It was in Umbabat that a lion was recently hunted and ended up being discussed in Parliament, following accusations that it was an under-age pride male and was baited illegally.
The Kruger National Park is an internationally renowned, exemplary national reserve tasked to protect the biodiversity under its management. This it does extremely well. But when it dropped its fences with private reserves along its western border, it inherited, it seems, some unruly children hanging onto its impeccable skirts. One of them is Umbabat.
Intense media pressure failed to have an independent observer check assurances by Umbabat and the licencing authority, Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Authority (MTPA) that it was a boney old male, heightening speculation that it was indeed a magnificent tourist favourite named Skye.
The incident clearly nettled Kruger officials. In a letter written to the Umbabat chairperson, Lenny Willson in June 2018, shortly after the hunt, Kruger’s managing executive, Glenn Phillips, threatened to re-erect the fence between it and Umbabat if the reserve didn’t get its house in order. It was given six months to do so.
A subtext of the letter is that Kruger is taking unwarranted media flack for actions in Umbabat over which it has little control. Its attempts at positive PR are being undermined and ‘very poorly supported by some hunting operators in the Greater Kruger.’
There is a string of other complaints, one of which is that, although Kruger did not support the hunt (and also that of a leopard which Umbabat had requested), the MTPA sanctioned it and failed to inform Kruger. Umbabat also ‘forgot’ to inform Kruger that the hunt was taking place, so when shots were heard by the nearby section ranger, he came within a hairsbreadth of deploying an anti-poaching aircraft.
It remains to be seen whether MTPA will again ignore Kruger’s recommendations and issue Umbabat with a permit to hunt a leopard.
Where to now?
For some time, Kruger has been raising concerns about Umbabat’s governance. The latest letter says ‘sadly [it]is evident that Umbabat’s house is not in order, resulting in major negative scrutiny of KNP, but also impacting on the Greater Kruger as a destination of choice.’
In his letter, Phillips notes that Umbabat’s federal system is fragmented, ‘raising the question if there is a united and responsible management.’ Lack of internal consensus ‘is now impacting not only on Umbabat… but also impacting on the Greater Kruger and cooperative arrangements.’
He also puts on record that the MTPA did not inform Kruger about the quota change that led to the lion hunt, although formal feedback was required.
In response to what Umbabat in an answering letter describes at the ‘agenda-pushing media’ questioning trophy hunting in Greater Kruger, Phillips raises no objection to the shooting of what are often Kruger animals in Umbabat, but suggests that the reserve engages in a more aggressive public relations exercise.
The letter ends by saying that Umbabat has failed to sign the Greater Kruger Cooperative Agreement and associated protocols and until it does, no hunting will be supported. It is accordingly questionable why any hunting was supported by Kruger in Umbabat in 2018.
‘Lastly and most importantly, if Umbabat does not get its governance in place within six months, KNP will be left with no option but re-erect the fence.’
In a somewhat cap-in-hand reply, Umbabat’s chairperson, Willson, agreed to all Kruger’s points and promised to sort things out shortly.
‘The Umbabat PNR understands your concerns and you can rest assured that we take the process very seriously and we don’t believe it will be remotely necessary to go to such extremes [as re-erecting the fence].’
What the future holds
If the internally fractured Umbabat can pull things together before that happens remains to be seen. Whether Kruger means what it says about the fence is also a consideration.
For the private reserve, however, the hunting of what a newspaper headline described as ‘a lion too far’ has been a sharp lesson. Trophy hunting by rich American gun-toting tourists may be in a far, wild corner of Mpumalanga, but it’s not too far from public scrutiny to escape notice, though Umbabat clearly wishes it was. The last thing the reserve could have imagined was that the issue would end up in the glare of Parliamentary scrutiny.