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How California legislation would be harmful for African wildlife conservation efforts

By Fulton Upenyu Mangwanya, Special to CalMatters

As director general at Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, known as  ZimParks, I am keenly aware of the reliance we have on revenue provided by international hunting tourism.

Since 2001, ZimParks does not receive government funding. So, we have developed other conservation financing mechanisms, the most significant of which is international hunting tourism that is particularly dominated by an American clientele.

Even if we lose the entirety of this year’s hunting season due to COVID-19, hunting will return unless western governments decide to implement laws or regulations that would limit or ban the importation of legally harvested wildlife. We cannot rob hunters of their incentive to visit Zimbabwe and produce an impact not dissimilar to COVID-19.

Subsequently, I find myself increasingly concerned with California Senate Bill 1175 that is set to be voted on by the Senate Appropriations committee this week. This disastrous bill claims to increase regulation on the importation of live animals in order to combat zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, but is in reality a smokescreen to disguise Democratic State Sen. Henry Stern’s long-standing goal of an import ban of animals hunted abroad.

It is sad that such legislation about African species is crafted far away from Africa and without input from Africans. Our generation has witnessed unprecedented decimation of wildlife and habitat due to a misguided mentality that non-consumptive tourism – such as photography safaris –  is a panacea for all conservation and sustainable financial requirements. It is not.

Much like similar national legislation such as the CECIL ACT, import bans on an arbitrary list of harvested wildlife run contrary to sustainable conservation practices that have proven results in Zimbabwe and across Africa. The proposed ban on importation is not derived from a biological analysis of conservation needs of African wildlife species status, but rather from an uninformed, emotional viewpoint held by some western lawmakers and anti-hunting activists.

Conservation itself has never been a cheap enterprise. We incur huge operational expenses on a daily basis to do anti-poaching patrols, handle human-wildlife conflict situations in local communities, and other measures. In order to maintain or even increase the effectiveness of our ranger-based monitoring systems, we need more responsible hunters who will continue to contribute the dollars crucial to our cause through the purchase of permits, licenses and fees.

Hunting takes place in areas where camera-bearing tourists would never dare to venture. The Campfire program for example, a flagship community-based conservation initiative that the American people assisted with funding in its formative stages, was recently reviewed with the support of the European Union but is especially threatened by California’s legislation.

We need a balanced toolbox of options to create a robust and resilient conservation system, and hunting should always be part of the puzzle.

Campfire communities, often made up of the poorest agro-pastoral subsistence farmers, are especially vulnerable to human-wildlife conflicts. If left unchecked these can lead to increased crop loss, property damage, loss of human life and an increase in revenge killings of wildlife through poaching. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has supported Zimbabwe’s assessment of the long-term damage caused by human-wildlife conflict, calling it “one of the most complex and urgent challenges for wildlife conservation around the world.”

The current global COVID-19 pandemic, however, has already raised concerns that rural communities, accustomed to employment with hunting outfitters, will relapse to poaching for meat and animal parts for the black market as hunting industry layoffs build. The return of hunting to these communities has helped solve this problem before, and it will again unless western governments implement regulations like those in SB 1175.

With all the successes that ZimParks and other wildlife authorities across southern Africa have seen thanks to legal and heavily regulated hunting, I hope that lawmakers like those behind SB 1175, as well as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, will not lean on their own emotions and vote against this bill in the future.

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Fulton Upenyu Mangwanya is director general of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, fmangwanya@zimparks.org.zw. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.