Proving their conservation worth – hunters in Zambia

Before I start this – some of you may think this is going to be negative because you know the array of stakeholders that were likely to be present at the meeting today. I was able to put faces to so many names I’ve heard and really encouraged by the amount of support I received – from all parties – for what I had to say, what I’m doing and what we should be considering as a national wildlife body.

It is a HAPPY story I write today, one of hope, restored faith and excitement for the future.  We are getting there and we are getting there together.

The meeting I was looking forward to for all the wrong reasons…

I went to a meeting today about lion and leopard trophy hunting regulations/guidelines/legislation in Zambia where representatives of the government wildlife department were present – in full force.  Also in attendance were two representatives of conservation NGOs – a carnivore one and a general conservation one which focuses on managing areas, with a fantastic record, and has reintroduced a certain species to Zambia.  Several members of the hunting community were present although it was timed badly – most are currently hunting several hundred kilometres away – my partner included – effectively excluding their knowledge, input and professional expertise.  Two international experts were present to provide facilitation, suggestions and consultation. I believe the meeting, and all the associated actions, are supported by the European Union.

The were three types of ecologists present – government, NGO and me (undefined but neither of the other two classes mentioned).

I had known about this meeting for a while and had looked forward to it, not because I thought it would be this positive, but because I enjoy a good debate (despite being told to be on my best behaviour).  I was wrong.  I don’t usually admit it when that happens but I was wrong – this meeting was…like nothing I had imagined (except for one person who lived up to my expectations of conservation NGOs and their ideas of what conservation ought to be).

I was here listening, and contributing to a certain extent, for more than one absent Professional Hunter – as were most of us.  I am so excited to tell them it was NOT a compete shit show.  I cannot express how happy this makes me.  I really can’t.

Some observations I made but may, of course, have misinterpreted:

  1. The hunting community was, at times, stricter about certain things than the other stakeholders and put there foot down – simultaneously in a board room – in response to some things.
  2. We all managed to keep it professional and, on several occasions, agreed with each other.
  3. There were some more vocal than others – myself included and a lovely lady I had the pleasure of meeting there – but the more quite in attendance seemed to nod and agree when we [the vocal ones] said something (suggesting we were on the right track and that it was necessary for us to have spoken up).
  4. There were some – well, one actually – who were so obviously against hunting and seemed to only be present to ensure all hunting representatives were reminded that hunting is a disgusting thing to promote never mind carry out. This person made everyone in the room visible bristle whenever they spoke purely because of their negativity, patronising word choice and interesting view on who should be invited to meetings…I digress.
  5. The government and all hunting representatives made it ABUNDANTLY CLEAR that the captive breeding and hunting of big cats (defined as cheetah, lion and leopard) within Zambia is strictly DETESTED, UNACCEPTABLE AND NOT OPEN TO DISCUSSION.
  6. I was the youngest in attendance (by quite a large margin) and the only person representing some hunting parties with and understanding of ecological scientific method which, sometimes, seemed to surprise the rest of the group with my understanding of the topic from both sides of the fence as well as positive suggestions.  I was even able to provide some constructive criticisms and, far more in comparison, suggestions on the way forward that incorporate science, conservation, hunting, communities, legal obligations and finances.  [I felt proud of myself and this is me patting myself on the back].
  7. This was, all in all, an INCREDIBLY POSITIVE MEETING with several positive outcomes for both lion and leopard as well as the financial viability of safari hunting in the country.

 

Conclusion

If all meetings were this positive, I believe we could really achieve something amazing and ground breaking in Zambia with regard to the safari hunting and conservation of lion and leopard in the country.  I am thoroughly impressed by everyone present, bar one, and thoroughly look forward to working with these fantastic, passionate wildlife warriors of different tribes.

“CONSERVATION MUST PREVAIL” – direct quote from the Chairman of Professional Hunter’s Association of Zambia (PHAZ)

Let us remember we are all in it for the same cause just that we take different routes to achieve it and, sometimes, for different reasons.

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Conservation conundrum – animal rights, single species/attributes of interest and how to fix it

Conservation, as a sector, is in trouble.  Not from lack of funding or interested personnel to do the work or information (in general).  It’s not because of the most commonly cited problems – it’s because of the philosophy either ingrained in, or accepted by, the people working in the sector and the people injecting much needed resources into conservation.  If the philosophy of something is not sound, it will not work.  That’s our problem and we need to start accepting that, discussing it, thinking about how to change it and start applying those changes.  We need to be as adaptive as the organisms we are trying to protect.

Theory of knowledge: to understand where our knowledge comes from, why we accept some views and not others, why we should question everything and, above all, why we should be able to change our opinions when presented with evidence that conflicts with our existing opinions.

That last point is what we need more of in conservation – starting with an opinion, being shown evidence to the contrary, analysing both sides of the argument and being able to change the opinion based on the new evidence.  By evidence, of course, I mean that which has been accumulated using the scientific method, i.e. is replicable and does not prove anything but provides evidence to support one theory more than others.

