Save it By Killing it

Save it By Killing it

Background photo by Dan  Pero.
Background photo by Dan Pero.
Sports hunting’s opposition to “listing” the African lion as an endangered species is a battle royale that unmasks the industry’s indifference to real conservation.

The Asian lion, nearly extinct in India and Nepal, was declared an endangered species in 1970. In July of this year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), the agency charged with implementing America’s Endangered Species Act (ESA), announced it was considering listing the African lion in the same way it had listed the Asian lion in 1970.

(FWS, ESA, CITES are all magnificent but confusing. After this blog, below, I try to untangle them for you.)

FWS is acting in response to a request by five U.S. organizations: International Fund for Animal Welfare, Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, the Born Free Foundation/Born Free USA, and the Defenders of Wildlife and Fund for Animals

These organizations are reacting to a steep decline in lion populations documented especially over the last decade. The decline is related to a number of factors, some of which I’ve discussed in earlier blogs, but basically it boils down to a squeezing down of the size of the African wild as African countries develop so rapidly.

If FWS does “list” lion, it will have several immediate effects. The first is that zoos, circuses and a few individuals who own and possibly breed lion in the U.S. will be further regulated in how they do so.

There is little opposition to this, because the regulations are already pretty tight and zoo organizations are well allied to the EPA.

The second, though, has caused an explosion of opposition: Sports hunters will no longer be able to bring their “lion trophy” home.

As with elephant, today, a hunter could still go over to Africa and shoot a lion where a given country allowed it, but anything but the photograph of his hunt would have to be left behind.

A third but possibly the most important effect of such an FWS “listing” would come a bit later: That would be the similar “listing” of African lion as endangered by a world treaty, CITES. That would essentially end lion hunting throughout the world.

The opposition has exploded. I won’t cite all the sports hunting, NRA related and other organization that have gone ballistic. Just give Google a few words and you’ll spend your next month reading through them.

But I am appalled, however, that National Geographic editorialized against “listing” by citing a Tanzanian game reserve that it claimed was dependent upon “$75 million dollars annually from lion hunting.”

NatGeo took up the most prevalent argument around that listing the lion will turn off a spigot of development funds derived from hunting that is essential for conservation, and lion conservation in particular.

The research center NatGeo quoted is a part of the remarkably corrupt Tanzania Wildlife Department, and there’s not a scientist on earth that trusts them.

NatGeo cited three lion experts in the editorial. Paula White, director of the Zambia Lion Project, was one. Zambia as a country has just banned lion hunting and prior to that ban it was earning as much if not more than Tanzania in lion hunts. Kenya has banned all hunting since 1979, and both its lion population and its tourism has grown substantially since.

The second expert cited is the widely respected Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota. In 2010 Packer and two others published a paper in Conservation Biology that gave the Tanzanian government five steps that it must undertake if it were to continue allowing the hunting of lion.

The government has taken none of them.

But what is most of an affront to those of us who read NatGeo in the crib is that the editorial is written by an official of Safari Club International, the world’s largest hunting organization.

NatGeo, as I’ve said before, has gone the way of the Wall Street Journal and Congress. Just survey its weekly fare on its cable channel to confirm this.

Even the New York Times on its op-ed page allowed un-fact-checked statements by a Tanzanian official that were quickly pointed out fallacious by LionAid in the UK.

As any scientist will confirm, animal numbers in Africa are very hard to come by. Government statistics are poorly collected and compiled and often just made up. Tanzania is probably the worst example. So it is hard to wholeheartedly embrace LionAid any more than the Tanzanian government as they duke out numbers.

But the best statistics documented, by researchers like Packer, whose studied recommendations for lion conservation are then wholly disregarded by Tanzanian officials, suggests that those officials are the least likely to present good evidence.

My point in this blog is to argue that “banning hunting” is not going to harm conservation. I think Fish & Wildlife is well advised to consider that banning lion hunting will, in fact, promote conservation. It’s hard to imagine why banning the killing of a species in decline won’t be of some use, if not serious aid.

The recent moves by Botswana and Zambia, and the long history that Kenya has with banned hunting, provide warehouses of proof that banning hunting is a good conservation tool.

The pitiful attempts to enlist academic support for the opposition, as evidenced in the fallacious articles in NatGeo and on the op-ed page of the Times, is just further proof that facts mean little to an industry, which like those supporting the NRA, may be severely hurt by the listing.

