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Is Animal Sentimentalism Causing the Destruction of African Wildlife?

What was your reaction on seeing this photo? Revulsion? Pity? Anger? Envy? Did you mutter “Bastards!” or quietly applaud the couple for bagging such a fine head? Perhaps your eyes were more on the pretty young woman than on the dead animal. Or you wondered why a dog appeared to be growing out of the man’s throat? My overriding one was of revulsion. The person who sent the photo to me felt the same: “Disgusting, anachronistic.”

My friend’s reaction surprised me at first. He is a keen conservationist and lover of wild Africa, who lives in Kenya and has spent much of his adult life on the continent. Yet he is also a scientist who knows that there are occasions when wild animals need to be killed. For the past thirty years he has worked in areas in East Africa where wildlife pose a threat to ranchers’ and herders’ livestock. Lions and leopards view cattle as easy prey. Buffalo, eland and zebra compete for forage during drought. In fact such game control was exactly what the woman in the photo was doing, as my friend admitted: “She was shooting buffalo in an area [of Zimbabwe] where there are too many and competing with livestock.” So, what had she done that so irked him? “She is posing like that bloody dentist Walter Palmer who shot Cecil”.

Cecil was a black-maned lion in Zimbabwe who in 2015 had lived for 40 hours after first being wounded with an arrow by Palmer, a trophy hunter from Minnesota, USA, before being shot dead with a gun. Palmer is believed to have paid £32,000 to be allowed to kill Cecil. His actions gave a huge boost to those campaigning to either have such hunting banned or at least for the dead animals’ heads to be banned from being imported by the hunter into his or her country. Palmer went into hiding for a while and temporarily lost a few patients (perhaps more worried about having such a poor marksman wielding a drill in their mouths than they were about the morality of his actions). Last year he gave yet another boost to the anti-hunting campaign. He posted a photo of himself and a fellow trophy hunter in Mongolia alongside the magnificent horned head of an Altai argali ram, the largest wild sheep in the world. The Altai argali is a species close to extinction. Palmer is reported to have paid as much as £80,000 to kill the ram.

My friend was not angry that the woman had hunted and killed the buffalo. Far from it. She had done something that needed to be done. She is a relation of his for whom he has a lot of respect. But he knows just what a gift that photo is to those, largely in Europe and North America, who want to ban all hunting, something which he believes would be a disaster for the African wildlife they are supposedly trying to protect. As he wrote to me: “All professional (mainly white) hunters in Kenya rightly predicted that the end of professional hunting in 1977 would mean the end of the game. Rich clients paid large sums to shoot and this kept the semi-arid (and therefore agriculturally useless) areas productive. Hunting was the best form of conservation. Once hunting stopped, the landless and poor African hunters piled in to shoot whatever was left for meat, ivory and rhino horn.”

I would have thought little more about this if several things had not happened to me recently which have made me look into the pros and cons of trophy hunting (defined as the killing for pleasure of pre-selected wild animals under official government license).

Two months ago, on a Zoom call, I was asked by an Italian marketing director to explain why on the top of the bookcase behind me in the UK I had a pair of impala horns and what looked like pieces of ivory. I told her that I had spent much of the late 1960s as a teenager in Zambia. The horns were the remains of a lion or cheetah kill I had picked up while camping by the Kafue Flats. The bits of ivory were a complete set of hippopotamus tusks I had been given after a government-run cull of hippo in the Luangwa National Park, where I was working as a guide. I could see that my questioner was not impressed. “Poor animals” she murmured and looked at me as though I was responsible for their deaths.

A few days later I got a call from another old Africa hand. He had just left Zambia for the UK after forty-three years of work there – cattle-ranching, fish-farming, pig-rearing, and game-farming. He had also been a volunteer game guard. I had first met him in Kenya in the 1970s, and been on holiday with him and his wife in Zambia in the early 1980s as bulldozers started creating what was to become the largest fish farm in sub-Saharan Africa. I have stayed with them several times since. The reason for his call? Would I join him in fighting the European and North American anti-hunting lobby led by “so-called celebrities” who know nothing of the realities of life (and death) in Africa?

He made similar arguments to those of my friend in Kenya: “In 1977 when Kenya banned hunting, the country had 167,000 elephant. Today there are 28,000. Since 1977 there has not been a single lion killed by a fee-paying hunter. But the Kenyan lion population has dropped by 87% in just the last 15 years. These are unemotional facts. [Yet] very emotional people watching Gogglebox in the West label hunters as cold-blooded killers who are responsible for the demise of wildlife. {The truth is that] there are huge swaths of Africa which remain habitat-protected for the simple reason that hunters’ dollars keep them that way.”

Two weeks ago I got an email asking me to sign a petition to ban the import into the UK of any animal part which has resulted from trophy hunting. I read the blurb and decided not to sign.

Why? Because the language of the petition and the campaign behind it is emotion-heavy and evidence-light. Those who are anti-hunting are animal sentimentalists. Many think nothing of eating beef, lamb or pork carved out of a cow, sheep or pig killed in an abattoir a few miles from where they live. Yet they excoriate those who pay to kill a wild antelope or buffalo in Africa and who, often as not, donate the meat to impoverished local villagers. They pamper their pet cats but choose to ignore the fact that tens of millions of wild birds are tortured and killed by those same cats.

The anti-hunting campaign is a further example of what Simon Kuper called “nature fetishing” in an article in the Financial Times’ Weekend edition of September 4/5.

Kuper defines nature fetishism as “the belief that ‘natural’ things are good and ‘unnatural’ ones bad.” He goes on to say that “nature fetishists have become unwitting killers. They fired up the deadly anti-vax movement; their opposition to genetically-modified foods has worsened hunger; and their victories against nuclear energy are helping fry the planet.” Strong stuff.

Kuper says that nature fetishists “believe that modernity kills...Yet most are cannier than they sound. Few will endanger or even inconvenience themselves for their beliefs...But [they] are happy to let the planet or starving faraway people suffer for their beliefs.”

So too with those in Europe and North America who support anti-hunting. They can signal their virtuous beliefs without inconveniencing themselves in the slightest. They sacrifice nothing. If my two friends who have spent most of their lives in Africa are right, the people who will suffer if hunting is banned are the poor of Africa and the wildlife that these Western campaigners purport to be protecting.

Even so, I have yet to make up my mind about trophy hunting. I myself have no wish to hunt and would far prefer to photograph a wild animal or bird than kill it. Nor do I wish to give comfort to the likes of the ugsome and incompetent Palmer. However, the anti-hunting lobby’s campaign is making me lean towards the counter-intuitive view that killing individual wild animals may be the way to preserve species and their habitats, while at the same time giving work and money to the African people who live alongside these animals.

More research is needed. I’ll let you know what I have discovered in my next article.


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