Conservation started out with hunting – protect the wildlife from commoners so that it may be hunted for sport by the wealthy (origins aside) – which is not something the animal rights movement likes to admit.  That is how and why many wildlife reserves, conservation areas, etc. were set up, and remain that way today in some cases; there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that.  This approach was, for all its faults, quite effective at keeping human influence out of these areas, except that associated with hunting, and allowing the animals safe habitats in which to thrive.  This could be called a landscape-scale conservation model as it provided for conservation of habitat and all the organisms that habitat could house, regardless of their trophy value.

There was a shift from this landscape-scale conservation thinking in the mid- to late-1900’s towards a conservation philosophy that centred on a specific attribute or species.  Elephant, rhino, lions, trees and anti-poaching even.  I say aggressive because this philosophy tends to be rather extremist and conservative in that those who agree with this philosophy won’t be convinced to change their opinions even when presented with a mountain of empirical evidence supporting a different philosophy compiled by the most respected and experienced personnel on the subject matter.  We shall call this the foci conservation model.

Many blame the emergence of the foci model on George and Joy Adamson who hand-reared Elsa the lion in Kenya, released her and wrote a book about it.  Not well known about the Adamson’s is why George was removed from the Kenya wildlife service – allegedly due to him shooting wild lions because they were a threat to his hand-reared lions to whom he was very attached.  Call this iconoclastic but that’s absolutely not acceptable behaviour for a conservation hero and therefore all philosophy based on their emotional attachment to wild animals should be thrown as far out the window as possible.

The foci conservation model

Choose a focus that appeals to the general public or that they can relate to.  Cute lion cubs, elephants, gnarled old trees.  The cuter, fluffier, prettier, rarer, more endangered or more eccentric the species/attribute the better.  This is the focus of the campaign – it pulls at heart strings, brings in money and makes projects possible if they include one or more of the foci in their work.  It is argued that, in using one sexy species to raise money, it provides funding for the less attractive species; like using elephant conservation money to protect an entire area which is host to, say, 15 antelope species.  I suppose this would be called effective marketing and fund raising.  This is great for projects that incorporate those foci in their work.

Some problems with this approach

  1. This limits to funding to projects that include these foci in their work. Contrary to popular opinion, conservation and the protection of natural resources is about managing the people who exploit those resources.  Funding anti-poaching is all good and well but it only addresses a symptom (poaching) and not the root cause (poverty, demand and greed).  If you want to have an impact on conservation support rural development projects not anti-poaching projects.  Conservation donors are only now waking up to this and even still prefer to support animal-related projects because, well, they’re sexier and they don’t understand/acknowledge the real dynamics that lead to resource exploitation.
  2. It provides for projects that waste money on things that will have little conservation impact in the bigger picture. Wildlife orphanages are classic examples of this, particularly those focused on a specific species (note: this does not include rehabilitation centres that focus on healing adult wildlife).  It would be better if the funding went directly into securing the population’s habitat so no orphans would be created in the future.  This would have an actual conservation impact as opposed to rearing individual animals that may become problematic because they’ve lost their fear of humans and don’t know what their species’ behavioural norms are, and who will actually have little effect on the success or sustained presence of that species in terms of genetics and reproductive capacity anyway.
  3. It detracts from the importance of species and attributes that the general public does not deem to be special or endearing. A good example of this is the world’s obsession with trees and the “devastating effect” of late fires on trees in Africa leading to the ingrained belief that fire must either be completely excluded from a system or the system must be religiously burnt annually just after the rains to prevent late fires (something we can thank the colonial powers for).  No one thinks about the open grassy plains and how a lot of Africa’s vegetation is adapted for, and depends on, fire albeit at lower frequencies than have been experienced in the past 50 or so years.  Now we are faced with changes in soil chemistry and receptibility to seedlings, woody encroachment of once-open grassy areas which will change wildlife species composition in the area and shift grass communities towards fire-hardy but less-nutritious species all the while giving off a carbon emission footprint so large it’s difficult to comprehend.
  4. Once you are emotionally invested in an individual it’s hard to see the bigger picture and how your opinion could actually be doing more harm than good. Removing trophy hunting from Africa because people are interested in the right of an individual animal not to be shot is directly ignoring the right of all non-trophy animals in that area to live.  In addition to this, it ignores the rural communities’ right to benefit from the wildlife they live with in the way that community sees fit.  In Zambia it is a legal requirement of hunting concession holders to distribute venison from trophy animals to adjacent communities (the meat, legally, belongs to the hunting client who bought the license for the animal); safari lodges have no similar legal obligation required of on them to participate in community-related projects.  In Zambia, again, 2/3 of the government wildlife estate are hunting concessions; in a country where National Parks (1/3 government wildlife estate) are underfunded and struggling, it would make little sense to remove the only management strategy that provides a) funding the area and b) keeps the habitat intact for the day when wildlife numbers increase.
  5. People who subscribe to this philosophy generally will not change their views or management strategies when provided with evidence suggesting their model is ineffective and/or damaging. Kenya has reportedly lost up to 70% of its wildlife since the ban on hunting was imposed in the 1970s and human-wildlife conflict has apparently also increased exponentially in the same time period.  Yet IFAW and other such organisations hail it as a conservation success – even though they pretty much signed the death warrants for those 70% and local opinion of wildlife has regressed into “we [rural communities] live with it [the wildlife] but they [wealthy land owners] benefit from it at our [rural communities] cost and they [NGOs and government] think it’s a success.”  In light of such evidence, the government and NGO’s should realise that they need to rethink their wildlife management strategy to, for example, allowing venison hunting as a protein source at the very least.

