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Western animal sentimentalism is causing the destruction of African wildlife

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

By Richard Pooley

In the last issue of Only Connect, I wondered whether the campaign in the West to ban trophy hunting might result in precisely the opposite of what the well-meaning campaigners want to achieve. Would stopping the import into the hunters’ countries in Europe and North America of the heads and skins of such 'trophy' animals as lions, leopards and buffalo, stop regulated hunting in Africa? Probably. A ban would make it harder for such hunting to remain commercially viable. What is certain is that these superb animals will slide ever more quickly into extinction if the campaign succeeds. Nearly everything I have read and watched since writing the article two weeks ago tells me that well-regulated hunting of wildlife in areas outside of Africa’s national parks not only allows the ecosystems to return to something like their prelapsarian state, it also benefits the people who live in those areas.

Please note: “well-regulated”. There is a lot of badly-regulated hunting and what is called 'canned hunting' - keeping animals within a confined area so that they are easier to hunt and kill. And, of course, there is a huge amount of poaching, often funded by rich and well-organised east and south-east Asian enterprises. If the anti-hunting campaigners would only channel their ire and money into stopping these kinds of hunting, they might do some good for the wildlife of Africa.

In April 2019, the Guardian newspaper in the UK published a letter signed by politicians, celebrities and animal-rights activists criticising the British Conservative government for failing to honour commitments made by at least two Environment ministers to stop importing the heads and pelts of the African 'big cats' into the UK. There were a few scientists among the signatories but not a single African. I vaguely recalled the letter when writing the previous article but had forgotten how the government reacted.

I was astonished to discover that the then-Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, responded to the letter as follows: “Don’t come in, you know, with your clod-hopping boots from the UK and necessarily tell people in each of these countries exactly how they should regulate their own wildlife.” This was said to England (but South African-born) cricketer Kevin Pietersen during a podcast on rhino poaching. In another interview, on the BBC, Gove said wildlife charities had told him to “be cautious” about following through on his predecessors’ promises. They were telling him that many animal conservationists, particularly those actually working in Africa, saw well-regulated hunting to be a solution to wildlife decline, not a cause. As a Liberal (big L and small l) I am at odds with most things Gove says but in this case he was spot on. What’s more, he hit upon the one thing above all which infuriates me about anti-hunting campaigners. I’m prepared to bet that most of these people regard themselves as being progressive, that term hijacked by those on the political Left who think it sounds better than Left or Liberal (especially in the USA). Yet they have the arrogance of the pampered and privileged in telling people in Africa how they should behave and think. Isn't that colonial thinking, you anti-colonialists? Be humble, question your sentimentalist stance, look at the facts dispassionately.

I decided to try and find an area in Africa in which hunting has been allowed to take place in a well-managed manner over a long time, during which the fauna and flora have survived or, even better, thrived. Ideally I wanted it to be in a country I have not known well so that my own past experience didn’t bias my analysis. That ruled out Zambia, Botswana and Kenya. The pro-hunting sites (but not the anti-hunting ones) led me to Mozambique, a country I have been to just once and only for a few days, in 1971, when it was still Portuguese East Africa.

In 1994 a professional hunter, Mark Haldane, visited Coutada 11, an area originally of some 4000 square kilometres (1500 sq. miles) in the Zambezi delta in southern Mozambique. He wanted to see what the prospects were like for hunting. They were poor. “It was absolutely beautiful. The problem was they had hardly any animals,” he said in a 2019 interview. After fifteen years of civil war, which had only ended in 1992, a once game-rich region had hardly any large animals left. Haldane did a game count. Buffalo numbers had dropped from 45,000 to 1,200; waterbuck from 80,000 to 2,500. A mere 44 sable antelope, second only to greater kudu for their beauty, had survived. There were a few leopard but the lions had disappeared, presumed shot to local extinction by rebels and government forces.

And now? There are around 25,000 buffalo and up to 3,500 sable. Eland, hartebeest, nyala and zebra numbers have soared. In 2018, 18 lionesses and 6 lions with a wide range of genetic backgrounds were darted in the wild outside Mozambique and taken by plane and truck to be released in Coutada 11 (have a look at Whereas in 1994 you could drive all day through or around this habitat of swamp, flood plains, savanna, miombo woodland, and sand forest and see nothing other than the occasional duiker or reedbuck, now you can see several hundred animals in a few hours.