So their real colors come out, their ire is fired, when their principal goal, hunting, is challenged.

No, you cannot save lion by killing them.

Endangered species is a somewhat complicated topic. America’s current Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 was signed by President Nixon as a replacement of a 1969 law which had a rough start and rocky judicial test.

The ‘73 law went all the way to the Supreme Court where it was strongly affirmed, and it has been the law governing the protection of endangered species in the U.S. ever since.

Parallel to the American experience, the world as a whole was formulating a treaty that would protect species worldwide. Its first draft was in 1963, but after the American law was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1973, CITES was also formed in 1973 and now has 180 subscriber nations including the U.S.

While it’s not wholly true that CITES walks in lock-step with ESA, particularly in the last decade, it does tend to “list” species after ESA does.

This only makes sense, because what CITES does is ban the international trade of the species listed. ESA, on the other hand, has much more power within the U.S. It can stop the development of a dam, for instance, or forbid hunting even in a private forest, if it finds a species is being threatened by that action.

And because America remains the largest economy in the world, whatever ESA “lists” becomes easier for CITES to enforce if it “lists” the same species.

Game Viewing in Zimbabwe

Game Viewing in Zimbabwe

After a relatively long period during which Zimbabwe’s national parks seemed to be recovering in spite of Robert Mugabe, tourists reported gunfire in the country’s main national park this week.

And — unfortunately — it was not the gun fire of a revolution. The shots came from hunting rifles.

Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s most precious big game wilderness. Located in the northwest of the country, it was one of Africa’s primary game reserves throughout the last century.

You need to be cautious when researching it, though, as is true of everything today in Zimbabwe. The link above to Wikipedia is quite dated, with Hwange’s biomass considerably smaller than the library reference suggests, and its ecology far more fragile.

“…the number of animals being snared for food by local people living on the boundary of the Park has increased dramatically,” reports one of Hwange’s most dedicated tourism operators. This because of severe food shortages throughout the country.

That’s only one of three major problems facing Hwange, today.

The second serious problem with Hwange is its very design. Wildlife filmmaker, Aaron Gekoski, documented this recently in his March production, “Grey Matters“.

When Hwange was created in 1928 it was understood there was not enough water for a real wildlife park. So the government built boreholes, water wells, throughout the park and has been pumping water for the wildlife ever since.

This isn’t unique. The same is done in Namibia’s main national park, Etosha, and in a variety of national and private reserves throughout southern Africa.

It works if maintained. But the last Zimbabwe resource that the current dictator cares about is its wildlife, and the boreholes have not been maintained. Fewer than half of the original ones are operating, and as a result, the animals are dying.

But Hwange’s greatest problem, reflected this week as tourists trying to find an elephant in Hwange instead heard it being shot, is the wholesale looting of its biomass, and not just by corrupt government officials, but by private hunting companies.

Soldiers regularly harvest ruminates indiscriminately, sometimes assisting villagers for their bushmeat. While subsistence hunting elicits some understanding from me, Zimbabwe soldiers are well paid.

And without any study or regards to biology or ecology, the government of Zimbabwe is trading animals for political favors.

Last year foreign wildlife investigators confirmed that the government of Zimbabwe had exported at least four small elephants to China. The act was little more than stupid cruelty by the seller and receiver. Four young elephant removed from their families have little chance of surviving, anywhere, much less in a Chinese zoo.

There was such worldwide outrage at this act last year, that the global treaty which governs the trade in international species of which China is a signatory, CITES, banned any further such transactions between Zimbabwe and China.

China is legendary at publicly accepting such restrictions while finding ways to work around them, or to simple illegally ignore them in practice. But the attention this focused on Zim’s dwindling elephant population provoked a real local vigilance that seems ready to expose any subsequent violation.

But while internationally Zimbabwe may be restrained, internally it’s gone bonkers.

One of Zimbabwe’s most important wildlife reserves is the Save Conservancy (pronounced Sav-hey), in the far southeast of the country that was once scheduled to become a part of a trans-national wilderness withn Mozambique and South Africa wildernesses.

Land grabbing has grown from sport to routine in Zimbabwe, and Save is being eaten away as the Mugabe regime parcels it out to its cronies.

And add to this devil’s den of looters professional hunting.