 

The way forward

A more holistic, adaptive management approach needs to be adapted if conservation sustainability is to be achieved in Africa.  This includes incorporating the following things into conservation strategy and philosophy:

  1. Decentralized ownership of wildlife. The community who lives with the wildlife should own it, not a government who has proved time and again not to have the villagers’ best interests at heart and who take the majority of the money generated by the wildlife.  Private wildlife ownership may be another model worth incorporating, but that is essentially removing the natural heritage of the local communities who are the ones that should benefit from their
  2. Utilisation of wildlife and other natural resources, provided monitoring is place. Honey, fish, timber, forest foods, venison, all of this needs to be harvested by the local communities in order for them to place an economic value on the natural resources the West places emotional value on.  If you cannot afford to feed, house or educate your family adequately then you will not be able to afford an appreciation of nature without being able to utilise it to increase your standard of living.
  3. Demilitarization of conservation. Law enforcement and resource protection is necessary, I’m not arguing against it, but the arms race needs to stop.  Conservation is not about keeping poachers out, it’s about making sure the people don’t become poachers.  The exception of course is in conflict-torn areas such as Virunga in DRC, Chad, Sudan, etc., places like Zambia do not need a shoot-on-site policy when government-induced poverty is the rationale for sanctioning murder.
  4. Addressing the root causes of natural resource exploitation and degradation, not the symptoms. Propensity to illegally harvest timber, bush meat, honey, fish, skins, etc is a symptom of poverty.  Poaching will not stop until the people doing the poaching have no reason to poach or are not in a circumstance that would tempt them to poach.  Hiring more scouts will only increase the number of poachers apprehended which will only increase the number of households who have no bread-winner which will only increase the number of people (children) pushed into illegal activities such as poaching, theft and prostitution.
  5. Adaptive management based on scientific and social science evidence. We live in a dynamic world and nature itself is dynamic, so why would we then impose static management strategies and philosophies on conservation?  (Answer: ego).  We need to start being as adaptive and changing as the environments and animals we are working to conserve.  Annual rainfall varies so fire fuel load varies so fire management should also vary.  What works in Tanzania may not work in Zambia because we have different cultures, different governing systems, different environments, different infrastructure, different religions, etc.  One size does not fit all, one model can be adapted to fit another area but it should never be homogeneous. It’s really quite simple.
  6. Landscapes need to be the focus of attention, not individual species or areas or attributes. If you protect a landscape properly, including all of its ecosystem services and functions, you will successfully conserve every natural process and organism occurring in that landscape.  If you conserve a species, you only conserve that one species and things directly associated with it.
  7. Conservation strategy needs to be dictated by the people living next to the conservation project/area. Not by the donors on another continent who think they know best because they have a fancy degree, did some field work back in the 80s, were part of the peace corps, or any other such bollocks.  They have no idea what’s going on en situ, they don’t know the people, the pressures, the problems, the solutions; they generally only know what we tell them or what they see on tv or read in books.  So why are we letting them still dictate who, what, where, why, when and how we do conservation in Africa?
  8. Emotions need to be removed from conservation. You see lion kills on a safari and no one stops to think twice about the brutality of nature.  Death is part of what we’re conserving – the natural cycle of things – this means accepting that wildlife is a source of protein for humans, wildlife body parts (trophies, skins) are a source of income for humans, wildlife alive is a source of income for humans, trees dead and alive are a source of income for humans.  We need to stop ourselves from being pulled into the Disney scenario where a lion [Simba/rural communities adjacent to wildlife] befriends a warthog [Pumba/wildlife the community doesn’t benefit from] instead of eating it.
  9. We need to stop importing expertise from abroad to do jobs that locals can do. Why employ a foreign employee do to a job there are plenty of locals qualified to do?  Instead of giving jobs to foreigners because they’ll work for little financial compensation, we should be investing in the locals who are far better equipped to be the job in the first place and who aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon.   The reason our conservation strategies are so messed up is because of the foreign influence over conservation in Africa – so maybe we should consider reducing said influence in the work force.  This will also add to the sustainability of nature conservation in Africa when people start seeing it as a local job market and not one only open to foreign personnel. [I see how some might take this as xenophobic, it’s not.  I’m trying to address a problem I noticed with a certain NGO with high staff turnover due to their foreign employees/volunteers and how certain projects failed because they kept bringing in foreign qualified persons who couldn’t get government approval for the job instead of employing a local who’s already set up to go.  Their local image was also not healthy because of their employment strategy.]
  10. We need to stop corruption and misinformation in the government, NGO and donor sectors. Corruption is one of the biggest battles we all fight, it determines who gets a certain job, how easy it will be to make legislative changes, it even dictates whether a certain group of people will make your life hell or will work with you.  Corruption is also a major source of funding leakage, as are donor overheads and salaries.  Misinformation in the NGO-donor sector is another huge problem, NGOs will tell their donors that they’re successful when actually they’re not and donors will tell the general public that their money is going to a good cause – like their child’s private schooling costs or the fancy car they just bought.  Lying and stealing are as ingrained in the conservation NGO, government and donor sectors as breathing is in every mammal.  It needs to stop.

