Does Safari Hunting Actually Lead to Conservation? An Examination of Case Studies with an Emphasis on Africa

One of the most common subjects I read about on wildlife conservation forums (especially those regarding Africa) is the safari hunting debate: that is, can controlled trophy hunting actually lead to wildlife conservation. Most who are aware of this question take one of three staunch positions on the issue: 1) Safari/trophy hunting (no matter how well regulated) will never lead to concrete conservation in any way and photographic tourism is always preferable; 2) Safari hunting can lead to conservation, but this heavily depends on the circumstances involved (ie: location, quality/ethics of hunting outfit, etc.); 3) Nearly all forms of safari hunting lead to conservation, no matter the circumstance (a position taken by ardent hunting supporters, such as SCI).

Given that I am a person passionate about the preservation of Africa’s wildlife, you might be surprised that I take position #2 in the above list (especially since I am NOT a hunter and never will be). Below, I will explain the detailed research involved as to why I believe that this is the most accurate position to take on this issue.

Case Study 1: Chinko Basin, Central African Republic – Responsible Hunting

In the far southeast of the troubled Central African Republic (CAR), is an enormous region (>2.5 million hectares) of near pristine natural habitat where the hot, lightly wooded Sudanian Savannas converge with the dense, humid Northeast Congolian Rainforest. Punctuating this land are a myriad of rivers and streams, the most prominent being the Chinko, Vovodo, and Mbari. This area, a land of amazing diversity and beauty – home to an incredible variety of Africa’s rare wildlife, including Giant Eland, Lowland Bongo, Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Hippo, Wild Dog, and Buffalo – is one of our greatest opportunities to preserve an enormous tract of incredibly remote, uninhabited wilderness. So, at first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this veritable ‘Serengeti of Central Africa’ would be the perfect place to preserve with non-consumptive photographic safari. Sadly, you’d be incorrect: the Chinko basin, hammered by decades of intense poaching by the Sudanese, is a troubled environment, and the wildlife reflects that. To begin, the wildlife densities are naturally low in this kind of habitat, and compounded with poaching, makes the remaining wildlife so elusive that the traditional game drive model of photographic safari would be absolutely impossible. Adding to that, the remoteness (and resulting cost of travel), the inherent difficult nature of true expedition-style pursuits in this wilderness, the heat and insects, and above all, the safety concerns due to the perilous security situation in this part of Africa would truly put a damper on any kind of photographic lodge development here – as most photographic tourists would (with good reason) go to ‘easier’ areas such as the Serengeti or the Okavango.

However, there is a group of people who would relish the chance to spend weeks in this remote area, seeing very little wildlife, and braving the insecurity and difficult conditions – trophy hunters. The CAR is home to two of Africa’s most magnificent antelope species – the Bongo and the Giant Eland, the the Chinko basin is perhaps the only place where both can be hunted in the same magnificent territory. Even today, when nearly all governments advise against travel anywhere in the CAR, trophy hunters still travel to this extremely remote wilderness, paying more the $50,000 USD for a 2 week safari to hunt these animals. Given the presence of a responsible hunting operation, much of this money goes towards protection of the concession’s wildlife from poaching, as well as bettering the lives of the people in local communities.

Now, what makes a responsible hunting operation? This is a relatively easy question to answer: a responsible hunting operation is one that 1) prioritizes the local people (by employing them as guides/trackers, sending part of their revenue to local communities, contributing actively in these communities, etc.), 2) funds effective anti-poaching efforts with their revenue, 3) places responsible quotas to ensure sustainable harvest of given species (preferably with scientific/quantitative data to confirm), and 4) only allows fair-chase hunting (ie: no abusing animals, no shooting from vehicles/helicopters, etc.). CAWA Safaris, the hunting operator working in the Chinko basin, presents a good example of this. CAWA Safaris, since 2011, has actively allowing researchers to study in their concessions, and ensures local communication and support with nearby communities. Recently, CAWA has become heavily involved in the operations of the Chinko Project, a local NGO which ‘goes beyond conservation to represent a hope for stability’ in this troubled region. As a part of the Chinko Project, CAWA sends specimens (tissue samples) of every animal hunted for analysis, and are actively expanding their infrastructure for monitoring and anti-poaching. Additionally, they carefully monitor quotas (for example, ending hunting on a species if populations are low), and have resolved to not hunt the Giant Eland in 2015-16 to assist the Chinko Project in eland captive breeding and reintroduction efforts. Ultimately, a sustainable hunting company can be a tool every bit as important for wildlife conservation as a functional national park (in fact, CAWA Safaris has dedicated much of their land a no-hunting zone and natural preserve, and has partnered with African Parks, an organization specializing in conserving remote natural areas).

