At dawn in the Kavango
June 1, 2016
Conservationist of the year 2015
June 2, 2016

The poaching crisis

Main photo ©Gerhard Thirion

Poaching and the loss of habitat are the dilemmas for the conservation of wildlife

T he Big Game Committee of NAPHA initiated the Hunters United Against Poaching international fundraising event in Windhoek in September 2015. N$2.4 million were raised through telephonic and direct bidding on 43 items, sponsored by NAPHA members and bought by hunting clients from Namibia, Germany, the USA, Austria, Russia and Denmark. The money will be applied for training, equipment, to keep feet on the ground and to support communities in conservancies where NAPHA members have concessions and to support MET to stop the poaching. NAPHA’s Rebeus Trust and Hunters Support Education will also benefit from this year’s auction. NAPHA President Kai Uwe Denker delivered the keynote address at the event:

Poaching is only one of two major dilemmas for the conservation of wild animals. There have been poaching peaks before, like the ivory poaching peak of the 1970s, and they were overcome. I do not want to downplay the importance of us attending to the poaching crisis.

The second of the two dilemmas for wild animals I have referred to is the loss of habitat, of living space for animals. And this threat is more lasting, more subtle and more complex and difficult to deal with. It is interwoven with the poaching crisis and solutions to the poaching crisis. If we do not attend to this in all earnest and with the necessary prioritizing, all our efforts are in vain.
Namibia, thanks to the government’s concept of sustainable use of natural resources, is in the fortunate position to be able to make large tracts of habitat available for wild animals. In the long run this can only work if the goodwill of those who live with wild animals, can be secured. Any success in anti-poaching operations in remote areas depends on the support of the local population.

Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism has to be congratulated and applauded on the recent successes in combatting rhino poaching. I think all Namibians are truly proud of this. However, syndicates can only be exposed and poachers arrested, if law enforcement agencies have support within the communities. The issue is twofold: rural people are only co-operative in tolerating wild animals if they have some advantage from them, and they will only be co-operative in anti-poaching efforts if they have long-term benefits from wildlife which outweigh lucrative short-term temptations presenting themselves through poaching.

The recent incident with Cecil the lion was misused at a point in time when public awareness and concern was very high due to the poaching crisis and – we admit that – some unacceptable practices amongst the hunting fraternity itself. The situation around “international trafficking of illegal wildlife products” and “canned hunting” was exploited for ideological campaigns, which are directly contradictory to conservation efforts on the ground. Let me explain this with an example.

The lion seems to be the ideal “cuddle baby” of the moment. The dilemma around lion conservation is directly related to habitat loss and nothing else. The African wild dog is an alpha predator just like the lion. Contrary to lion, however, the African wild dog is on the brink of extinction; it is much more severely threatened than lion or elephant – yet nobody seems to care.

Why? Because it is not as iconic a species and thus not suited for sensationalism? Because it is not a huntable species and not suited for ideological anti-hunting campaigns? Is the lion more important within the natural context than the wild dog?

Certainly not. Both play an immensely important role within the natural laws of hunter and hunted. We need to take a close look at the dilemma of the African wild dog to find solutions to the lion dilemma, because in essence they are the same.

Both these species are not compatible with stock production. Both species are persecuted on a large scale, because of conflict with cattle owners. The lion is a highly attractive species for trophy hunters, the wild dog is not. Still the wild dog finds itself in a worse position than the lion.

There is one difference between the two species, which places the African wild dog in an even worse situation than the lion: wild dogs roam over much bigger territories. For this reason alone – and please note: the wild dog is not a huntable species – the decline of the wild dog in times of shrinking habitat for both species, was much more rapid than that of the lion.

At the moment the hunting ban in Botswana is much praised by anti-hunting activists. At the same time a seriously critical situation for Namibia’s last wild dog stronghold in and around Khaudum National Park has developed: The park is not large enough to sustain its wild dog population. The animals have to venture across its borders into the former hunting concessions to the east of the park in Botswana and to the west of the park in Namibia. Nowadays they are shot on sight by cattle farmers in both areas, because, while the west of Khaudum in Namibia was taken up by advancing agricultural needs, the closure of hunting in Botswana had the same effect for the wild dog range to the east of the park. This is the lesson to be learnt: the closure of hunting will inevitably result in habitat loss.

Habitat loss is the true reason for the decline of wild animals. As in any case nobody cares about wild dog, let me mention that Khaudum is also an important lion stronghold in Namibia. By now the wild dog and lion populations of Khaudum National Park rely entirely on the existence of two communal conservancies to the south and the north of the park. The hunting ban called for by anti-hunting activists will without doubt mean the end of Namibia’s Communal Conservancy Programme and the death knell for Namibia’s wild dog and lion populations outside of national parks.
The uproar around Cecil, the lion, together with the poaching crisis was used as leverage against hunting. Hunting, however, means “boots on the ground against poaching”. And hunting also means presence on the ground in remote areas to create incentives for social upliftment.