 

For such intelligent beings, us humans are allowing ourselves to be conned into an age of rights, emotions and nonsensical ideals that are not as kind and gentle as they first appear to be.  And we’re sure as hell ignoring Darwin’s theories of adaptation by continuing to implement conservation programmes with static, non-changing philosophies at their core.

It’s time to adapt.  There’s no weakness in admitting something didn’t work, unless you’re not prepared to make the necessary changes to ensure it does work in the future.

On starting my own volunteer programme

I did write a rather scathing post on volunteer programmes in conservation and how little they actually contribute except financially and volunteers serving as ambassadors.  I suppose some will then go ahead and say how hypocritical I am because I’m pretty opposed to the very structure of volunteer programmes and yet I’ve just gone and launched my own.

Let me explain, not that I feel I have to justify it but rather to illuminate what I am trying to do from the start with this programme.

My programme is NOT about hugging cute orphaned animals.  It is NOT about the poor starving children in Africa.  It is NOT about the alleged war being waged between poachers and protectors.  It is NOT about the Myth of Wild Africa.  It is NOT voluntourism.  It is NOT a way for me to get a salary.  It is NOT open to anyone.

I need volunteers for the following reasons:

  1. To finance the wildlife monitoring I carry out – I don’t like to rely on donors
  2. To provide money to buy wildlife monitoring equipment, e.g. camera traps, GPS units, a vehicle one day, etc.
  3. To provide money to buy anti-poaching equipment, e.g. patrol rucksacks and water bottles, tents, Android devices for SMART law enforcement tracking one day, etc.
  4. To help me process the data from camera traps placed in strategic locations for large carnivore identification
  5. To help me coordinate the wildlife monitoring transects we carry out twice annually
  6. To start building up money we can use for large carnivore collaring
  7. To start building up money we can use to implement a common radio frequency in the area for improved law enforcement and reporting of poaching incidents between properties
  8. One day, the fees paid by those who can afford it will subsidise Zambians who cannot afford the fees to get the same experience.  These could be youngsters from rural areas or university students needing to fulfil internships.

 

For me to even consider allowing a volunteer they have to meet certain criteria (and no, I don’t care about how much you love wildlife unless you can prove to me you have skills I can use):

  1. Academic background in natural sciences, preferably tertiary level; anthropology and social sciences can be made use of as well but an understanding of the scientific method is CRUCIAL
  2. Similar volunteer experience of at least 2 weeks – I don’t want a novice to the bush or a person who can’t deal with bugs and hot sweaty days
  3. Or work experience in conservation and/or field work
  4. Volunteers have to be professional, open minded and objective.  Conservation is far more complex than most know or are willing to admit and I do not shy away from the harsh reality of it, so they’ve got to be able to stomach that.

 

So, really, my programme isn’t too bad.  It is geared towards utilising volunteer’s skills and enthusiasm to my advantage while offering them an education in how challenging and complex conservation in Africa is and the different ways in which it can be approached. All the while aiming to provide the same opportunities to Zambians who cannot afford the fees I have to charge to keep the programme going.

Each volunteer is NOT going to make a huge difference but collectively they WILL and it WILL be lasting and the difference WILL be positive.

It’s about educating the next generation in a holistic manner, warts and all, NOT an idealistic manner focusing on the daisies and elephants only.

It’s work and education in one, NOT a holiday and NOT for those with a guilty conscience wanting to ‘give back’.

That’s why I think my programme is better geared to actually working.  But I could be wrong.

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Honesty – it costs nothing and yet is absent from so much.

When it comes to marketing, it would appear as though ethics and morals go straight out the window with the dregs of your coffee from this morning.  Why do I say this?  Because I’m constantly hit with lies, blatant lies or misleading facts on social media, main stream media, face-to-face and so much more.  If you don’t know something or you’re trying to hide something – just say you don’t know or just don’t say anything at all.

When marketing a SAFARI DESTINATION, it helps if the company and/or agency is truthful.  This is because it reflects everyone’s attitude towards marketing and it unbalances the market competition.

If you have a lodge in a GMA – DO NOT SAY IT IS IN A NATIONAL PARK.

Say it is opposite to whatever National Park.  Why does this anger me?

  1. To stay in a National Park, one has to pay fees to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. You don’t pay these in a GMA.
  2. As a lodge-owner, it’s less hassle and cheaper to set up shop in a GMA.
  3. The rules are more relaxed in a GMA.
  4. GMA’s are set aside for various types of natural resource utilisation, commercial fishing and hunting included.  Your guests may become distressed when they hear of a lion hunt happening down the road because you neglected to tell them it was a possibility.  Of course this could ruin your business, but then why not secure a spot in the National Park across the river and make your life simpler?
  5. If you have got a form of title deed on your land in the GMA, it’s probably because the chief stole the land from their community and you knew about it but turned a blind eye because it’s business.  Maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, but you know it’s not possible so you know you did something wrong.
  6. It’s a blatant lie.
DSC_0016.JPG

Standing in a National Park looking at the GMA on the other side of the river

If you have a lodge in a National Park – DO NOT SAY YOUR GUESTS HAVE EXCLUSIVE ACCESS.

