REALITY CHECK – by Hans Vermaak

2015 was a roller coaster ride for the global hunting community. Cecil the lion has changed the landscape of hunting, especially in Africa. It is astounding to me how one 13 year old Lion and a Dentist attracted such phenomenal international attention for approximately a two week period, making headlines day after day on CNN and other major news outlets. Cecil, now the most famous Lion on earth, adorned the front pages of newspapers in every corner of the earth and was the main topic of conversation on social media. The public outcry over Cecil resulted in Delta airlines (and 46 others) placing a total ban on transporting legally hunted Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Rhino, Elephant and last but not least Lion – all the iconic species. Luckily other airlines saw a business opportunity and have started carrying trophies.

 

The frightening power of the court of public opinion, (albeit uninformed opinion) has placed immense pressure on our hunting heritage and has created a frenzied and irrational hate for all forms of hunting, especially “trophy hunting!” Social media has been expertly used by the Animal Activist groups to spread their propaganda and misinformation to the uninformed masses, encouraging them to despise us and what we do. The uninformed public, primarily from the urbanized world, have been led to believe that legal, sustainable hunting is detrimental to wildlife all over Africa. AR groups used Cecil to acquire more donations and muster up more support for their campaigns that are opposed to hunting. A friend of mine Pete Ryan who is a well-known author and “outdoor” writer summed up the Cecil phenomenon on social media by saying, “never before in History have so many people written so much about something they know nothing about!” How true this is.

 

During the Cecil phenomenon there was no public outcry over the 6 or so Lionesses that were poisoned in Tanzania after they killed a domestic animal. No outcry for the 3 or more Rhino being poached daily in South Africa. No mention was made of hundreds of Vultures which have been poisoned for their perceived medicinal value and because they attract attention to poached animals lying dead on the ground. No public outcry over Elephants been poached in Tanzania or the ones poisoned in Zimbabwe. Just these few examples are far more damaging to Mother Africa’s wildlife than the shooting of one 13 year old Lion, yet the global hunting community came under attack like it never has before, and 99% of us are the good guys when it comes to protecting wildlife.

 

I am not condoning or condemning what transpired with “Cecil” (whom most Zimbabweans had never heard of before) because all the facts of the event have not come to light yet, however it’s clear that Palmer wasn’t at fault here, other than he didn’t shoot straight. It has been revealed that Cecil was not lured out of the park as was claimed by a number of AR groups. The real story is that an Elephant had died of natural causes inside the boundaries of a designated hunting area and this had drawn to it a number of predators and scavengers including old Cecil. It is regrettable that Cecil was collared and that he was a subject of Lion research, however based on his ripe age of 13, he was actually the perfect Lion to hunt. Most male Lions living in wild environments where Lion populations are healthy rarely make it to 13 years of age. It would have been damaging to Lion conservation had a 3-6 year old lion been hunted.

 

The Black Rhino that Corey Knowlton hunted in Namibia was a perfect example of sustainable hunting benefiting and funding Rhino conservation. It was a pre identified old bull that was not contributing to the growth of Rhino populations. In fact the bull was hampering this. He was removed from the system for a hefty sum of money that was all poured pack into Rhino conservation in Namibia. I believe that there were also some added benefits to local communities. We hunted a Black Rhino in a park in South Africa a few years ago. The Parks management had been monitoring a specific Rhino closely for about 8 years. They noticed that the old bull held a large territory and covered females regularly, without any offspring being born. They watched him being challenged by younger bulls, which he successfully defeated each time, thus maintaining his large territory. The birth rate dropped and it stayed that way. They finally decided to have the old bull hunted and within about 18 months three Black Rhino calves were born. The removal of this old animal had resulted in the growth of the Rhino population. This, combined with serious funding derived from the hunt, was a win-win situation for the Park and Black Rhino.

 

The other reality of the Cecil matter is that if it wasn’t for hunting areas on the boundary of Hwange National Park (where Cecil roamed) the park’s integrity would be compromised, just like what is happening in many of Kenya’s parks where human encroachment and domestic stock are overrunning the protected areas. My point is that if it wasn’t for hunting areas around Hwange national Park (and many other parts of Africa), which keep people and livestock out, Hwange would more than likely be suffering the same challenges that many of Kenya’s parks face. Domestic livestock is the greatest threat to large predators because when predators kill cows or goats, the rural communities will poison the carcass, killing entire lion prides quite regularly. Impoverished communities need to value wildlife more than domestic livestock. Kenya banned all hunting in 1977 and since then has also lost over 80% of its wildlife and yet despite this disastrous result, animal activists still use Kenya as their shining example of how wildlife should be managed in Africa!

