• Kev Thomas Writes

Africa Should Decide How To Utilise Its Wildlife, Not Hollywood

As a fifth generation African who immigrated to the UK ten months ago, I’m astounded at the intensity (if that’s the right word) of the anti-hunting lobby here in the UK. Since boyhood I’ve been involved with hunting, and much of my youth was spent in a remote part of the then colonial Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Where marauding elephant and other animals laying waste to tribal crops was a seasonal occurrence. Government game rangers invariably arrived at the tribal kraal in the aftermath of the crop raid, assessed the damage and then if warranted hunted the culprit(s). As pre-teens, and if any crop raiding elephant had been shot near where we lived, we were often collected afterwards and taken to where the crop raider(s) were being cut up, I was about 10 years old when I first sat atop a dead elephant. In 1967 I joined the Rhodesian Department of National Parks & Wildlife Management as a 17-year-old cadet game ranger under their two-year in-house training scheme. At the time probably the best training scheme for young game rangers on the African continent, and at age 17 under guidance from a senior ranger I also shot my first crop raiding elephant. Over the next six years there would be more.

Dealing with crop raiding elephant and stock killing lion, or crocodile, was part of our job description and to this day in Zimbabwe it is still referred to as PAC (Problem Animal Control). The only difference is that learner professional hunters, intent on entering the safari industry now do the PAC rather than game rangers (it gives them essential exposure to hunting dangerous game). In newly independent Zimbabwe I turned to professional safari hunting as a career, a career which spanned over four decades.

However, the first time I ever came up against any form of anti-hunting rhetoric was in 1986 when I appeared on a weekly South African TV program titled 50/50. The main topic was about commercial safari hunting in which I was involved in at the time, in the Ciskei Homeland (one of apartheid South Africa’s independent black homelands). All hunting in the Ciskei benefited the local tribal communities, just like the CAMPFIRE (Communal Area Management Program For Indigenous Resources) program in Zimbabwe. Different speakers had been invited to have their say on the 30-minute TV program. One lady who represented a little heard of anti-hunting group got herself into such a state she was virtually apoplectic. Hissing, and spitting with rage, I was intrigued and embarrassed at her behaviour because I'd never witnessed such anti-hunting vitriol before.

In the Ciskei paying sport hunters were used as a management tool to reduce the surplus to carrying capacity of the different antelope species found across the tiny nation’s three game reserves (there were no major predators). The three game reserves, each with a differing habitat carried a total of thirty-three different species, some of which, like mountain reedbuck springbok, blesbok, and impala were herd antelope and prolific breeders.

What Happenecd to the Trophy Fees & Daily Rates? A percentage of all trophy fees and daily rates went to the tribal community (the accumulated revenue was paid to the local Chief Hinana Tribal Council at season’s end). These monies accrued over the season helped build:

  • Dip tanks for livestock,

  • School classrooms,

  • The purchase of computers for schools, and anything else the local Tribal Council(s) may have identified as needing funding.

In addition, the tribal villages abutting the reserves were given controlled emergency winter grazing for their cattle. Thus, it was a symbiotic relationship, they got much needed winter grazing, and the wildlife authority got rid of the tick burden in the reserves via the tribal cattle which were being dipped regularly. You can’t dip wildlife. An additional plus for the tribal community was their traditional dancers performing for our clientele. And earning an income for doing it.

"You white people like looking at our mountain scenery, but my people can't eat scenery" - Chief Hinana, Amaqwati Tribe, Ciskei

The Amaqwati tribe in northern Ciskei numbered about 75,000 and they lived in abject poverty. The above words were quoted to me by the late Chief Hinana during a visit to my office in 1985. Most of northern Ciskei was marginal agricultural land, and totally unsuited to any form of farming, aside from sheep or goats. Compounding the issue further, was the fact most of this land had been horrifically overgrazed, and was only suitable for wildlife. Because of neighbouring South African farming projects, the Ciskei had no major predators within its game reserves. Predators are opportunistic killers and killing domestic livestock is a lot easier than trying to kill a fleet-footed and alert wild animal. More importantly, predators would've competed with us. The Ciskei was earning good revenue from its safari hunting programs, and it was our prerogative to decide what species came off and when.

Sadly, and despite Southern Africa having a number of viable and beneficial sustainable yield wildlife hunting programs, as touched on above, the anti-hunting lobbies conveniently ignore the wisdom of these concepts which in an African context, work. Invariably too, this anti-hunting rhetoric is brought about by emotion driven ignorance, coupled to what is probably a ‘feel good’ reason, and a kudos collecting exercise for those involved. However, in most African countries anti-hunting bluster is a totally alien concept to their way of thinking, and considered illogical.

Much of rural Africa is dreadfully poverty stricken; the AIDS scourge and rampant government corruption in a number of sub-Saharan countries hasn’t helped any either, and to fully understand just how bad it is, one needs to experience the extremely remote areas of these countries firsthand. I have; in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique. And to a far lesser extent in South Africa. Some months back I read an online Daily Mail article whereby an X Factor judge Sharon Osbourne had allegedly posted a picture on Instagram of Donald Trump junior (38) and his brother Eric (32) proudly posing with a dead leopard after a hunting safari in Zimbabwe about 4 years back (other trophy animals they’d shot were also listed). She also added a derogatory rant about them hunting, no doubt for the benefit of her 2.4 million followers.

