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Hunting – a Great Debate

Text: John Hanks and Ian Michler. Photographs: Grant Atkinson and Tim Jackson. Article from the November 2013 issue of Africa geographic Magazine.

Each in his own way, columnists John Hanks and Ian Michler have been making valuable contributions to Africa Geographic for many years. It is a reflection of the complexity of conservation in Africa that these two men, who both strive for the protection of the continent’s biodiversity and wildernesses, hold fundamentally different viewpoints on the role of hunting in this endeavour.

Moved to respond to two of Ian’s recent columns, John sent us his thoughts on the subject – and they and Ian’s response make for enlightening reading.

Ian Michler’s diaries for March (‘Seeing the light’) and August (‘Dispelling misconceptions’) were very critical of the trophy hunting industry, calling for a ‘more reasoned look at hunting in Africa and the growing opposition to it’. Michler argues that trophy hunting is a poorer form of land use than photographic tourism, is detrimental to wildlife populations and makes no significant contribution to national GDPs and employment. These criticisms come at a time when Africa’s biodiversity is facing an unprecedented threat from widespread land transformation that is often linked to increasing poverty and unemployment, declining food security and inadequate budgets for virtually every conservation agency in Africa.

I am convinced that the simplistic and often emotional arguments against the hunting industry (which like any activity is far from perfect) are not helping to develop a coherent approach to the long-term future of natural areas. We do not need further polarisation of the consumptive use versus the strictly protectionist polemic, where both sides are often guilty of the crass stereotyping of opponents.

Few would dispute that the philosophical underpinnings of the protectionist paradigm assign an intrinsic value to individual animals, accepting them as fellow sentient beings and strongly opposing the killing of wild animals for any reason. However, this should not be an excuse for avoiding rational and informed debate. I shall attempt to engage not as a trophy hunter (which I have never been and never will be), but as an environmentalist who is aware of the real threats to biodiversity and, equally importantly, to the livelihoods of thousands of people in Africa’s rural communities.

In northern Botswana, scenic beauty and an abundance of wildlife make the region perfect for photographic tourism. In parts of Africa without this fortunate combination, trophy hunting could be an alternative to unsustainable agricultural land use.Michler argues that in Botswana it has been demonstrated conclusively that the economic merits of photographic ecotourism far outweigh those of hunting’. Clearly, where there are high wildlife densities and scenically attractive landscapes, there is greater potential for photographic tourism than for trophy hunting. However, in those areas where large mammals are few and scattered and the scenery is mundane, photographic safaris will not be viable. Here the better land-use option for biodiversity conservation can often be trophy hunting rather than domestic livestock and shifting agriculture. More significantly for resident communities, they have an incentive to protect the large mammals that would otherwise be seen as a threat to their livelihoods.

Jon Barnes, one of Africa’s most respected resource economists, presented a detailed analysis of the economic returns of these competing forms of land use in Botswana (Barnes, J.I. (2001). ‘Economic returns and the allocation of resources in the wildlife sector of Botswana.’ South African Journal of Wildlife Research 31(3&4): 141-153) and concluded that photographic tourism has greater benefits than consumptive use over about one-third of the wildlife estate. He then states: ‘Consumptive wildlife uses are relatively unimportant in terms of economic contribution, but they are the only use values possible in the less well-endowed two-thirds of the wildlife estate. This portion of wildlife land faces an economic threat of conversion to livestock grazing land, and consumptive uses are vitally important to help ensure its future retention under wildlife. Thus a ban on consumptive use, as recommended by some, would seriously jeopardise wildlife conservation, already under threat from livestock expansion, in large parts of Botswana.’

Wilderness Salaris, one of the country’s leading photo-tourism operators, has a position statement on trophy hunting that confirms this conclusion. It states: ‘The reality is that ecotourism on its own cannot ensure the conservation of Africa as a whole. There are areas that cannot support high-end, mid-range or even low-end photographic ecotourism. It is in these areas especially that hunting (conducted ethically, responsibly and sustainably) has a role to play. This has been true even in stable developed tourism industries like South Africa’s, and is certainly true in less mainstream destinations like the Central African Republic or Burkina Faso.

