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The lion hunt controversy: Why use bullets instead of cameras?


David Forbes is an independent filmmaker, writer, artist, photographer, tour guide and political and social commentator. The views expressed here are his own.

Controversy continues to escalate over the hunt of a lion in a private game reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park by a wealthy American hunter on June 7, 2018.

This article was published originally here

‘Skye’  has not been seen since 8 June. Is he alive? Photo: Nadine Dreyer

Respected environmental journalist Don Pinnock recently alerted the public to the hunt in the Umbabat private nature reserve, which has drawn a vitriolic media response from local hunter Peter Flack.

Emotions are running high on social media such as Facebook, where hunting versus conservation adherents are at war. Letters are written to the editor, journalists scurry all over Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Gauteng, conservation NGOs are outraged, lawyers’ letters are written, press releases put out, and the media storm continues unabated.

Hunt details are deliberately vague and scarce: a male lion was hunted on June 7 in the Umbabat area, somewhere on a conglomerate of private properties known as Group 13 which is accessible only to their landowners and the warden or ranger and anti-poaching patrols.

Group 13 consists of properties named as Luttig Trust (2), Willson, Joubert, Nyoka, Tloupane, De Villiers, Buchner, and Nyarhi. No further details of these secretive properties or their owners is known at this stage.

The lion was baited, says the warden, Bryan Havemann. It was then shot by a rich businessman from Kentucky, USA, (name known) for an amount in excess of R1 million, according to press reports. The hunt was facilitated by a hunting outfit based in Nelspruit (name also known) and the carcass was taken to a taxidermist in Nelspruit (name also known). Although the hunt was billed as an “open range, fair chase, ethical, sustainable” hunt, the fact that the lion was baited is illegal and suggests otherwise.

The lion, whose identity has not yet been established, is believed by some who visit the area regularly to be nicknamed Skye, the dominant male of a lion pride in the area that often ranges into Kruger National Park (KNP). More about this later.

There is some debate around whether Skye’s pride, known locally as the Western Pride, is a Kruger-based pride or a private nature reserve (PNR) pride. It may also be mixed. Many people are naturally outraged that one of South Africa’s natural resources and major tourist attractions is being commercially exploited by trophy hunters.

Further, if Skye was the hunted lion, the cubs and young males he sired will be killed by a new lion that takes over the pride, disrupting the pride’s social structure, so the consequences of the hunt may be much worse than expected. Already one of the three lion cubs has been killed by lions from another pride.

A mother and three cubs, believed to be from the Western Pride. One of these cubs is now dead, killed because the pride male could not defend them. Photo: David Forbes

People are also upset that some PNRs adjoining Kruger allow trophy hunting. Others, such as Ingwelala, do not. The UNESCO-declared KNP-to-Canyons Biosphere on which many of these PNRs are situated is a global and national heritage site. When the fences are down, animals can belong in one moment to KNP and then, by crossing an invisible line where the fences used to be, suddenly be privately owned.

Conservationists are rightly saying that hunting should not be allowed in PNRs that are buffer zones to KNP where fences are down, as the identity and ownership of animals hunted in these PNRs cannot be established.

The debate for and against hunting is reaching a new peak, with respected conservationists like Ian Michler being branded as anything from “not caring about conservation” to “trying to make everyone a vegan”.The conservationists, on the other hand, have demanded a review of hunting licence practices by the authorities, specific information regarding this particular hunt, and have engaged lawyers to fight for the rights of wild animals.

With good reason.

Lion populations have decreased in Africa by 90 percent in the last 100 years, with only around 20 000 left. First it was rhino poaching (South Africa loses more than 1000 a year), then lion bones to replace dwindling supplies of tiger bones for trade in the Far East, and now elephants are being poached increasingly regularly.

A Chatham House report says illegal wildlife trade is rising at an “alarming rate”, and has more than doubled in the last decade, with the crime threatening the stability and security of societies and economic life at every point along the chain.

The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest globally after narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking, and impacts far beyond the “mere” killing of wild animals.

Poaching of endangered species is estimated to be worth more than US$8 billion to US$10 billion a year (excluding fisheries and timber). The wider category of the illegal wildlife trade (such as birds, reptiles and other animals such as pangolin) is estimated at a staggering US$19 billion per year.

