Southern Africa community leaders pen open letter to UK celebrities over trophy hunting

Published Jul 31, 2020


As the US and UK mull bans on trophy hunting imports, around 50 community leaders in southern Africa have penned an open letter to several UK celebrities to “stop using their influence” in campaigns to stop hunting on the continent.

The letter was sent recently to Ricky Gervais, Joanna Lumley, Peter Egan, Ed Sheeran, Dame Judi Dench and Piers Morgan by signatories from Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

While acknowledging the celebrity campaigns are done with the “best of intentions”, the authors wrote that the celebrities had "expressed these views without full appreciation of the implications for our people or wildlife, and without consulting us, who live with and manage African wildlife and who will ultimately determine its future.

"Several of the campaigns with which you are associated, such as this campaign, dismiss the beneficial impacts of regulated trophy hunting on local communities and our wildlife populations as ‘myths’.

“Successful conservation must start with those of us who live alongside dangerous large animals, whose value is deeply ingrained in our cultures.”

European colonists removed the rights of Africans to manage and benefit from wildlife “and in many instances forcefully evicted us from our lands, often to make way for protected areas, leading to dramatic loss of wildlife and habitat.

“Post-independent governments restored our rights, integrating wildlife into rural economies through inclusive conservation approaches. This provided socio-economic incentives to live with and sustainably manage our wildlife. On average, 50% –90% of these economic incentives come from sustainable, regulated, humane and scientifically verified hunting methods.”

This has led, in southern African countries, to increasing wildlife populations and habitat, "in stark contrast to other regions where biodiversity loss and habitat destruction accelerate at disastrous rates.

“Although you may view elephants, lions and other wildlife through a romantic, idealised lens, our daily reality of living with these magnificent and valued, yet dangerous animals, requires more pragmatism. We worry daily that our children may be killed on their way to school, or that our ability to provide for our families will be destroyed within a few hours by elephants in our fields or large predators among our livestock.

“Despite this, elephants, lions and other species live among us, not only in protected areas, and are multiplying because we want them to. If we cannot feed our families through humane and sustainable use of wildlife, we will have no option but to adopt land uses that will invariably destroy our beautiful natural landscapes and exterminate our treasured wild animals – an all too familiar situation throughout the world.”

Masego Madzwamuse, the chief executive of non-profit the Southern African Trust, said in a statement: "At a time when there is a global focus on righting social inequity and injustice, it's unfortunate that the campaigns these celebrities are supporting seek to deny rural black Africans the right to sustainably manage their wildlife on their land ... Rural communities live with the cost of managing wildlife every day, their voice matters. When we say black lives matter, we must mean all black lives, everywhere."

John Read, the international emissary for the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting, described the framing of the letter as "absurd".

"The claim about interfering in Africa's affairs, is of course, ludicrous. It's not Africans who go trophy hunting - it's people from the UK, US and Europe. It's absurd to frame this as if public figures make UK government policy. They are merely reflecting the views of the general public: 86% of people in Britain want trophy hunting universally banned," he said.

But Dries van Coller, the president of the Professional Hunters Association of SA, welcomed the letter. “We are extremely proud that traditional leaders and communities have formed a structure to challenge colonialism and state their position in how natural resources in Africa should be managed and utilised.

“The UK’s attempt and intended ban is based on emotional propaganda and selective arguments that are not the general status quo. The audacity to want to disregard the sovereign rights of independent countries and then also be prescriptive towards their own UK citizens goes beyond rational thought ...

"The unintended consequences of such a ban will do significantly more damage to conservation efforts and wildlife throughout Africa than legal, responsible hunting and sustainable use ever could do.

Africa, he said, is a naturally resource-rich continent exploited by various countries over centuries. "Now more than ever Africa should be allowed to wisely manage and trade with their natural resources that are sustainable as they see fit."

Audrey Delsink, the director of wildlife at Humane Society International-Africa, pointed out how there are many other African community leaders vociferously opposed to trophy hunting.

