Hunting Helps Conserve African Wildlife Habitat
September 2015, Volume 13-4

I’m writing in defense of hunting in Africa from the viewpoint of a biologist who has devoted half a century to studying, writing about and promoting conservation of its unequalled wealth of “big game.”

International outrage over the killing of Cecil became viral when photos of this superb black-maned lion, an icon in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, illustrated accounts in the social media that it was lured out of the park and wore a satellite collar attached by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru). The director, Prof. David Macdonald, one of the most dedicated researchers and conservationists of African wildlife, has defended Wildcru’s cooperation with professional hunters, and so has Panthera, another highly respected international organization devoted to conservation of the big cats. The fact that the killing of Cecil led anti-hunters to donate more than half of a million dollars in support of Oxford’s lion research and conservation program, strikes me as one of the ironies surrounding this episode.

Here’s another: In the 1960s, shortly before Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, some of the leading wildlife managers and ecologists from the U.S. and Europe carried out pioneering research in the country supported by Fulbright Scholarships, the Food and Agriculture Organization, American, European, and South African universities. I met and learned from some of them soon after beginning my own research on the wildebeest. I still have contact with colleagues and friends in Zimbabwe who have devoted their careers to conservation and sustainable use of Zimbabwe’s wildlife.

Pioneering research on game ranching was first carried out by Fulbright scholars while Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia. The results made a growing number of landowners think of wildlife as a valuable natural resource that could be harvested, like any other crop, at a substantial profit. By the mid-1980s, Zimbabwe had one of the best managed and most effectively protected systems of conservation areas in Africa. Equally significant, the Parks and Wild Life Act of 1975 conferred ownership to landholders of wildlife on their property. The consequent growth of the private-sector wildlife industry resulted in a marked expansion of the distribution and abundance of most of the larger antelope species in commercial farming areas, from which these species had previously been widely eradicated to make way for agriculture and cattle ranching.

When South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia followed Zimbabwe’s example, the result was the restocking of ranches and farms from which wildlife had previously been exterminated. At game auctions in South Africa, a prime sable bull may now be sold for up to $25,000.

During the late 1980s and 1990s there was a decline in the levels of protection and management of Zimbabwe’s national parks, safari and other wildlife areas administered by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. In contrast, the wildlife industry on private land was booming, driven largely by the rapid growth of safari hunting.

The number of registered private game ranches rose from 50 in 1960 to more than 650 in 1995. A similar development had occurred on communal lands; since its commencement in the mid-late 1980s, the Community Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources, also known as the Campfire Association, has extended its operations from two to more than 20 rural districts. As with private game ranches, safari hunting was the major source of revenue generated by Campfire Association districts.

Since 2000, large sections of the private-sector wildlife industry have been obliterated by the Mugabe government’s reckless program of land resettlement. This has resulted in the often-illegal occupation of large areas of privately owned land, including many game ranches, with resultant large-scale destruction of wildlife. More than 90 percent of the country’s white farmers have reportedly now been dispossessed of their land.

Zimbabwe’s trophy hunting industry has managed to stay afloat (unlike the near-total collapse of the tourism industry), despite a substantial decline in the number of international hunting clients. The Campfire Association has continued to function without major disruptions, and some privately owned wildlife areas have so far escaped the carnage that has resulted from the land resettlement program.

Stopping trophy hunting in Zimbabwe would put another nail in the coffin of this bankrupt dictatorship and kleptocracy. The income earned by hunting safaris and money sent home by the thousands of expatriates who have fled the country are essential sources of foreign exchange. I don’t see how my colleagues and friends who are still hanging on could subsist without it.

Comparing tourism and trophy hunting in Tanzania, the country I know best, shows interesting similarities and differences in the management of wildlife resources in the two nations. Twenty-five percent of Tanzania’s land area is reserved for wildlife protection, the highest percentage of any African nation. The Wildlife Division (aka Game Department) has responsibility for managing and protecting all lands outside of national parks, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and forest reserves, including wildlife on open and unclassified land. The National Parks and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the primary tourist attractions, are relatively well-protected, but management of Game Reserves, Game Controlled Areas (GCA), Open Areas, and Wildlife Management Areas is decreasingly effective. Open Areas and some GCAs may actually exist only on maps.