If we wish to have nature conservation outside of National Parks, incentives are needed for private individuals and private institutions to carry out conservation projects. This in particular applies to rural communities in remote areas of Africa. Examples to illustrate this are the Namibian Communal Conservancy Programme, Zimbabwe’s Campfire Project or the Pendjari Biosphere Reserve in Benin.

The presence of hunting is a guarantee for social upliftment. A project initiated by NAPHA Member Robin Hurt in his Tanzanian hunting consessions, The Robin Hurt Wildlife Foundation, has contributed 2.9 million USD to community development in Hurt’s hunting concessions between 2007 and 2015. Do we want to lose this kind of commitment because some nature-detached people take a dislike to hunting for ideological reasons alone?

The fundraising event, Hunters United Against Poaching, is a direct action to raise money for anti-poaching efforts, and furthermore to underline the importance of hunting’s role by contributing to the conservation of living space for wild animals. But also to take a stance for the rightful role of hunting within natural settings.

Personally, I have a lot of understanding for the underlying theme of the Born Free Foundation. What separates us is only a very tiny margin of misconception. Because man also was born free to be part and to participate in this magnificent natural world, before he became a slave of nature-destroying developments and technologies.

For what reason should man not be allowed to experience his own nature and learn the fundamental lessons of natural laws? Nature rests on the very principle of hunter and hunted. Everything in nature is based on food chains and natural cycles, on the system of ‘eat and be eaten’. An antelope eats grass, a lion eats the antelope, vultures and hyenas eat the lion, bacteria decompose the remains of the antelope, the lion and the vulture – and of man, let’s not forget that – and the cycle starts all over again with the growth of plants. No part of this cycle is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

For what reason should man not be part of natural settings, if his interests and his instincts allow for such, and as long as his actions are sustainable and within ethical parameters? Can we no longer admire in man what we admire in a lion? Have we become not only estranged from nature, but estranged from our own self? At the very core of the anti-hunting campaigns is the total inability to accept death as a reality of the natural world. Is nature as such bad? Or is it only man who is bad if he leads a natural life? Is man good if he has turned his back on nature?

There is also a totally unreasonable uproar about trophy hunting. Is there anybody out there, who will deny that the horns of an old kudu bull have extreme beauty? People collect beautiful minerals, gnarled pieces of dead trees, and display them on shelves in their homes or hang them as pieces of art on their walls. The horns of an old buffalo bull are like the bark of an old tree, the horns of a kudu bull embody nature’s finest art. Is it wrong for a nature-loving man to display the horns of a buffalo bull on a shelf in his house or hang a pair of kudu horns over his garage door? And yes, there are tasteless aberrations, but taste is such a personal matter that we should leave everybody to himself in his own home.
Hunting is very difficult to explain to non-hunters. This, however, does not mean that it is wrong. Are innermost feelings, which we cannot explain well, wrong? Hunting is about the great satisfaction of living an original life close to nature, about the heart-warming company of rural Africans, to see and share their joy and concerns, their laughter and their tears. And the magnificent wild African animals, born free into the grandiose scenery of this glorious continent.

And yes, I agree with the Born Free Foundation and many others that something is wrong and we have to correct it. Real, true, honest hunting finds itself in the deadly embrace of unacceptable, out-dated money-driven-only doings. If we fail to dissociate ourselves from the associating with the abusers of the sustainable use principle and to return to what hunting really is all about, we will fail – that unfortunately is a reality as well.

A friend recently mailed me a picture, which had me in raptures. Whether it was photo-shopped or true, I cannot say, but in the end it does not matter, because in its symbolism it is awe-inspiring. It depicts an elephant on the edge of Victoria Falls, of Mosi Oa Tunja – “the smoke that thunders”, as the falls are much more aptly called by the Africans. It is at places like this, where the mighty Zambezi River accelerates its flow towards the edge and thunders down the falls, to deep down in the gorge, calm down again and continue on its age-old, ever-young tranquil course towards the sea, that the raw beauty of the surroundings create a strong feeling of affiliation with this old continent and the youthful power it holds.

It is in such surroundings, in immediate vicinity of and exposed to powerful natural impressions – impressions of elephants and baobab trees and dust devils and water flowing down towards the sea according to its age-old irrevocable laws and imperturbable way – that one realises without any doubt, that ancient laws of nature have their indisputable everlasting relevance and that their knowledge is essential for our understanding of life as such and of ourselves.

And hunting is one such age-old principle of nature. Most importantly the Namibian Government and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism must be applauded for creating incentives for private institutions and individuals to make a living through nature conservation. This farsighted policy is the guarantee for the survival of wildlife even outside of national parks, for the benefit of the Namibian people and visitors to this country.

This article was first published in the HUNTiNAMIBIA 2016 issue.