In the old, good days, Zimbabwe was a preferred destination of hunters, and its wilderness was one of the best managed in the world, with hunters and non-hunters in grand alliances that did much to preserve Africa’s game.

That’s changed. This week tourists in Hwange reported hearing gunfire, and not the kind which would excite us all that the regime was under assault. These were the shots from hunting rifles.

We don’t know if the elephants shot were by hunters from the regime, or hunters from abroad.

But the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZATF), a proactive and somewhat subterranean wildlife NGO, insists that Zimbabwe professional hunters are now regularly harvesting animals technically illegally from national parks and private reserves, with the tacit approval of the Mugabe government:

Arnold Payne, Ken & Tikki Drummond, all of Impala African Safaris, have been named as the principal thieves.

Worse, ZATF says, “It is suspected that some of the hunters … are US citizens.”

The old adage, three strikes and you’re out, is dangerously close to being true in Zimbabwe’s big game wildernesses: subsistence hunting forced by food shortages, an ecological design of national parks that can’t withstand neglect, and now wholesale looting of the biomass.

Hwange and its other sister wildernesses in Zimbabwe which for so many years were the treasures of Africa now teeter on the brink of annihilation.

Dumb Roper Nabbed

Dumb Roper Nabbed

Many Americans don’t care if something’s going extinct: it’s just “the way it is.” So it’s no surprise that big game poaching is as much an American problem as it is an African one.

“Put bluntly,” writes Australian ecologist Euan Ritchie, current species extinction is an ecological “avalanche” with current rates 1000 to 10,000 times higher than would be normal in a balanced environment.

Most people realize that the extinction of one species has the potential to threaten a whole ecosystem. We might not fully understand, for example, why that little flower in the Amazon jungle keep the canopy from falling down, but most people in the world accept that it might.

But rhino? What purpose, exactly, does this beast have? We know an awful lot about rhino, and nothing suggests it’s integral to the status quo of any particular environment. In fact, it rarely exists in the wild, anymore.

The answers are allusive and often personal. There are probably fewer Americans as a percentage who believe extinction of something like the rhino is a priority than compared to other societies, but likely and fortunately still probably a majority.

Americans were the ones to formalize the concept of an endangered species with historic legislation in 1973. And shortly after the Endangered Species Act was enacted, the sale of rhino horn was banned.

Almost forty years later, Jarrod Wade Steffen, a poor kid from McHenry Illinois, just wanted to get his mom some money after his rodeo career collapsed, so he started trafficking rhino horn.

There’s more to it, of course, including Mom sneaking out of California with a suitcase of small bills totaling more than $100,000. And there’s a lot we still don’t know, since Wade’s plea agreement with the Justice Department suggests he’s still involved with helping ongoing investigations.

At 21 years old, Wade was struggling to make a living competing in rodeos. He’d won his events in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Missouri and while he certainly wasn’t a star to watch his trajectory was OK.

Then he got injured in the eye by a camel he was trying to train. He started driving a truck, which earned a better living anyway than rodeos, and moved to Hico, Texas.

There in Texas, that wild and rowdy and never wholly moral place, Wade reconnected with old rodeo acquaintances who had rhino horn for sale. Most of them had it legally, usually from old big game trophies shot before the 1976 ban from the Endangered Species Act.

It wasn’t hard to find someone to sell to. Thirty-three times between June of 2010 and just before he was arrested in February of 2012 Wade sent rhino horn to Vinh “Jimmy” Choung Kha in Orange County California and earned hundreds of thousand dollars.

In that 18-month period, the American cowboy, Wade Steffen, trafficked in more rhino than were poached in Kenya.

Kha in turn sold the horn to Zhao Feng, a Chinese national living mysteriously in Orange County, part of the new rich Chinese buying expensive California real estate and not really doing much else. Kha laundered the money he got from Feng through his import/export business and his girlfriend’s nail salon.

The ring was blown apart when Wade, his mother and his girlfriend, were stopped at the Orange County airport with three suitcases carrying around $300,000 in cash.

Wade, his mother, his girlfriend, Kha, Feng and a bunch of others, including an antique dealer in New York, were all subsequently arrested. Federal authorities called it the biggest bust in the history of illegal rhino horn trading.

“These individuals were interested in one thing and one thing only – making money,” said Fish & Wildlife Director Dan Ashe.

Whether that’s wholly true or not, one thing is certainly wholly true:

Wade, his relatives and friends, and all the other people around who knew what he was doing don’t care if something goes extinct.