Say it’s in a remote area where the likelihood of running into other tourists is very low.  Why does this anger me?

  1. The only exclusivity you can get is a 5km radius buffer around your camp that excludes infrastructure of any kind from anyone but that camp/company.
  2. National Parks are exactly that – NATIONAL – they are open to the public and the public should not be excluded from certain areas because some wealthy tourists (or lodge owners) don’t want to see other people.
  3. Sure, there’s zoning within National Parks for what kinds of utilisation are allowed, i.e. permanent infrastructure, fly camps only, nothing but roads, but that’s not the same as offering exclusivity.

 

NGO’s really need to work on their honesty, in a very general sense of course as there are a few that are open and honest.  Not just small conservation NGO’s, the big well known international ones are just as guilty!  For example:

  1. If you’re going to market a volunteer programme, try to keep it a professional thing you can have on a CV and not a holiday destination for people with a guilty conscience because if anyone can do it then it’s not exactly special from a work experience point of view (it also adds a patronising taste to it).
  2. Saying your main interest is in a certain group of mammals and then refusing to enter into talks with another NGO doing similar work, but in areas where you don’t/can’t operate, isn’t great for professional morale or the mammals of interest.
  3. Taking donations from well-meaning people overseas only to use it on gigantic staff salaries, benefits (e.g. all housing, international school fees and annual flights home) is not a wise use of funds when your programme could actually achieve something with just half of that amount.
  4. On your social media posts: name the country in Africa as there are 53 and it might be confusing. Also, why would you even leave out the country in the first place?
  5. Taking support from the hunting community only to deny any affiliation with it, or even to attack them afterwards, isn’t very nice.
  6. Hash-tagging SaveTheBigFive on a post that is in an area where rhino were extirpated DECADES ago is very confusing and misleading.
  7. If the project is in a hunting area and you work with hunters, etc. – do not deny it, admit it and shine a light on how hunters, hunting clients and operators do give a damn. It’ll also show you are objective and only interested in the project, not the petty politics.

 

I could go on for days about this – it really is unacceptable that lying is considered tolerable just to get the right response or a quick buck.  It’s OK because it helps the conservation effort or you’re friends with the lodge owner or whatever.  IT IS NEVER OK TO LIE.

 

And for fuck’s sake STOP SAYING THERE IS PRISTINE WILDERNESS IN ZAMBIA!!  It’s ALL had some mode of human transformation and/or use and/or settlement and/or utilisation and it’s perfectly natural for the bush to change with time and respond to whatever pressures (human, climate, wildlife, etc.) it faces.

Trophy hunting I

Conservation as it is known today arose from the big game hunters’ interest in preserving places to go hunting in which there would be abundant wildlife and minimal human interference with the landscape, or habitat destruction if you like.

The historical ideology was both practical and profitable while ensuring each animal had a price tag attached to their head, whether as a trophy, a trophy-in-training or mother of the trophy-to-be.  This early form of conservation incorporated conservation values still held today, such as reducing as much as possible, or even completely eradicating, human presence in designated “wilderness areas” while also fulfilling an important community-oriented role in terms of employment, meat provision and problem animal control.  It was commonly known that wildlife, while majestic and treasured, could be problematic to live with in a rural setting especially if one had crops that game would eat or livestock that lions would kill.

Conservation nowadays is much more about the animal welfare than it is about the people who have to live with the wildlife.  There are several examples in historical and modern society demonstrating how, without a tangible monetary or in-kind value, resources are exploited to damn near extinction or complete ruin.  Currently, the West and donors expect rural people who live on less than “a-dollar-a-day” to embrace the crop-raiding, livestock-chowing wildlife with little to no compensation for the destruction.  It’s no wonder one form of conservation is proving very difficult to protect, in Africa at the very least.

The reason for this is that the West, or those well-meaning donors, can AFFORD to place a form of monetary value on the aesthetical pleasure of viewing wildlife without eating it.  The people who do the poaching and habitat destruction simply cannot afford to think about much else than where the next meal is coming from.  One thing my family jokes about when dealing with Western ways of life or ideals is this: “Can I eat it?  If I cannot eat it then you cannot expect me to be ok with it.”  This can be about money, which can be used to purchase things to eat, or it can be about animals, which will readily be eaten by the highest-ranking government official straight down to the poor subsistence farmer whose child you will see in National Geographic with flies on its face.

If it’s destructive to your fields and you can eat it then why wouldn’t you shoot/snare it?  It’s a valid point that many miss in the effort to safeguard nature and the “rights” various people have assigned to animals not their own.

I’m not knocking conservation strategies, just trying to point out that not one model is good enough for such a large planet with such diverse wildlife problems amidst hugely diverse cultural differences.

 

Trophy hunting isn’t something everyone can stomach – most clients come out to shoot shit and take the head home to nail on their wall of “achievement”.  Who am I to judge?  This is the singular argument that most “antis” have against hunting: it’s all about feeding the ego of the client.  Feeding the ego and not the village.  Feeding the ego and not anti-poaching efforts.  (I can draw parallels with non-consumptive tourism feeding the lifetime dream of an African safari instead of the African people etc. but shall try to hold that for another properly researched article later).