‘There are many cases in Africa where trophy hunting has added significant value to conservation and where photographic or non-consumptive tourism could not have been nearly as effective. We share the views of respected academics who have applied dispassionate analysis to Africa’s hunting industry and conclude that trophy hunting is of major importance to conservation in Africa by creating economic incentives over vast areas – including areas which may be unsuitable for alternative wildlife-based land uses such as photographic ecotourism [my italics].’

Michler cites the recent desk-top study on the value of trophy hunting by the Australian group Economists at Large. The report was commissioned by a consortium that includes the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Humane Society of America and the Born Free Foundation. These NGOs are opposed to hunting, so one may reasonably ask whether it is a truly objective report. In contrast, the peer-reviewed literature has many contributions from (non-hunting) conservation scientists who provide substantiated evidence of the ecological and socio-economic benefits of the consumptive use of wildlife compared to livestock farming in semi-arid areas. These are too numerous to quote here, but are studiously avoided by those who do not wish to read them.

In South Africa, notes Michler, hunting takes place on 13.1 per cent of the land yet contributes only 0.04 per cent to the GDP. This is incorrect and misleading. What he fails to mention is that 50 years ago South Africa had no hunting industry at all; there were no wildlife populations to support one. Trophy hunting now takes place over a large area of the country where cattle ranching has given way to the farming of wildlife species that previously occupied the land. That it can do so is a tribute to the public conservation agencies and landowners who built up wildlife populations on private land from an estimated 575 000 in 1966 to at least 18.6 million by 2007 (Carruthers, J. (2008). ‘Wilding the farm or farming the wild? The evolution of scientific game ranching in South Africa from the 1960s to the present.’ Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 63(2): 160-181).

Few can dispute that there are areas of Africa where photographic tourism is not viable, but safari hunting is a sustain-able alternative that benefits local communities and gives them strong incentives to retain wildlife on their lands

Game farms in South Africa have increased from fewer than 5 000 in 2002 to more than 12 000 in 2013 and generate revenue from a combination of ecotourism, the sale of live animals and several forms of hunting, with meat production as a by-product. Hunting makes by far the largest contribution, earning R7.7-billion in 2011: R3.1-billion from 250 000 South African biltong-producing hunters; R2.1-billion from 15 000 foreign trophy hunters; and the balance from addon services, accommodation and food.

Government-owned national parks and reserves cannot effectively conserve all the wildlife in South Africa and have to rely on game farmers for assistance. For example, a quarter of the country’s 20 900 rhinos – more than the entire rhino population in the rest of Africa – are on private land. The hunting industry has been responsible for species like rhino, sable and roan being bred by game farmers and returned to where they once occurred in healthy numbers – and has helped to generate the income needed for sustained breeding programmes. Furthermore, a move away from agriculture brings with it an increase in the diversity of other animals and plants, and this must surely be welcomed?

Brian Child, who has published extensively on this subject, has noted that beef commodity prices have been stagnating globally for nearly four decades (albeit with a significant upturn in the past two years). And while beef production elsewhere has steadily shifted away from dry lands since the 1960s thanks to grain feeding, nitrogen supplementation and feedlots, in Africa this is not the case and the continent’s farmers are unlikely to be competitive with large-scale meat production in Argentina, Brazil and the US. For ecological and economic reasons, the game-ranching economy is a legitimate option that should be supported by all who are serious about the long-term future of Africa’s biodiversity. With a more favourable policy environment, it could even be applied on a much broader scale than at present, especially if it can be adapted to Africa’s circumstances through approaches like community-based natural resource management (www.pastoraIismjournaI.com/content/ 2/1/18).