Extinction, and in particular rhino extinction, is not just an African problem.

Spears & Signatures

Spears & Signatures

A major fight if not an actual civil war is about to erupt in northern Tanzania, as Maasai prepare to battle government authorities in Loliondo, according to a BBC report this morning.

The dispute is over a Tanzania government decision to evict 30,000 Maasai from traditional grazing lands near the Serengeti National Park so that the area can be leased to a Dubai Hunting Company.

The story was first reported globally by the Christian Science Monitor earlier this month and went viral, mobilizing Maasai throughout the area.

The company, the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), is a gigantic, jet-setter hunting company that has set up a mini city in northern Tanzania each mid-year for the last 20, for high profile hunting clients including Prince Andrew and most of the royal families of the Emirates and Jordan.

When I move near the area while still in the Serengeti National Park, my Tanzania cell phone beeps then displays the message, “Welcome to the Emirates.” They even bring cell towers.

The Arab operators of the area get free, undisputed access into and out of Tanzania. They have built a private airstrip on which modified 747s land direct from Dubai. Private security disallows anyone – including Tanzanian officials – from crossing their perimeter.

Until now, the under-the-table operation which has undoubtedly made many Tanzanian politicians very rich, has been slow to gain public attention. The Maasai have been battling the operation for years, although until now it’s been seen as the classic hunting/non-hunting battle over wilderness lands.

That changed dramatically when the government announced last year that it was adding about 580 sq. miles to an area still not fully surveyed but presumed to be around the same size. The doubling of the area is particularly aggravating to conservationists, because it would be a closed portal between the hunting area directly into the protected Serengeti National Park.

But more importantly to the Maasai, it means up to 30,000 will be evicted. Some claim as many as 48,000. The evictions more than 20 years ago that first set up the hunting block did not provoke a Maasai outcry.

That was probably because the Maasai were not as educated, not linked into social media and were at the time in their own battles with other Maasai just across the border in Kenya in internecine land disputes.

Until this incident, the controversy was confined mostly to photography safari tourists accidentally entering the Arab-held lands. Tourists at the prestigious &Beyond Klein’s Camp, for instance, would occasionally come across shot animals.

Community Based Tourism companies, including Dorobo, Hoopoe and Kibo Safaris that attempted to establish ventures with the Maasai often ran afoul of the Arabs.

But today it’s quite different. “There is no government in the world that can just let an area so important to conservation to be wasted away by overgrazing,” Khamis Kagasheki, the Minister of Tourism told the press last month.

The public nature of the government’s battle with activist Maasai is new. It seems to me they think they’ll win, either in the arena of public opinion, or against the Maasai spears.

The government is still reeling from the defeat to build the Serengeti Highway.

The characterization of the government action as enhancing conservation by protecting land that is currently being misused (over grazed) I see an indication the government feels that hunting is no longer as anathema to the public as it was just a while ago.

The activist NGO, avaaz, is promoting a world-wide petition with 2 million signatures to convince President Kikwete to nullify the decision. But based on public ministerial statements over the last month, the government will not be moved this time.

Maasai evictions from wilderness lands are not new. Likely the reason for the greatest spectacle on earth, the Great Wildebeest Migration, is that nearly 20,000 Maasai were evicted from the Moru Kopjes in 1972 that is now an essential wildebeest corridor within the Serengeti National Park.

I personally had a very educated and articulate Maasai friend killed in a battle with Tanzanian rangers two decades ago. So battle with the Maasai is not new, either.

But there’s something much different this time. Perhaps global awareness, perhaps the power of the social media – I’m not sure. But I am sure that if the government persists…

..the Maasai will fight.

Is African Big Game Hunting Ending?

Is African Big Game Hunting Ending?

Zambia’s decision yesterday to ban the hunting of cats is electrifying and marks a new movement against big game hunting in Africa.

The tourism minister told the BBC, “Tourists come to Zambia to see the lion and if we lose the lion we will be killing our tourism industry.”

From my point of view the announcement is actually more important than Botswana’s announcement a month ago to ban all hunting, but taken together, this is striking.

Despite Botswana’s wild game biomass probably exceeding Zambia’s (and this is absolutely true with regards to elephant), Zambia probably has more cats, and for sure it right now has much more big game hunting.

