In response to the recent article published on Africa Geographic titled The Thing About Hunting, it is sad that the debate on sport hunting is so polarised especially as both camps claim to be committed to the same common goal of furthering the cause of conservation. As a photographic safari guide I have always felt obliged to explain to guests that a well regulated hunting industry plays a crucial role in conservation and I disagree with the notion that Africa’s wildlife populations are threatened by sport hunting.
The decline of the wildlife is principally a result of habitat loss, due to human encroachment, and hunting safari operators are our first line of defence against this threat. By patrolling, pumping water and preventing fires across huge swathes of the continent that are important for conservation, but do not lend themselves to photographic safaris, hunting operators are the backbone of the conservation effort.
In addition the revenue raised by hunting is a powerful motivation for governments to continue allocating these areas to wildlife. It has been seen time and again, that if the hunting operators move out, the cattle and people soon move in and the wildlife is displaced. Anyone involved in conservation that refuses to acknowledge this is either wilfully ignorant or in denial, but if as I say sport hunting is a valuable tool for conservation – why is it such a controversial issue?
The problem is it’s an emotive topic, and in truth both sides are guilty of being more than a little disingenuous about their positions. Although controlled hunting has a proven beneficial effect on conservation, it does not necessarily follow that all hunters are conservationists and furthering the cause of conservation is not why hunters, hunt. If it were, they could save themselves considerable personal discomfort, by just mailing a cheque to WWF every year, claiming a tax rebate on the donation, and going on vacation in the Bahamas. The truth is they enjoy the thrill of tracking, stalking and ultimately killing the animals they hunt, but this is never acknowledged because too many people find that notion distasteful.
For their part, the anti-hunting lobby claim to be championing the cause of conservation, but theirs is a moral crusade motivated by the fact that they find the killing animals for sport abhorrent. They oppose hunting at every turn and claim to have the animals best interests at heart but at the same time they either ignore, or discount completely, the overwhelming evidence of hunting’s positive contribution on conservation. They seem prepared to do anything to advance their moral agenda, in spite of the fact that if they succeed, it will cause long term irreparable harm to the wildlife they claim to love.
The sharpest part of this debate centres around the subject of canned hunting where animals are bred specially to be hunted – in particular lions. Captive reared, they are habituated to humans and many have been filmed being shot from the back of vehicles, which has caused a public outcry. The argument can be made, that this is no different to the cultivation of lambs, raised for human consumption but even most hunters are uncomfortable with this practice since it lacks the critical element that separates hunting from butchery – the notion of “fair chase”. Fair chase requires that the animal being pursued has a reasonable chance of eluding its pursuer and the hunting fraternity must accept that the privilege of their sport comes with a duty of responsibility to ensure that they uphold this practice and also avoid inflicting any unnecessary suffering on any creature.
The leadership on this issue needs to come from Safari Club International (SCI) and if hunters do not hold themselves to a higher standard on this issue they can expect their activities to be subject to increasing scrutiny, oversight and eventually regulation. Until now the SCI’s response has been underwhelming and since it is a subscription driven organisation this is a tough call for them but they have much to gain by showing real leadership on this issue and weeding out the bad apples that are giving their whole industry a bad name.
Lets be honest- most of us live in a world where our steaks magically arrive at the supermarket, neatly vacuum packed with a sprig of parsley, and I suspect if any of us had the first idea what the cows endured to make this possible, there would be a lot more vegetarians in the world! Hunters are comfortable with getting involved in the process of putting food on the table and have no qualms that animals die to make this possible. The average person is uncomfortable with having blood on their hands but if you eat meat or wear leather then you have to admit – there is something fundamentally honest, about being prepared to participate in the entire process. I have a deep and profound respect for people who, for ethical reasons, eschew eating meat because it require the death of another living creature but this is an ethical rather than moral choice because it is an incontrovertible fact of evolution, that we are omnivores and therefor have been hunters from before the beginning of time. If some people still feel the atavistic need to hunt and kill food for themselves, that cannot be immoral, since that is what we have been programmed to do by the evolutionary process.
In our modern “interconnected” world most people live disconnected from the wilderness and so, have an imperfect understanding of the natural process. This airbrushed version of the wilderness, belies the darker side of the nature that gave Darwin such nightmares, when he truly understood it for the first time. Life is the exception, death is the norm.
All creatures live to be hunted, killed and eaten by some other creature and from the first moment of their birth to their last frenzied breath, their lives are a desperate struggle for survival, with no quarter asked or given.
In short, mother nature is a mass murderer and in the wilderness death is everywhere and seldom is it swift or pain free. Darwin’s epiphany was to realise that whether an organism lives, or dies, was irrelevant, the only question that mattered was had that creature been successful in passing on its genes? This is the stark beauty of nature, not that individual creatures die, but that their offspring survive to carry their genes forward. Death is the fire that nature has used for eons to purify, temper and forge the next generation, by weeding out the weak so that the strong may flourish.
For three million years hominids have been part of this process, by hunting with tools of ever increasing complexity and effectiveness. In the grand scheme of things, the death of a every single creature is inevitable but, if that death serves to ensure that its offspring has space in which to roam and a chance to pass on their genes to the next generation that is the very essence of conservation, and is what every conservationist should be fighting for – both hunters and non-hunters alike.
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