One of the Wildlife Division’s primary functions is regulating sport hunting, which is a permitted activity except in parks, forest reserves, and the NCA. Over 75 percent of the protected areas in Tanzania were originally set aside for trophy hunting. Approximately 20,500 hunting days are sold annually to 1,370 clients in 180 hunting blocks, generating a gross income for the industry of over $27 million from daily rates. So Africa’s big game brings in as much money as photographic tourism, which amounts to some 16 percent of Tanzania’s foreign exchange. The ratio of tourists who come to see the wildlife and hunters who come to shoot it is many hundreds to one — arguably mirroring the difference between the U.S. middle class and the millionaire top one percent!

The Wildlife Division earns 60 percent of its income from license fees levied for each species available in hunting blocks. These are leased for five years at a time to outfitters that employ licensed professional hunters to guide the tourist sportsmen. Each year the Wildlife Division sets the quotas in the hunting blocks, and hunting companies have to generate revenue of at least 40 percent of the value of the quota for each species.

Failing to do so, the outfitter is required to make a top-up payment to the Wildlife Division to meet the 40 percent minimum. The outfitter is further required to contribute to anti-poaching, road construction, and community development. Outfitters also help to build schools, drill water wells, bring in doctor(s)/nurses, and provide protein to locals by donating hunted meat, along with employing the local people to act as company trackers, skinners, cooks, and cleaning ladies.

The difference between the cost of a hunting safari and a tour through Tanzania’s protected parks and reserves is mind-boggling. A 16-day guided tour on the Northern Circuit, starting with Tarangire and including Serengeti NP, costs $7,000 to $10,000, plus travel to and from Tanzania.

Hunting clients on a 21-day safari can easily end up paying over $100,000!

Considering that a three-week hunting safari in Zimbabwe, South Africa or Namibia may cost half as much, it is amazing that so many hunters choose Tanzania. But there’s one big difference: Unlike nearly all hunting reserves in southern Africa, Tanzania’s hunting blocks are still unfenced and therefore perceived to be wilder. In addition to a much greater diversity of game, Tanzania also conjures up thoughts of the “classic African safaris” that Ruark, Hemingway or Roosevelt went on and depicted in the books that many hunters have read.

The outlook for conservation of Africa’s wildlife in this century depends on the continuing protection of its parks and other wildlife preserves.

Africa’s human population passed one billion in 2000 and is increasing in most countries at 2 to 3 percent a year. Inevitably, natural habitat is being transformed and developed to meet human needs in nearly every country. Even parks and game reserves set aside for wildlife are under pressure, while ongoing development between them is eliminating connecting corridors and making them into islands. Meanwhile, climate change keeps wildlife in these protected areas from changing their range.

In Tanzania, the mainland population almost tripled from 1967 to 2002, from 11.96 million to 34.6 million. At the present growth rate of 2.3 percent, people are expected to number about 56 million in 2020. Surely the needs of the human population will transform all habitable land that is unprotected. But meanwhile, tourism and sport hunting are vital for protecting existing wilderness areas.

There are just two possibilities I can think of that could slow or even stop the elimination of wildlife habitat in most African countries: granting ownership of wildlife on private property, as in Zimbabwe, and the growing establishment of international peace parks jointly managed by neighboring countries.

Author: Richard Estes

Dr. Richard Despard Estes, a biologist specializing in the behavior of mammals in mainland Africa is an Associate of the Harvard Museum of Natural History and Research Associate of the Smithsonian Conservation and Research Center, a member and former chairman of the IUCN Antelope Specialist Group and an authority on wildebeest behavior. Dr. Estes has written two guides for travelers to Africa: The Behavior Guide to African Mammals, University of California Press, 1991, and The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999. His most recent work, The Gnu’s World – Serengeti Wildebeest Ecology and Life History, University of California Press, 2014 presents a synthesis of research conducted over a span of fifty years, mainly on the wildebeest in the Ngorongoro and Serengeti ecosystems.

This article is Copyright © 2015 Monadnock Ledger-Transcript 2015 and permission has been given by Dr. Estes to publish it in this issue of African Indaba.