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To snap or snipe?

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Questions around issues of life and death tend to polarise opinions. Abortion, the death penalty, gun control and euthanasia, for example, all evoke the most fundamental of our emotions and beliefs. And the hunting of wild animals is right up there with them – whether it’s fox hunting in the United Kingdom, whale hunting in Japan, or lion hunting in Botswana. In recent issues of Africa Geographic, Ian Michler has commented on aspects of this controversial subject, attracting both heartfelt support and strident condemnation for his outspoken views. Here he departs from the quagmire of ethics and morality to examine in cold economic terms the relative contributions of hunting and photographic safaris in Botswana.

In southern Africa, the hunting debate is becoming increasingly relevant as various related wildlife management issues sharpen the focus on the overall role the industry plays in conservation and tourism. Exposés on the practices of canned hunters and operators in South Africa, Zambia’s countrywide moratorium on hunting because of alleged corrupt practices in the allocation of hunting concessions, the moratorium on lion hunting that was introduced in Botswana in 2001, and the ethical and moral standards employed by the industry as a whole have all contributed to the debate.

In Botswana, the trophy-hunting industry is under the spotlight because of conservation issues and the apparent unethical practices of certain operators. For example, in October 2001 Johan Calitz, one of the country’s most notorious hunters and the senior hunter with Johan Calitz Hunting Safaris, had his licence suspended because of alleged unlawful conduct within his outfit during a buffalo hunt. There are some who now firmly believe that the future of trophy hunting in Botswana in its present form may be in doubt. The fact that the photographic sector has become the dominant force of the tourism industry only serves to strengthen the anti-hunting lobby and the voice of those who believe that wilderness areas such as the Okavango Delta should be in the care of professional and reputable photographic operators only.

Sustainability is almost always the first point of disagreement.

Trophy hunters and some wildlife researchers maintain that the annual off-take of quota animals for hunting is both acceptable and fully sustainable, while other researchers and most individuals within the photographic safari sector dispute this. The concerns regarding sustainability are based not only on discrepancies over the population figures for various species, but also on the genetic strength of certain populations, particularly those in which trophy hunters consistently seek out the strongest and healthiest male specimens.

Consensus on the population levels of target species is always going to be problematic as the counting process is inherently inexact, especially when it comes to predators. The Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) sets preliminary hunting quotas based on ground and aerial surveys, which are then sent out to concessionaires for comment. Final quotas are issued once these have been returned. The hunting fraternity generally favours the higher population estimates and of those hunters canvassed, almost all regarded species on the hunting quotas as being in a healthy state. They base this on personal observations while in the field and, in some instances, on research they have funded privately.

Randall Moore, owner of the world renowned Elephant Back Safaris (EBS) operation which conducts both photographic and hunting safaris, believes that the wildlife authorities and the photographic operators are sceptical of much of the research being conducted by hunting concessions. ‘Years and years of the hunters using the Okavango as a playground and requesting bigger and bigger quotas are behind the mistrust,’ he says. ‘The industry is in many ways more professional now, but it is going to take a long time to dispel that mistrust.’

‘Hunting has a very low overall impact compared to photographics. My camp gets serviced only once a month by vehicle’.

One anomaly in the system is the annual leopard allocation. Although no extensive population studies have been conducted, the number of leopards in the annual quotas has always been higher than the number of lions, and in many cases by as much as three times. Moore believes that the DWNP should be more scientific on this issue. He says the industry has a good idea of the lion populations, which he believes are healthy, yet the DWNP has removed them from quota. Leopard numbers, on the other hand, are unknown, yet leopards remain on quota in numbers exceeding those of lions before the moratorium on lion hunting came into force in 2001. Moore accepts that leopards are probably the most difficult species to monitor and says that EBS would fully support and help fund any future leopard research.

Rann Safaris and Safari South, the largest of the big hunting outfitters, would also like to see decisions on quota allocation being made on proper scientific data. Steve Rann, the managing director of both organisations, declares, ‘Although our field research indicates healthy populations of most species on the quotas, we would willingly not only support such [scientific]efforts, but also accept the conclusions as long as they are arrived at professionally.’

