“That the South African government is saying that black rhino numbers are on the rise and therefore it’s OK to hunt them is fraudulent and appalling. We’re fighting every day to keep these endangered animals safe. We cannot afford to lose any rhino of any subspecies at this point.”
SHANNON ELIZABETH—ACTOR & CONSERVATIONIST
For me, the mere thought of animals being killed for no other reason than fun and the attendant boasting rights by a few wealthy westerners (mostly Americans) is abhorrent. I don’t care what justification is given for trophy hunting, I reject it, and I will steadfastly continue to promote a global society that is socially intolerant of such barbaric behavior and writes such sentiment into law.
I work with Shannon Elizabeth and her Cape Town-based foundation, so I fully endorse her above comments made on a local radio station over last weekend. She further points out that “poaching is as bad as it’s ever been and unfortunately, now that there are so few rhinos left, it’s easy to fool people into thinking that poaching is down because the number killed seems to be low compared with the past… for anyone to say that it is permitted and justified to allow the killing of a critically endangered animal is completely incorrect and an outright lie. Trophy hunters claim that money from hunts goes back into communities, but that has been statistically disproven in almost every instance. That money goes primarily into the pockets of the few people facilitating the hunt, nothing more. So, this news is disgusting and disheartening.”
Her outrage is perfectly understandable and stands with no further comment, but some additional context is helpful. It follows from the statement by Barbara Creecy (the South African Minister for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment) confirming quotas for the hunting and export of trophies for three species—black rhino, leopard, and elephant—in South Africa for 2022.
The quotas have been set at 10 leopards, 10 black rhinos, and 150 elephants (further defined as “300 tusks”), justified by data and regulation. For instance, the leopard hunts are based on “robust data” generated through a sophisticated national leopard monitoring program. Also, they are to be allowed only in areas where leopard populations are stable or increasing. Furthermore, only male leopards of seven years of age or older may be hunted. The premise is that by implementing a strict seven-year age minimum for trophy leopards, the risk of overharvesting is substantially reduced.
Similarly, only adult male black rhinos will be hunted, with the quota being based on national population estimates for black rhinos per subspecies. Regarding elephants, Creecy’s statement reads: “Only a very small portion of the overall elephant population is hunted in a year (less than 80 elephant bulls, which is less than 0.3% of the total population). The national elephant herd shows an increasing trend and the quota of 150 is well within sustainable limits.”
These quotas are in line with what is permitted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulations and in terms of South Africa’s National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA). Creecy maintains that the quotas are aligned with “the best available scientific information on their conservation status,” which ensures that hunting of these animals will not negatively impact wild populations of these species. She goes on to say that “regulated and sustainable hunting is an important conservation tool in South Africa as it incentivizes the private sector and communities to conserve valuable wildlife species and to participate in wildlife-based land uses, ultimately contributing to the conservation of the country’s biodiversity.” And, finally, that “income generated by trophy hunting is especially critical for marginalised and impoverished rural communities.”
And so, according to Creecy, trophy hunting is justified on three main grounds: it is sustainable, it is legally in line with international treaties and national (South African) law, and it is revenue-generating with particular importance for poor rural communities.
In terms of sustainability, she is correct, and Dr. Paul Funston of African Lion Conservation agrees. “I respect the minister and support her in this decision in that I believe, possibly naively, that in the process towards coming up with the new guidelines for lion, leopards, rhinos, and elephants through strong advice from a panel she got it pretty right. Therefore, on purely logical and scientific grounds, I support her, although personally, the thought of hunting any of these creatures is something I will never support.”
Funston continues: “On leopards specifically, the government spends a significant amount each year monitoring population trends across the country and only allocates any leopard quota in areas where they are doing well. Poaching leopards for skins is the issue in South Africa, not ten leopards on quota. However, hunting is additive mortality and thus can only be done sustainably in areas where any population is doing well—thus the national leopard population monitoring framework.”
I can’t fault Funston’s qualified support for the quotas, and I agree when he says that for those who find the principle of trophy hunting distasteful and would like to see it off the table, “we need another mechanism to make that shift as a species.”
However, in respect of the black rhino, I do question Creecy’s contention that South Africa’s three subspecies “show an increasing trend at present.” At the very least, this is disingenuous in the context of the poaching statistics her department recently released. I commented on this in a recent editorial. The future of South Africa’s rhinos, both black and white, remains dire in the face of continued poaching deprivation. The Kruger National Park’s rhinos of both species have crashed over the past decade, and the pressure on them, driven by demand for horn in the East, is intense. I think sanctioning the trophy hunting of even one rhino is nonsensical and insulting to those trying to prevent further poaching deaths. The life of every single rhino is vital for their future. To allow a few wealthy white men to shoot a few rhinos (they have to be rich to afford a price tag upwards of $100,000 and as much as the $350,000 once paid for a hunt), but at the same time condemn the use of rhino horn in the East as a putative drug or for the status it affords its “owner,” is a very mixed message indeed.