Well, since I joined the hunting social group 10 months ago I have learnt a lot, by listening, asking questions, playing devil’s advocate, reading and, in my own way, contributing what I can from an ecologist’s perspective to discussions.  The following is based on my experiences and communication with various Professional Hunters (PHs) in Zambia and the staff and communities with which they work.  I have read the Wildlife Act No. 14 of 2015 several times and I would like to think I understand the cultural norms, expectations and requirements of rural Zambians living in, or close to, wildlife areas.

 

  1. HUNTERS ARE HUMANS. They have feelings, they are regular people with regular jobs for the most part, some are self-made millionaires others have been saving their entire lives to fulfil a dream of hunting in Africa.  They’re pretty nice, for the most part, to talk to and will put up with long hard, hot days, very simple accommodations and 4am starts and 10pm bedtimes.
  2. MEAT DISTRIBUTION TO COMMUNITIES IS NOT A RARE OCCURRENCE. Most, if not all, hunters/hunting operators distribute meat from the trophy animals to the nearby communities.  This is rarely in the form of distributions to single families but usually to schools (where students will take a hunk of meat back to their family), clinics or traditional ceremonies; or the chief.  Given that the hunting season in Zambia is in the dry season when the least amount of food is available/accessible to rural communities, this provides an important source of protein for a generally under-nourished population.
    1. MEAT DISTRIBUTION IS A REQUIREMENT OF HAVING A GAME MANAGEMENT AREA (GMA) CONCESSION.
    2. NOTE: I say meat distribution NOT donation. This is because I believe, even though it is not legally true, that the communities own the wildlife through not poaching excessively.  Donations are incredibly harmful over prolonged periods of time, making communities accustomed to ‘freebies’.  This is different.
  3. STAFF ARE EMPLOYED FROM THE LOCAL COMMUNITIES. The vast majority of staff employed by hunters/hunting operators are sourced from the nearby communities.  This includes chefs, waiters, mechanics, skinners, drivers, trackers, anti-poaching scouts, etc.  Without the hunting operators these areas would have far fewer employment opportunities, granted it doesn’t create millions of jobs, but it creates enough to bring some families out of extreme poverty.  Better some than none, right?
  4. HUNTERS AND HUNTING OPERATORS ARE CONSERVATIONISTS – THE ORIGINAL CONSERVATIONISTS. Hunters cannot maintain a business if their concession is devoid of wildlife, and not just wildlife but trophy quality wildlife (which happen to be the oldest individuals).  In order to maintain the resource they utilize they must protect it and ensure the populations are, at the very least, stable if not growing.  From a business point of view, this is easy to understand.
  5. HUNTERS PAY LARGE SUMS OF MONEY TO THE DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL PARKS AND WILDLIFE. In order to hunt an animal in Zambia one must purchase a GMA permit, allowing the client to hunt in a designated hunting area, as well as purchase a license for each animal the client wants to hunt.  This money goes to DNPW.  Once there, it is NOT the responsibility of the hunter/hunting operator to ensure it is used for the right purpose; this is up to DNPW.
    1. If a hunter or hunting operator were to challenge what the license and permit money is used for, it is highly likely that they would lose their concession in the next tender or, if operating on private land, would have a significantly reduced quota. This inevitably results in worse conservation overall.
    2. A GMA permit is $150 per person. A buffalo license is $1,600.  A lion license is $5,000 and an elephant is $10,000.  That’s a lot of money.
  6. HABITAT DESTRUCTION/FRAGMENTATION/DEGRADATION IS CITED AS ONE OF THE BIGGEST THREATS TO WILDLIFE IN THE WORLD. Hunting areas are generally not as picturesque as photographic safari areas and they are almost always far less accessible.  But hunting clients seek the experience once they are there and this is not a problem for them.  This means that if hunting stopped in Zambia and the GMA’s were put up for tender for photographic safaris (who actually have the opportunity to apply for them currently but don’t), we would lose over 50% of our national Wildlife Estate to human encroachment and poaching.  Hunting currently provides much needed habitat for the following species, but is definitely not limited to just these:
    1. Lion
    2. Leopard
    3. Wild dog
    4. Elephant
    5. Southern ground hornbill
    6. Thornicroft giraffe
    7. Black lechwe
    8. Red lechwe
    9. Kafue lechwe
    10. Cookson’s wildebeest
  7. HUNTERS ARE MORE INTUNE WITH NATURE AND THE ANIMALS THEY HUNT THAN YOUR TYPICAL CONSERVATION NGO PERSONNEL. Hunters spend more time in the bush watching animals and reading their behaviour than the typical NGO conservationist, so naturally they understand and know more about the bush and the animals.  They also have a more genuine interest in conserving their areas and making it benefit the local people – this is the sustainable way to go.
  8. IF HUNTING AREAS COULD MAKE THE SAME AMOUNT OF MONEY, OR MORE, FROM NON-HUNTING SAFARIS, VERY FEW HUNTERS WOULD CONTINUE HUNTING. FACT.