Next to Tanzania, Zambia is the most sought after country in the world by big game hunters. This is because it still has very large tracts of land open to all types of big game hunting.

Botswana banned hunting lions in 2002, severely restricted its other hunting quadrants in 2007 and in 2009 essentially closed all the good hunting areas in the Okavango. So the announcement last month to end big game hunting everywhere in Botswana for good was actually an incremental move.

Zambia has actually encouraged hunting to the point of government involvement in hunting trade shows. Yesterday marks an incredible and fairly abrupt about face. Why?

I don’t want to get into the argument of whether hunting is truly a conservation technique or not, because in its purest form I actually believe it is, and I know that riles a lot of people. And I’m no hunter. But properly sanctioned hunting can essentially do what the South African rangers do in Kruger National Park: cull.

While earning the government a hefty dime for letting a foreigner do the job for them.

But we don’t have to argue that. Although that’s the theory under which virtually all African countries sanction big game hunting, I can’t think of a single one – South Africa included (with the current rampant increase in corruption there) – where anything, much less hunting, is done the way it’s supposed to.

So instead of 1 or 2 elephants hunted out of quadrants assigned by the government per season and overseen by licensed big game hunters, you have dozens of elephants, antelope, lions and anything else that moves, blasted to smithereens often by unlicensed amateurs with little regards to the stated conservation policies.

All it takes is bribing the right officials, and if not that, the local communities near the productive hunting areas. Big game hunting in Africa today more resembles the business of poaching than it does Ducks Unlimited.

Maybe, maybe with the Zambian announcement yesterday we can say this is changing.

Hardly a week ago the head of Zambia’s big game hunting government bureaucracy was fired along with 4 close officials. The official reason was for “irregularity in awarding [hunting] licenses.”

I think the current Zambian government, relatively new and among the better in years, discovered as it dug into the dirt under the animals a den of iniquity. I really think that Zambia’s move is an incredibly laudable one and should be seen in terms of government transparency rather than conservation.

Nothing is ever clear in Africa, and to be sure, the increase in poaching and decreases in some large animals – especially cats – forces the accountant to begin analyzing the cost/benefit ratio of hunting versus tourism.

And in that one, tourism has been winning for at least the last decade. The cost of hunting had been much greater than any form of non-hunting tourism. But with today’s incredibly up-market safari properties, a wildlife photography safari can be just as expensive as a hunting safari.

With just as many taxes for the government.

In any case, we now have three of Africa’s most famous big game countries (Kenya, Botswana and Zambia) either completely restricting big game hunting or severely so.

It’s a very important milestone in the history of Africa’s big game.

Blood All Over the Place

Blood All Over the Place

A good scientific paper on lion population declines embarrasses NatGeo and provides evidence that recreational hunting of lion may soon be illegal.

The excellent scientific survey by Duke scientists published Tuesday in the journal of Biodiversity and Conservation shows serious contractions of African wilderness with lion decline as the principal indicator. But NatGeo’s exaggeration of the problem in order to raise money is appalling.

The research was funded by the National Geographic Big Cat Initiative, but what disturbs me is that National Geographic itself has grossly distorted the findings (or ignored them, not sure which).

The study concludes that there are about 32,000 lions remaining in Africa, today. NatGeo’s “Lion Decline Map” shows only 20,000 (less than two-thirds the science) with a projected “???” intended to mean “0″ by 2020. The glitzy web presentation ends with requests for donations.

This pandering to fictional catastrophe fits the current NatGeo model embedded in the current lineup on its cable television channel, which alters between the interesting, scandalous and soap-opry. NatGeo is making bundles, scientists still depend upon it, but it’s gone Ruperty.

Meanwhile, the Duke study is important.

While there is nothing particularly surprising in the study, it confirms that lion populations are in serious decline (32,000 today compared to 100,000 in the 1960s) on the continent as a whole, and where relatively stable for the “long-term” are in diminished areas.

The 27 “strongholds” where lion populations are expected to prevail for the long-term are all in sub-Saharan Africa in the countries we know well:

1. Tanzania
2. Botswana
3. Mozambique
4. South Africa & Zambia
5. Kenya

A sliver of stronghold area slips into Zimbabwe, but the enormous absence of lion in Zim today is a testament to the tragedy of conservation that has occurred there over the last generation under the murderous rule of Robert Mugabe.

