October 2015, Volume 13-5

Over the past few weeks I have found myself saddened by the whole lion incident in Zimbabwe. Saddened by the event itself, by some of the reactions and by what seems to be a failure on our conservation efforts to educate people on pressing conservation issues, those issues beyond the ones such as Cecil the lion or those that easily appeal to people’s emotional sides.

Vol13_6_art7To this extent I hesitate to refer to the lion, as “Cecil” as this alone, seems to focus the issue at hand on the individual rather than the larger issues at stake. The naming of wildlife is something that I battle with in general. But that is my own quandary – is it wild, if I have named it? Anthropomorphize the animal to suit our need to achieve what? What about Jenny the cow? Or Tony the chicken? Or, do we go as far as to also look at Lucy the pear? Silly? Perhaps. But the point is where is the boundary of where we personalize things?

What has transpired following the shooting of this particular lion is to say the least, incredible. The manner in which the “World”, primarily through social media, has reacted to the incident, and rallied behind the lion is impressive. But it is perhaps the manner in which people are responding, the blood lust for the individuals concerned, where I start feeling despondent about where we are in conservation and social development.

At a point in time where wars, conflict, racism, drought, famine, deforestation, terrorism, dictatorships, climate change and the like, reign supreme, we somehow manage to overlook all of that and ignore what is happening on our own doorsteps. We ignore what our own people, our own communities and our own governments are doing and, we manage to somehow find the moral high ground to dictate how others should manage their lives and their income opportunities. We offer short sighted “expert advice” on how to deal with for example, hunting, without any consideration at all for the thousands of individuals and families that rely on income from this industry.

There have been literally hundreds of thousands of people across the globe providing “expert” opinion on this situation. Hunting as a conservation tool, as a sport and those that do hunt have all been lambasted by emotional outbursts, by armchair conservationists, by opportunists promoting their own agendas (good marketing for a few formally unknown wildlife photographers, people promoting their “legitimate” wildlife research projects, etc.) and by those who simply have no clue (and sometimes this includes the so called experts too!). And I do not say this to antagonize anyone – but the “facts” that are been thrown out by “experts”, the garbage that people are regurgitating and the damnation by certain individuals and governments is nothing but sad. In many cases arrogant and ignorant. Frequently naïve. One expert, a well-known global “conservation” figure stated that the tragedy about the “Cecil” incident is that the meat didn’t go to any use! Is that really the only benefit people can see from hunting? And this from someone who not only should know better, but does know better!

Every second “article” on social media has been about “Cecil”, then his brother, then hunting and so forth. And while the world offers their Facebook likes and expert opinions on conservation, hunting, poaching, Africa, Zimbabwe and the like, the real issues behind the scenes go unchanged. Westerners wanting to save Africa! Westerners opposed to hunting! Emotional beings expressing themselves! Shouts of stop hunting all together! or It’s Africa, what do you expect! All the commentary, yet no solutions being offered. None!

Those shouting the loudest are not educating themselves. They are not reading up on the challenges that modern conservation and more specifically, modern African conservation faces. It is not black and white and clear cut. I have read article after article about how hunting supports conservation. I have also read likely the same number of articles about how it doesn’t and how proceeds do not go to the people on the ground. The reality however is that in our current situation…our current (and past) conservation models, hunting does play a role. It does bring in much needed revenue to the communities on the ground. It does support a number of other industries. It plays a very important role in managing protected areas. Hunting as an industry creates benefits through job creation, skills development and, community development. It has a ripple effect through local, national, regional and international economies – think arts and crafts, hotels on route, booking agents, flights etc. Changing the status quo is perhaps development and the evolution of conservation, but it needs to change with a plan and with sound alternatives in place.

And, this is perhaps where the “debate” becomes interesting. It is not about Cecil the lion. Conservation is not about the individual. Conservation is about the species, the systems …the bigger picture. We should be looking at the species level, populations and the like. As sad as the demise of one lion may be, in the greater scheme of things, regardless of how insensitive this may sound, it is not about that lion but rather about lions as a whole and the role that they play in ecosystems etc.

To quickly get my opinion out the way relating to this specific incident of “Cecil the lion”, I believe that the hunter, Professional Hunter (PH) and landowner are all in collusion in the actual event itself and that there is no chance that it happened by accident. The PH in my books is ultimately to blame (but, this does not remove the burden of guilt from the others) as, the whole reason that PHs exist, is to manage the hunt. Period. They are required to “guide” the client and through their registration as a PH are obliged to operate under a certain code of conduct. The debate on a person’s wants or needs, or whatever it is, to hunt is nothing to do with conservation. That is a psychological debate relating to a person’s frame of mind and best reserved for a different discussion.

Okay – so that is my opinion. What does my opinion state? Simple – there is likely gross misconduct in the whole event and no doubt various laws transgressed. Enter the law.