Most photographic operators tend to support the more conservative population estimates and refer to the overall long-term decline in most species as the reason for caution. David Kays, the owner of the Jao Concession, was born and grew up in the Okavango region. He used to hunt but has turned in his rifles for what he believes is a more beneficial and sustainable way of managing the Okavango’s wildlife – that of photographic tourism. He speaks of a definite decline in the populations of most species, to the extent that although Jao was designated a combined hunting/ photographic area when going out to tender, Kays chose to reserve (that is, not to shoot) the concession’s full hunting quota on being awarded the concession. ‘An example needs to be set,’ he says. ‘Stopping the decline, in whatever manner, is important and this is Jao’s way of contributing.’

Before Jao became solely a photographic concession in 1999, the area had been particularly hard hit by hunting, having been in the hands of a certain operator known for transgressions. Since Kays introduced the no-hunting policy, more than 1 000 animals have been reserved.

It is clear that a lot more objective research and surveys need to be carried out on most of Botswana’s species so that their true status may be ascertained. Whereas the country’s elephant populations have flourished over the past decade, the same cannot be said for a number of other species, notably sable antelope, sitatunga and common reedbuck. There has been a moratorium on hunting these species as of this year.

The annual quotas reveal another peculiarity in that certain species, red lechwe for example, are awarded in equal numbers for most concessions. This assumes that these species occur evenly throughout each concession, a situation that research would show to be otherwise.

Any research and survey projects should include the participation and support of all sectors, both to overcome issues of mistrust and to avoid negative perceptions aroused by DWNP decisionmaking in the past. Irrespective of one’s opinion on lion hunting, the manner in which the DWNP handled the moratorium of 2001 was very disruptive for the hunting industry and reflected poorly on the way Botswana regulates tourism.

Central to any conservation policy is the overall environmental impact that individual operators have on their concessions. It is true that setting up and running a photographic lodge requires a larger site area than a hunting camp, as well as additional building material and a more frequent servicing level. Photographic lodges also use more vehicles, boats and mekoros (local dugout canoes) in conducting their safari activities and with this, more kilometres of game-drive roads and numerous boating routes.

Peter Holbrow, a reputable hunter active in the EBS concession, makes the point that his operation caters for eight guests, uses only one vehicle and has no more than a few vehicle tracks covering an area of 125 000 hectares. ‘Hunting has a very low overall impact compared to photographics. My camp gets serviced only once a month by vehicle,’ he says. ‘I usually only have one or two hunters in camp at once and we spend most of the time either on foot or in mekoros. And then we allow the area a six-month recovery period.’

Holbrow, along with many other hunters, also accuses photographic operators of putting animals, particularly the predators, under undue pressure with too many vehicles being too close at sightings. Also mentioned is the indiscriminate use of spotlights at night by some safari guides. Alan Wolfromm, a past managing director of Okavango Wilderness Safaris (OWS), the largest photographic operator in the Okavango, accepts that these concerns are at times valid for the industry as a whole. But, he points out, to ensure compliance within OWS, the company employs full-time ecologists and has strict guidelines for game guides with regard to procedure at sightings and off-road driving (this practice is allowed, within reason, in private concessions outside national parks). Wolframm also stresses that all OWS lodges are built and run to stringent environmental standards over and above those laid down by DWNP, and all activities are monitored by the company ecologist.

The reality that hunting operators can’t deny is that any transgression by a photographic guide usually entails an animal having to get up and move away or a road having to be rehabilitated; a transgression by a hunter normally results in an animal being killed.

Although Botswana’s hunting industry is regarded as being among the ‘cleanest’ in the region, there are still a number of individual hunters and operators who have gained extremely poor reputations. Their transgressions include illegal burning, over-shooting the quota, hunting outside designated areas and disregard for the ethical standards implicit in the notion of a ‘fair chase’.

Randall Moore believes that it is possible to conduct both hunting and photographic safaris within the larger concessions – and to do so successfully – and he therefore doesn’t favour one sector over the other. He does, however, stress that hunting is a very effective tool in the overall management of his concession, particularly in what are referred to as ‘marginal areas’ – those areas not suitable for photographic safaris because of excessive sand, water or mopane tree growth. Hunting in marginal areas provides a visible presence that effectively deters would-be poachers. Most photographic operators accept this in principle, although not all agree with the concept of conducting both hunting and photo safaris within the same concession. ‘OWS’s philosophy is that as long as an area can sustain nonconsumptive tourism, there should be no hunting. If an area cannot sustain photographic safaris, such as the marginal areas on the very fringes of the Okavango, then there may be a place for well-controlled hunting on a limited basis,’ says Wolfromm.