The legal wildlife trade is estimated at a further US$300 billion a year, with annual hunting revenues in sub-Saharan Africa estimated at around US$200 million.

Both legal and illegal trade devastates biodiversity, fuels civil conflict, threatens national stability and provokes economic losses worldwide. Indirect costs are not known.

Returning to the hunt, following Pinnock’s article, Umbabat put out a media statement purporting to “put the record straight”, claiming its own members manage the 18 000 ha “according to good conservation practices as outlined and agreed upon by all the reserves and relevant provincial authorities, such as the MTPA (Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency).”

Very few (and none from Umbabat) of these documents or policies are in the public domain, to my knowledge. Neither are the Management Plan or the minutes or policies of the Management Authority of the Umbabat nature reserve (UPNR), which also claims that 65 percent of their budget goes to anti-poaching, which protects wildlife (but also their hunters and their potential prey).

UPNR claims 30 percent of its income from hunting, and “none of the funds from hunting goes to any individual. There is no personal gain from hunting for UPNR members.” Why then do the landowners support hunting if there is nothing in it for them?

With regard to the laws governing hunting, the Greater Kruger Hunting Protocol cannot be found during a quick search of the internet. Is it public? The UPNR claims that before a hunting permit is issued, “a rigorous process of assessment and adjudication takes place. Animals are counted, studies are compiled, experts are consulted, reserve management practices are scrutinised and assessed, needs are considered whether appropriate, and only thereafter, will the authorities consider issuing a permit to hunt” (sic). The questions of who compiles the studies, who the experts are, who monitors the management practices (UNPR has not been monitored for the past year by KNP), who assesses and scrutinises practices etc, are not explained. Are hunters themselves judge and jury?

The UNPR then accuses someone of a “leak” of a “premature document to bring discord” and to allege the UNPR was engaged in illegal hunting. They also dismiss the “luring” of a lion from KNP (although they make no mention of the baiting that occurred). While the UPNR claims the hunted lion was not Skye, they have not to date provided any evidence (photographic, examination of the skin for comparison to known photographs etc) to back up their claim. And Skye and his pride have not been seen since June 8, with the death of the one cub confirmed by a ranger.

A meeting between the UPNR and Theo van Wyk, the chair of the Nkorho Reserves (a sub-reserve), adjudicated by confirming that “legal and other requirements regarding the hunting protocol was adhered to, including principles and ethics”. Nkorho also “reviewed” the photographic evidence, and concluded that the hunted lion was not the same” (as Skye).

Well then, nothing to worry about. Just a storm in a teacup.

Except that none of this “evidence”, nor the documentation requested, has been provided. I doubt it will be, unless public pressure is brought to bear on them.

The root problem appears to be the well-trodden myth that blood-lusting hunters always resort to: hunting pays for conservation and is sustainable. Evidence shows that hunting pays very little to conservation. There are also never any financial documents provided to sustain their argument. If they opened their books and the hunting fraternity was less secretive (do they have something to hide?) then perhaps we could have an even-handed debate about it.

The business model of African Parks ( successfully manages 15 protected areas in nine countries in Africa, and employs more than 1 000 rangers, using a budget of approximately US$35 million in 2016. It is headquartered in Johannesburg, and Prince Harry is president. That sounds much more sustainable than hunting for trophies.

There have been scenarios posted of how photographic safaris could outweigh hunting safaris in terms of income and sustainability. But do the landowners want to spend the cash setting up a tourist operation for longer-term benefits and income? Or is the hunting myth just a smokescreen for bloodlust? Boys with guns? Danger? Camaraderie? Male drinking sessions around the braai or in the boma? A hangover from war? The insufferable, eternal arrogance of Americans and Europeans? Another manifestation of the racist, patriarchal, archaic inheritance from apartheid days?

The jury is out. For me, I have made my decision.

Morality and personal ethics demands that I work to help save the planet from wanton human destruction. Animals don’t have guns. They can’t shoot back. They have a limited habitat, they can’t run away. They have no money. They can’t hire security.

The animals have no voices except ours. We must use them. Let us not allow silence, or worse, indifference, to destroy our country’s future income and prosperity. We must keep one of Africa’s few wildlife wonders alive and thriving.

If we don’t, our children will see the extinction of species and the destruction of our heritage. Would any hunter really want that? DM


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