Blame War, Not Safaris
July 2014, Volume 12-4

Safari hunting strikes many people as distasteful in the best of times, and during a conflict, as morally outrageous. The Central African Republic is at war again, and two loose-knit coalitions — one mostly Muslim, the other mostly Christian — are massacring each other. Yet the trophy hunting goes on. A few intrepid foreigners are traveling to the eastern parts of the republic to kill Lord Derby Eland, the largest antelope in Africa, and its shy forest cousin, the bongo.

Earlier this month, Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, tweeted at a local safari operator: “No, it is not OK for ignorant US hunters 2 come hunt 4 sport in #CARcrisis at time its people r hunted w hate.” And then: “Plus US hunters you hosted left #CARcrisis w nice trophies & no more knowledge re horror unfolding, shameful.” A couple of days earlier, Jon Lee Anderson, a New Yorker staff writer then in the Central African Republic, had snapped a picture of two unsuspecting hunters chatting in an airport lounge and tweeted: “#CARcrisis Amidst 1 of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises, hunters come to kill animals x fun. Here’s a few going home.”

Mr. Bouckaert’s recent work has been invaluable in bringing the world a nuanced picture of the country’s horrible conflict. But he and other concerned parties are missing the mark when they shame safari hunters and their hosts: They are irrelevant to the war, and by staying through it they are providing a rare source of livelihood to people long neglected by the central government and now largely abandoned by everyone else.

Many liberal Westerners think of trophy hunting as an anachronism — a throwback to a Hemingway vision of Africa as a playground for white foreigners with guns. The history of safaris in the Central African Republic does bear the mark of colonial-era racial inequalities, and it is marred by smuggling and the poor enforcement of conservation rules. But in its current, regulated form, the sport is helping to maintain islands of relative peace in remote parts of the country.

Beginning in the late 1970s, conflict, as well as desertification, in Chad and Sudan, drove cattle herders into eastern Central African Republic. Their livestock then competed with the local wildlife for water and grazing land. When global prices for ivory rose, armed poachers invaded the savannahs and killed off elephants, driving safari business away. Hunting lodges have been looted by the various rebels who have sought refuge or emerged in the region over the past decade. The few remaining safari operators are looking for new ways to run their businesses.

During an earlier wave of rebellion in 2006-7, hunters and local hunting councils took it upon themselves to distribute hunting tax revenue directly to local communities. More recently, hunters were among the founders of the Chinko Project, which will turn a former hunting ground into a protected area and fund human development. (I serve as an unpaid adviser to the project.)

Safari operators are motivated by profit, of course, but even though a two-week trip can cost a tourist more than $30,000, running safaris is not especially lucrative. Lodge managers often do this work because they feel loyal to the country, where some of them grew up, and to the 250 or so locals each lodge employs. Still, the conditions are difficult. In 2002, there were 14 safari lodges in operation. Today, there are two.

Directing anger at safari operators and Western hunters who kill a couple of animals a month is a waste of good outrage. Recent campaigns about blood diamonds and conflict minerals have exposed how economic activity can cause or worsen war. Not so with the safari industry in the Central African Republic.

Trophy-hunting reflects inequalities in money and mobility, and sometimes also insensitivity to conservation practices or local politics. But by pointing a finger at hunters, activists and observers like Mr. Bouckaert and Mr. Anderson are playing the old game of making a few ignorant white people out to be more meaningful or worthy of outrage than they are. The white faces stand out amid the black ones, even though the crisis in the Central African Republic, like so many issues in Africa, is not about white people at all. And attention paid to a few white hunters is at best a distraction from the more important matter of examining the roots of the crisis of political legitimacy that is ripping the country apart.

When the foreign aid workers in the Central African Republic pack up their NGO T-shirts and laptops and fly away to the next emergency, a few safari-lodge operators and their employees will stay behind. It would be a pity if their fragile industry collapsed, not because of the war itself but because of the misdirected criticism of Westerners trying to help.

Louisa Lombard is a postdoctoral fellow in natural resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley. A version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 30, 2014, on page A19 of the New York edition (The New York Times Opinion Pages) – see also the article “The Chinko Project

Author: Louisa Lombard, New York Times OP-ED Contributor