The study used satellite imagery but through careful digital analysis and increased technological resolution was able to debunk earlier reports that certain areas were much healthier than they really are. These most critical areas are all in the northern part of the continent.

One of the study’s leading scientists is Stuart Pimm who has produced tomes of studies in his lifetime and who is probably the world’s most valuable African environmental statistician. Through the body of his past studies this one is credibly able to point to diminishing habitat and human competition for protected habitat as the principal cause.

But the study dares to confront another sensitive issue: big game hunting.

Without actually saying so, there is every implication throughout the study that recreational lion hunting should be prohibited.

I don’t know if there is coincidence to be found, or scientists and government officials tiptoeing on the tightrope, but last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was reviewing the African lion’s status on the endangered species list.

This is the first step to listing lion as endangered. And if that happens, big game hunting of lion would effectively be over.

That seems only reasonable when African governments are now arresting local people for hunting lion, not to put a furry head above their fireplace, but to save their herds of goats.

Good work, Duke! Go to it, Fish & Wildlife! And put your pants back on, NatGeo.

Anything for A Buck!

Anything for A Buck!

Tanzania’s scandals and sheer wastefulness of its bountiful natural resources are legendary. But last month’s incident took the prize.

In addition to the world’s second largest single vein of gold, countless copper and recent rumors of off-shore oil, large deposits of uranium were discovered hardly 100 miles from the port of Dar-es-Salaam last year.

The fact that most of the streaks were in the massive Selous Game Reserve really was incidental. According to the government less than 1% of the reserve would be effected.

Not the Tanzanian government is to be believed about the time the sun rises, but the way the natural resources ministry mismanaged the gold mining near Lake Victoria, which has essentially stalled normal mining, I think gave hope to many environmentalists who simply expected this new discovery will also be bungled.

But uranium has a “security” component to it gold does not. The interest of world powers is acute. No fewer than 26 multinationals (and one Tanzanian) company are now involved.

In approval faster than a speeding bullet, UNESCO who fought tooth and nail to protect a single road from bisecting the Serengeti, approved yet to be revealed mining methodology of the world’s largest protected wilderness, The Selous.

By 2014, optimistic businessmen claim, Tanzania will become the world’s eighth largest producer of uranium.

All to be expected, and despite my sarcasm I have never opposed proper natural resource extraction from Africa and I’ve always countenanced arguments for extracting it from protected wildernesses.

The fact is that the world is energy desperate and Africa is sitting on the golden goose. It’s about time that Africa get its fair share.

And that’s the problem, now. There are so few fair shares of Tanzania’s gold getting back to the local population that it’s a joke.

Now, one of the few rational, educated, articulate Tanzanian politicians, the shadow minister of natural resources, Ms. Halima Mdee, has revealed that one of Tanzania’s equally unscrupulous hunting companies, Game Frontiers, has actually sold off the block of Selous given it for hunting to a mining company!

And no one seems to care!

The fact that this violates a tome of Tanzanian law isn’t the point, since most of Tanzanian law is violated one way or the other. It’s just the sheer crassness of this move that’s so infuriating.

What’s more, Ms. Mdee seems to understand that any legal argument is pointless, so she is scolding the government on larger ethical and moral grounds.

“Other than the illegality of the contracts,” Tanzania’s Guardian newspaper reported, “she described what she called ‘unfair’ distribution of disbursed compensations on the part of the hunting company embezzling the villagers share.”

Did you get that?

The way to appeal to either popular consensus or somehow otherwise gain political advantage is to drop altogether the body of law in Tanzania and the rest of the world that disallows a hunting company to farm out a country’s resources, and claim that the local people in and around the hunting block aren’t getting their fair share of the loot from the illicit deal!

Whoa Tanzania. Yes, thank you Ms. Mdee, and by the way how are you doing with the laundry of al-Qaeda’s Somali weapons?

Public Auction To Murder Rhino

Public Auction To Murder Rhino

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If you believe in culling, does that mean it’s OK to invite casual sportsmen into national parks to hunt big animals for a fee? I don’t think so, but South African officials do.

There are two related but very different stories here: the first is the growing number of scandals in the South African government; and the second is the issue of culling and hunting big game like elephants.

I’ve been trying to formulate an opinion on the first for some time, and I can’t. Jacob Zuma is the third president since the end of the apartheid era and one of the last of the old boys who were instrumental in the apartheid struggle with Nelson Mandela.

