before, is subject to similar arguments. The recent escalation of the poaching crisis has coincided with a moratorium on trade in rhino horn, which is hardly a great testimonial about the efficacy of trade bans. The Pretoria High Court overturned the moratorium in November last year, after rhino ranchers John Hume and Johan Kruger argued that it is their constitutional right to sell what they see as a renewable resource.

The Environmental Affairs Department seems to have brushed of this ruling, however, and just two months later decided to issue zero hunting licences for leopards in South Africa. This effectively suspends trophy hunting of this sought-after species for a year. The department’s justification seems more sound, but it isn’t, really. Although legal trophy hunting may be poorly managed, illegal killing, especially of problem animals or to supply the market for skins worn for ceremonial purposes, appears to pose a much more serious threat. Little is known about the scale of the problem, or even about population numbers. In the absence of scientific data across the animals’ vast range, one might suppose that the best judges of sustainability are game farm owners who aim to supply such animals to hunters. This business might also satisfy much of the demand for skins, which means fewer people will turn to poaching to supply this market.

Despite the evidence that hunting is, on balance, good for both the economy and conservation, a few high-profile incidents involving questionable hunting practices have been in the spotlight over the last year.

The country’s largest hunting association, PHASA, noted late last year that “the tide of public opinion is turning strongly against [captive-bred lion hunting]”. It has threatened to expel members who participate in this pursuit.

The South African Predators Association (SAPA), which represents the lion breeding and hunting industry, issued a sharply-worded response: “SAPA is utterly disappointed by PHASA’s feckless about-turn on the issue of lion hunting. Although it has been expected for some time, it is still a slap in the face of a partner that has shown itself to be trustworthy and loyal in the hunting and wildlife industry. PHASA obviously did not base its decision on what is good for the lion population of South Africa, but rather to appease uninformed public opinion.”

It adds, “PHASA’s humiliating retreat on the issue was done with no small amount of hypocrisy,” noting that while it seeks to impose new restrictions on lion farms, it imposes no such conditions upon the owners of buffalo or rhino, which are also captive-bred for hunting.

PHASA last month penned a response, in which it claims that international hunting organisations, including the Safari Club in Dallas, Texas, “expressed their relief that PHASA had distanced itself from a practice which a great majority of hunters regard as an embarrassment.”

It has challenged the Predators Association to prove the conservation value of captive-bred lion hunting, and help reform the industry. “SAPA describes captive-bred lion hunting as ‘an important node of resistance against the opponents of all forms of hunting.’ In PHASA’s view, and that of the great majority of professional hunters and their clients, this practice is in fact the industry’s Achilles heel,” said the association’s president, Stan Burger.

SAPA is correct in saying the campaign against lion hunting is just a battle in the war against trophy hunting in general. “The entire industry and its sustainable benefits for wildlife preservation are at stake and PHASA has taken the side of those who would destroy it,” its president, Pieter Potgieter, wrote.

That the threats to the hunting industry are multiplying is undeniable. From high-profile celebrity campaigns against ivory trade, to conflicting decisions about trade in different species, to in-fighting among representative organisations, the public message is not one of unity and conviction.

Independent writer Peter Borchert bemoans the strident “for” and “against” camps on the subject of hunting, and cites some points often made on both sides, which he says merely degenerate into “yeah but, no but” arguments, “often ending in irrational conclusions on both sides of the divide”. Undeterred, he proceeds to make a strictly moral case against trophy hunting, which he says “turns upon the fundamental distinction between right and wrong”.

He neither bothers to point out the irrationality of either camp’s conclusions, nor does he justify why trophy hunting would be “right” or “wrong” beyond a simplistic emotional appeal about whether one species has the right to kill a member of another species for pleasure. This unresolved question, like so many moral questions, ventures into the realms of philosophy.

A simple counter-question would be by what right Borchert would prohibit the legal owner of game to dispose of their property however they see fit. Another would be that even though hunting makes up only a small percentage of the tourism industry, by what right would he deny game farms owners the opportunity to maximise their incomes by permitting hunting, rather than trying to attract eco-tourism to marginal land or turning their farms over to the plow?

Borchert doesn’t have to like hunting, but his distaste does not imply immorality. Even if it did, morality is not something that ought to be comprehensively legislated. Calling for such law when the issue happens to coincide with your own beliefs will come back to haunt you when it doesn’t.

In the end, Borchert does exactly what he decries in others: firmly placing himself into the “even more strident ‘under no circumstances’ camp”.

Africa’s policy on wildlife conservation and hunting is sharply divided. This scattergun approach is not exactly a ringing endorsement of particular policy options. Far from convincing CITES to reconsider its failed bans on trade in certain species, it only risks exacerbating the problems with both legal and illegal hunting.

The South African government, which rightly supports hunting in principle, should make clear exactly what it will and will not consider in tackling perceived excesses or ongoing poaching challenges. It should get other African countries on side. That Kenya and South Africa disagree on fundamental conservation issues does nobody any good.

That leaves policy to be decided by the likes of Leonardo di Caprio, Nicole Kidman, Elton John, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and a few foreign airlines who happily exploit American consumer polls for marketing purposes by banning the transportation of hunting trophies.

Does Africa need foreign celebrities to impose their uninformed sentiments upon it? Do we need to be saved from ourselves by rich, white elites? Do American consumers know what is good for Africa? I don’t think so.

The next CITES conference is to be held in September and October in Johannesburg, South Africa. If Africa does not make a firm, consistent stand, I’ll bet “concerned” Hollywood stars and environmental activists will get more applause and media headlines than our own African representatives. DM


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