Now that I’m here in South Africa I thought it would be good to update you on how things are going. So far I’ve interviewed some reserve managers and a professional hunter about the pressure they face, about the work that they do and about how hunting fits in to that bigger picture.
To prepare for this documentary I’ve looked at a lot of trophy hunting photos and to be honest I find them difficult viewing sometimes. They seem to glorify the killing of an animal and that’s something I’m not comfortable with. However, I’m already learning that it’s a far more complex issue than many realise.
First, some home truths about Africa, especially South Africa. It isn’t the Lion King down here. I’ve just driven past some of the biggest mining operations I’ve ever seen, sited along some major roads that wind through townships and cities. This is a developed country, with infrastructure and a high human population. Sure, there are some wild areas in some parts of South Africa but there’s serious human-wildlife conflict here. To keep animals safe from persecution and development, and to keep people safe from them, you need to fence them in; and what you fence, you must manage.
I’ve seen first-hand what happens to land here that isn’t managed. Overstocking with cattle or with wildlife leads rapidly to overgrazing. This leads to a severe depletion of the exact resources those animals need – the grasses and vegetation. Within a couple of years this leads to bush encroachment, which is when acacia shrubs take over, stopping any grass growing and any grazing. Throw some soil erosion into the mix then you have a perfect recipe for rapid land degradation. You can see this happening throughout southern Africa and to be honest it’s heart breaking. Productive, wildlife-rich land is being converted into land on which no wildlife can live and you can drive past land like this for hours on any African highway.
However, it doesn’t have to be like this. You can manage the land by controlled burning, monitoring the condition of the grassland, managing roads to reduce run-off and erosion and, crucially, by calculating stocking densities. It’s an evidence-based approach, relying on science, understanding and experience. Oh, and money because all that management doesn’t come for free. It takes time, vehicles, equipment and labour.
If you run a game reserve with thousands of animals roaming freely then the only resource you have to get the cash required to manage these animals is generated by the animals themselves. A farm only works by harvesting the plants and animals it supports. The same is true for game reserves.
Some areas with wildlife of course can get money by tourism. This works well for iconic National Parks like Kruger or Pilanesberg (who also benefit from centralised funding) but thousands of reserves are off the tourist track and lack the scenery or the Big Five wildlife that attracts tourists. These reserves rely on using their animals to generate the money they need to keep going and to keep animals on their reserves, including endangered animals like rhino. They need hunting to generate that money.
Some of the hunting is for meat. Many South Africans spend a weekend on a reserve and fill their freezer with kudu, impala, eland and other free-range “venison”. Some hunters are after a particular species and some would like to mount the head or even the full body as a taxidermy mount – a trophy. These trophy hunters pay serious money to do this and provide reserves with a vital cash injection. This also happens on National Parks by the way (listen to the programme to find out more). Animals like lions need to be culled in some reserves as part of their management because too many lions will take too many other animals as prey. Shooting a lion in a cull costs money. Why not get money from someone to do the job for you?
Another reality check, and I’ll quote a lion conservationist I spoke to today: “lions breed like cockroaches”. In well-managed areas they are thriving. Of course, they are being killed illegally outside of these areas (and sometimes within them) and there are fewer lions in Africa today than in the past, but this decline is not down to rich dentists after trophies. It’s because unfenced lions come into conflict with humans.
I love visiting a little farm in Devon near where I grew up. They have some trout lakes (gorgeous views) and animals that are lovely to watch. But my visits don’t keep that farm nice. They rely on milking cattle, taking sheep to the abattoir and fishing the trout that thrive in their lakes. If fishing and killing animals for meat were banned then that farm would collapse.
What I’ve started to realise is that the same thing would happen here if hunting were banned. Thousands of reserves, stocking millions of animals, do so purely because those animals have a real, financial value.