Saturday, December 2, 2023

OPINIONISTA: UK trophy hunting import ban – some animals are more equal than others

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The controversial bill, years in the making, has broad support among the British public and the UK government maintains the measure will enhance protection for endangered species, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. 

While UK MPs across party lines spoke in favour of the legislation, it is worth noting that it was driven by the British Conservative Party, which is known for dubious claims and rank populism. 

Indeed, like Brexit, this was an outcome built on exaggerations and outright lies that ignored the advice of leading conservation scientists and African governments and communities. These critics pointed out that the income derived from foreign trophy hunters in many regions provides poor rural communities with an incentive to live in close proximity to dangerous wildlife, preserving critical habitat from the plough. 

“While I’m sure that those MPs who supported the bill meant well and felt they were responding to the views of many people in Britain, the bill is a dangerous one that could have serious consequences for countries in Africa which preserve wildlife habitat and the vast majority of the wildlife there through a mix of tourism and hunting. Neither of those alone can fund the conservation needs of countries like Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania,” Keith Somerville, a professor at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, told Business Maverick

“But it must be remembered that in Africa there is more wildlife habitat designated for hunting, and therefore protected from poaching, than there are national parks or reserves. If you cause the hunting industry to collapse or be banned without a sustainable and locally supported alternative in place, the habitat for all wildlife there will be lost.”

His views are echoed by many others, such as Amy Dickman, a conservation biologist and senior research fellow in Wild Cat Conservation at the University of Oxford. 

“Counterintuitive as it might seem, blanket trophy hunting bans (including import bans) are likely to undermine vital conservation work, including the protection of iconic species,” she wrote last week in the Daily Mail.

For much of the animal rights and welfare brigade, African voices don’t count when it comes to African wildlife

“In most areas, there is no other viable wildlife-based revenue available, so banning hunting will hinder effective management. Worse, it will increase the likelihood of land being converted into uses such as agriculture and livestock-keeping, because the maintenance of natural habitats for wildlife imposes major costs on local people and provides no meaningful economic benefit.” 

So, one of the consequences of the ban may well be less habitat and fewer iconic species such as lions and elephants. And while trophy hunting, if poorly managed, can affect local populations negatively, it is hardly pushing any species of wild animal to extinction since the targets are generally older, non-breeding males. Indeed, in the case of rhinos, trophy hunting is widely seen as an activity that incentivised private owners, who are now the custodians of most of South Africa’s rhino population. 

“Campaigns to ban trophy hunting present the activity as a major threat to the survival of some of the most cherished animals on Earth, especially lions. But the narrative of extinction being driven by trophy hunters today is false. Red List data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shows that trophy hunting is not driving a single species to extinction,” Dickman noted. 

Some social media posts have even suggested that trophy hunting is destroying the planet! 

But this was not really about conservation, or facts for that matter. It was about raw emotions. While the ban applies to thousands of species and is not just restricted to African trophy hunting imports, it spoke to a growing middle-class disdain outside of Africa for hunting in Africa. 

The world’s poorest continent is the last great refuge of megafauna on the planet and the likes of Disney have stirred idealised images of Africa’s wildlife – a romanticism that would surely be shattered if any British suburbanite’s child was threatened while playing outside their house with attack by a large, menacing animal. 

But somehow, for many Westerners, Africans living alongside dangerous wildlife is simply the natural order of things, like the set from an old Tarzan movie. Or they view African wildlife as living in habitats devoid of people, which is the case more or less in many protected areas thanks to forced removals during the colonial past.    

The legacy of Cecil

Ultimately, the legislation – which must still be passed in the House of Lords – was the legacy of a movement that has been ginned up since the 2015 killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe by an American dentist named Walter Palmer. This triggered widespread outrage, and the US TV host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel actually shed tears on air for Cecil. As I’ve noted before, the response in Africa – where people don’t cry for big cats that eat people – to Cecil’s demise stood in stark contrast to the frenzied Western reaction.

A few days after Kimmel’s emotional outburst, Goodwell Nzou, a Zimbabwean doctoral student studying molecular medicine in the US, penned a searing op-ed in The New York Times, titled “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions”. He wrote that the American outrage over the incident had provoked “the starkest cultural contradiction I’d experienced during my five years studying in the United States”.

“Did all those Americans signing petitions understand that lions actually kill people? That all the talk about Cecil being ‘beloved’ or a ‘local favorite’ was media hype? Did Jimmy Kimmel choke up because Cecil was murdered or because he confused him with Simba from The Lion King,” Nzou asked. “We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.”

Nzou, as I have also reported before, actually received death threats over his letter, which dared to challenge the narrative around Cecil – a lion that had incidentally wandered out of his national park, posing a threat to humans and their kith, kin and cattle. (Reports that he was lured intentionally are questionable but have become the gospel of truth in animal rights narratives). Nzou was not alone. The late Edna Molewa, South Africa’s former environment minister, was a supporter of hunting, not least because she realised its economic and conservation benefits. As I also revealed in 2020, she was subjected as a result to a torrent of often racist abuse, leading her to sign off from Twitter in 2016. 

