UK decision to ban trophy-hunting imports disregards South Africa’s conservation success, government says

The government has taken aim at the UK’s decision to ban the import of hunting trophies from thousands of endangered and threatened species, including lions, rhinos and elephants from Africa.

In its announcement on 10 December, the UK said the new ban was among the toughest in the world and would apply to the import of hunting trophies in support of “long-term species conservation” and the protection of threatened animals, including the “frequently killed Big Five”.

Although poorly managed trophy hunting can cause local species population declines, measures are in place in South Africa to prevent this, according to department of forestry, fisheries and the environment spokesperson Albi Modise.

“Bans are unnecessary and will undermine species conservation and impact negatively on the wellbeing of local people, including those who are most vulnerable, and will ultimately undermine the wildlife-based economy of South Africa. Where necessary, hunting reform should be prioritised over bans of some sorts,” he said.

The UK said that, in the past 50 years, there had been a 60% decline in wildlife globally, adding: “This ban will … protect a range of species” including nearly 6 000 animals that are threatened by international trade”. The ban will cover more than 1 000 additional species considered “near-threatened or worse” such as the African buffalo, zebra and reindeer. 

“We are appalled at the thought of hunters bringing back trophies and placing more pressure on some of our most iconic and endangered animals,” UK environment secretary George Eustice said.

But Modise said the proposed ban “disregards scientific evidence” indicating that South African populations of some species are not threatened. Rather, they are threatened at the global level. This includes African elephants, which are listed as endangered globally, but of the least concern in South Africa. 

“Similarly, the global Red List status of both African lion and giraffe is vulnerable, whereas the regional Red List status of African lion and the population of the subspecies of giraffe that occurs in South Africa, is least concern,” he said.

The ban discounts that hunting quotas are scientifically determined and do not lead to population declines, and disregards the “important role that trophy hunting plays in the country’s economy, in general and rural economies in particular, in human livelihoods and in wildlife and habitat conservation”, Modise added. 

Michele Pickover, the director of the EMS Foundation, recently provided testimony to the UK all-party parliamentary group on banning trophy hunting. Since the 1980s, British hunters have brought home about 25 000 hunting trophies, about 5 000 from species at risk of extinction, said the group.

Pickover told the Mail & Guardian that the role trophy hunting may play in conservation is scientifically and ethically questionable: “Public opinion is turning away from this kind of hunting, which is morally repugnant to many, and allowing it to continue harms South Africa’s reputation as an ecotourism destination.”

A report the foundation presented to the UK’s environment department stated that trophy hunting extraction in sub-Saharan Africa “is unsustainable”. 

“In the context of the sixth extinction, policies that support the extraction of wildlife as a means of ‘conservation’ must be exposed for the contradictions that they are. Most importantly … the jobs [rural livelihoods] purportedly supported by hunting could be more than compensated for by nonconsumptive ecotourism, a fundamentally more ecologically sustainable practice that provides more jobs with higher quality and greater security,” it added.

According to the Humane Society International/Africa (HSI-Africa), South Africa reported exporting 21 018 trophies from 2014 to 2018 covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The UK accounted for importing 305 trophies during this period.

In South Africa, trophy hunting mainly occurs on privately owned or communal land, with limited trophy hunting in provincial protected areas, and no hunting in national parks. 

Modise said that, during the 2019 hunting season, about R1.4-billion was generated through trophy hunting, but this is a conservative estimate. The income generated by species fees totalled about R1.1-billion, of which about R208-million was derived from the trophy hunting of threatened or endangered species.

South Africa supports the responsible and sustainable use of natural resources, even if those may be threatened or endangered, Modise said, adding: “Research has found that trophy hunting creates economic incentives for conservation. White rhino, Cape mountain zebra and bontebok are just a few examples of how trophy hunting has contributed to the conservation of threatened species.”

The ban will have a huge effect on the game ranching industry “because those are the places the people go and hunt … and on hunting tourism, which is a very important part of tourism in the country,” said Dr Herman Els of the Sustainable Use Coalition Southern Africa. For Els, the ban is “just a way for ‘animal rightists’ to get to hunting”. 

The ban may disrupt local wildlife management programmes and community-based natural resource development initiatives that “embrace international hunting tourism and sustainable offtake as part of a suite of values associated with wildlife”, Modise said.

The UK’s move could not possibly be a good thing for South Africa economically, said Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, an environmental resource economist at Oxford University.

“Some would argue that it may be a good thing morally and may get rid of some nasty practices, but I would argue that the moral gains are probably going to be undermined by losses. I think that’s what the anti-hunting groups are trying to do — to set a precedent for the UK, which they can then use to go onto the really big markets like the US,” he said.

He is among a team of authors of a new paper by Oxford University and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Rhino specialist group which details how legal hunting of African rhinos in South Africa and Namibia over the past 50 years has been sustainable, with only small proportions of populations hunted each year, and greater numbers of both species alive today in these countries than when controlled recreational hunting began.

The researchers found there is a high risk that trophy-hunting bans would result in negative socioeconomic consequences at local and national levels with concomitant adverse outcomes for rhino conservation. 

“The two countries that have had rhino hunting are the two that have been the most successful in rhino conservation,” said ’T Sas-Rolfes. “We sped up the population regrowth and then there’s the financial benefits, which are not insignificant. In recent years, rhino hunting has brought in about $8-million a year and that’s just the trophy fees.”  

Trophy hunting, said Modise, provides a useful wildlife management tool, which is used to “remove [mostly] excess males from a population, while revenue is generated at the same time to cover the costs of conservation efforts”.

Globally, wildlife populations are rapidly declining because of human-induced threats such as poaching, climate change, habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict, said Dr Audrey Delsink, the wildlife director of HSI-Africa. “While trophy hunting is not the main cause of species loss, it definitely is a contributing factor; one that is avoidable and that we can turn around quickly.”

She referred to a 2019 UN report that warned one million species are at risk of extinction. “The fact that we have trophy hunting that then adds further to these numbers, I don’t think is acceptable in this day and age, especially when we are dealing with species on the brink and these species are largely African … Not all Africans support sustainable use.”

Modise said none of South Africa’s 71 trophy-hunted species — of which 51 are classified as least concern — are locally threatened by legal hunting.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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