 

Botswana’s recent hunting ban has forsaken impoverished communities who relied heavily on sustainable regulated hunting for their livelihoods and a myriad of other benefits. These communities primarily live in remote regions, which are not suited to eco or photo tourism. Botswana’s President Ian Khama and his henchmen promised communities that photo safaris would replace the hunting camps and for obvious reasons this has not happened. In many parts of Botswana poaching is on the rise for ivory and what is most concerning is the commercial bush meat trade, which is devastating to wildlife populations! The Botswana military is suddenly involved in anti-poaching on a large scale. This was never the case before hunting was banned. There is no doubt that Botswana’s decision to stop hunting was not based on scientific evidence, but rather emotive arguments opposed to hunting driven by animal activists.

 

Only a very small percentage of Africa is suited to photo safaris, where the landscape must offer stunning beauty and non-stop sightings of wildlife – especially the iconic Big 5! Only in such areas will photo operations be able to justify charging top dollar in order to ensure that the venture is profitable enough for the investors so that they can also provide tangible benefits to communities as well as proper management of the land and anti-poaching projects. I assure you that most investors don’t get into photo tourism to save wildlife, they do it for the profitability of the venture and they probably also enjoy the great outdoors. It is the success of their business enterprise that helps to ensure a safe haven for wildlife. Hunters are no different, except we harvest animals and we achieve the same result. The majority of Africa does not fit the “photo safari” profile, which is where common sense tells me that sustainable hunting is the best land use for huge tracts of Africa. I cannot imagine trying to sell a photo safari at $1000 per person per day in Ngamiland in Northern Botswana, where 15 foot tall Mopani trees cover almost an entire 300 000 acres, where visibility is 30 yards and game sightings are few and far between despite healthy populations. Hunters will happily pay handsomely to pursue Buffalo, Leopard, Elephant and other species in a place like this. We thrive on the remoteness, we thrive on the challenge of tracking game on foot. A photo tourist would simply not get their monies worth and the enterprise would fail very quickly. Botswana has made a big mistake and vast areas are now unattended, free-for-all zones where poachers are able to do as they please because the hunters aren’t there anymore.

 

These days people who are vehemently opposed to hunting mostly come from the urbanized world, notably the western world, where they are far removed from the realities and challenges of Africa. The perception of Africa for many of these folks is what is beautifully depicted on National Geographic and Discovery Channel. You and I both know that the perception they carry in their minds eye is far removed from the real Africa where I live. The vast majority of Africa is overpopulated; there is famine, disease and poaching on a scale that we can’t begin to comprehend. Habitat is threatened by human encroachment, which comes with domesticated livestock which in turn competes directly with wildlife. In places where impoverished people derive no benefit at all from wildlife, their livestock is their priority and that spells doom for wildlife – especially large predators as I have already explained. For many people living in the urbanized world, meat miraculously appears on refrigerated shelves, garnished with pretty leaves, where music plays softly in the background while they select their next steak. Few people give that lazy aged steak a second thought when they load up their cart, and most alarmingly few people consider that a beast died in order for that steak to end up in a supermarket in the first place. I don’t have a problem with people who don’t hunt. I don’t have a problem with vegans. I DO however have a problem when hypocrites or vegans, animal activists or anti-hunters tell me how to live my life, tell me I am a potential mass murderer (of humans & wildlife) because I hunt, insult my integrity and tell me that I am the cause of the decline in Africa’s wildlife. I know that they have it all wrong and it is their ignorance along with their arrogance which offends me the most.

 

The people opposed to hunting believe that the simple solution to protecting Africa’s wildlife is photo tourism. I have already explained why this won’t work. Thousands of hunters support the photo tourism industry every single year here in Africa and abroad. Hunters visit the Ngorongoro Crater, the Masi Mara, the Kruger National Park, Mala Mala, Londolzi and hundreds of other destinations every year across Africa, before or after their hunting safaris. Hunters are all for photo safaris, we believe in them, we partake in them and we enjoy them, yet many photo safari operators condemn hunting at every opportunity they get. I often wonder if this is for the sake of gathering more public support, fame, donations and political correctness. The other problem is simple, many travel agents will not send clients to destinations where hunting takes place, even if the reserves management plan clearly explains why sustainable hunting is beneficial to the reserve. I am familiar with a number of reserves which have stopped hunting because of the pressure they received from foreign travel agents! As a result these reserves are not as well funded as they were previously and the lodge owners are now having to fork out much more funding each year which has negatively affected the profitability of their ventures. This in turn results in less money to invest in anti-poaching, community benefits and so on, and the sound management of the reserve has been compromised. This problem was caused by people living 10 000 miles away, far removed from the realities of conserving Africa’s wildlife. These travel agents are harming the future of wildlife in many parts of Africa without even knowing it.

