Hunting and Conservation

Last night I was at a fund raising function for the SPCA in Mutare and we heard a 45 minute documentary on a hike undertaken by a party of 12 Zimbabweans from Chiwore River to Kanyemba in May this year. This is deep in the Zambezi Valley and about 100 kilometers from the Manna Pools Park which is famous for its wildlife and diversity. They walked for over 100 kilometers across country that was halfway between the Escarpment and the River. Those who know the Valley will appreciate this is wild rough country and virtually devoid of human settlement.

What shocked us all and the team that did the hike was the near total absence of any wild life - they saw 4 elephants in 8 days and some quite recent lion spoor near the Zambezi River. The speaker at the meeting remarked that 40 years ago when he had been active in this area, it had contained thousands of different species of plains game and all of the big five.

When I spent a few days at Chiwore on a recent fishing trip (much less strenuous than a 100 kilometer hike through the bush in the Valley) I also noticed a sharp reduction in the sightings of game and spoor. The area has a lot of elephant but the spoor I saw and a few sightings, all involved small, immature animals. What plains game we saw had evidently been hunted and were very nervous and ran off when they scented us or heard us approach.

Then we recently had the incident involving an American hunter who killed a famous lion (Cecil) not knowing that it was being tracked by a research team from Oxford University. To add to the misery of the hunter and his guides, a local guide who had filmed Cecil 5 years earlier when he was in his prime as a really beautiful example of a male, black mane lion in his pride, released these images to the media and triggered a global media storm.

The fact was that Cecil was in fact at the end of his life in lion terms - he was 13 years old and could not retain his place in the pride as younger males were taking over. He was unlikely to survive much longer in the real world of a lion's life and was scavenging to try and feed himself. Most specialists would say in fact that he was an ideal candidate for a commercial hunt. An old lion with failing teeth and health can quickly turn rogue and take to hunting cattle or even humans.

A few weeks later the reality that this hunting game is dangerous was illustrated when an experienced guide was killed by a lion when he tried to protect his clients from an attack.

While I feel sorry for the American hunter, who can probably never go back to his old life, this incident did have value because it highlighted the need for a balanced and informed debate on the role of hunting in the whole sphere of conserving African wild life for both commercial and ethical reasons. I live in Bulawayo, the second largest City in Zimbabwe and it is estimated that 15 000 people in the City depend on hunting as their primary means of support. This is a multimillion dollar industry in Africa.

The areas through which our valiant hiking team walked are a safari/hunting area and I am not that surprised they did not see much. I am sure even the hunters have some difficulty in finding what they need for their clients. But the over hunting that is taking place and incidents like that involving Cecil point to the need for much greater and more sophisticated regulation and control. At the core of such a system must be better information on breeding habits and needs, survival rates and habitat preservation.

We know, for example, that the Hwange Game Park can sustainably carry 30 000 elephants. But they breed at the rate of about 5 per cent per annum and if we are not careful in protected areas like Hwange, the numbers can grow to unsustainable levels and then the habitat suffers. Some areas in the Park look like Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb. In those circumstances systematic culling may be the only remedy and some 30 years ago I was involved in such activity taking off some 1500 animals a year from the main Parks. The system then used involved a small team from the National Parks who shot whole families in a few minutes and then allowed the recovery of the carcasses for processing and sale.

In that operation baby elephants under a certain size were saved and exported but this proved to be a mistake as most became rogues in the areas to which they were taken. Elephants are very family orientated and need their families to bring them up properly.

A number of years ago it was discovered that hunters were taking out all the males in prime condition and numbers were declining rapidly. The response was a total ban on hunting lions and a rapid recovery in the population and then fears that the pressure on plains game was too great. It's all a question of balance and in this arena, information, accurate information, as well as knowledge of the environment and needs is critical to planning and the evolution of appropriate policies.

Then there is the issue of fencing the wild life areas. I know that the Matobo Park outside Bulawayo has a fence that has not been maintained and until recently was more open than closed. Then a small team of volunteers took on the task of fencing the Park, an exercise that is now almost complete. The change has been dramatic - exclusion of cattle from the neighboring farming areas has reduced pressure on grazing and the greater sense of security for the wild life has attracted back into the Park species that have not been seen for years.

Cecil was the victim of a system where farms adjacent to the Hwange Park are allowed to provide water and feed to attract wild animals from the Park and then arrange professional hunting. This 'necklace of death' surrounds the Park on one side while the southern boundary is largely communal or tribal area. In either case wild life straying out of the Park face the threat of being hunted and killed. If the Park is not fenced, (and most experts feel that fences are not desirable) then this threat is a very real element in management and must be addressed.

These are hard choices and if we allowed wild life freedom to breed and populate areas set aside for them without control or managed hunting, then we would have to face the specter of large scale deaths from a lack of food and overcrowding. These are all issues that must be addressed as soon as possible if we are all going to continue to enjoy the unique experience that Africa offers to all those who love wild places.

Eddie Cross
Mutare 20th September 2015