Not to be outdone BBC naturalist Chris Packham also threw in his pennies worth by saying, “They should feel utterly ashamed. And they’re not doing their dad any favours as a man campaigning to become the president of the US”. Additional reportage in the article goes on to say how pictures emerged in 2012 of the Trump brothers standing next to animals they’d gunned down (my italics) on two Zimbabwe trips in 2010 and 2011.

I doubt either Sharon Osbourne or Chris Packham has a real insight or the slightest understanding of what living in a truly remote African tribal environment is like. For example, in Zimbabwe the rural communities are totally reliant on their annual hand sown sorghum crop getting them through the year. They have little else by way of food (unemployment is above 80%) and they sow their meagre crop to coincide with the onset of the rainy season.

Once the crops begin to ripen, marauding elephant (and sometimes hippo) start visiting under cover of darkness. If a tribesman is fortunate enough to harvest some of the millet and place it in his homemade granary, constructed on upright poles amidst his cluster of huts, it’s still an attractant to elephant. A bull elephant pushes a tribal granary over as if it were matchwood, and easily destroys in a night of plunder the family’s entire year’s food reserve. Whilst all of this destruction by elephant is taking place the family; men, women, and kids, are normally cowering in the dark inside their flimsy hut, terrified. They have no communication with the outside world, no electricity, no transport and no medical backup. All they can do is wait for daylight and hope that as it approaches, so too, will the elephant(s) move off.

Sometimes it ends in tragedy as once happened in Zimbabwe’s remote and vast Gonarezhou when I was still a young game ranger. A bull elephant had repeatedly raided an old Shangaan tribal elder’s crops and one night in frustrated rage, he ran at it in the dark, cussing and hurling stones towards the feeding elephant. The elephant in turn got angry and charged him with deadly intent. In attempting to escape, the panicked Shangaan, hardly able to see in the pitch dark initially ran towards his hut door, and then as he reached it he jumped to one side and ran off at an angle away from the elephant. Flimsy tribal huts aren’t exactly a barrier to elephant and the bull continued on its course, flattening the hut in seconds. It emerged on the other side, and turning, once more chased the fleeing Shangaan.

Closing with its luckless victim, ears pinned back against its neck and trunk rolled up out of harm’s way, the elephant dropped to its knees and catching its victim beneath its forehead rolled him along the ground crushing the life out of him. Not yet finished it then used its trunk to lift him high above its head and running around the edge of the hamlet trumpeting and bellowing with rage, it pummelled the bloodied and broken cadaver against the surrounding trees. And then pushed over a mopane tree and threw the pulverised body against the boll with such force, the dead Shangaan twirled around the fallen tree trunk. The elephant then wandered off towards the Mozambique border. Inside the remaining few huts the deceased’s terrified family and grandchildren cowed in shock and awaited the dawn.

Although I was in the Gonarezhou when this incident took place I didn’t go to the scene as I was elsewhere on an anti-poaching patrol. The late Senior Ranger John Osborn who was camped a few miles away was roused at about 05hr00 by a hysterical handful of bedraggled and semi-naked Shangaan. They begged him to track down and kill the culprit, he attempted to but by then it was well inside Mozambique.

Tsholotsho District - Matabeleland Zimbabwe:

Olivia Ndlovu (68) was attacked by a buffalo in Tsholotsho district on Monday as she tried to bring in her cattle. She died on Wednesday before she'd received any treatment for a broken arm, leg and ribs. Before rangers managed to shoot and kill the buffalo, it also attacked and injured a 4-year old girl, fracturing her leg. She is currently recovering in hospital. This Press Release by Zimbabwe's Parks & Wildlife Management Authority is a frequent occurrence because of human/wildlife conflict.

Remote dwelling African tribes’ people who live like this 24/7 understandably look upon game rangers, professional hunters, and paying safari clients as their saviours when marauding animals turn their lives into an ongoing nightmare. In Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE areas if safari hunting was to stop, uncontrolled poaching would immediately become rampant. It’s not even debatable. Elephant, buffalo, hippo, lion, leopard, crocodile, and the variety of antelope species being hunted by paying clientele under the CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe’s tribal communities are tolerated, but only because they have a value that benefits the local community by way of monetary earnings and much needed protein – and for no other reason.

Even in areas where a CAMPFIRE program is working correctly, there are still deviant elements within the community who continue to poach using rifles and the destructive ¼” cable snare. The anti-poaching policing of these areas is conducted by Tribal Council game scouts (paid by monies earned through hunting) and the safari operator who has the hunting rights. Take those two elements out of the CAMPFIRE equation and it’d be a case of ‘Goodbye wildlife’. In Mozambique poachers use homemade steel jaw traps which wreak havoc with wildlife, maiming, and killing elephant females and calves too. In Zimbabwe if paying sport hunters can no longer be used to control crop raiding problem elephant, the tribesmen will once more resort to surrounding their crops with homemade steel spikes. If an elephant inadvertently stands on one, it is immobilised and doomed to a painful, lingering death due to starvation.

In these remote regions of Southern and Central Africa where hunting safaris are taking place, the safari operation and its constant ground coverage across a given area is the only deterrent in place against poaching. Instead of having an ongoing anti-hunting rant for the benefit of their many uninformed fans, perhaps those celebrities who feel so strongly about hunting should go and experience life with a tribal family in a remote part of Southern Africa, and preferably for the duration of a rainy season, I’m sure it’d change their thinking.

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