 

People who are blinded by emotion, who believe that hunters are decimating wildlife across the world (especially in Africa), who believe it is morally wrong to kill an animal because it is a sentient being, have all the right intentions to save wildlife, but their one-dimensional approach is one of the greatest threats to wildlife on the planet. Animal rightists and their supporters are PRESERVATIONISTS. This means that wildlife may not be touched or interfered with by humans and most notably, humans may not benefit from it even if it is done so sustainably and responsibly. CONSERVATIONISTS embrace the wise, sustainable and responsible use and management of natural resources, in this case wildlife, without negatively affecting the resource. In fact conservation practices aim to ensure that natural resources such as wildlife are enhanced and protected through sustainable utilization where humans benefit from the resource. Animal Rightists and anti-hunters call themselves Conservationists. They’re actually Preservationists and, over the years, they have hijacked the word conservation. Conservation and Preservation are two different things altogether and we must never be confused by their different meanings.

 

It’s ironic that despite the false perceptions created by the AR groups, the countries in Africa which have the healthiest wildlife populations all embrace legal and sustainable hunting. I am not saying that the hunting industry is 100% perfect across the board. We do have our challenges and there are aspects in many African countries that can be improved on and there are some bad eggs in the industry, just like there are some bad policemen, bad lawyers and doctors, even bad teachers. The bottom line however is that the vast majority of hunters offer protection to vast and remote tracts of Africa, mostly where photographic safaris are not viable, where logistics are the stuff of nightmares where the land is harsh and inhospitable. There are examples all over Africa where hunting operations benefit thousands of impoverished local communities. There are countless examples of hunting operators spending fortunes on equipping and funding anti-poaching teams. There are also countless examples where hunting operators are aware of the fact that the quotas allocated to their areas by wildlife departments are too high, where of their own accord, despite financial losses, they hunt less than what they are allocated to ensure the long term sustainability of wildlife in their hunting areas. These are points you seldom hear about in the media. Positive news in the media on the value of hunting is generally only seen when a controversial topic results in media attention when hunters have to defend hunting. It should be the other way round. We should be filtering positive news into the media regularly, not just when there is a controversial issue to defend! We need to promote what we do.

 

Here in South Africa (and other African counties) the facts speak for themselves and I am convinced that people with common sense will grasp the relevance of our country’s wildlife success story, despite the fact that hunting played a pivotal role in the phenomenon that has taken place here over the last 45 years or so. The sustainable utilization of wildlife is the foundation of our success story. Hunting has created a value for wildlife, which in turn has created an automatic incentive to protect it and the space where wildlife lives. Animal activists don’t buy into this. They believe wildlife should not be valued economically but rather aesthetically. Hunters however place as much value on both aspects! The reality of the matter is that if wildlife doesn’t benefit people in order to benefit itself, it is doomed.

 

In 1953 South Africa was home to a mere 437 Rhino. Today the population is estimated to be approximately 20 000 and we have been hunting Rhino since the late 70s and early 80s. The legal and sustainable hunting industry was the main catalyst in the redistribution of Rhino across South Africa. The late Dr Ian Player, our most famous Conservationist who helped save the Rhino through “Operation Rhino” in 1962, has attested to the crucial role hunting played in conserving South Africa’s Rhino. We are the global headquarters for Rhino today, followed by Namibia. Both countries hunt Rhino. Kenya’s 1977 hunting ban certainly never saved their Rhino because their total population numbers approximately 800 today, half of which were reintroduced to Kenya from South Africa. Ironic isn’t it?

 

In the late 60’s South Africa’s wildlife population was estimated to be around 1 million head. The hunting industry was born around the same time and today our wildlife population is booming at around 23-25 million head and counting….. This boom has taken place alongside Africa’s largest hunting industry. It is estimated that currently wildlife outnumbers cattle by 1 million head in South Africa. The private sector owns 53 million acres of land which is set aside for wildlife. This is three times more land than all of our state owned parks and reserves combined. We have more Elephant than we currently know what to do with, more Cheetah, more Wild Dogs sanctuaries, more Leopard, more Buffalo, more everything than we had 10, 20 and 50 years ago.

 

We have Africa’s fastest growing wild Lion population, which is estimated to number 3200. The challenge we face now is finding more space for them. Hunting areas in South Africa have become larger (for example our 240 000 acre Kalahari area which is one continuous block), more conservancies have been formed, fences have come down in many regions and our broad based approach to wildlife management (which includes photo tourism, hunting, meat sales, taxidermy, hide sales, live game capture and sales and much more) has created a market and a value for wildlife. This has resulted in our wildlife success story that is built on wildlife having its own economy. No place in Africa has seen more agricultural land converted to wildlife than South Africa. Conservation without money is just conversation, which is why your hunting heritage and your dollars have played a crucial role in my country’s wildlife success story and we thank you for this.