He’s also the most clumsy, the least intellectual and quite rash. His charisma is more chutzpah than boldness. But payback for being a revolutionary is winding down, and people seem more tolerant of his antics than I would expect presuming he’s on his way out.

And South African society in my opinion is doing remarkably well for having made such a gigantic transition. But scandals are one thing, and the new, growing attempt by the government to centralize power are quite another.

Zuma’s revenge for being made such fun of by the local press seems to be, among other similar acts, shutting it down in patent violation of the constitution. And the courts seem reluctant if reticent to battle him head on.

So in this climate of buffoonery morphing into odious politics, many lesser officials feel a bravado more typical of banana republic magnates than of major democracies.

So very lesser officials – nevertheless very publicly associated with Zuma and his ANC party – who oversee one of KwaZulu Natal’s big game sanctuaries, recently invited outside sportsmen to bid for the right to kill a white rhino in one of South Africa’s most famous reserves, Mkhuze.

Technically the rhino auctioned away to the highest traveling bidder was not within the exact confines of Mkhuze, but in the adjacent Makhasa private community reserve, and this provided the loophole for the overseers of this reserve to be so bone-headedly bold.

Readers may understand this better by a similar association in a more popular area, Kruger National Park, where the adjacent Sabi Sands private community reserve actually draws more American tourists.

Makhasa, like Sabi Sands, is governed to a large extent by the wildlife laws of the adjacent federal authority, between which there is no fencing. It is a single ecosystem. Kruger and Sabi Sands are in the interior far east of the country. Mkhuze and Makhasa are on the coast northeast of Durban.

Southern African wildlife management, particularly within South Africa proper, is likely the best in the world and is packed with professionals who are the stars in their fields. For a very long time they’ve believed in culling derived from intricate notions of “carrying capacity” that they believe they understand better than anyone.

Indeed, they may. The health and sustainability of southern African reserves is far greater, for example, than in East Africa. There are many more species albeit much less drama provided by the large numbers of animals seen in East Africa.

It is precisely the large numbers of animals that South African scientists see in East Africa that they insist will be East Africa’s ultimate downfall, the “tipping threshold” reached when too many unmanaged animals compete for dwindling resources. The crash that can result is often catastrophic and irreversible.

So southern African officials cull. For as long as the reserves have existed and been well managed (Kruger since 1926) culling has regularly occurred, and when the culling is of a springbok it makes much less noise than when it’s an elephant or rhino.

More scientifically, it is rare that a single elephant is culled. It is more likely (wince now) that an entire family is culled babies and all, since elephants are so social that to separate them from their family unit is generally untenable. But single rhinos are regularly culled.

Never, until now, has this excision been opened by auction to sportsmen tourists.

The winner of the auction, referred to anonymously as a “businessman” paid just over $110,000 for the right to shoot the white rhino, which by the way is an extremely docile beast, quite unlike its cousin, the black rhino. Conservation advocates screamed bloody murder, of course.

There are to be sure far too many white rhinos in southern Africa. They breed like cows and basically live like cows. You can virtually pet them. But they’re bigger than black rhinos and magnificent looking beasts. Killing them doesn’t take much skill.

There are so many of them, you can buy a white rhino for less than $10,000 although the transport and maintenance lifts that considerably. Many South African ranchers buy and breed white rhinos so they can then be hunted, and the going rate for legal hunting of such white rhinos is around $50,000, less than half what this anonymous businessman paid.

Add to this the fact that there is an epidemic of rhino poaching occurring right now in South Africa, and it’s been going on for more than a year. That bastion of extraordinary wildlife management, Kruger, has the unmitigated embarrassment of having had 11 rhinos poached this year.

So put all this together and you have to ask yourself who the hell would pay twice the going hunting rate to shoot a rhino in a protected reserve?

Answer: Someone who hasn’t a clue about most everything, e.g.: how much it usually costs, how much furore it would produce, and likely is paying quite a lot more under the table.

This is the kind of folly happening in South Africa right now in many areas of its society. It’s almost like a free-for-all. We can only hope the days of the old boys can be auctioned off as swiftly as was this white rhino.



The NorthPark Shopping Center in Dallas has great lion hunting!
Big game hunting in Africa is a sticky issue. In Tanzania it’s worse, an abomination. Last month’s killing of a Tanzanian big game hunter by poachers right adjacent the Serengeti says it all.