Keyboard Warriors

You may be familiar with the surge of “keyboard warriors” – badly informed, highly emotional, rabid “activists” who would claim they have superior morals and incorporate rationality and compassion into their arguments.  They also tend to believe their opinions are a) correct to the highest degree, b) the most important opinions, and therefore c) we should all do what they deem to be correct.

Conservation should NOT be about what the foreign public thinks.

It SHOULD be about what the local public want carried out in a way that will work in that area with those people.

These “keyboard warriors” of social media and, to a certain extent, various publishing companies (e.g. Africa Geographic) make conservation incredibly difficult for the people on the ground.  The “real warriors” if you like.

 

How?

  1. By not immersing themselves in the available literature in order to fully understand a scenario before bearing arms. This sort of uneducated, ill-informed argument is what one would expect of a child – not an adult who has had access to good education and who very obviously has access to the internet, therefore a huge amount of solid, verified information.  This leads to two extreme views of the current conservation situation: “unless there is a shoot-to-kill policy for poachers and encroachers we will lose the war” and “by saving one individual elephant we have made a huge contribution to the elephant population”.  Just as outrageous as the other, these are dangerous opinions to hold and spread as they are UTTER BOLLOCKS.

 

  1. These “keyboard warriors” are, for the most part, not from the conservation places they are so rabid about (e.g. Africa, Asia, South America), or have had very little real-life experience in the conservation sector (tourism is NOT conservation) or researching conservation/wildlife/natural world topics.

 

  1. They tend to base their arguments on what is “morally right” instead of what is practical, ethical and what works in different parts of the world. Besides, Westerners have different morals and ethics when compared to the peoples of the third world (and quite frankly, this is good sometimes).

 

  1. Anthropomorphising animals, even plants, is never a good thing outside of a children’s book or film. “Keyboard warriors” are particularly good at this.  Any researcher knows you cannot get so attached to a study subject to project human qualities onto it.  I guess the point here is none of the “keyboard warriors” seem to be as intellectually successful as researchers.

 

  1. Very rarely do “keyboard warriors” see the BIG PICTURE of conservation, they focus more on individuals (e.g. Cecil the lion and his son Xanda, or Satao the giant elephant, etc.) which is rather detrimental when you’re trying to conserve a whole ecosystem for not just one lion but several prides of lion, for example. This is particularly true when considering how hunting is an important tool for habitat and species conservation with the increasing human population putting immense pressure on the natural world (this will be discussed in another article once I find the right words for it).

 

  1. They often choose animal lives over human ones while claiming to be compassionate and morally upright; such as when it comes to human-wildlife conflict. Local communities cannot be expected to live peacefully with, and protect, wildlife if their lives and livelihoods are threatened by that wildlife.  Conservation is a human construct in any case.

 

I’m sure there are other examples experienced by other people in conservation, these are just the ones I’ve dealt with.

 

The biggest problem the “keyboard warriors” create is their influence over the donors, upon whose money most conservation organisations rely.  People won’t give money to a cause they don’t believe in but that means instead of doing our jobs in the field protecting nature we’re constantly trying to sell our projects and our opinions to the general public.

 

If the conservation community were allowed to do their jobs the way they deem best without worrying about the reaction of the donor communities and their supporters, they would be a lot more effective at conserving wilderness and wildlife.

 

The picture of maturity

Despite the public image(s) that conservation NGO’s like to perpetuate and develop, inter-organisational cooperation between such NGO’s is rather strained.  More often there will be cooperation, not because the NGO’s agree with, or have professional respect for, one another but because one needs something from the other.  It is imperative that readers note that conservation is a team effort and without such cooperation, however strained or difficult, it would be impossible to conserve and research wild places and animals.

I recently heard a rather disturbing story that spotlights the strain and competition between conservation NGO’s and how one person’s actions can have an impact on conservation in a whole COUNTRY – Zambia.

Some of you may know the people involved and the whole story, I ask that you do not mention any names in the comments and in posts if you share this on social media, as that would not help the current situation.  Let’s keep it civil and keep it as a lesson we can all learn from.  In addition, if the details are incorrect or something has been left out that is important to the story, please comment with the suggested amendment(s); remember not to use real names of people, places or organisations.

The story is as follows:

A conservation NGO in Zambia had a project managed by a very well respected person in the conservation sector, nationally, regionally and internationally, and has good donor backing.  In this narrative, this person will be referred to as “Santa”.  Santa decided, for whatever reason(s), to separate from the overarching NGO and take their project “private”.  This did not sit well with the boss of the NGO, naturally.  The CEO will be referred to as “Tinky winky” in this narrative.  Tinky winky then proceeded to fire not only Santa but a large component of Santa’s staff from the parent NGO.  In and of itself this was big news in the country and many people were shocked and appalled by Tinky winky’s behaviour.  Grumpy then decided to write emails to a large number of international donors in the UK and USA, many of which support more than one project in Zambia; I do not know what these emails said but essentially it was to “burn” Santa and remove any future support for them.  This email reached quite a lot of people in other conservation NGO’s in the county as well, many of whom know and respect Santa and knew their side of the story.  To add insult to injury, employees within the NGO told several outsiders (myself included) that Tinky winky took Santa to court over equipment, vehicles, etc. that had been purchased with funding granted to the project while under the parent organisation.

