A delicate balance: Hunting vs conservation

via A delicate balance: Hunting vs conservation – The Zimbabwean 25 September 2015 by Eddie Cross

A party of 12 Zimbabweans walked from Chiwore River to Kanyemba in May this year – and were amazed at the absence of wildlife in this remote area, deep in the Zambezi Valley and about 100 kilometers from the Manna Pools Park.

They walked for over 100 kilometers across country that was halfway between the Escarpment and the River. Those who know the Valley will appreciate this is wild rough country and virtually devoid of human settlement.

All they saw was four elephants in eight days and some quite recent lion spoor near the Zambezi River. When I spent a few days at Chiwore on a recent fishing trip, I also noticed a sharp reduction in the sightings of game and spoor. The area has a lot of elephant but the spoor I saw and a few sightings, all involved small, immature animals. What plains game we saw had evidently been hunted and were very nervous and ran off when they scented us or heard us approach.

The recent incident involving an American hunter who killed a famous lion (Cecil) not knowing that it was being tracked by a research team from Oxford University is fresh in our memories. To add to the misery of the hunter and his guides, a local guide who had filmed Cecil years earlier when he was in his prime as a really beautiful example of a male, black mane lion in his pride, released these images to the media and triggered a global media storm.

Aged Cecil
The fact was that Cecil was in fact at the end of his life in lion terms – he was 13 years old and could not retain his place in the pride as younger males were taking over. He was unlikely to survive much longer in the real world of a lion’s life and was scavenging to try and feed himself. Most specialists would say in fact that he was an ideal candidate for a commercial hunt. An old lion with failing teeth and health can quickly turn rogue and take to hunting cattle or even humans.

A few weeks later the reality that this hunting game is dangerous was illustrated when an experienced guide was killed by a lion when he tried to protect his clients from an attack.

While I feel sorry for the American hunter, who can probably never go back to his old life, this incident did have value because it highlighted the need for a balanced and informed debate on the role of hunting in the whole sphere of conserving African wild life for both commercial and ethical reasons. I live in Bulawayo, the second largest City in Zimbabwe and it is estimated that 15 000 people in the City depend on hunting as their primary means of support. This is a multimillion dollar industry in Africa.

More control
The areas through which our valiant hiking team walked are a safari/hunting area and I am not that surprised they did not see much. I am sure even the hunters have some difficulty in finding what they need for their clients. But the over-hunting that is taking place and incidents like that involving Cecil point to the need for much greater and more sophisticated regulation and control. At the core of such a system must be better information on breeding habits and needs, survival rates and habitat preservation.

We know, for example, that the Hwange Game Park can sustainably carry 30 000 elephants. But they breed at the rate of about 5 per cent per annum and if we are not careful in protected areas like Hwange, the numbers can grow to unsustainable levels and then the habitat suffers.

In those circumstances systematic culling may be the only remedy and some 30 years ago I was involved in such activity taking off some 1 500 animals a year from the main Parks. The system then used involved a small team from the National Parks who shot whole families in a few minutes and then allowed the recovery of the carcasses for processing and sale.

In that operation baby elephants under a certain size were saved and exported but this proved to be a mistake as most became rogues in the areas to which they were taken. Elephants are very family orientated and need their families to bring them up properly.

A question of balance
A number of years ago it was discovered that hunters were taking out all the males in prime condition and numbers were declining rapidly. The response was a total ban on hunting lions and a rapid recovery in the population and then fears that the pressure on plains game was too great.

It’s all a question of balance and in this arena, information, accurate information, as well as knowledge of the environment and needs is critical to planning and the evolution of appropriate policies. Then there is the issue of fencing the wildlife areas. I know that the Matobo Park outside Bulawayo has a fence that has not been maintained and until recently was more open than closed. Then a small team of volunteers took on the task of fencing the Park, an exercise that is now almost complete. The change has been dramatic – exclusion of cattle from the neighbouring farming areas has reduced pressure on grazing and the greater sense of security for the wildlife has attracted back into the Park species that have not been seen for years.

Cecil was the victim of a system where farms adjacent to the Hwange Park are allowed to provide water and feed to attract wild animals from the Park and then arrange professional hunting.
This “necklace of death” surrounds the Park on one side while the southern boundary is largely communal or tribal area. In either case wild life straying out of the Park face the threat of being hunted and killed. If the Park is not fenced, (and most experts feel that fences are not desirable) then this threat is a very real element in management and must be addressed.

