It is one of the biggest paradoxes of wildlife conservation that killing animals could be the best way to save them. In fact, on the surface, it seems ludicrous to think that death could ever be the best vehicle for life.
However, you only have to look at the two most successful conservation models in the world – South Africa and North America – both built on a foundation that includes recreational hunting.
In fact, these systems have been so successful at actually increasing wildlife populations that they are starting to be copied around the world by governments wanting to protect critically endangered species and sensibly manage wildlife populations.
Let’s take a look at the South African model of wildlife conservation and see what we can learn from it.
Conservation hunting in South Africa
Hunting is often blamed for a decline in animal populations, and while unregulated hunting (and its evil cousin, illegal poaching) can play a small part in wildlife decline, the biggest culprit is human encroachment – in particular, urban development and agriculture.
Human populations grow, which requires more housing, which requires more roads and infrastructure, which requires large farms to feed the growing population.
And all that development means that huge tracts of land have to be cleared.
In this environment, wild animals are viewed as a cost, not an asset. The herbivores either compete with livestock for prime grazing or eat the crops before they can be taken to market. Predators and larger mammals become a direct threat to livestock, pets and local communities.
And when animals are seen as a cost or a threat, there is no financial incentive to keep them around.
Unfortunately, that meant many wild animals were killed off or forced out of the area – or worse, caught and sold off to zoos and private collectors overseas.
By the 1960s, wildlife existed only in undeveloped areas and the small handful of national parks that had been set aside.
The only place wildlife was protected was within those national parks. Everywhere else, they were fair game.
In 1964, the South African government made a chilling discovery. Wildlife populations had decreased so dramatically there was only an estimated 575,000 wild game animals left in the country.
At the time, safari hunting and game ranching was a fledging industry, but the one thing that soon became obvious was it was the only industry placing a value on wildlife and wild areas.
But it was not until 1991, when the government introduced the Game Theft Act, which allowed private ownership of wildlife as long as it was fenced in, that game ranches really became a viable industry.
Now farmers and entrepreneurs had a direct incentive to purchase large tracts of land to restore to wild areas for the protection and conservation of wildlife.
Hang on a second – if their motivation was to protect and conserve, why were they allowing people to hunt and kill the animals? That just doesn’t make sense.
One of the key aspects of animal management that most activists don’t understand is the need to selectively reduce the herd.
For starters, the land has a limit to how many animals it can sustain. If the herd grows too big, and starts to put pressure on the eco-system, all species on that land will suffer and many will starve, dying a slow and painful death.
Parks and ranches with big animals, like elephants, giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos etc need to carefully manage their wildlife populations to ensure the land can sustain the animals living there.
One example of how quickly this can escalate if not managed can be seen in Kruger National Park. Scientists have been calculating the ideal herd numbers for Kruger since the 1960s, and have recommended that the maximum number of elephants the park can sustainably cater for, without adversely affecting other animal species, is 7000 elephants. This optimum number was maintained through selective culling and hunting until 1994, when the government bowed to international pressure and stopped all elephant culling in the park.
By 2015, the number of elephants in Kruger National Park had swelled to 17,086, with an annual growth rate of 4.2 percent – 10,000 more elephants than the park can sustain. This overpopulation has a direct correlation and impact on other species within the park, which means while elephant populations are growing, other species are declining.
Unfortunately, the international community believe that they are doing a good deed by forcing African governments to halt all culling and hunting of big game animals, but instead, these naive attempts at conservation actually cause more harm than good to ALL animals.
One of the most effective ways to manage wildlife is through selective culling. Older animals are removed in order to make way for younger animals. This helps to ensure the animals aren’t becoming inbred.
Selective culling also involves removing animals with poorer genetics, and in removing problem animals, particularly those that have become excessively aggressive.
The aim of culling is always to maintain balance and optimum health for the majority. It is the principle of some must suffer for the greater good.
So if we accept that animal populations must be balanced, and that some animals must die to ensure the health of the rest of the herd, there are really only two options to make that happen.
The first is for the government or game rancher to have the animal euthanised or destroyed, which he can either do himself, or through a vet. Both of these options incur a cost. The animal dies, but there is no financial benefit to its death.
The second option is for the government or game rancher to make money from the death that can then be reinvested back into the herd.
Breeding wild game animals is not a cheap exercise. There are a lot of operational costs to maintaining a game park or reserve. Remember, if there is no value in the animal itself, there is no incentive for anyone to incur those costs. While a small handful of parks and reserves are purely altruistic, they rely heavily on foreign donations and tourism to survive. The vast majority of game parks and reserves are privately owned and need to be able to pay for their own upkeep.
There are essentially five ways that money can be made from wild animals: breeding stock, photographic tours, wildlife products, meat production, and trophy hunting.
The first four only provide supplementary income. Photographic tours have limited success, with studies showing that the area itself needs to be as picturesque as the animals themselves for people to want to pay money to visit, which cuts out large portions of the country.
Depending on the animal species, trophy hunting has a much higher return on investment, and because the return is higher, less animals have to die to achieve profitability.
And because trophy animals are traditionally the larger, older males, it also helps the owner maintain that optimum balance and health of the herd that we spoke about earlier.
Rather than just destroying the male, it is sacrificed for the greater good of the rest of the herd.
Either way, the animal is still dead.
Now here is the real proof that this model of conservation works.
By placing a monetary value on wildlife, more and more South Africans have been motivated to protect and conserve their precious wildlife, recognising it as an important resource that has ecological, cultural and economic benefits.
In the 1960s, there were four national parks and only a handful of private game reserves. Today, South Africa has 23 national parks and more than 10,000 privately owned game reserves and safari parks. That equates to more than 21 million hectares (or around 20 percent of the country’s landmass) that’s been set aside not just for wild animals but also as wild places, with private enterprise accounting for three times the landmass and wildlife numbers than all the government owned parks combined.
Wildlife numbers have increased by 4073 percent to a staggering 24 million wild game animals. Animals that were on the brink of extinction, such as the white rhino, black wildebeest, bontebok, sable and roan, are now thriving.
The wildlife industry, centred around trophy hunting, contributes around $1 billion USD to the local economy, creating employment and industry in some of the most regional and remote areas of the country.
Over the course of the 2014/15 financial year, the Tanzanian government raised $16.3 million USD from trophy hunting with 25 percent of that revenue directly supporting conservation through the Tanzanian Wildlife Protection Fund. This is compared to a mere $4.7 million USD that was raised through photographic tourism and safaris – just a quarter of that raised through hunting. These statistics don’t even touch on the money generated through private enterprise that is also used to reinvest back into land protection and wildlife conservation.
South Africa is recognised internationally as having the most successful wildlife conservation practices in the world. These practices are built around the principle of ‘sustainable utilisation’. Trophy hunting plays an integral role in this success.
You don’t need to take our word that hunting plays a vital role in successful conservation models. Look at the example of Kenya to see what happens when people refuse to accept hunting as a valuable tool.
Kenya banned all hunting in the late 1970s at the encouragement of international animal rights groups, who believed the move would increase wildlife numbers and attract rich foreigners willing to pay money to photograph the animals instead. They were wrong. Instead of increasing, wildlife numbers have declined by a whopping 85 percent. As for income, while Kenya does earn around $275 million USD a year from wildlife tours and photographic tours, this is only a quarter of the tourism dollars South Africa generates from their wildlife.
Other countries, like Pakistan, are now implementing similar conservation programs based around hunting to protect and conserve endangered species like the markhor.
How do you think Australia could benefit from a conservation model built around hunting?
Sources used for this article
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