I received an unpleasant surprise concerning some of the responses to the donation of the some 300 mounted animals from my museum on our old game ranch to the Iziko Museums of Cape Town. Some of these animals, namely, a giraffe, leopard, klipspringer, honey badger and assorted birds were used to help illustrate the Le Vaillant Exhibition entitled, The King’s Map, hosted by the museum, which was a joint effort between the French and South African governments to commemorate the exploits of this famous French ornithologist’s explorations in South Africa. Led by the comments posted on the museum website by a professor at the University of Cape Town, it flared briefly and attracted a number of fanatical animal rightists, mostly from overseas, some who threatened to kill me and others who hoped I would contract cancer and die a long and painful death for killing these animals. It all culminated in a radio interview where the animal rightist point of view was the usual incomprehensible, emotional mumbo jumbo, devoid of fact or empirically established science. I reduced my response to writing for those of you who are interested in the program.
While I am reluctant to write about myself or sound self-conscious or defensive of the fact that I am a recreational hunter, in the light of the personal threats I have received – mainly from North America if the email addresses are anything to go by – two of which have threatened to shoot me and others of which have hoped that I contract cancer or die a painful and lingering death, due to the fact that I have donated some 300 taxidermied game animals to the Iziko Museums of South Africa, I have felt compelled to do so, particularly in the light of the interview conducted on Cape Talk on Thursday morning, 20 January 2012.
In the interview, the woman who said she represented and was collating the responses of those opposed to the donation, said their complaints were based on the fact that I had killed these animals for personal pleasure or fun. In addition, she stated it provided a bad example to children being taught about conservation and, furthermore, was bad for the country.
Let me address these issues. Firstly, why do I hunt? There are objective and subjective reasons. Let me start with the more difficult subjective one. Man has hunted to provide for and protect his family for tens of thousands of years. It is only for the last 200 or so years that, due to things such as refrigeration and commercial farming, he has been able to entrust these vital functions to others but the age old genetic traits are still part of who we are and hunting satisfies something deep inside me. It is an essential part of who I am as a person.
And yes, I take great pleasure in being in the huge, remote, wildlife habitats in which I love to hunt and in the companionship of old friends around a campfire in a hunting camp but pleasure in the act of killing a wild animal? Most definitely not! Hunters kill to have hunted. They do not hunt to kill and anyone who does so, by definition, could not be a hunter because hunting is everything that happens UP TO when the trigger is squeezed. Such an individual may be a shooter or a psychopath but, by definition, is not and cannot be a hunter.
While hunting, seen as a whole, generates the most intense collection of emotions – hope, despair, joy, depression, fear, relief – I have ever experienced, including those which have often over-ridden my self control and caused the tears to stream down my face, pleasure at the death of a wonderful wild animal has certainly never been one of them and to describe hunting as mere “fun” is to deliberately belittle the passion of what we do, much like describing the totality of golf as hitting a little white ball into a hole or rugby as 30 men chasing after a piece of inflated cow hide.
In addition, every scrap of meat of the animals I have shot has gone to feed me, my followers and my family as, in most cases, the closest shop has been many, many kilometres away from where I have been hunting. Nothing has gone to waste not even the forest elephant I shot in the rain forests of Cameroon, which fed the pygmy trackers and their families who accompanied me – all 38 of them. It took them 11 days to eat it all! I have used the skins to mount the animals and left over hide to make belts, bags and clothing and the horns and tusks as ornaments, jewellery or trophies. Nothing has gone to waste.
Difficult as it may be for people who live removed from wildlife to understand, hunters like me feel passionately about wildlife and devote the better part of their lives and a large part of their earnings to their conservation and the habitats which they occupy. In my case, I am a life member of the Endangered Trust, a founder member of the Peace Parks Foundation and the SA Wildlife College and a trustee of WWF Southern Africa, as well as a life member of three local and three international hunting and conservation organisations.
Objectively, the most important conservation body in the world, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Convention on Biodiversity, to which our country is a signatory, have both officially recognized that legal, ethical and sustainable hunting is one of the cornerstones of conservation in Africa. Our neighbouring country, Namibia, has enshrined the sustainable use of natural resources in its constitution and, since the introduction of enabling legislation, has seen hunting’s contribution to the economy grow to nearly 5% at the rate of 14% per annum, providing jobs and food security to many in the rural areas which most need it. In addition, many of the previously endangered animals, like the rare desert elephant, have increased in number – from 150 to 750 in the case of the elephant – over the last 10 years, a recognized trend which reflects was has been happeed in South Africa for the last 60 years or so. Conversely, in Kenya, where hunting has been banned since 1977, by their own admission, they have lost over 80% of their game and the IUCN is trying to organize a conference there next year to try and address this disastrous situation.