“Wildlife certainly is one of Africa’s riches and remains the single biggest driver to Africa’s tourism growth. Both communities and their leaders should benefit from the natural environments within which we co-exist. However, the link between trophy hunting, poverty alleviation and rural development is weak and questionable.”

Delsink cited an economic survey of eight African countries, which found trophy hunting revenues represent less than 0.03% of the GDP, bringing in 0.78% in tourism spending out of $17 billion (R283bn) annual tourism spending in these countries and contributing 7 500 jobs in comparison to the 2.6 million jobs in overall tourism across these countries.

“Several independent studies have demonstrated that hunting companies contribute on average just 3% of their revenues to communities living in or near hunting areas. Therefore, the trickle-down effect to a household-level income cannot be considered meaningful or beneficial in the long term.

“A further study examined the opinions of African people on trophy hunting. Counter to the community letter hosted on the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation, the data revealed objections to trophy hunting due to its ‘complex historical and post-colonial associations, and directed criticism at those African politicians perceived as allowing wildlife exploitation to satisfy their own greed’. Clearly, the issue runs deep, even within communities themselves.”

Conservation economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes said: "What we've seen since the hunting of Cecil the lion is a growing interest in developing campaigns against trophy hunting just to try and shut it down. For those organisations it's a moral imperative ... What has been interesting though is on what grounds are they making the arguments. What I've noticed is it's become less about the impact of trophy hunting and more targeted at the types of people who are trophy hunters."

The UK ban is likely. "Quite frankly, it's more of a symbolic concern than an actual concern because the extent to which they come here and hunt and import trophies to the UK is minimal. But the US is a major client for SA and it does send out a message and maybe an example to other countries like the US and that could end up harming us. What's going to pick up faster once Covid-19 is over? I can assure you trophy hunters will be the first to come back."

South Africa's hunting industry is incredibly important to its wildlife economy, he said. "Hunting supports the majority of private wildlife land to one extent or another. Trophy hunting is only a portion of that but it does bring in relatively high-paying low-impact foreign tourists.

"Eco-tourists, or photographic tourists, want to tick boxes. They want to see rhino, leopard, elephant. You don't need a lot of these animals, just one or two relatively tame ones ... and you can show the same leopard to thousands of people. Whereas, once a trophy hunter takes a leopard, it's gone. So, to support trophy hunting you need a whole population of leopards that are yielding a trophy male every now and then. So, a small number of trophy hunters actually support a large number of animals."

Trophy hunting has played a valuable role in conserving rarer species, he said. "It played a critical role in building up our rhino numbers. SA and Namibia are by far the world's largest two rhino range states and that's partly down to the fact that we had trophy hunting."

He caricatured trophy hunting arguments as "white men with big cameras and long lenses arguing with white men with big guns.

"Where are the voices of Africans? ... In southern Africa, communities want to get involved with the wildlife economy, but they want what works for them ... For wildlife to have value for them, they need to see it as something they can use and if they're allowed to hunt animals, why should they not be allowed to sell the right to hunt animals to foreigners if they are willing to pay a lot more?"

Dr Mark Jones, the head of policy at Born Free Foundation, described trophy hunting as a "cruel and completely unjustifiable activity introduced to Africa by colonial settlers, which deprives African communities of their natural heritage.

“The targeting of animals that make ‘good trophies’, those with the biggest tusks or horns or the darkest, most impressive manes, disrupts wildlife families, prides and herds and the wider ecology, by removing key individuals from wildlife populations.”

It causes immense animal suffering. “The industry is wracked by corruption, and the bulk of the money generated rarely reaches local communities or conservation projects, going instead to hunting outfitters, shipping agents, taxidermists, government agencies, and corrupt officials. It’s time to bring this damaging and unethical activity to a permanent end.”

Born Free, he said, challenges claims made by proponents of trophy hunting that it delivers significant conservation and community benefits and that it positively contributes to the sustainable use of wildlife.