Case Study 2: Selected Namibian Game Farms – Conservation? Not really…

Ultimately, you’ll find this post shorter than my first one on the CAR as factors that make a bad hunting situation are really pretty obvious and not nearly as nuanced as those above. A number of South African and Namibian game farms provide a good example of what makes a bad hunting project. Much of the hunting on game farms involves non-native species that have been reintroduced into areas where they do not occur (ie: game ranches), so that visiting hunters will have maximum selection of desirable species (much more than they would get in natural areas). For example, I highly doubt that Roan, Sable, Greater Kudu, and Gemsbok can ever be found in the same place naturally – but these same species, which also happen to be highly desirable by hunters, are found together in many game ranches in South Africa and Namibia.

Now, one could make the argument that keeping these animals like this is effective for conservation as you can establish ‘safety populations’ of these animals, but really, would the money be better spent ensuring that the animals are well-protected in their respective natural habitats? A good example of this is the Angolan Giant Sable, one of Africa’s most majestic antelopes, which South African ranchers are requesting be moved to their game farms in favor of their natural environment. The Angolan Giant Sable is native to a small area of savannas of central Angola – this distinctive and stunningly beautiful race of Sable, with a jet-black coat and enormous scimitar-shaped horns, was long feared extinct until small numbers (less than 500 total) were discovered in the Luando and Cangandala Reserves in the Central Angola. Given how prized an animal like this would be to many hunters, while controlled hunting on game farms would bring in some revenue, an animal this rare must first be protected in its natural habitat (also, I am highly against introduction of animals into areas they are not native to as this is simple not proper conservation).

Also, significant hunting of species such as Cheetah and Rhinoceros occurs on these ranches. I’m sure almost everyone will agree with me that no matter how much money hunting of these species could bring in, they are just too rare and threatened to hunt – especially rhinos, of which an average of 3 are illegally poached every day. For these species, we need to save every one we have left and can’t afford to hunt any more.

Ultimately, while the breeding of African wildlife species in game farms might seem like a reasonable short term solution to conservation, the money received from hunting should really be put towards conservation national parks, where most wildlife is protected in their natural habitat, than used to buy more “target trophy species” for someone’s game farm, all the while its owner takes the profit from the hunting business and doesn’t use any to fund conservation in actual natural areas.

The next 2 case studies will be much shorter, just providing the gist of a few more examples of good and bad (irresponsible) hunting.

Case Study 3: Ugalla and Moyowosi Game Reserves, Tanzania – Conserving Wildlife Outside the Famous Serengeti

Tanzania’s Ugalla and Moyowosi-Kigosi Game Reserves are a huge, incredibly wild mosaic of swamps, floodplain grasslands and mixed Miombo-type savanna woodlands, characterized by a mix of Brachystegia and Julbernardia. This region holds impressive populations of Lion, Wild Dog, Buffalo, Elephant, Roan, Sable, Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest, Sitatunga, Hippo, and Greater Kudu. However, this isn’t photographic safari country.

The enormous distance of the region from Arusha (the country’s Safari Hub), and resulting astronomical cost of charter flights, as well as the remoteness, rustic accommodation, difficult swampy landscape, and extremely high numbers of tsetse flies, keep all but the most determined photographic safari pioneers out. As an example, hunting concessionaires working in this region allowed photographic safari as a trial run for a couple of years a little while ago – they received 1 tourist party to Moyowosi and 2 to Ugalla in 2 years – hardly a profitable business!

