Hunting – A major force for nature conservation

Of all the many direct and indirect actions aimed at conserving our wildlife resources I have come across, it has been only those that offer economic benefit to the local population that have been successful – and amongst them hunting has clearly been the most effective…

After nearly four decades of running Diana Hunting Tours and Limpopo Travel, which has taken me all over the world, I have experienced just about everything when it comes to hunting and nature conservation. I haven’t counted how many countries we have sent travelling hunters to, nor how many local partners we have worked with, but it must be hundreds. I have followed the development of commercial hunting tourism from the inside, and throughout it has been clear that hunting and nature conservation are two sides of the same coin. The hunting tours of tomorrow rest entirely on today’s efforts towards conservation. I have seen countless examples of conservation schemes that have been successful, and just as many that have failed. Some of these failures have been catastrophic. The more I have seen, the more convinced I have become that effective nature conservation in the realities of today’s world is built upon some of the most basic elements of human nature.

Does it pay?

The markhor is a rare and highly threatened species of mountain goat. It has been estimated that there are only around 8,000 individuals of this species remaining in the wild, divided into four different subspecies over its scattered range.

In 1998, the Pakistani government decided to sell a limited number of hunting licences each year to the highest-bidding international hunters. This scheme has been a great success. A markhor hunt costs between US $90,000 and US $110,000, and much of this money ends up in the pockets of the local population. The result of this regulated hunting system has been overwhelmingly positive. With the wave of a wand, many districts went from showing at best zero increase in the meagre numbers of this wild goat, to a rise in population of more than 10% per year. In one district the population has increased from 150 to more than 700 animals since 1998. So what happened? Locals directly benefited, and could see the advantages of not hunting the markhor for the few dollars its meat brought in.

Recently, a colleague had a long chat over the Internet with an outfitter in Tajikistan who happened to be sitting in a mountain hut in the middle of a mid-Asian mountain range, close to the border of Afghanistan. About 15 years ago, his family had bought 100km2 of land in the mountains. In those days, there were around 40 markhor on their land.

The family protected the markhor because they knew there was a small chance that, if the population increased, they might be allowed to sell a few rams to international trophy hunters in the future. Today, the markhor on that land number more than 250, which represents around 25% of the global population of Bukhara markhor, a subspecies native only to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The outfitter is now allowed to sell a limited number of trophy rams every year, and the population is still increasing. After all, it is good business to ensure that there are enough to hunt.

The evidence in Africa

My experiences over the years have taught me that if it does not make economic sense at a grass-roots level to conserve wildlife, then it just won’t happen, despite the best of intentions. Populations of big-game animals in Kenya have collapsed since a total ban on hunting was introduced in 1977. The hunting safari industry disappeared, as did local jobs that relied on the industry and with it monitoring of game populations, anti-poaching measures and the supply of cheap meat for the locals were also lost. Overnight, game species lost their value to the local population, and the animals living outside of the National Parks soon ended up on the grill. Even within National Parks the number of animals declined dramatically – figures published by various scientific sources have shown a reduction of between 60% and 70% in the big-game populations in Kenya’s National Parks since 1970. In West Africa the situation is even worse – here, according to reports, 85% of the populations of these creatures have disappeared.

Luckily, other countries have taken a different route. Much of southern Africa is open for regulated trophy hunting, and here, in contrast to East and West Africa, big-game populations have shown a marked increase since 1970. A shining example is South Africa.

Towards the end of the 1960s, a few landowners saw it could be profitable to reserve their land for hunting rather than agricultural use. It proved to be a profitable business and slowly but surely more and more traditional cattle farms were converted into game farms, with the game species being released into the bush. They may have been behind fences (a necessity if profitability was to be maintained), but nevertheless the numbers of many South African species exploded. An important side effect was that not only did the game species so important to the hunting industry benefit: plants, insects and other invertebrates increased as well.

Today, 17% of South Africa’s total land mass consists of privately owned nature reserves, of which there are more than 10,000, making up a combined area of some 200,000km2. This represents an area 15% larger than the state of Florida, or more than four-fifths the size of the UK. Before this transformation, many were relatively barren farms, with limited biodiversity. Today, some of these reserves hold up to 30 different native game species.

I was involved in a habitat recreation project in northern South Africa through the ownership of a large hunting area. Today this farm, which I sold my part of some years ago, has grown to 45,000ha – that is 450km2 of nature! All the native species of game, including elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard, can be found there, where once only cattle grazed. A very important side effect is that it has been found that levels of meat production in a well-functioning natural habitat are in fact better than on a cattle farm. So meat production continues – in higher quantities and better quality than previously – plus you have a substantial extra income from the hunting. Wildlife pays!