True to life in general, economic and profit factors are never far from the core of what’s at stake. For a long time the conventional wisdom has been that hunting is a justifiable component of tourism and conservation because of the large financial contribution it makes.

Wolfromm believes that the hunting industry has overplayed its hand on this issue, particularly in view of the breakdown of who receives what income. ‘The photographic industry spreads the profitability around between many more sectors and people,’ he points out. ‘And when one considers the employment statistics and training offered with career opportunities, there is no doubt that photographic safaris have a far larger beneficial impact on the general economy.’ He draws attention to the fact that OWS-managed operations provide more than 600 jobs, and those jobs are year round, unlike jobs in hunting camps which operate for only six months a year. Moreover, staff members are encouraged to advance their careers by undergoing further skills training. The average staffing complement in OWS lodges is 30, whereas for the hunting camps it is between 10 and 12.

There is no doubt that the economic boom enjoyed by northern Botswana over the past decade has been almost entirely because of the dramatic growth in the photographic sector of the tourism market; the national airline, charter companies, retail outlets and service providers in both Maun and Kasane have all enjoyed high growth levels. Also true, it must be acknowledged, is the fact that the hunting industry appears to be less affected by negative factors, such as the tragic events of 11 September 2001, and tends to have fewer booking cancellations and staff cutbacks as a result.

In terms of profitability, hunting has been extremely lucrative for those who own hunting operations. The set-up and running costs of a hunting camp are far lower than those of a photographic lodge, and the financial returns on a hunter’s quota are sub stantial and immediate. With over 150 elephants on quota in the Ngami land region for the year 2002, and at an average rate of US$35 000 per hunt (this includes a variety of other species in the package), the potential turnover for these hunts is in excess of US$5.25-million.

‘The photographic industry spreads the profitability around between many more people, and when one considers the employment statistics and training offered with career opportunities, there is no doubt that photographics have a far larger beneficial impact on the general economy’

Accommodation tariffs for the two types of safari within the Okavango Delta also differ widely. The average bed-night rate in a photographic lodge is between US$250 and US$350, while that of a hunting camp is more than US$1 000. For this reason, many have claimed that hunting is indispensable to the success of managing a concession outside the national parks.

David Kays disagrees. ‘By reserving our hunting quota, we have given up approximately US$1.5-million in revenue over four seasons and we more than doubled our set-up costs in having to build photographic lodges only. But we now have the option of operating for 12 months of the year in our lodges if we so choose. We are also looking at the long term. Our shortterm losses in money terms will be compensated by the protection of our natural resources for the future. The Jao Concession is doing fine financially without hunting.’

OWS does the marketing for the Jao Concession and for the Linyanti Concession (which has also chosen to stop all hunting), and believes that with strong marketing and a longer season these concessions can thrive without having to hunt. ‘We feel that there is absolutely no need to re-introduce hunting. We can manage these areas very successfully with photo graphic safaris only, and generate sufficient income,’ says Wolfromm.

Randall Moore and Steve Rann again bring up the issue of operating in marginal areas. For both, hunting is a necessity as their concessions have sizeable marginal areas where it is not possible to conduct photographic safaris. Without hunting, these areas would not be utilised, resulting in loss of both revenue and an effective management tool against poachers. And, at the end of the day, Moore believes it is pointless arguing the respective merits of each sector to the economy if both can contribute. ‘There is room for both, as long as the situation is managed professionally,’ he says.

And then there are some whose arguments cut straight to the chase. Kaiser Rams is a young professional photographic guide who was born and brought up amongst the wild animals in the Sankuyu Community District on the edge of the Okavango. His philosophy is forthright. ‘Animals are Botswana’s second diamond industry,’ he says, referring to the country’s diamond-rich deposits. ‘Why do we want to kill them?’

Conversely, some cling to what they know. An elderly tracker, who preferred not to give his name and who lives in one of the ‘community areas’ that has a hunting quota, was as succinct. ‘This is all I can do. If they stop hunting, I will have no job. We also hunt because we need to eat. It’s part of our tradition.’

Read the original article & view tables here: file:///C:/Users/Sally%20Dowling/Downloads/to%20snap%20or%20snipe.pdf

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