However, the region is very popular with hunters, who come hunt Africa’s most majestic antelopes – Sable, Roan, and Kudu. These determined explorers, who do not mind the cost, tsetse, and remoteness, pay upwards of $50000 to hunt the region and as before, much of this cash goes back to local communities and wildlife preservation efforts, especially if responsible concessionaires (such as Tanzania Game Trackers) are involved.

Ultimately, the revenue gained from limited visitation by hunting parties far exceeds that earned by an equivalent number of photographic tourists, helping to preserve and conserve an ecosystem which would have otherwise been poaching out, poisoned, farmed, and logged.

Case Study 4: Irresponsible Hunting in Tanzania

I hope the previous article didn’t paint that rosy a picture on hunting in Tanzania as the next article will provide you with a different view. Given that hunting concessions are generally allocated to different companies by governments, its unsurprising that some are given to the good guys (for example CAWA Safaris and Tanzania Game trackers), while others are given to more sinister fellows. Let me discuss an example of this below.

Recently, a company known as Green Mile Safaris was granted areas of huge hunting concessions in the Selous and Lake Natron areas of Southern and Northern Tanzania respectively. Recently, footage have surfaced depicting gross violation of conservation policies and reprehensible abuse of wildlife.

For example, wildlife was gunned down from vehicles, and young animals were stolen from their dead parents and tortured. This is truly disgusting behavior and should not be condoned under any circumstances. Ultimately, this serves as a reminder that only clean, responsible hunting do truly contribute to conservation.

So in closing, let me wrap up with 2 main points that I think best capture the essence of the debate and support a combination of photographic tourism and responsible hunting as the best policy for conservation Africa’s wildlife

1) Both hunting and photographic safari still have their place in Africa

Many of those staunchly against hunting believe that the only alternative to hunting concessions are photographic safari based national parks and game reserves. Unfortunately, this idea is totally wrong. Often times, the only alternative to hunting concessions is quite the opposite (as I have explained above) – farmland, massive poaching, logging, and destructive exploitation of natural resources far exceeding the small consumption occurring due to controlled hunting. We can’t let this happen as if we do, we’ll lose what’s left of much of Africa’s natural heritage.

Thus, there are some areas where photography is still not possible, but the biodiversity must still be preserved – and these areas make perfect locations for responsible hunting – thus, both have their place in the conservation landscape of Africa today. In the ideal world, I too would prefer for there to be only non-consumptive tourism – but we must take a more pragmatic viewpoint and see things as they are: that photographic safari doesn’t work everywhere and we NEED some alternative. Maybe someday, if wildlife populations improve enough or if enough people can gain an appreciation for places where wildlife densities are naturally low (such as Miombo woodlands), we can convert all hunting safaris to photographic areas, but that definitely WON’T be happening anytime soon.

2) We must take care to differentiate between responsible and irresponsible hunting safaris

Responsible hunting is one of the best tools we have to conserve Africa’s wild places. The Chinko Project, one of very few hopes for conservation left in the Central African forests and savannas was an idea dreamed up by a union between responsible hunters and researchers. Responsible hunting can secure whole ecosystems by ending poaching and habitat destruction, and provide benefits for the people inhabiting the area by ending insecurity – and those companies who accept the challenge to preserve what ‘Africa has given them’ are every bit as important to wildlife conservation as national parks and photographic safari areas (if not more, in some cases).

That said, we must make sure not to gaze over the many problems with hunting as well. Game farms with introduced species are NOT conservation, and irresponsible hunting does exist and neither helps nor preserves the world’s wildlife.

Above all, we need to understand the difference between responsible and irresponsible hunting and promote one, whilst working to end the other – remember that we must not and cannot afford to put all of Africa’s safari hunting into the same boat as either ardent support or hatred for both responsible and irresponsible hunting will only hurt Africa’s (and the world’s) wildlife and natural habitats. in the long run.

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In closing, I hope you learned some from this article and perhaps also changed your views on the role hunting plays in conservation of wildlife – that perhaps it’s not merely an anachronism of the past, but rather one of the most important tools we have for conserving the natural world and its wildlife, but also one that must be managed and judged carefully to limit the amount of damage this consumptive tourism can potentially cause in the wrong hands.

Thanks for reading this to the very end!

Venkat