It is hardly surprising that according to Michler hunting generates a very small percentage of the GDP in South Africa, whose export-based economy is the largest and most developed on the continent. The country is rich in natural resources and a leading producer of valuable minerals, and at the end of 2012 its GDP stood at US$384.31-billion. Hunting on private land alone is worth more than US$l-billion, contributing significantly to the economy. Michler’s figure of hunting contributing 0.04 per cent to the GDP is far too low – it is at least 0.26 per cent, and as this comes from mainly marginal land, it is not inconsequential. More than 70 000 jobs have been created on newly established game farms in recent years and by 2020 the industry will have generated an additional 220 000. For Michler to claim that the hunting industry creates employment for only 0.0001 per cent of Africa’s available workforce is misleading in the extreme.

In previous issues of Africa Geographic I have described how wildlife populations are increasing steadily in Namibia, particularly on conservancies where the communities have ownership of the wild animals. The significant financial returns they gain from safari hunting are a key factor in improving how they protect and manage their wildlife. There are now 79 community conservancies covering 19.4 per cent of Namibia’s area, and trophy hunting and non-consumptive tourism are a vital component of their income.

Livestock numbers on private land declined from 1.8 million to 0.91 million between the early 1970s and 2001, whereas huntable wildlife populations doubled from 0.565 million to 1.161 million. ‘On private land in Namibia hunting has driven a lot of the investment in wildlife,’ says Jon Barnes. ‘Indeed hunting, initially as a supplementary enterprise alongside livestock, is the source of income for rein-vestment in wildlife, which then makes it possible first to expand hunting and then to invest in viable non-consumptive tourism on private land.’

In his August diary, Michler refers to another ‘misconception peddled by the hunting industry’, namely that the decline in Kenya’s wildlife (70 per cent in large-mammal populations since the 1970s) is a direct result of the moratorium placed on hunting there in 1977. What he fails to mention is that IFAW and other animal rights protagonists have been instrumental in convincing Kenya to maintain the 1977 ban.

A well-researched and balanced account of the impact of banning hunting is Glen Martin’s Game Changer: Animal rights and the fate of Africa’s wildlife (University of California Press, 2012), which assesses the Kenyan situation in contrast to developments in Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa. In these countries, hunting by citizens and foreign tourists is an integral part of wildlife management and the sustainable use of wild animals is expanding – as are their populations in Namibia and South Africa. There is now evidence to suggest that the collapse of wildlife in Kenya has been due largely to the explosion of bushmeat poaching in former hunting concessions.

Few can dispute that there are vast areas of Africa where photographic tourism is not viable, but safari hunting is a realistic and sustainable alternative that benefits local communities and gives them strong incentives to retain wildlife on their lands. Surely it makes economic and ecological sense to not exclude this option but to manage it better so that greater profits accrue to the communities and biodiversity is conserved?

If trophy hunting were to be stopped in Africa, in those parts of the continent where photographic tourism is not viable we can expect to see wildlife areas being used for subsistence agriculture, with increased human-wildlife conflict and declining large-mammal populations. Some people may rather see this than know that hunters are paying for the pleasure of killing animals there – unfortunately an objective assessment of conservation benefits is rarely the primary concern of animal rights groups that care more about the welfare of individuals than about the long-term survival of species. Others believe that well-managed trophy hunting is a small price to pay for retaining biodiversity.

John Hanks

John HanksA zoologist by training, John Hanks took his first degree, in Natural Sciences, at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and followed it with a PhD on the reproductive physiology, growth and population dynamics of elephants in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia. He has more than 45 years of experience in a wide variety of conservation management and research projects.

Hanks has worked in Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe in posts that have ranged from chief professional officer at the then Natal Parks Board to the director of the Africa Program for WWF International, chief executive of WWF-South Africa and executive director of the Peace Parks Foundation. He has published more than I SO scientific papers.

Given the increasing scrutiny of the trophy hunting industry, John Hanks’s defence of it is not surprising – and I suspect that it comes as much on behalf of pro-hunting groups as it does from his own thinking. Also unsurprising is that it lays out no new arguments to support the activity, only summarising the sector’s traditional justification for its sport. There is thus no need to tackle again on a broad scale the merits or otherwise of hunting in relation to the economic, conservation and community management of protected areas. On the micro issues that relate to specific facets in specific regions, the valid points conceded on both sides are outweighed by the opposing big-picture perspective.

