Saturday, December 16

Hunting for a Conservation Solution

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Rupi Gill in conversation with Chris Trent, Kes Smith and Richard Vigne.

I think I’m right in there with most people who understand killing animals to eat. It is trophy hunting, which in these days has become a dirty word. Yet Professional trekkers and hunters claim it is a way of preserving the wild life.

“When an area is not protected, people move in, there is logging, deforestation for agriculture and if the animals haven’t fled they are killed to avoid conflict.” Chris Trent tells me.

He’s one of the few remaining hunters who believe it can be used for conservation. Also, that since Cecil, the lion with a collar was killed and whose story went viral on social media, people are wary of the backlash. And that corruption, canned hunting – where animals are bred and released from cages just to get shot, along with Green Mile’s videos showing herds being gunned down, give the sport a bad name.

“Game areas set aside for hunting, keep humans out and buffer the protected areas – where no hunting is allowed – from human and wildlife conflict. It is the predators that go first, baited with poisoned meat.” And then the vultures and the rest follow, as land is cleared.

The ban on killing or owning all things wild – alive or dead parts – is a desperate measure to control the rapidly dwindling numbers of free ranging wild life that is the heritage of East Africa.

But there is also a whole lot of heritage in the tribal wisdoms that include arrow poisons and weaponry, one which I am intrigued to find out includes making fire arm barrels from Land Rover bars and gunpowder from hyrax droppings.

In a world of false news, political correctness and customs becoming obsolete, even abusive regularly (I’m thinking of homophobia, circumcision, child slapping and honour crimes), it is difficult to decipher what is cool and what is not. The primal thrills of war and hunting have been designated to be uncool and contained by the modern world in corporations through the pursuit of material wealth and massive sporting events where super-humans reign. Whilst the liberals make documentaries showing the damage these mega organisations do by controlling us, the real question emerges: One that involves sustainability and population control.

As sub-saharan Africa rushes to catch up with the rest of the world, rural populations are moving into animal habitats. People want to provide security for their families and the temptation to use inherent skills as trackers and hunters for the wrong side, is too strong to resist no matter how ferocious the law or savage the beast.

Elephant numbers are down because of poaching. Where there is poaching, it’s usually related via funding to terrorism and drug smuggling. Kes Hillman Smith, gives me the biologist’s point of view.

“It’s true that ethical hunting has been one of the tools to secure land for wildlife. Selous Game Reserve for example, an area the size of Belgium is largely hunting concessions. Frederick Courtney Selous himself was one of many early conservationists who started as hunters, gained an understanding and love of the wild and realized that areas needed to be set aside for wildlife. But it only works if well managed and if stakeholders have a full time incentive and commitment to sustainable conservation. There are now so few animals left.”

Chris explains the ethical rules to sport hunting. “..on foot not from a car or from a herd, the tooth of the lion is x-rayed and if the lion (must be a loner and never a female), is less than six years old, you are fined $2500 for the first time, third time offenders will lose their license… A game scout accompanies you for 24 hours a day.”

70% of Americans hunt and the culture is just as entrenched in South Africa. Deer populations in the US and the entire South African animal population has gone up this century as a result of controlled hunting. But it is in Tanzania that the last of the really wild hunting remains. Chris tells me that a hunting expedition is an expensive trip, the flights, permits and taxes alone will be in excess of $10 000.

“A lion hunter has to go into thick bush in a remote area, it’s hot, tsetse fly infested, with yellow fever and only a 10% chance of killing one so there’s no guarantee for your money…and when you come across an animal it doesn’t just sit there.”

“Areas in Kenya where wildlife has decreased least are those where wildlife and pastoralist rangelands co-exist. Mara conservancies,the Amboseli ecosystem and Laikipia are key examples. But even there, there has to be an incentive for sustainable management of the resource. Human populations and livestock are increasing. Higher rainfall areas that used to be for dry season grazing are being taken over for agriculture. Available land is not increasing.” Kes says.

In Kenya’s Laikipia area, land and lodges have been raided by pastoralist warriors who’ve even killed people, claiming they need the land due to drought.

“But the situation is more complicated than that. Ranchers have always allowed their pastoral neighbours quotas for grazing and water access on private land in dry seasons. But so many of the cattle invading Laikipia are either from much further afield where they have long since over-used the grass or belong to rich absentee owners. Tribal conflicts add to the issue. There is no single simple solution, but incentivizing sustainable rangeland management for both wildlife and livestock with a pastoralist perspective is one approach being used in several areas in the southern Kenya borderlands.”

Richard Vigne is the CEO of Ol Pejeta and he tells me that “conservation needs to reinvent itself and soon!”

“Imagine how much money could be made if the Nairobi National Park was given over to some top global business people on the premise that they must a) keep it as conservation space at the same time as b) making as much profit from it as possible?

You would anticipate a better value for money product, retail outlets, new camps, value add activities. And as it became a serious money making enterprise, its future would become increasingly assured AND more landowners on the periphery might want to join the park for a slice of the cake.”

He also says “..bringing back hunting is not the silver bullet – although it may be part of the answer.” And, “Subsistence hunters need education and the opportunity to earn a better living.”

Chris imagines that poachers and subsistence hunters would get mopped up into legal activities still scouting and tracking, darting and surveying.

What I leave this conversation with is the thought that the price of land has turned adventures that were part of our nature into unaffordable luxuries. And that it is cool to control our numbers and hot (as in urgent) to consume the planet’s resources with judgement.

Kes Smith is an authority on protecting the Northern White Rhinos, her efforts resulted in their numbers increasing in Garamba National Park, DRC.

Dr Alison Kesenyonye Hillman Smith was born in England and is a graduate of zoology with a PhD from Leicester University, UK. In Africa since 1973, she assisted Iain Douglas-Hamilton to carry out the first pan-African Elephant survey, then led the first African Rhino Survey and Conservation Action Plan.

In the late nineties she was one of the initiators of Biodiversity in Regions of Armed Conflict and worked on rhino monitoring in Selous Game Reserve. She brought up her two children with husband Fraser in the Garamba National Park. Her latest coffee table book on Garamba, Conservation in Peace and War is available from Amazon.

Chris Trent was born and brought up on a large cattle and game ranch in the north of Kenya. Because of the many hours he has spent tracking animals there and in Tanzania more recently, he has a deep knowledge of their habitats. He is very good and finding wild life and explaining their behaviour.

His love of wild animals and the outdoors has taken him into remote areas of East Africa where he has worked as a safari guide and professional hunter.

Richard Vigne is born and brought up in Kenya. A zoologist with a Masters in Management for Agriculture from Cranfield in UK, he developed Ol Pajeta conservancy in Laikipia – Africa’s largest sanctuary for black rhinos.

Prior to Ol Pejeta he operated a safari company throughout Uganda and eastern Zaire and completed a number of conservation and land use related consultancies for organizations such as Conservation Capital and the African Wildlife Foundation.

At Ol Pajeta, he has pioneered the integration of a profitable livestock operation with conservation and tourism in a financially self sustaining model. It includes a community development program and works to secure habitats and diminish poaching.

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