In South Africa, Prof Jane Carruthers of Unisa, published a thought provoking book entitled, Wilding the Farm or Farming the Wild. In a survey quoted in the book it was estimated that, in 1967, only 557 000 game animals were left. The blue buck and quagga were already extinct and four species, the black wildebeest, bontebok, Cape mountain zebra and white rhino were following hard on their heels as there were less than 100 of any of these species. In 2005, a similar survey estimated that the amount of game had grown to 18.6 million and, of the four species, those that had been hunted most assiduously, had recovered best and, despite the efforts of poachers, there were still over 18 000 white rhinos in the country.
Empirical research has shown that the main causes behind the decline in game numbers were the Anglo/Boer Wars, the two World Wars, the Depression in between, drought, disease, commercial killing for hides and ivory and government sponsored killing because it was mistakenly believed that game harboured the tsetse fly. The biggest single factor, however, was the killing by farmers who believed that game had no value, competed with their domestic livestock for food and water and spread disease. Recreational hunting, in the scheme of things, was virtually irrelevant despite the ignorant excesses of some of the very early hunters.
A Free State University survey recently showed that there are some 300 000 recreational hunters in South Africa, compared to 13,7 million in North America (which number has grown 9% in the last three years). According to a local study by Drs. Dry and Oberem, these local and international hunters contribute billions of rands to the local economy and the hunting industry, as whole, amounts to some R8 billion, which is growing at around 15% per annum and provides about 100 000 jobs mainly in the poor rural areas where they are most needed. The game ranches which supply the bulk of these jobs have grown from three in the 1960s to close on 10 000 today and employ three time more people, at salaries, on average, five times higher than the domestic livestock operations they, for the most part, have replaced. They cover some 21 million hectares or three times the land covered by all the national and provincial parks put together. In other words, land set aside for wildlife has grown exponentially.
Why has this happened? Quite simply, when Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania all closed hunting in the late 1970s – both Uganda and Tanzania have since reversed these bans – the demand for hunting moved south. Soon farmers here were being offered more for a springbok than a sheep, more for a kudu than a cow and hunting started to replace the cow and the plough to the demonstrable benefit of wildlife and wildlife habitat. Land was set aside for wildlife which produced revenue and hence the axiom, if it pays it stays.
This was the final complaint of the woman who purported to represent those opposed to Iziko displaying natural history specimens – although she failed to identify her organization or the numbers of its members – namely, that game ranchers like myself did it to make money. That there were no conservation benefits as we did not tolerate predators. Firstly, the Absa Bank Report into this matter showed that, even for game ranches in excess of 15 000 hectares – those most likely to make a profit – their returns were lower than that achievable if the money were placed on fixed deposit. Secondly, over the 20 years I was a game rancher, every cent I made was reinvested in the ranch and went towards things such as veld reclamation, infrastructure improvement and game reintroduction. Part of the latter included the re-introduction of caracal and African wildcat to our ranch. And I was merely one of the majority of game ranchers who have followed similar if not more extensive investment programs without ever having any hope of making a commercial return on their investment in wildlife. Given the time, effort and money I and many, many others in the hunting industry have devoted to conservation because of our passion for wildlife and wildlife habitat, I cannot help but wonder how much people like the woman concerned have given.
In conclusion, the Curator of Terrestrial Mammals at Iziko explained during the interview that, before accepting the collection, they had consulted with other museums, academic institutions, their own board and others. There was unanimous agreement that this well documented, legally obtained collection, representing almost every game animal on license in Africa, was too important to be allowed to leave the country and was an important scientific research tool and educational aid for children who thoroughly enjoyed the close interaction they were able to have with natural history exhibits.
While debate is a vital part of our fledgling democracy and one which I fully support and respect, I do not believe death threats, curses and abusive language have a place. While I am well aware that, particularly for urbanites remote from wildlife and their habitats, hunting can be a controversial topic, the above tactics adopted by the woman and her fanatical supporters are reprehensible and they may want to remember that hunters like me who they threaten to shoot and maim, can shoot back.