Over the past 15 years, the hunting industry has seen its turnover grow by about 20% annually, and it now employs around 140,000 people in South Africa.

Market forces at work

The hunting industry in South Africa is a great example of what market forces can do for nature. Take the white rhino. In 1968, there were only 1,800 left in the wild. A decision was taken to open regulated trophy hunting for old males, making the animal valuable to farmers. The result? The population has – with hunting as the primary source of funding – grown to nearly 20,000 animals in South Africa and Namibia. In South Africa the black wildebeest, bontebok and cape mountain zebra are all species that have trophy hunting to thank for their continued survival. All three were rescued from the brink of extinction by game farmers – and they did this first and foremost because it made economic sense.

Other African species such as scimitar-horned oryx, addax antelope and dama gazelle all owe their existence to hunting farms in Texas. Say what you will about hunting farms, but without the breeding efforts made by these places the future looked bleak for these species.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), IUCN and other serious nature conservation bodies have long acknowledged that regulated trophy hunting is an important tool for nature conservation. To put it simply, it works – especially in the field. It is in the field and in achieving results that hunting can be separated from myriad other well-meaning conservation initiatives, most of which turn out not to be as effective in practice as they are on paper.

An example of other ways of assigning value to wildlife is eco-tourism such as photo safaris. There can be no doubt that this works to some extent, but it is simply not as effective as trophy hunting. There are a number of obvious reasons for this, but the primary one is that eco-tourism brings in less money to the local community. Of a total annual turnover of around $1billion that privately owned South African nature reserves are said to bring in, 75% comes from trophy hunting. This is despite the number of hunters visiting being a small fraction of the number of eco-tourists.

However, a larger problem is that eco-tourism does not have the same positive effect on wildlife populations as hunting. The reason is simple: hunting needs large, healthy populations of game to remain sustainable. In principle, photo tourism could survive with just a few reserves where the same animals are photographed thousands of times, while hunting needs large areas of undisturbed land and dedicated game management. Hunters are also prepared to search for game deep in the bush, visiting places eco-tourists never see. If conservation funding is to reach these biologically important areas, then trophy hunters are currently the biggest – sometimes the only – donors.

The European front

Regardless of what you may think of trophy hunting, one cannot dismiss the evidence which shows that hunting, if managed correctly, is one of the best indirect methods of conserving both game animals and their habitat, and thereby maintaining a high level of biodiversity in many places around the globe. As it was once stated, rather bluntly, in a newsletter published by the organisation for international hunters, the SCI: “Killing game animals is perhaps the best way of conserving them”. To put it another way: regulated hunting is the best conservation strategy.

We can see the same hunting and conservation relationship at work in much of Europe. What would the countryside look like if the farmers could not look forward to an annual income from hunting? It is hard to make money from selling the hunting rights to a barren wheat field. The income from hunting is perhaps the major reason that farmers for decades have accepted “annoying landscape features” such as hedgerows, and set-aside areas for growing food for the game. All these things not only help to improve the hunting, but they also benefit other wildlife. For the same reasons, banning the hunting of Danish partridges or hares would be disastrous for their continued survival in the Danish countryside, just as the ban on hunting tigers in India in 1970 sounded the death knell for this species in the wild.

How much effort does the hunter make to conserve the green woodpecker, for example? None… because the green woodpecker has no relevance to us as hunters – the same would be true for partridges if they gained full protection from shooting.

I do not pretend that nature conservation is one of the main motives for hunting – primarily we hunt for hunting’s own sake. We are not benefactors who donate a large part of our income to nature conservation, at least not directly. But the net result is the same, regardless of our intentions or motives – it is simply a necessary part of hunting, and the big winner is nature itself.

Hunting is – and in my time always has been – a subject of hot debate. This is especially true of international trophy hunting. Non-hunters harbour many misconceptions and prejudices against modern hunting. People find it difficult to understand the ethics of hunters who shoot endangered species. But most of all, I experience a lack of understanding of our motives for hunting. It’s a shame, but I can live with the fact that non-hunters don’t find the same fascination and satisfaction in the interaction with nature that hunting gives me. It is far more tragic that this lack of understanding often leads to hateful outbursts and unnecessary restrictions on hunting. Decades of practical experience and factual documentation demonstrating that hunting is a valuable tool for nature conservation is unfortunately not enough to prevent attacks on hunting based on prejudice and ignorance.

If hunt protestors were more interested in fighting for wildlife rather than against hunting, they would, despite their anti-hunting sentiments, choose the path that would benefit nature the most. Unfortunately, that is not how things work today, and man only looks after that which is of value to himself. We will have battles to fight in the future.