So I most definitely stand by the gist of both ‘Seeing the light’ and ‘Dispelling misconceptions’, especially given that they highlight new and credible economic evidence. In the case of Botswana, based on 20 years of experience as well as scientific input, they underscore fresh approaches to dealing with wildlife management models that most people, including Hanks, seem to agree need improvement.

I do, however, want to comment on a few related aspects that this discussion brings to light. The first pertains to a point in ‘Dispelling misconceptions’ that Hanks seems to have missed – or is reluctant to concede its validity for fear that the whole basis for trophy hunting would become even less tenable. Either way, it obviously needs to be stated with greater clarity.

The trophy hunting debate can no longer be confined to the assumption that it’s acceptable to kill wild animals for their heads, horns and skins. Wrapped up in the principles of consumptive utilisation, the discussion typically embraces the traditional claims and counter-claims that are well covered in the two ‘diaries’ and in Hanks’s response to them. But while this thinking has dominated wildlife management practices across Africa over the past century or so, a different viewpoint is now coming to the fore – and it needs more thoughtful exposure, comment and debate.

The new approach challenges the essence of trophy hunting by asking whether killing wild animals for fun is appropriate behaviour in the first place. The industry is clearly uncomfortable in dealing with this question but, by the very nature of what hunting involves, the two standpoints are inextricably linked.

To explain this further, we first need to talk about the trophy, the ultimate prize around which the whole industry of killing animals has been built. In pursuit of it, hunters go after the largest and heaviest animals, the very best of the gene pool – exactly the opposite of what predators do in the wild. And there’s no refuting it – it’s in the marketing, the record books, the stories, the hunting methods and the history. More to the point, the importance of the trophy is reflected even in the denial that it is important, which comes with a contradictory refusal to consider any notion of tampering with its status.

It is crucial to understand this, as it explains why the pro-hunting lobby fights so vehemently to link the activity with economic and conservation justifications. The crux here is that just because something can be justified does not mean that it is right, or true for every constituency.

Furthermore, the trophy argument remains mired in thinking that was forged more than a century ago, whereas during the same period the worlds of science and biology – and the humanities – have made substantial advances in unravelling our knowledge of other species, the environment in general and the role we play in it. More specifically, over the past two decades the fields of ecology, genetics, ethology, affective neuroscience, systems theory, evolutionary biology and ethics have all given us a far greater understanding of the cognitive abilities and behavioural patterns and responses of other species, as well as our connectedness to them. These are significant and compelling enough to suggest that we should alter our attitude and behaviour to animals and the environment in much the same way that we have shown progressive responses to other scientific breakthroughs in so many areas. However, there has been no such response from the trophy hunting fraternity, other than to reinforce its right to hunt. The silence from that quarter is a telling indictment, and for many it’s incomprehensible.

The importance of the trophy is reflected even in the denial that it is important, which comes with a contradictory refusal to consider any notion of tampering with its status

On this point Hanks does fleetingly concede to animals’ sentience, but goes on to nullify this on the grounds that ‘this should not be an excuse for avoiding rational and informed debate’. This is an anthropocentric approach and given that this factor is central to the debate, it’s a simplistic and convenient take on it. Like it or not, at some stage the hunting community is going to have to address it.

If you have a viewpoint based on a different ideology, which is reinforced by persuasive science that throws up new and convincing data, it is logical to question anachronistic mind-sets. And despite Hanks’s pleas, as science progresses and sheds further light on our understanding of the natural world and the devastating impacts we have on it, it is also logical to foresee that, in the absence of any attitudinal change, the debate will become more polarised rather than less so.

This leads into an aspect of the debate that is laced with even greater passion: the role of emotion. More than any wounded buffalo, it’s a word that seems to terrify everyone in the pro-hunting fraternity. In continuously trying to banish sentiment from the discussion, what are they actually saying? That all hunters and their supporters are emotionless souls? I don’t think so. It’s nonsensical, as emotion is intrinsic to decision making – we feel before we think. And, as alluded to in ‘Dispelling misconceptions’, such an approach ‘only serves to aggravate the industry’s image problems’.