I did not know Andre de Kock, the hunter who was murdered, but I have had a few rare run-ins with the company for which he worked, Robin Hurt Safaris (RHS). RHS was founded by Robin Hurt, probably the last of the great waving white hair machos to stroll Africa.

His company’s antics are tucked in secrecy, difficult to confirm. In main this is because many hunting clients don’t want to be known, so the client list is a guarded secret. We are reduced to the undesirable necessity of referring to rumors. Rumors that his client list includes the King of Jordan and Saif Gaddafi.

Bold and irresponsible if I had not myself encountered Arabs pointing AK47s at me on the border of the northeast Serengeti shortly after my cell phone beeped with a message welcoming me to the UAEmirates phone system.

I will never forget having strayed maybe 20 or 22 feet out of the Serengeti trying to find the migration for some clients when a Ford pickup looking for all the world like a Somali militia raced up to us buried in its own dust.

When the dust settled I counted not less than 9 “kids” all armed with AK47s, standing in the back of the truck. Not exactly your Sunday bird shoot with an aspic chicken basket.

We weren’t armed, by the way.

The guns weren’t pointed at us, but the truck was. Robin stepped out in his all too small short shorts to ask what the hell we were doing in “his quadrant.”

He was referring to the Maswa Game Reserve, a hunting reserve adjacent the southwest Serengeti.

February 18 Andre de Kock was hunting with a client in that same Maswa reserve. He stopped to retrieve a blue bag discarded on the veld.

It was filled with ammunition and belonged to poachers who then killed him and wounded some of his staff.

I bear no ill will to de Kock or his family. For all I know his situation was as destined as the poachers, who could be unemployed by a creeping world order that denies gainful employment to the well-trained, and who might have been starving. Although some reports claimed otherwise.

Allegedly, the poachers camp was later found to contain ivory, not something you can eat. Ivory poaching is more sinister, more organized, definitely something I’m less sympathetic to than the bushmeat trade. Pity the Tanzanian government doesn’t share my feelings.

So this is no easy issue. It raises visceral feelings, to be sure, on all sides. And it’s often hard to drill beneath the emotions to careful debate.

This blog is not intended to be careful. You live by the sword. You die by the sword.

Big Game Hunting

Big Game Hunting

Uncontrolled, big game hunting is resurgent in Uganda. I believe big game hunting contributes to conservation if carefully controlled. Problem is, it’s not being controlled at all.

The only reason tourists first came to Africa was to hunt. One of the world’s greatest conservationist, Teddy Roosevelt, was a big game hunter.

That changed radically in the 1960s and 1970s, and as elephant poaching approached catastrophic levels, Uganda and Kenya banned hunting altogether.

That’s changing. The economic climate is so bad in East Africa, and growing elephant populations are so menacing, that both Kenya and Uganda are reconsidering their positions.

Reports surfaced today in Kampala that the Uganda Wildlife Authority was suppressing a completed report on a hunting experiment near Lake Mburo National Park in the southwest. The UWA commissioned the experiment eight years ago, and the presumption is the only reason the report is being suppressed is because it’s unfavorable to hunting.

And so hunting continues in that area, beyond the experiment’s end date, and with no report on how it went.

Worse, Uganda’s most prolific blogger, Wolfgang Thome, reported today that sitatunga, an endangered animal on CITES appendixes, is among the animals being advertised for hunting. Zambia, Cameroun and the Central African Republic also allow sitatunga hunting.

Click Here to read a report by South African businessman, Gavin Godfrey, who returned from a Ugandan sitatunga hunt in August operated by Lake Albert Safaris, a hunting company owned by South African hunter, Bruce Martin.

What’s interesting about this report is that it occurs outside the experimental zone presumably controlled by Ugandan authorities, on sequestered and little known islands in Lake Victoria. Moreover, the cost of the hunt is extraordinary, further underlining the stealth currently involved in Ugandan hunting.

Martin’s company normally concentrates in a gazetted experimental area at the north end of Lake Albert, and normally advertises for abundant game like kob.

Sitatunga is another matter. Sitatunga shouldn’t be hunted, and clearly the high cost will now attract the wealthy hunter around the world. It’s a lot easier to hunt in Uganda than in the jungles of Cameroun or CAR. The absence of the UWA report on hunting complicates the matter and further suggests graft at fairly high levels.

This is not how big game hunting should be managed by a responsible government.