Conservation for celebrities

In the past few months the intentions of the Botswana Government to reintroduce hunting have met with a barrage of ferocious criticism from a wide spectrum of campaigners and, predictably in turn, a heated response from the pro-hunting lobby.

The most prominent and vituperative commentary emanates from the ranks of showbiz celebrities, a surprising source of ecological expertise.

As a professional conservationist, the most disappointing characteristic of this debate is the paucity of facts presented by proponents of either argument and an unwillingness to consider any that are put forward by the opposition.

Almost as bad is that both sides are firmly entrenched in their positions and after months of denunciation and vilification neither side seems to have conceded anything. In other words the debate has become a rather pointless shouting match in ignorance with apparently no conversions or even shifting of opinions. Meanwhile, the Botswana Government is moving towards implementation of its democratically decided policies and the strident antagonism of mainly foreign censure continues.

In an effort to throw some light on the issues in question, to correct some common fallacies and hopefully reduce the bilateral intransigence, some simple, accepted terminology might be useful, especially to the media activists so keen to pass judgement on conclusions reached by qualified wildlife scientists.

Conservation: the wise use of natural resources. It may include protection in the sense of preventing damage to a resource.

Wildlife Management: a branch of conservation; stewardship of wildlife populations and their habitats.

Hunting: legal collection of animals by authorised, controlled, lethal or non-lethal means. No wildlife population, be they ducks or elephants, should be reduced by hunting.

Poaching: illegal removal of resources by lethal or non-lethal means. By definition these activities are uncontrolled and can have harmful effects on wildlife populations.

Culling: lethal removal of a calculated proportion of an animal population regarded as excessive and detrimental to the environment or other of its components through any agency, such as disease or overstocking. Examples include badger culls in England and sea-lion culls in the USA.

Cropping (harvesting): lethal or non-lethal removal of a calculated, sustainable proportion of an animal population for commercial or scientific purposes. Game ranching is an obvious example.

Reasons for hunting vary from obtaining food to recreation; poaching is for subsistence or financial reward; culling is to alleviate a problem and cropping is usually industrial or commercial hunting.

Objections to hunting are mainly based on moral or spiritual grounds and may be legitimate or hysterical. (I was once attacked by a Californian lady who was breeding “vegetarian lions.”) They are rarely practical or based on fact. Almost all animal populations will sustain controlled hunting. Animal rights issues and considerations of ethics are powerful but separate arguments and they cannot be directly ascribed to conservation matters.

Managing the actions defined above that involve legal offtakes (i.e. excluding poaching) require knowledge of the ecosytem. This is obtained by monitoring the vegetative and animal components of the ecosystem.

The interpretation of plant and wildlife population dynamics and subsequent recommendations are best left to qualified scientists, but regrettably this is seldom the case. (Why are the mass media so warped that actors and television celebrities are able to use them to foment opposition to democratic and scientific policies in countries and ecosystems they have never visited and have little knowledge of?) For instance, if hunting is an authorised management technique it needs to be decided how many animals of which species may be hunted in a specific area.

Neither the population monitoring information nor the offtake are likely to be exact. Also conditions in the ecosystem will vary from year to year, depending not least on climate. The hunting quotas will need to be continuously adjusted according to many variables. This is not an exact science and needs much experience and what is known as adaptive management to put into successful practice.

In the current Botswana scenario it is proposed to reintroduce hunting; culling has been ruled out for now, though there may be some limited cropping. (In its wish to avoid the more pejorative term “culling”, I think the Government has confused the terms.) Poaching will obviously remain illegal and be prosecuted.

Hunting has never been illegal in Botswana, it is a long-held tradition that was suspended on government and communal land, but has continued on private game ranches. Notably, hunting is also permitted in each of the countries neighbouring Botswana and almost the whole of east and southern Africa with the exception of Kenya.

Ranching and animal production: here there are two basic principles, whether the farmer is breeding wildlife, cattle or goats. First, with correct husbandry (management) the numbers of the stock on the ranch will increase. Second, a proportion of the increase will have to be removed or eventually most of the animals will starve. This removal is also what keeps the farmer in business. Note that good management will not allow the numbers to increase until damage occurs to the food resources (grass and trees).

Removal (cropping) will start before then and be carried out at levels that are sustainable, depending upon seasonal variation. In fact, if a rancher has only a few of a certain species he might still remove a proportion every year and keep the herd stable.

This is sustainable and in accord with the principles of conservation. In the 20 or so years since game ranching started in Botswana over a hundred viable ranches have given rise to huge increases in many species of wildlife, including giraffe and zebra.

In all of these ranches, which amount to more than the area of the prime Moremi Game Reserve, the new wildlife populations exceed the numbers in Chobe National Park. Management tools common to all the ranches are hunting and cropping.

In the wild, wide-open ranges of Botswana the principles still apply. These vast areas are now more limited; people have increased five-fold in the last fifty years.

The attendant infrastructure and herds of domestic stock compete with the wildlife populations for space, shelter, food and water. Despite the generous allocation of 40% of its surface area to conservation there is inevitable conflict.

While a hundred years or more ago the wildlife populations could roam over almost unlimited range in response to climate vagaries and patchy vegetation production and destruction, this is no longer the case. Wildlife management is required to intervene in some form.

Declaration of protected areas is one intervention, but as the situation changes more is required, including range protection measures, water provision and fencing of farms and communities.

There is no scientific or logical reason to exclude some lethal management techniques such as cropping for meat, destruction of problem animals or safari hunting. Each has its own challenges and requires careful administration and oversight, but should not be ruled out or opposed in principle.

*Dr Larry Patterson is an experienced wildlife biologist and veterinarian with 48 years of experience in Botswana.  He was responsible for many of the DWNP aerial censuses in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly counting elephant, He also worked for the Kalahari Conservation Society and assisted with monitoring the safari hunting industry for DWNP

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