Hard choices
These are hard choices and if we allowed wildlife freedom to breed and populate areas set aside for them without control or managed hunting, then we would have to face the spectre of large scale deaths from a lack of food and overcrowding. These are all issues that must be addressed as soon as possible if we are all going to continue to enjoy the unique experience that Africa offers to all those who love wild places.


  • comment-avatar
    The Mind Boggles 7 years ago

    well controlled and ethical hunting is no doubt one of the best conservation methods available, proof of this can be found in Western Europe, Australia and the United States. Sadly in Africa, Eastern Europe and the far East corruption and very poor wildlife departments exposed by unethical hunters lead to the decimation of wildlife. A balance can never be reached when the authorities don’t really care or understand.

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    grabmore 7 years ago

    Why did a group of people walk for 100kms through the Zambezi valley and not see any animals? Why?

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    Gomogranny 7 years ago

    Interestingly an absence of hunting is becoming the norm in wilderness areas which have successfully embraced the diverse opportunities created by non consumptive tourism. Stand out examples of Community Wildlife Conservancies exist in Namibia (Damaraland) Botswana (Linyanti, Duba and Savuti)Malawi (Mvuu), Seychelles (north Island) and more recently in Zambia. The role of hunting (and poaching) is in fact negligible in these areas. These examples have used a CAMPFIRE type equation that does NOT rely on hunting as the primary driver.

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      Makoni 7 years ago

      Those people who walked from chewore,to kanyemba l think they were blind

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        Gomogranny 7 years ago

        Makoni actually their report is backed up by a World Class Aerial survey recently completed over that area by “Elephants Without Borders” (you can google it). It was found that we have lost 75% of the elephant population in Chizarira in the last three years…. You may also want to Google the report by Rory Young whose anti-poaching team was chased out of the area by CIO last year. Of course Rory Young is a white guy so you probably won’t want to hear what he has to say about “OUR ZIMBABWE and our CIO”
        Despite not heeding such reports the devastation that has been unleashed on the wild life is unquestionable Makoni. It is not a closed eyes we need to worry about it is the CLOSED MINDS intent on hiding their crimes against wild life in Zimbabwe.

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    Mike. 7 years ago

    Good letter but with a few contradictions. Non consumptive tourism employs more people than hunting does and reducing overpopulations can only be achieved by ether game capture or proper culling. Cannot sell or market culling in the hunting safari industry. The two are light years apart.

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    Hunter 7 years ago

    On June 22/23rd 2015, all stakeholders held a “Hunting turnaround strategy” workshop in Harare. 60 stakeholders attended and all the issues were raised. Industry is well aware of the problems that have brought this onto us and some very valuable solutions have come out of this finished document. Ironically the lion known as Cecil was killed 7 days later and highlighted all the issues raised at the workshop. The timing is significant as it shows that the industry was ready for reform before public pressure came into play. A balance is a must but hunting in Zimbabwe Can not and must not stop. Non consumptive tourism is not the answer in Zimbabwe and most of Africa, as the wildlife habitat is by far larger outside protected areas. If communities do not benefit from wildlife they are seen as competition for grazing and water. You can not sell a photo safari in places like Omay of Masoka, as logistics and product can not compare. Even as the article points out no game was seen on a walking safari in Chewore, so why would a non consumptive tourist go there? Hunting clients leave less carbon footprint and spend more money per person than photographic clients do. All predators need to be kept in check as much as the prey and in chewore Hyena and Lion have escalated due to all the poached elephant carcasses. So unless they are brought back into balance, the plains animals will not recover. Hunting quotas are supposedly to be between 0,5% – 2,5% and up to 5% on the more prolific animals. That means 2,5% off take supports the protection of the other 97,5% of the animals. This is where the focus in Zimbabwe will return and already has started to at the recent quota setting meetings held in August. The important thing is Zimbabwe needs to come up with a Zimbabwean solution and until there is a better solution, hunting MUST continue in order for the wildlife to survive outside protected areas, but as the article points out, Balance is key!

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    Barry Groulx 7 years ago

    The only fault I can find with this is that the inferred conclusion is that the absence of wildlife has anything to do with sport hunting. “Hunting” and “Poaching” are not synonyms, though folks – and especially the mainstream media – seem to use the terms interchangably. The real threat facing African wildlife is habitat loss, but it’s not as easy to quantify so easier to ignore. The Population Reference Bureau in the US estimates that the population of sub-Saharan Africa will have doubled by 2050. That’s not all that far away, and if there’s no habitat left on a continent that mostly survives on 12th century agricultural practices, there will be no wildlife.