I also worry about the assumption that 150 bull elephants are of no biological consequence. We need to be very careful indeed. Africa’s elephants are under huge pressure from land-use needs and from poaching. Bear in mind that in 1900, some 10 million elephants roamed Africa; by the 1980s, only about 1.3 million remained, and today there are probably fewer than 400,000 of these magnificent creatures. The forest elephants are being annihilated, and I have little doubt that when they have been wholly extirpated, the attention of poachers will focus ever more tightly on the plains elephants of East and Southern Africa. For those who scoff at this, let me remind them of the situation with the rhino. The rhino war of the 1970s through to the mid-1990s saw the complete annihilation of East and Central Africa’s rhinos for the Yemeni dagger-handle industry. Then followed a decade of calm before the current wave of poaching got underway. In 2008 came the news that 164 rhinos had been poached in Zimbabwe and 83 in South Africa. Many of us saw this as a signal of bad things to come. I remember chatting to Dr. Hector Magome, then head of conservation at SANParks, and being assured that South Africa’s rhinos were safe. Well, through bitter experience, we’ve learned that they weren’t. I hope we aren’t similarly caught napping when the ivory poachers move south, but I suspect we will.
So, yes, Minister Creecy, you may be right: “only a very small portion of the overall elephant population is hunted in a year,” and maybe that is sustainable in the short term. But the hunters will want the best and biggest bulls with the most impressive ivory to impress their friends and the record book of Safari Club International. Think carefully before casting this genetic treasure aside for perceived short-term gains and praise from the hunting community. And also, be careful of exaggerated claims of the economic importance of trophy hunting for rural communities.
On February 26, a Canadian organization, MojoStreaming, sponsored a debate entitled “Is Trophy Hunting a necessary tool in wildlife conservation?” It was a face-off between Will Travers (antagonist) of the Born Free Foundation and Dilys Roe (protagonist) representing the IUCN Sustainable Livelihoods “specialist group.” Unfortunately, I could not attend the virtual event, but Dr. Pieter Kat of LionAid did and shared his comments on Facebook. I would have guessed that the debate would be little more than the airing of opposing views and Kat bears this out. “Of course, there was no real progress,” he says, “the main characters just stated their positions, and the ‘audience’ was only allowed to place a few questions in writing before the moderator to be read out after the ‘debate’.”
Nevertheless, there were points of interest, one of which was Travers’ statistic that rural communities in trophy hunting areas collected a mere $0.56 per person per year as payment for trophy hunters to use their land and resources. This was apparently countered with a remarkably insensitive riposte by Dilys Roe that whatever pittance communities were getting was better than nothing. “My jaw dropped here,” says Kat. “How incredibly colonial was that statement, Dilys? Communities being thrown a bone for the use of their land and resources while the foreign operators take the meat? And this from someone heading up an IUCN specialist group on sustainable utilization? Neither Travers (ever wanting to portray himself as a diplomat) nor the audience pounced on this statement.”
As a share of the trophy hunting pie, the portion going to communities and/or individual workers in hunting areas has always been a pittance, and it will always be so unless there is some sort of major redress of the inequities. This is highly unlikely given the vested interests of a few.
I don’t know what share of the current South Africa trophy hunting quotas will filter down to communities and unskilled farmhands, but I’ll eat my hat if they break the pittance mold. My challenge to Minister Creecy and the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA)—if and when these hunts are done and dusted—is to sponsor a genuinely independent audit of the accounts so that once and for all, we can see how the treasure from trophy hunting is divvied up. If this is not done willingly, we must demand it.
And, regarding the trophy hunting debate, I am in complete agreement with Pieter Kat when he says: “If this is the state of affairs, just setting out arguments rather than seeking solutions, it just shows lack of creativity rather than seeking a backbone… Hopefully, the future discussions on this issue will be more gritty.”
However, we don’t need more debates. Trophy hunting is reprehensible, it has never proved to hold any conservation merit, and any real financial benefit is limited to a small coterie of participants. I also believe (as I have for some while) that hunting (and trophy hunting, in particular) is a dying pastime. The spiritus mundi does not favor it.
There is no longer any point in the opposing sides hurling insults and challenges across the divide. The challenge now is for interested parties to devise a way forward—a way that is lasting and of real uplifting benefit to the communities most affected. All trophy hunting does is make a few rural people slightly less poor. We can and must do better than that.