Gail Potgeiter’s Open letter to DEFRA
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing with regards to the “Call for evidence on the scale and impacts of the import and export of hunting trophies” into the United Kingdom, launched by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). I refer particularly to the report given to parliament on this topic by Dr Ross Harvey as it has been reported in the media.
As a South African conservation biologist who has worked in Botswana and Namibia, I argue that the picture painted by Harvey for parliament is highly skewed and detached from reality. That reality concerns both the wildlife and the people living in southern African countries, which will be among the worst affected by trophy import bans enacted by the UK and other countries that may follow your lead.
I have never personally hunted an animal and have not received any monetary compensation from a hunting organisation. I am nonetheless deeply concerned about the consequences of the trophy hunting industry’s demise as favoured by Harvey and his anti-hunting supporters. Harvey theorises about what could happen if trophy hunting game ranches in South Africa were to switch to some other form of land use, yet these theories have no basis in reality.
His suggestion that 11 times more jobs will be created on the land currently under game ranching in South Africa assumes that photographic tourism will replace hunting tourism, yet he also admits that not all of this land is suitable for such a change. In reality, most landowners who can develop photographic tourism have already done so because it is a lucrative industry; those that currently use hunting as their primary income have been unable to enter the photographic tourism industry. Harvey’s figures on job creation and income generation are therefore unrealistic, by his own admission.
A far more realistic scenario is that South Africa’s hunting game ranches will switch back to what most of them were before game ranching became lucrative – livestock farms. While Harvey points out that many game ranch workers are poorly paid, the same can be said for livestock farm workers so there will be no improvement at all in their financial situation. If anything their situation may worsen, as many profitable hunting game ranches are in areas that are marginal for commercial livestock farming. Farm workers will be retrenched and unemployment and poverty will increase. The chronic problems of inequality and unemployment exist across South Africa; banning the import of hunting trophies to the UK will not address these complex challenges.
Having admitted that not all land is suitable for photographic tourism, Harvey falls back on other alternatives that are based on wealthy countries paying people in poor countries to conserve their land or wildlife. There are three glaring issues with this suggestion. First, it entirely ignores the reality of South African game ranching – these ranches are independent commercial enterprises, not stereotypically ‘needy’ Africans that require hand-outs from the Western world. Second, alternatives based on such arrangements reinforce the colonial myth that Africans cannot manage their own land for commercial gain while simultaneously conserving it for future generations. Third, the idea that these alternatives would develop within a short period of time (he suggests five years) to replace established industries is simply unrealistic.
This latter point was amply proven during the four year hunting moratorium in Botswana. I lived and worked in Botswana during the 2014-2018 national moratorium on trophy hunting. During this time, I spoke to many colleagues in conservation who had lived in the country prior to the moratorium and made my own observations about the villages affected by this decision. Some of my colleagues were former hunting guides and trackers – those who had the “low-paying jobs” scorned by Harvey. The majority of these people had no jobs after the moratorium, as photographic tourism did not replace hunting in most of the concessions. Indeed, a study at the time showed clear limits of photographic tourism based on wildlife density and diversity – factors that are more important to photographic tourists than to hunting clients.
The four-year hunting moratorium in Botswana was surely the ideal time for the alternatives suggested by Harvey to develop and flourish, thus replacing both hunting and photographic tourism with other forms of income. Yet in reality this did not happen. Instead, unemployment and poverty increased in the rural areas, human-elephant conflict reached crisis proportions, and poaching reared its ugly head in a country previously considered to be a ‘safe haven’ for wildlife. Harvey ignores this clear lesson and encourages the UK to follow this failed formula based on idealistic scenarios that have never been proven in the real world.
In my career as a carnivore conservationist, I have been privileged to work with and learn from the communal conservancies in Namibia. The people I encountered never discussed trophy hunting in the same way that urbanised people do, which was an enlightening experience. Many of them live in conservancies that have agreements with both hunting and photographic tour operators, so they see no conflict between these two industries. Rather than focus on the morality or motives of their visitors (hunters or other holidaymakers), they focus on how agreements with these operators can best serve their communities’ needs.
Hunting or photographic operators who do not comply with government regulations or do not keep their promises regarding job creation or profit sharing with the conservancies can be removed and replaced by those who will keep their side of the agreement. This is made possible by the legislation in Namibia that grants communal conservancies rights over their wildlife similar to those enjoyed by private game ranchers. Power has effectively been granted to the people, who can decide how to manage their land and their wildlife to maximise benefits and minimise the costs of living with wild animals.
As with the private game ranchers in South Africa, not all communal conservancies are well suited to photographic tourism; they therefore rely on hunting tourism. This is especially true for new conservancies that are still finding their feet and learning how to negotiate with foreign tour operators. Once established, conservancies in suitable locations will attract photographic operators who can use their land alongside hunting operators. If photographic tourism continues to grow and expand then the communities may, at their own discretion, switch entirely away from hunting towards this lucrative industry. In the meantime, those who have jobs with hunting operators can opt to learn new skills and prepare themselves for more skilled work in wildlife-related industries over a realistic period of time.
As a wildlife conservationist with a passion for African sustainable development, I would love to see more Africans obtaining better-paid, skilled jobs as part of a thriving wildlife economy. Unlike Harvey, however, I feel that Africans should be allowed to make the decisions about how they develop their wildlife economy on their own terms and in their own time. Those of us who do not walk in their shoes must support them in these endeavours, rather than dictate which markets they may use based on our feelings about the animals they live with every day.
I applaud DEFRA’s call for evidence on this complex subject and therefore include two pertinent facts and statistics on the hunting industries for each of the three countries I have focused on above.
- Namibian communal conservancies earned £1.8 million from trophy hunting in 2018 alone, representing 23.4% of their total returns in that year and including meat from hunted animals that is an important source of protein for conservancy members.
- Black rhino trophy hunts generate between £268,000 and £306,000 per individual rhino hunted that is paid in full to the Game Products Trust Fund (GPTF) in Namibia. In turn, the GPTF spent about £3.5 million on rhino-related conservation work (particularly anti-poaching measures) during 2012-2018. Besides rhino trophy hunts, the GPTF relies on trophy hunting permits for other species and the sale of live game animals to game ranchers for its income. It would not be able to function without healthy trophy hunting and associated game ranching industries.
- The Community Trusts in northern Botswana lost about £700,000 of income between 2013 and 2015 due to the hunting moratorium enacted in 2014. They also reported the loss of 200 jobs.
- Aerial surveys conducted by Elephants Without Borders in northern Botswana reveal that the hunting moratorium coincided with increased elephant poaching, particularly near villages that previously relied heavily on the hunting industry and in hunting concessions that were abandoned after the moratorium was enforced.
- South Africa has the largest game ranching industry of the three nations; trophy hunting alone contributed an estimated £104 million in 2014.
- Private game ranches in South Africa provided habitat for nearly 6 million wild herbivores in an area covering 170 419 km2 in 2014; this is 1.7 times larger than the area covered by terrestrial state protected areas.
Based on this and other evidence DEFRA will no doubt receive, I hereby request that any decision regarding trophy import bans carefully consider the consequences before it is made. Noting that the UK is one of the leaders of the Western world, decisions like this one could have widespread impacts on the policies of other countries in Europe and elsewhere.
While facts and statistics have their place, the views of African communities who live with wildlife are sorely needed to inform such a decision. These are the people who are most affected by policies on trophy hunting and should therefore be consulted on these matters before decisions that affect their livelihoods are made.
Yours in Conservation,
Gail C. Potgieter (M.Sc.)
Felines Communication and Conservation