I was then put straight by Santa who said no such court case happened – merely a legal settlement was put forward and agreed upon by both parties.  Or, at least, agreed by one party and accepted by the other because no other choice existed.

So, what can we learn from this?  One person – one very egotistical, manipulative person – damaged the reputation of ALL conservation NGO’s in Zambia, potentially reducing the likelihood of repeat funding.  Why?  Because rejection was too much to handle for them; or failure.   What form of reprimand/discipline/backlash did that egotistical, manipulative person get?  Fuck all.  Why did they get fuck all?  Because “it’s good to be the boss”, and perhaps baby animals and the ridiculously high rates of internal conflict of interest at the NGO.

When working in remote areas with limited funding and expertise it is always wise to keep any potential help as close as possible, and making sure you maintain decorum in all situations.  I would not be surprised if, in this particular case, revenge was served cold and frostbite was suffered by more than just one man.

How does a monkey eat cheese?

Cultural sensitivity is a big thing when working in conservation – knowing when to cover your shoulders, who to speak to first, how to behave in various situations, what to expect from certain people, knowing when you’ve just been insulted – however it doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of some NGO’s who allegedly have the utmost respect for local culture and identity.

 

You will notice that a lot of conservation NGO’s employ foreign, generally white, staff to fill the higher ranks.  They also tend to prefer foreign whites over local, ‘home grown’ whites, and have no qualms about literally interpreting “keep it in the family” with regard to employment.

This leads to problems.  Lack of local support.  Lack of respect from staff.  Low work motivation.  Increased workplace politics.  Problems with government.  Reduced likelihood of work permit issuance.  Legal ramifications.

Take this amusing example:

A conservation project manager (would it excuse them if I said they were Dutch?), apparently approached a very senior police officer conducting speed trapping in a National Park in Zambia.  Bwana Senior Police Officer happened to be eating a hunk cheese like an apple; Dutchie observed this and allegedly blurted out:

“Why are you eating cheese like a monkey?”

Naturally, being African and high ranking, the insult was taken to heart and I believe the District Commissioner was called about the monkey-business, along with others of similar persuasion/position.  Anyway, this person (and their significant other who also happens to work for the same project) have had their contracts cut short due to “lack of funding”, which is what this particular organisation blames for just about everything, probably would try to blame Trump’s presidency on “lack of funding” if they weren’t pro-Trump.  I digress.

I don’t have any evidence, or gossip, that suggests that the two incidents are connected but it seems a bit too odd to be a coincidence.

This person had, until taking this job, been to Zambia once before (for the job interview) and South Africa once (I think, maybe somewhere else too) and no experience in conservation whatsoever; they did however have a Dutch police force background.  Had they gained some experience in Africa to see that, sure we have a sense of humour but never say anything that could be taken the wrong way to someone senior to you, this would not have happened.  Had they spent some time at lower levels of management to become accustomed to the people and the way things are done here, this would not have happened.  Had a Zambian been employed for this job, or even 2 Zambians together, this would not have happened.  Had someone from another African nation been hired, this would not have happened.  But, as is increasingly obvious, this particular organisation has not had a chance to accept this yet and is once again a bit of a laughing stock within the conservation community because of the incredulity of this situation (and previous ones of course).

Another, slightly less important but epidemic, culturally ignorant mistake of conservation folk is disregard for appropriate attire.  The “booty short” in rural Africa is anything above the knee; the revealing top is uncovered shoulders.  It’s annoying but necessary to understand.

Without some grounding in how to deal with indigenous peoples, some experience of how things really work in Africa and various amounts of patience, tolerance and resilience, one will likely not make it very far in conservation in Africa.  This certainly does not mean the people who do make it are polite, genuine, gentile, etc. (quite a lot are prejudice towards almost everything), it just means that we know what the system expects of us – and what we can expect from the system.

Of course, there are the bad-apple-Africans in the mix too!  Some will be “When-We’s” wishing for the days of white dominance and lawlessness to return, others will be the offspring of such people; you may be subjected to arrogant Rhodesians (because they still call themselves that) or those who are completely useless city-slickers from the likes of Jozi and CT.

Perhaps you will find yourself meeting a gentleman that manages a very nice conservation base camp, who seems to be respected not only by the staff he manages but also by colleagues and local community members.  Then you might hear stories about tempers being lost, something about fists or pushing (the details were sketchy), maybe something about the Chief demanding he removed from the chiefdom because he will not tolerate that kind of behaviour.  When you subsequently learn that this potential situation happened, not only months ago, but more than once, you wonder why such a person has not been sacked.  Naturally, this resulted in a lot of lost respect and tolerance for the project by the local communities.

If in doubt though, refrain from insinuating anyone is stupid or unintelligent, do not ever compare anyone to an ape – great or otherwise – unless you too wish to solicit an audience with your local District Commissioner (conveniently right before the money runs out), and do try your best not to play at fisticuffs with your colleagues/staff.

 

Disclaimer: I have used words such as “apparently”, “might”, “perhaps” and “allegedly”, and phrases such as “I believe”, “potential situation” and “I don’t have any evidence to suggest…”; I do not mention names of people, places or organisations involved in this story.  This means accusing me of defamation is not a possibility: you’d have to prove this is all false and being upset would only prove it’s all true.