"In his recently published book Unfair Game, Lord Michael Ashcroft points out that trophy hunting as a recreational activity was introduced to Africa by colonial settlers, and quotes Ian Michler of Blood Lions who states: 'I don’t know a single ethnic African ground that kills animals for fun, They kill for food, for ritual, for ceremonial purposes. But they never kill animals for fun. They don’t go out and shoot five lions. It’s a colonial construct, brought in by the colonials,'" said Jones.

While WWF in the UK has ostensibly ended its support for trophy hunting, WWF's network position remains unchanged. It says that in certain limited and rigorously controlled cases, including for threatened species, "scientific evidence has shown that trophy hunting can be an effective conservation tool as part of a broad mix of strategies.

"Conservation programmes that include trophy hunting must be sustainable and benefit wildlife populations of affected species, their habitats and associated ecosystems. They must also benefit local communities and be legally culturally and religiously appropriate within the region and meet other minimum conservation standards.

"When strict criteria are met, multi-pronged conservation strategies including trophy hunting enable communities to prioritise habitat and wildlife conservation over alternatives such as cattle raising and converting habitats for farming. They include putting people on the ground to monitor and protect lands and wildlife and offset the costs and dangers of living with wildlife."

Such programmes, it said, have enabled communities to invest funds in long-term wildlife conservation and sustainable development. "They have proven to be vital to communities where remoteness and lack of facilities limit the availability of other livelihood options, such as ecotourism."

Sas-Rolfes added: "Maybe this idea of going to a foreign land and coming back with something you stick on a wall, maybe it will disappear over time. It will be great one day if we can replace it all with non-consumptive forms of tourism and more responsible forms of tourism but our backs are up against the wall and this (bans) will just be one more nail in the coffin of our wildlife industry. The timing is terrible, particularly now with Covid-19."

Trophy hunting conserves land-study

Trophy hunting conserves land that wouldn't otherwise be protected, according to recent research by Griffith University.

"Trophy hunting is facing increasing pressure due to perceptions as being grotesque and morally reprehensible, with many groups calling for a complete ban," said Dr Duan Biggs, leader of the resilient conservation group in a university statement.

He worked with international collaborators, including from Stellenbosch University and Rhodes University, to investigate the effect a trophy hunting ban would have on SA landowners, who hold the majority of the hunting market on the continent.

Their research suggests that despite its negative perception, trophy hunting conserves broad swathes of land that would otherwise not be protected. These areas contribute about $200m a year to African economies, supporting millions of livelihoods.

"Our study explored how private landowners would respond to a legislative hunting ban being lobbied for by several NGO’s and international governments,” said Dr Hayley Clements of Stellenbosch University.

"Private conservation land, where trophy hunting occurs, comprises about 14-17% of South Africa, that’s more conservation land than in national parks,” said co-author, Dr Alta De Vos of Rhodes University.

“It turns out that about two thirds of landowners in South Africa would move away from a wildlife-based land use if trophy hunting is banned,” Dr Biggs said.“This hunting land is critically important as it provides linkages between private and public conservation areas, and funds further conservation efforts.”

A switch to photographic tourism wasn’t feasible for the majority, due to the financial constraints related to entering and competing in an already saturated tourism market.

“High-end photographic safaris are often touted as an alternative solution to trophy hunting, but only one third of our 22 respondents said that they would switch to photo safaris or intensify the wildlife viewing they already have," said Kim Parker, co-lead researcher from Rhodes University.

“Advocacy groups and the policy makers they’re pressurising to end all trophy hunting need to consider these potential ramifications of hunting bans, especially in the current Covid-19 climate.“

Evidence shows that hunters will travel to politically unstable and risky destinations to hunt, and severing limited funding in an already strained system would be catastrophic for both wildlife conservation and livelihoods in many parts of Africa, said Biggs.

“Alternative revenue streams and transition plans must be developed with landholders and communities where hunting is a key source of income to sustain both conservation land use and livelihoods before the implementation of any ban.”

The Saturday Star

Related Topics: