Wed. May 27th, 2020

Does trophy hunting really benefit conservation and local communities?

Every year, thousands of tourists visit South African private nature reserves to see wild animals in unspoilt surroundings.

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But how many of these travellers know that some of the most luxurious safari destinations and self-declared champions of conservation also allow these iconic animals to be killed by trophy hunters for ‘sport’?

Exclusive private nature reserves such as Timbavati, Umbabat, Klaserie and Balule on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park claim that they need the income from trophy hunting to remain viable.

Don Scott,
co-owner of the Tanda Tula tented camps in Timbavati, bemoans the
fact that as a non-profit organisation they receive no
government funding and have to bear the full cost
of running the reserve.

In doing so, he
neatly sidesteps the fact that while the reserve itself may be run on a
not-for-profit basis, the expensive tourist and hunting lodges located within
its borders most certainly are not. Why should private land and lodge owners
not pay full operational costs to support their profitable enterprises?

Besides, reserves
such as Timbavati draw enormous benefits from being physically connected to the
vastly larger ecosystem of the adjoining national park. Fences between
Timbavati and the Kruger National Park were removed in 1993 and the
considerable profits in access, prestige and natural services the private
reserve derives from this connection are difficult to estimate in financial
terms and greatly outweigh the onus of having to pay for running costs. Far
from not getting subsidies, Timbavati, in effect, continuously receives
contributions from a publicly owned entity.

levies vs trophy hunting

Scott points out
that Timbavati “relies on income generated from two forms of sustainable
utilisation — photographic tourism and trophy hunting”. He appears surprised
that by raising the conservation levies charged to Timbavati’s photographic
tourists, the reserve has recently been able to significantly increase the
proportion of revenue generated in this way, compared with trophy hunting.

This is hardly a
groundbreaking revelation. Private nature reserves throughout Africa have long
managed to run financially sustainable operations without having to rely on
income from commercial hunting.

Many of the
high-paying visitors to reserves such as Timbavati would undoubtedly be willing
to pay conservation levies that would guarantee that no trophy killing happens
at their chosen holiday spot. Scott himself notes that Timbavati’s conservation
levies are less than a third those charged in other parts of Africa.

He writes that “it
would be a great achievement for the conservation levies to, one day, fully
cover the operational expense budget of the Timbavati”. Given that many others
have demonstrated that this is possible right now, why can’t that “one day” be

Perhaps it is
time for reserves such as Timbavati to acknowledge trophy hunting for what it
is: A hugely profitable indulgence for a super-rich elite obsessed with adding
as many exotic stuffed animal heads to their collection, rather than a
necessary income stream for landowners.

conservation value

So what’s on
Timbavati’s “sustainable utilisation” menu for trophy hunters in 2019? A total
of 68 animals representing 11 species, including 25 Cape buffalo, two hippo,
three giraffe, three spotted hyena and, perhaps most controversially, 10
elephant. Umbabat, Klaserie and Balule provide similar offerings, including 37
additional elephant.

“environmental sustainability” and “conservation” are themes that are touted
repeatedly in the marketing materials of these reserves, their active
participation in commercial hunting puts them on the wrong side of a global
consensus that has debunked the supposed conservation value of the industry.

commercial hunting in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, a 2016
report by the Democratic Party staff of the US House
Committee on Natural Resources concludes that “significant questions remain
about whether or not trophy hunting is sustainable” even where it is
comparatively well managed. Other studies demonstrate the
detrimental impact hunting for trophies can have on African wildlife

In South Africa, commercial hunting has been marredby scandals involving the captive breeding of lions for canned hunts and a number of private nature reserves have come under fire for their trophy-hunting practices. In 2017, for instance, Timbavati was criticised for seeking permission to hunt an international-standard trophy tusker elephant, and in 2018, hunters in Umbabat shot dead a well-known pride male lion using bait, despite landowner requests not to kill this much-loved lion.

In 2018 a
professional hunter in Balule was convicted for conducting an illegal hunt in
the reserve and killing a collared research elephant. Also in Balule later in
the year, a hunter took 13 shots to kill a young elephant in sight of horrified

Such activities
are doing irreparable damage to South Africa’s conservation credentials and
stand to cost the country millions in revenue from outraged tourists looking
for an ethical holiday experience in the African bush.

help for local communities

Yet another
assertion made by the pro-hunting lobby is that revenues earned contribute to
the economic development of rural communities in surrounding areas. In reality,
such benefits are limited androutinely
overstated by pundits.

Instead of
taking a proactive approach, reserves such as Timbavati seem to trust in a
trickle-down theory of local economic development, suggesting that their mere
existence will somehow lift locals out of poverty.

The fallacy of
this posture is confirmed by Martina Segage’s 2015
Masters dissertation, for which she surveyed 99
households in Timbavati Village, concluding that the adjacent reserve “is yet
to contribute towards local economic development because its practice is devoid
of community development principles”.

Scott writes of
“finding innovative ways to help local communities derive income from wildlife
activities”, but the only planned benefit for the reserve’s neighbours he
mentions for 2019 is the intention to donate the revenue earned from two
commercial buffalo hunts. This, he suggests, will help to forge closer links
with the reserve’s neighbours.

In a place where
some of the planet’s poorest people see some of its most wealthy enjoy the
beauty of their ancestral homeland, this supposedly generous gesture would be
laughable if the situation wasn’t quite so tragic.

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