Moving on…

Going back to the bigger picture; if we, (the world, conservationists, bored housewives or househusbands etc.), manage the world’s wildlife, ecosystems and the like on an individual basis, we would simply fail. There are simply not enough human and equipment resources to do so. And we do need to manage the natural resources, in all the ecosystems of the world. There are no longer any natural areas that are exempt of our influence. We can be negative about people and population growth and all things human…, however, we need to look at the reality. Our impact exists. Ignoring the responsibility of managing that impact is both naïve and irresponsible.

People love to shout about poaching and hunting and, and, and – yet their contribution is the Facebook “like” (..and for those out there that take things literally, by the like, I mean very little is actually done and it is representative of the norm! “I’ve done my bit! – I’ve liked the post! Africa and Africa’s wildlife should now be safe! Now I can go back to my Cafe latte, or carry on buying designer clothing outfits, or video games or [fill in your own life filling activity here] ….! Oh – and I’ll do this while consuming vast amounts of food, driving a 4 liter engine car, spraying insecticide on those annoying mosquitoes and leaving my tap to drip.)

What if these same people actually offered a solution? What if they covered the short fall in the income generation that disappears if hunting stops? Do the people sitting on their iPhones and in air conditioned offices understand the reality on the ground?

For those that don’t, here is a picture of the “normal, average” hunting concession in southern or eastern Africa: A large, fairly inaccessible area, sometimes with black cotton soil, making access difficult and or seasonal. Often, but not always, with malaria mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Frequently an area that is on marginal land (marginal meaning it is of poor quality for agricultural, development and in this sense, also photographic tourism use). Marginal land is land that the average tourist doesn’t want to visit – they don’t want malaria nor tsetse fly bites, they don’t want to look at mopane tree forests for hours on end.

What does this mean? Simple: these areas are generally areas where hunting takes place. Hunting outfitters have a vested interest in preventing illegal harvesting of natural resources (grass, trees, animals etc.) as these resources are what their livelihoods are made of (yes, they do make money out of hunting!). Having this vested interest means that they actively protect the land and what is on the land. The same way you and I protect our houses by installing burglar bars and alarms etc. We protect what has value to us. Taking this a step further, in many situations this land falls under a form of land tenure that results in the local community (or communities) benefiting through land rental fees, concession fees (from the hunter), job creation and social upliftment (guides, chefs, hospitality staff, mechanics, game scouts etc.). And through this, they too participate in protecting the land and its resources that has value to them as it brings direct benefits. Photographic tourism can do similar, but keep in mind, in reality not all areas are suited to photographic tourism (see above re marginal areas).

My point? Take hunting away and the knock on effect is significant. Communities (perhaps better referred to as people!!??), conservation areas, wildlife and other natural resources all suffer. Look to countries that have in the past or are currently banning hunting, such as Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and more recently Botswana, to see the impact that this has had. Many of these countries, despite propaganda and what you may read on social media and on the news are now reaping the “benefits” of banning hunting. And these benefits include massive increases in subsistence poaching, increased harvesting of grass and firewood, decreased per capita income (at the community level) as a result of decreased (totally removed?) income from jobs, land rental and concession fees and the like.

The debate on hunting itself is quite frankly boring. There are two sides of the argument and mudslinging from either side simply doesn’t resolve any of the issues. Extreme pro hunting individuals seem to enjoy antagonizing and extreme anti-hunting refuse to allow anything but emotion to prevail. While I respect other’s opinions, I struggle with listening to people on either side of the fence who in fact are not willing to consider anything else but their own pre-conceived ideas and versions of events that in all reality, they have no idea of.

The bottom line is this: By all means, ban hunting, but have an alternative land use in mind. Provide the additional resources needed. Provide the institutional and financial support that is needed. Provide jobs, income and social upliftment. Provide solutions and alternatives. Because without viable on the ground solutions that are realistic and sustainable, the problem is merely being shifted around and not solved. Hunting will be replaced by poaching as communities no longer receive income and are not able to buy food etc., and ultimately turn to what is frequently large scale and often indiscriminate subsistence hunting. Wildlife areas will become farming areas as wildlife loses its value to local inhabitants.

I understand the frustration. And yes, I understand the value of awareness being generated through social media. However, the voices condemning hunting (or any other activity that an individual may not like) do not on its own protect the wildlife on the ground. They don’t provide the anti-poaching units needed. They don’t put food in the mouths of people living with the wildlife.

Much of what I have read comes across as whining and moaning. Perhaps it’s time to stop that and to stop patting ourselves on the back for clicking “like”.   Stop signing “arbitrary” petitions unless the repercussions have been thoroughly thought through. Every action has a reaction. Again, stopping hunting without a plan (I am not saying don’t try and stop it if that is your aim and or preference) will simply create a void, inviting other perhaps more destructive practices unless there is a well thought out “something” to take its place. Support genuine conservation organizations and individuals to achieve what needs to be achieved (not necessarily financially, as it is not all about money). Help ensure that we educate those in need of education with facts and information that portrays real life scenarios. Become part of the solution and not part of the problem … come up with solutions and alternatives.

First published by Ian Johnson at and republished in African Indaba with permission.

Author: Ian Johnson