Trophy hunting as a conservation management tool in Africa features in debates frequently. The outcry on banning trophy hunting’s a hot topic. It sky-rocketed into the headlines when Cecil the lion died in Zimbabwe in 2015. Now, weighing up the options to hunt or not emerges from the backlash of the “Cecil effect.” In an exclusive interview, Blondie Leathem, general manager of Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe, answered questions to alternatives.
Trophy hunting, conservation, and Cecil the Lion
Many countries in Africa use trophy hunting as a sustainable conservation management practice. American hunter, Walter Palmer, killed Cecil with a bow and arrow 10 hours after first wounding the animal. Although fiercely criticized, Walter never got held accountable. In fact, he held the correct permits and the lion died outside the protected area of Hwange National Park.
However, Cecil spent much of his life studied by The Wildlife Conservation Research Unit from Oxford University. The hullabaloo reached the far corners of western media. Furious, many animal lovers called for a ban on all trophy hunting. Meanwhile, from the perspective of African hunting operatives in Africa, controlled hunting of animals betters the old fashioned culling methods. Contrary to popular perceptions, animals don’t simply roam free all over Africa.
Endangered species hunted in the USA, the Botswana experiment
In 2018, National Geographic reported on the stalled case for hunting Grizzly bears in the USA. “At the time, Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, a group of scientists formed by the Department of Interior,” spoke about it. He argued that the “population can support hunting because it…reached its carrying capacity in many portions of core habitat.” Apart from hunters wanting access to Grizzly hunts, the USA enjoys many hunting opportunities as a recreational sport, seemingly with little criticism.
Meanwhile, the bear case debate coincided with various organizations continually urging African countries to ban all hunting. In fact, in 2012, Botswana’s President Ian Khama announced hunting would be banned in Botswana. A ban in place lifted in 2019 with many conservationists noting why. In fact, it seems the increase in animals caused more human/elephant conflict. Irish Times noted, “At the time, the committee chair said it recommended, “a legal framework that will enable the growth of a safari hunting industry” Plus they could “manage the country’s elephant population within the historic range.”
Meanwhile, termed as the Cecil Effect, Southern African countries started losing business. Zimbabwe, hurting greatly from reduced numbers of commercial trophy hunters laid-off workers. Locals reliant on the animals for an income no longer saw them as anything they should protect. Hungry and poverty-stricken, they started poaching them. And, the poaching, so often confused with controlled trophy hunting increased.
Exclusive interview discusses alternatives to trophy hunting as a conservation management tool
In his exclusive interview with me, I spoke to Blondie Leathem about other options. Many conservation services and conservancies favor hunting as a practice. Could those in favor of hunting, perhaps come up with any alternatives? Statistically, does the use of hunting as a management tool in Africa come with realistic reasoning?
JF: People talk about how trophy hunters decimate elephant, lions, and other endangered animals. Is it correct that legal hunting accounts for far fewer dead animals than poached animals?
Blondi Leathem: (BL) Trophy hunting off-take is based on about two to three percent of the known/estimated population. Hunting targets older animals that are mostly past their prime and often no longer active breeders. Commercial poaching and bushmeat poaching accounts for far greater numbers of animals. Additionally, it also accounts for animals of all sexes and ages. This has a far more significant impact on the populations. Poaching can never be compared to selective, sustainable trophy hunting. One is scientifically controlled and the other driven by greed or poverty.
Carrying capacity and conservation of land
JF: People seem confused about the need to take animals off the land. There seems to be a concept overseas that animals roam around free. Can you explain the need to control the movement of animals, and how that affects the carrying capacity of the land?
BL: Because of ballooning, ever-increasing numbers of people, wildlife is being compressed into smaller areas. To protect the animals and prevent human/wildlife conflict, the wildlife areas often need game fencing. Both scenarios result in the inability of animals to roam around freely. Like any area, whether it be a cattle/sheep ranch or wildlife conservancy, a correct carrying capacity needs to be maintained. That’s why animals need removal annually. It helps keep the balance and prevents degradation of the land. Degraded land results in deaths from debility and starvation. It’s a very miserable way for anything to die. Obviously, droughts also bring an adverse effect on populations: another reason for cropping.