How was this achieved? Haldane used money from his existing safari businesses in South Africa and Botswana to invest in Coutada 11, which he leased from the Mozambique government. Trophy hunting, not photographic safaris, was what he and his team offered. For years there was hardly any wildlife to photograph. What’s more hunters were much more willing to come to an area which had only just come out of a brutal war than Western tourists. If the latter knew of Mozambique at all it was because of the efforts of the Halo Trust (with the backing of a certain British princess and, later, her younger son, Harry) to clear the hundreds of thousands of land mines that remained after the war ended.

Key to Haldane’s success was involving the people living in the delta. First, his company, Zambeze Delta Safaris (ZDS), hired local residents, all ex-poachers, to become salaried gamekeepers and trackers. Their main job then and now is, with the government’s backing, to arrest poachers and remove the snares and steel gin-traps which cause so many animals to die a long and horrifically painful death (often much worse than that caused by incompetent trophy hunters from Minnesota).

Secondly, over the past twenty years, ZDS has provided meat to local people. Haldane explained a few years ago how it works: [At first] of the animals we shot, choice cuts were taken for camp, [and the rest] was split: 50% went to our staff and 50% went to the local community. We [then] campaigned government to issue a community quota of the more common animals. That quota sits at 50 reedbuck and 1 buffalo. We shoot this on their behalf and deliver the whole animal to them.” In 2018, 66 tons of meat were supplied to local people, including the child in the photo at the head of this article. As Haldane says: “it has to be a two-way street.” If anyone from a village which gets this meat is caught poaching, the whole community forfeits its allocation of meat for a few months. The company has also built a school and teachers’ houses, dug water wells for use in the dry season, and provided a mobile corn mill.

Even the high fees that hunting clients pay to ZDS are not enough to pay for the current cost – nearly $200,000 a year – of all the manpower and equipment that the company needs to maintain its anti-poaching work and keep animal numbers rising. That school and those teachers’ houses were paid for by a benefactor (and hunting client). The translocation of 24 lions was paid for by the Cabela Family Foundation and organised by the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance (Ivan Carter, like Hadane, is a hunter), ZDS and Mozambique’s Administraçāo Nacional das Áreas de Conservaçāo.

ZDS provides incontrovertible proof that well-managed hunting far from decimating African wildlife enables it to thrive. But only if both local people and the national government are involved and supportive.

There is just one argument against trophy hunting in particular which, to my mind, still has merit and it’s one that has been nagging at me ever since I started looking into this. Trophy hunters want trophies. They want the head of the best-maned lion or the most impressive horns of an eland, sable or kudu. Isn’t there a danger that trophy hunters will remove those with 'the best genes'? Dr Rob Knell is an evolutionary ecologist at Queen Mary University of London. He says, with reference to lions, that “high-quality males with large secondary sexual traits tend to father a high proportion of offspring”, hence allowing their strong genes to spread quickly.

However ZDS may also have an answer for this one. Those 24 wild lions introduced three years ago have inter-bred and the numbers have risen significantly. Remember that they were chosen to ensure that the gene pool was as wide as possible. Genetically it’s probably a far healthier population than can be found in a national park. The team at ZDS have said that they will wait until the lion population reaches 300 before allowing just 3 males a year to be shot by their clients. By then there would be plenty of males to choose from, many surely with a head and mane to satisfy any hunter. Provided the alpha male of each pride is not shot, the best genes can continue to be spread among the lion population. For those of you who cannot imagine such a swift rise in lion numbers, the Bubye Valley Conservancy in neighbouring Zimbabwe has gone from 13 lions in 1999 to around 500 today. Oh, by the way, Bubye Valley Conservancy, once one of the biggest cattle ranches in the world, is now once more full of wildlife. It is a hunting area. As one of the safari companies which uses it says: “Controlled hunting saves wildlife.”

If parts of trophy animals such as lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and the big antelope are banned from being imported into Europe and North America, those trophies which have been acquired in hunting areas such as Coutada 11 will be regarded as no different to those acquired by poachers. It will no longer be possible for people like Haldane to conserve wildlife by running successful anti-poaching operations in collaboration with local residents. The only winners will be the poachers and those who pay them. The biggest losers will be the wild animals of Africa.

The anti-hunting campaigners would help the wildlife they say they want to protect if, instead of effectively aiding poachers, they gave their money and support to conservation organisations like Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance. I did so yesterday.


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