Kaddu Sebunya (Facebook)

Is there a case for hunting to protect Africa’s wildlife?

I have just returned from southern Africa where I visited several national parks, met with government officials and business actors in the #tourism and #conservation sectors.

Hunting is a very problematic issue. However, my visit to countries like #Zimbabwe – the second largest home to African elephants after #Botswana – forced me to stop and look again at the controversial and complex issues surrounding the hunting industry, and the debate about whether it can contribute anything valuable to conservation in Africa.

Historically, many of the protected areas that stand today were protected not primarily for conservation reasons, but because they were wildlife, hunting grounds, mostly for European colonialists.

With time, a hard protectionist approach took over with the militarization of the park service in the face of ruthless armed poachers. Later, the African Wildlife Foundation played a huge role in diversifying protection by pioneering community involvement in protected area management in Africa.

This was very successful until other factors started affecting these areas. We saw population increases, urban growth, increased demand for natural resources, populistic politics and globalization, among others, creating new pressures on these protected areas. Today, wildlife and wildlands are under attack. We are in a battle to secure their role in a modern Africa. To achieve this, conservation has to be coordinated, collaborative and to take advantage of every tool at its disposal.

Across Africa, wildlife numbers are plummeting. While there is, an impressive network of state protected areas that generally provide a refuge for wildlife populations, a significant proportion of wildlife still exists outside the national parks where their survival is dependent on the ability to coexist with the increasing human population and the resultant demand for land for agricultural expansion, development, and urbanisation.

Even state-protected areas are under pressure to justify their role in national development agendas. If the objective is to ensure the state-protected area network is justified and enshrined in national development plans, and wildlife and wildlands continue to thrive outside the national parks, then we will need to ensure they have an economic value that compares favorably with other land uses that are being promoted and developed.

This is where the difficult issue of hunting is re-entering the conservation debate. For good policy reasons, many people are opposed to hunting and have no desire to witness it, let alone engage with it.

I am personally opposed to hunting animals. In addition, at a deeper personal level, having grown up during the brutal military rule in my country, I do not want to even handle a gun.

However, during this trip, I realized that, at the minimum, we need to pause and listen to the arguments for hunting as a conservation tool. After all, this is not about us, but the survival of wildlife and wildlands in Africa where choices and decisions have to be made on competitive land use, whether we like it or not.

Many other organizations supporting sustainable development are already grappling with this conversation. The IUCN, United States Fish & Wildlife Service and the European Union have explored the question at length, and some of their findings suggest that different conservation tools can work comparatively well in different circumstances, in different countries, to different species. IUCN’s latest report—Informing decisions on Trophy Hunting (goo.gl/t1oL36)— for instance, argues that legal, well-regulated trophy hunting programmes can – and do – play a role in delivering benefits for both wildlife conservation and the livelihoods and well-being of indigenous and local communities living with wildlife. This is complemented by case studies from #SouthAfrica, Zimbabwe, and #Namibia where hunting has played a positive role in the conservation of some key (and threatened) populations.

Indeed many of the countries in Africa that have achieved stable or increasing wildlife populations outside of protected areas have sustainable use programs with hunting as a key component. Over 70 percent of the area dedicated wildlife as a land use in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa is supported primarily by hunting. While much of this may be marginal wildlife land and not always suitable for viable photographic enterprises, important populations of wildlife including elephant, lion and black and white rhino are protected within these land areas.

It is ironic that while we conservationists across the spectrum are concerned by the growing list of threats to wildlife and wildlands on the continent a lot of energy is spent on hacking at the differences between them instead of strengthening the shared agenda. If the polarisation continues, this navel-gazing between conservation purists could be very damaging to long-term conservation efforts.

With the exception of #endangeredspecies, hunting could be an important conservation tool and many cases, complement either approach in making wildlife a competitive land use option and source of revenue. It does not have to be an either/or option because we all want to see the same thing – wildlife thriving as Africa develops.

My challenge to those who want to achieve sustainable conservation on the African continent is let’s work with the hunting industry to help make it better, ensure it holds itself up to a higher standard and works with park authorities to better regulate the sector and ensure transparency.

For some of us, our opposition to hunting maybe too strong to allow this, I have to accept that. However, as an African who will never himself hunt, but wants to see sustainable development on my continent, I will and do see that there can be a case for hunting when done sustainably and ethically.