Zambia’s hippo cull: Valid concerns and questions from those affected

Hippo carcass with two trophy hunters

© Umlilo Safaris

Opinion post: Written by Simon Espley, CEO of Africa Geographic

A showdown is looming between tourism operators in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park and trophy hunters, in the wake of the Zambian government’s decision to cull up to 2,000 hippos over a 5-year period in Luangwa Valley, across the river from the tourism lodges – and to award the culling contract to a South African trophy hunting outfit Umlilo Safaris (so much for the empowerment of local people and generation of revenue that stays in Zambia).

The tourism operators in South Luangwa have built their industry and hard-earned reputation for authentic camps and walking safaris over many years – and this latest blow could conceivably impact on their livelihoods, on employment of local people and on the sustainability of the industry. Luangwa Valley is the home of the walking safari experience, a reputation worth defending. They have questions and very valid concerns, but it would appear that these are falling on deaf ears.

Contextual reality check:

1. Tourism in Luangwa Valley brings in about US$27m per annum in revenues, and employs approximately 1,200 people directly and indirectly. Revenue from trophy hunting amounts to approximately US$200,000 per concession, and there are two such concessions nearby the main tourism areas. Employment figures for trophy hunting are unknown.

2. The hippo is classified as “vulnerable” on IUCN’s Red List of threatened species. There is an estimated population throughout Africa of only 115-130,000 individuals, with a “downward shift”. IUCN: “The conservation status of Hippos remains precarious and the need for direct conservation action to protect Hippos and Hippo habitat across their range is a priority”;

3. The Zambian authorities have justified this culling exercise on the basis that this will prevent anthrax outbreaks among animals due to high populations of hippo. And yet, in this research paper by their very own Chansa Chomba from the Department of Research, Planning, Information and Veterinary Services at Zambia Wildlife Authority, advises that culling is not an effective population control strategy. His research goes on to advise that culling:

i) removes excess males and frees resources for the remaining female individuals, leading to increased births and facilitating rather than suppressing population growth rate;

ii) did not significantly affect population size and density.

Comment from tourism operators in the area:

Opening statement: “If culling for meat and revenue could be done without negatively affecting tourism in the area, and the hippo population would not be jeopardised, many of us here would support it, as it could provide protein and additional revenues for local people… and that would help to secure the future of conservation.”

Concerns and questions:

1. This five-year cull is in the main tourism area of South Luangwa, where ease of road and air access was built on the backs of photographic tourism investment and development from the safari lodges, operators, NGOs and charities. Now these people are going to come and take advantage of that, and in the process, threaten the survival of the very industry that created the nice environment for them!

2. This the reality of hippo hunts:

Umlilo Safaris offers clients five hippos per trip, during our prime tourism season of June to October, from now until 2022.

Relatively unskilled trophy hunting clients will be shooting hippos in the river opposite the busiest game viewing area in Zambia. The hunts will take place in the day time, when the hippos are in the water. We know that killing a hippo in water often takes 6 or 7 shots and that the carcass will then sink before resurfacing later. The carcass will then be hooked, dragged to the shore line, butchered and dried on drying racks.

Photographic tourists will boycott the area and instead go to countries that do not also host trophy hunts. This will lead to tourism camps shutting down, jobs being lost and hard-earned conservation successes coming under threat.

3. How will the hippo meat be cured? Usually this is done by drying it, using the traditional method of fires made from mopane wood. It would appear that Umlilo Safaris has been given permission to fell trees in order to cure the hippo meat. We have a continuous battle on our hands to save the woodland and habitat that supports such amazing wildlife. Local people are not allowed to cut these trees, so why should trophy hunting be allowed to cut down trees? Has a permit been issued by the Forestry Department or Community Resource Board? So many elephants are killed by trophy hunters on the basis that they push over trees and are a ‘threat to biodiversity’ – it seems hypocritical that trophy hunters now want to cut down trees to cure hippo meat.

4. Predators will be lured out of the park by the smell of dead hippos, and become ‘fair game’ for the trophy hunting concessionaires that operate the concession that Umlilo Safaris is using to kill hippos. These legally chosen concessionaires are also not happy to have these fly-by-night hunters, operating in what they were promised was their exclusive hunting area. True fair chase hunters have the good sense to stay away from the photographic tourism area, and conduct their hunts away from the river and the park.

Local tourism operators are not the only people with questions and concerns:

1. In a statement to Zambia’s Lusaka Times, Peter Sinkamba, President of the Zambian Green Party, said “Culling of wildlife is not an option. It is a primitive wildlife conservation strategy… What is more appalling is that the Luangwa Valley is not overpopulated as they claim. The hippo population in that conservation area has dwindled by about 14-20% in the last 20 years, motivated by mainly poor conservation policies, strategies and allocation of financial and human resources. The culling policy is motivated by pure greed.”

2. Richard Kock, professor of wildlife health at the Royal Veterinary College, speaking to the UK’s Independent newspaper, says he believes the Zambian government have yet to provide adequate data to justify the ‘cull’. “There’s no doubt that hippos can build up numbers until there really are probably too many for the ecosystem… and so I think anthrax may well be a factor in controlling their populations, and it may benefit the environment because they will consume large quantities of herbage, and obviously that will affect other species.”

3. Will Travers, chief executive of Born Free, believes that the government has failed to provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate any overpopulation of hippos in the Luangwa River, or to make public any data that justifies the cull. “They are, apparently, using the same flawed rationale for the slaughter as last time – a preventative measure to avoid a future outbreak of anthrax, combined with an assertion that low rainfall will exacerbate the situation… They also appear not to have informed key stakeholders in the Luangwa Valley… The negative consequences for thousands of hippo and Zambia’s reputation as a wildlife tourism destination cannot be underestimated.”

My final thoughts

This hippo cull strategy has the stench of underhand dealings, and good people on the ground in Zambia will be negatively affected if the decision to cull up to 2,000 hippos over five years goes ahead.

There is no question in my mind that African governments should determine their own conservation strategies, as unpopular as some of their decisions may be for members of the public. And I also have no doubt that international pressure groups and animal rights activists do not have the granular understanding to make these decisions on behalf of Africa. They play an important whistle-blower role, but that is where it stops. And neither should the trophy hunting industry be permitted to hold sway over conservation decisions like these. They do not have the big picture in mind, and their industry is too riddled with corruption and morally-bankrupt operators to be taken seriously.

That said, our African governments have to finally understand that these decisions are not made in an information vacuum (as they were before the advent of the Internet and social media). They surely have to grasp the reality that the fragile tourism industry is Africa’s great long term sustainable economic hope, and that lack of transparency and proper scientific justification for controversial decisions will harm this industry, and ultimately our own people.

Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is an absolutely amazing tourism destination, and hopefully good will come of this negative publicity. A luta continua!



Simon Espley

I am a proud African, of the digital tribe, and honoured to be CEO of Africa Geographic. My travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, real people with interesting stories and elusive birds. I live in Cape Town with my wife Lizz and 2 Jack Russells, and when not travelling or working I am usually on my mountain bike somewhere out there. I qualified as a chartered account, but found my calling sharing Africa's incredibleness with you. My motto is "Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change". Connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter.

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