 

Animal Activists believe that donations (as reluctant as they are to spend their money) and handouts will save Africa’s wildlife. Ask yourself how sustainable donations are, is that money guaranteed forever? In addition we all know how little funding is received by Animal Activist groups in Africa, or anywhere for that matter? What do they actually do in terms of protecting and enhancing conservation areas compared to what they earn annually. The donations they receive primarily fund their lavish lifestyles, salaries, “overheads” etc and so on and very little is ever filtered to where it is perceived to go. We know that their “overheads” deplete the hundreds of millions they receive in donations annually. The future of Africa’s wildlife will not be determined by Animal Activist groups, Foreign NGOs and other organizations. It will be ultimately be determined by Africa’s impoverished people who live side by side with the wildlife. Unless these people benefit tangibly from wildlife, where they have a vested interest in conserving (not preserving) it to the point where they value wildlife more than cattle and goats, will wildlife be here for future generations.

 

This is where hunting operators are already having a positive impact, (as is the photo industry where its viable) however there are many more opportunities “out there” where this can be applied successfully. It’s a pity that there is friction between hunters and photo safari operators because I believe that together we could have a greater impact in Africa if we could just set our differences aside and focus on the bigger picture, which is the protection of wildlife and wild places, always taking the needs of humans into account. The problem is that many owners of photo operations are also linked to animal activism groups in one way or another, and if they started engaging with hunters they would lose their “credibility” and thus their “donors.” There are some hunters and especially their children who have been affected by the wave of political correctness to not hunt. I say to them that as hunters we need to stand proud because we have nothing to be embarrassed about. There have been practices within the hunting fraternity that have cast a shadow on all of us from time to time, but the majority of our news is good news that needs to be told. We need to fight for everything we that can wholeheartedly promote in terms of sustainable, responsible hunting; and any practices which we cannot promote, less defend, we need to get rid of.

 

The important role that hunting has played in conservation across the globe cannot be disputed. We need to properly arm ourselves with information in order to promote (not defend) what we do. We need to hunt ethically and responsibly, we have nothing to hide and it is our responsibility to ensure that our children and their children continue our hunting heritage. Hunters are responsible for the creation of most of the world’s protected areas and without regulated controlled and sustainable hunting in Africa our wildlife will be doomed. Animal Activists are the new kids on the block. Hunters were conserving wildlife long before anthropomorphism (when a wild animal is given human characteristics such as emotions and other traits) was born. The global hunting fraternity needs to spearhead a professionally orchestrated drive to educate the uninformed masses who reside predominantly in the urbanized world. We need to tell them the good news story that we have to tell. We cannot afford to sit back and be quiet anymore, knowing we are right because the landscape has changed dramatically. Hunters need to become more proactive.

 

The media and the animal activists have a lot in common; most notably that they both thrive on emotional news and as a result activists have built solid relationships in the media. We, generally speaking, have not. The activists certainly have the upper hand on us because their propaganda is easy to spill. All they need to do is show a picture of a dead lion with a man next to it and the world goes crazy. Our story cannot be told that simply. We can’t show a picture to achieve the desired result. Our story needs to be explained and backed up with fact. Social media has resulted in people’s attention spans being reduced, they look at pictures and “like” them and seldom take the time to read long write-ups because these fail to give them a quick fix. Showing a picture of a dead animal on social media will generally be met by opposition and fewer “likes” unless your friends aren’t opposed to hunting. I am not saying we must stop posting our hunting pics, but it is our responsibility to ensure that they are tasteful and we need to add a line or two promoting the value of hunting every single time.

 

A classic example of the value of controlled hunting in South Africa is as follows. A well-known game reserve, which has an open boundary with one of our greatest protected areas generates 70% of its annual operating / management budget from the carefully controlled hunting of around 40 animals per annum. The annual quotas are extremely conservative and hunters abide by a strict hunting protocol. The majority of the species hunted are Buffalo. The same reserve is home to approximately 19 photographic lodges, which together contribute around 10-15% to this reserves budget. Therefore the sustainable hunting of 40 animals is the driving force behind this reserves conservation efforts, almost single-handedly providing for high-tech anti-poaching equipment and teams, security, salaries for qualified staff, vehicles, infrastructure, and the overall management of this pristine ecosystem. This reserve has had the least Rhino poaching incidents in the region and this has been as a result of the phenomenal funding received from sustainable hunting. Our Kalahari concession is first and foremost a conservation area where the funding derived from sustainable hunting is a major contributor to the reserves protection and management and to date it has not lost a single Rhino to poaching. It is also a “safe haven” for Cheetah, endangered Wild Dogs and Black Rhino, which are all afforded strict protection here. How can you argue with this?

There are many more success stories like this from Namibia to Mozambique, from Tanzania to Cape Town.

I am a proud hunter and you should be too.

(20 December 2015)

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