The most profound statement that Hanks has made in his entire critique is that he himself has never hunted and never will be a hunter. Given that everything he says is in complete support of trophy hunting, it is interesting that he has made such a clear personal decision against his own reasoning. The economic and conservation arguments he puts forward are not strong enough to convince him to take up a rifle for the cause. So if his decision is not based on science or reason, it has to have been made on other grounds.

As any psychologist or philosopher will tell you, rational or logical decisions are always preceded by an emotional gut-feel, an almost immediate sense of what is right or wrong within your own ethical framework. More importantly, ethical acts are based on emotional stability, not science or reason. History has also taught us very clearly that apparently sound reasoning can result in the most terrible behaviour, as exemplified by apartheid. The lesson from this is that reason should not be the sole factor in making important decisions. As a consequence, we also know that moral action and not reason or scientific inquiry is ultimately the force behind change.

I suspect that the real reasons why trophy hunters are so anxious about the emotional component to the debate are that they cannot control it and they fear it may bring about a change that will cause them to lose out on their favourite activity. As a final word on the subject, I suggest that in his personal response to what hunting entails, Hanks’s decision to not raise a gun to an animal is based on emotion.

Whereas a trophy hunter sees here a magnificent set of horns, a hunting opponent sees a sentient creature and a single constituent of an interconnected natural system that includes human beings.With this in mind, I now want to address the thinly veiled disparagement of conservation organisations that are not in favour of trophy hunting. In his opening remarks, Hanks states that we ‘do not need further polarisation’ of the debate but goes on to incite it by implying that the message of certain organisations is not credible because their stance is different from his. This seems a disingenuous approach, especially as he has already declared that he is not a hunter. It is worth adding that I – and many others – think that the work of the organisations named is both credible and compelling, and perhaps strong enough to effect change. None of the groups hold extreme views – for the most part they occupy the middle ground – and most make worthy contributions to conservation.

Finally, Hanks talks of the South African game ranching and hunting industry, a beast like no other in Africa. It is true that many farmers and businessmen have turned to breeding wild animals, with the result that there are more of them outside the nationally protected areas than there were a few decades ago. But under what conditions and to what purpose?

South Africa can boast many notable conservation successes and has produced outstanding individuals in this field, but its fine reputation is fast being overshadowed by a sector that has spawned some of the most horrific practices imaginable: the intensive breeding of predators, a thriving canned hunting industry, inbreeding and cross-breeding procedures, the theft of wild genes, and petting and other exploitative animal operations. Many of these practices are illegal, most are cruel and none have anything to do with biodiversity conservation. What are king wildebeest, golden zebras, black springbok and ligers other than the crude excesses of an industry out of control? With respect to game ranching, Hanks talks of economic spinoffs and population statistics, but makes no mention of this aspect of the industry. The ultimate irony is that game farmers have begun the domestication process of many species, undermining the very premise on which their industry is based.

Like Hanks, I am an environmentalist and have significant experience in Africa on the issues up for discussion. But unlike him, I cannot support trophy hunting as an effective wildlife management tool in our protected areas. In fact, I would go as far as to say that in many regions it is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And what takes place on many private game farms in South Africa is nothing short of disgraceful – a situation for which trophy hunters and the government are largely responsible. I agree that the continent’s biodiversity is under serious threat and that our models need to be reviewed urgently at every level. But I don’t share Hanks’s pessimism that this cannot be achieved without killing our gene pool. Science and the experiences of countries like Botswana are showing that we need a new and more enlightened paradigm. 

Ian Michler

Ian MichlerIan Michler has spent the past 24 years immersed in ecotourism and conservation in Africa as a guide, tour operator, journalist and consultant. His interest in the trophy hunting sector took root in 1995, when he began investigating why he kept hearing rifle shots and light aircraft long after the hunting season had closed. He continued to follow leads, which soon took him right into the heart of South Africa’s wildlife industry. He has been covering these issues for Africa Geographic and other publications ever since.


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