Striking a nerve

For much of the animal rights and welfare brigade, African voices don’t count when it comes to African wildlife, especially if it is at odds with the romanticised Disney image that pulls the heartstrings of suburbanites and keeps the donations rolling in. Animal rights and welfare NGOs have been making money off Cecil ever since. 

“Cecil the lion has not died in vain,” said UK international biodiversity minister Trudy Harrison as she lauded the legislation. 

Palmer’s arrow certainly had inadvertent consequences, striking a nerve in the British body politic.

And like the initial flap over Cecil, British legislation that is probably a direct result of the big cat’s demise has exposed the stark cultural differences that Nzou eloquently evoked. 

“Britain has ignored our numerous attempts to engage. What is the purpose of the diplomatic ties we supposedly share? This bill will make African communities poorer for many years to come,” Maxi Pia Louis, a community leader from Namibia, was quoted as saying in The Guardian

This contempt for African voices is rooted in the history of African wildlife conservation. Before Cecil, there was Joy Adamson’s famous account of the lioness Elsa and her (alleged) desire to be “free”. Adamson, as the environmental commentator and writer George Monbiot and others have noted, was an odious racist whose affection for big cats did not extend to Africans.

With this in mind, it is also unfair to paint animal welfare or rights organisations with the same brush, or ignore the colonial and racist roots of trophy hunting in Africa. There are lots of skeletons rattling around in both closets. 

Opposition to hunting is a perfectly legitimate point of view, and one that draws on more noble histories of concern for animal welfare than those represented by the likes of Adamson. The scientific revolution unleashed by Charles Darwin’s blinding 19th century insights that humans are also animals and products of natural selection are among the many historical forces that have laid the groundwork for growing human empathy for other animals.

But the problem with the campaigns triggered by Cecil that led to this British legislation is that it resorted to fabrications to advance its agenda – which will come at the expense of Africans and the continent’s wildlife, which is indeed marvellous. 

Minds were made up and so ears were closed to the plethora of evidence from experts in the field that trophy hunting – while hardly a panacea – has helped to conserve wildlife. The comparatively rich wildlife in Tanzania, where hunting is allowed, compared with Kenya where it has been banned, is one of many examples. The same holds true for southern Africa. 

The push for “non-consumptive” ecotourism alternatives has its own problems, as I have noted before. These include the fact that the photographic safari industry has a far bigger carbon and ecological footprint than hunting, and the point that much of the hunting in Africa is conducted in remote areas ill-suited to other forms of tourism. Also, when tourists are being guided on foot among dangerous African wildlife, rangers sometimes have to kill an animal to protect their charges regardless of its sex or age.  ( ). 

Read more in Daily Maverick:Trophy hunting, game viewing both have ecological and economic pros and cons

The legislation also applies a double standard that speaks to the mystic hold that African wildlife has on the 21st-century urban British imagination. The ban is on imports, but hunters are still free to stalk roe and red deer and other game in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, and mount the trophies on their walls, or export the heads. 

But there is no “Ced the Red” to represent red deer stags. There is comparatively little outrage over the killing of such animals by hunters on UK soil. The celebrities who joined this bandwagon seem astonishingly unaware of what the royal family gets up to at Balmoral. Have they never seen The Crown? And Disney has yet to make a film, to my knowledge, bestowing a name on a red deer stag.

“The hypocrisy beggars belief… you can continue trophy hunting in Scotland and Wales, import and export what you like and when you like, and then you stop Africa from doing the exact same thing. It reeks of a colonial mindset, telling Africa what to do at the expense of communities, at the expense of habitat,” Paul Stones, a professional hunter who is on the executive committee of the the Custodians for Professional Hunting and Conservation (CPHC), told Business Maverick.

Some animals are more equal than others and more worthy of empathy, it seems.  

It would also be inconceivable to envision African countries banning imports of UK hunting trophies on dubious conservation grounds. 

Ultimately, the ban – if it is passed in the House of Lords and is subsequently granted royal assent – will not have a huge impact on the African hunting industry since British hunters comprise a relatively small percentage of the market. The real money on this front comes from Texas. 

But there are concerns that the British initiative could spread to the European Union. And it will still take a bite out of an industry that in South Africa alone, according to an objective and peer-reviewed 2018 study, contributes more than $341-million to the South African economy while supporting more than 17,000 employment opportunities.

The endorsement of the bill by celebrities such as Dame Judi Dench was heard loud and clear, while African voices were largely dismissed. And Africans and African wildlife will bear the consequences of a measure based on emotion rather than facts or science. DM/BM

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