Overpopulation and mercy killings
JF: Botswana mostly banned trophy hunting and reports emerged that animal populations become overpopulated. In some instances, the animals get destroyed in ‘mercy’ cullings. Hunted meat cannot be given away or sold to the locals. Do you foresee this happening in Zimbabwe?
BL: I think that most people in Zimbabwe – and this includes all of the wildlife ecologists that I know – realize that the best land use for a number of the more arid and featureless areas is hunting. This accounts for why most cattle ranches in the mid-80s to late 90s started phasing out cattle and turned their properties into wildlife ranches. They conducted trophy hunting safaris, mainly for overseas hunters. This became a far more lucrative option and less prone to the effects of poor rains or droughts. Botswana’s overpopulation of elephant goes back for decades. Potentially, a mass die-off in the near future’s likely. But, the damage to the habitat’s already irreversible in a number of areas.
Use of hunted animal parts
JF: Activists often point out that trophy hunters take the horns, maybe the head and skin, and the meat gets left to rot. Is it left out in the bush to rot, or do locals get to consume any of the meat? Are there locals who benefit from by-products?
BL: I do not know of any hunters who leave their carcasses in the bush to rot. Most meat gets either donated to surrounding communities or sold to them at below-market prices. Transporting meat to urban markets is fraught with logistical problems. Plus, Veterinary restrictions governing the movement of game meat apply.
Many locals that live close to the hunting areas, or in the areas in the case of Communal Hunting Blocks, buy game meat and dry it. They then forward-sell it to communities further away from the hunting areas. The trophy hunting supplies jobs to a number of the local communities. In fact, hunting clients and hunting operators often donate towards improvements at local schools, clinics, etc. Believe me, this is a common occurrence, unlike the nonsense that various anti-hunting organizations put out there.
Bushmeat and poaching
JF: Up in the Congo, people describe wild animals as simply ‘bushmeat.’ Almost any wild animal spotted ends up killed and eaten. In Zimbabwe, you experience quite a lot of poaching and opportunistic killing too. Is the bulk of it for the illicit animal trafficking, or mostly meat for local consumption or sale?
BL: In Zimbabwe, most of the poached meat gets sold amongst the other villagers. Commercial meat poaching mainly takes place on properties that were resettled during the Land Redistribution Program. High-end commercial poaching of elephant and rhino focuses mainly on National Parks Estates and private wildlife conservancies. This is all for illicit trafficking of ivory and horn and coordinated by very well organized syndicates. It differs from the category of bushmeat or subsistence poaching.
JF: Do you believe that trophy hunting is the only economic model for conservation in Africa?
BL: Yes – in most areas hunting is the only activity that can fund conservation. Actually, most hunters are more conservation-minded than the “laptop want to be saviors of wildlife” who have no clue about real meaningful conservation. Few of them spent proper quality-time out in the bush. Staying in safari camps doesn’t rate as quality-time.
The Cecil Effect and Trophy hunting
JF: What you feel about the Cecil-Effect and the potential damage that could happen to conservation in Southern Africa.
BL: The Cecil-effect has already been felt by every person involved in the wildlife industry. That goes for hunting operators, ecotourism operations, and even NGOs. The NGOs, who mostly realize the importance of hunting operations, have had to realign themselves so that most have a stand-off approach to trophy hunting. They rely on donations for their survival so cannot risk speaking out in support of trophy hunting. This is despite the fact they are fully aware of the conservation role that it plays in many areas. Since the Cecil debacle, many NGOs and Ecotourism operators are reluctant to lift their head above the parapet and speak out in defense of trophy hunting.
Canned trophy hunting
JF: ‘Canned hunting’ like that of South Africa – permissible in Zimbabwe?
BL: Zimbabwe prohibits canned hunting. Plus, the hunting operators here will never allow it in Zimbabwe. The unethical and unscrupulous hunters’ clients wanting canned hunting, head to SA.There is a move by the ZPHGA (Zimbabwe Professional Hunters & Guides Association) to introduce a new Ethics Co-ordination Committee to control the wildlife industry. This will be something that other African countries need to mirror if we are to prevent the unethical ones from tarnishing the whole industry.
What thoughts do you have about trophy hunting as a conservation tool in Africa? Do you feel this article weighs up the options realistically for trophy hunting? Shout out your thoughts in the comments about this exclusive interview.
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