14 June 2004

Burkina Faso: Hunting Revived to Control Rising Hippo Numbers

Ouagadougou — Lazing submerged in the river, the hippopotamus may seem a docile creature, but to the people of Burkina Faso it has become a menace - so much so that the government has made hippo hunting legal again.

There were fewer than 100 hippos in Burkina Faso just two decades ago and the large pachyderm appeared to be on the verge of extinction in this landlocked and semi-arid West African nation.

However, a recent government survey showed numbers have rebounded to around 1,400 following the imposition of a state hunting ban in 1991 and the establishment of privately-managed reserves where the animals are protected.

However, this resurgence of the hippo population has been greeted with concern by many farmers who live near rivers in the greener south of Burkina Faso. They are now forced to compete for food and water with these beasts that can weigh up to four tonnes.

"The hippos eat the grass where people farm, they live in the water where people fish and they eat the rice the farmers grow, too," Joseph Boni, the Provincial Director of the Environment for western Burkina Faso, told IRIN.

He does not know how to placate angry farmers who complain about hippos destroying their livelihoods. The government certainly does not have the money to pay damages to farmers who lose their crops.

The giant creatures, who laze in rivers by day and graze on grass by night, can be fleet of foot when they are in the mood for a gallop, reaching speeds of up to 25 km an hour and when frightened or disturbed they may well attack people.

So far this year, Boni's officers have had to kill three hippos after complaints from villagers. One animal seriously injured a farmer and the others wreaked havoc on crops.

"We often take responsibility to eliminate certain hippos ourselves because if we let the local population do it themselves, there would be no limit to the killings," he said.

There are a few people, like the "fearless fishermen" who use the growing numbers of hippos to their advantage. Although one gnash of the animal's jaw could snap their canoes in half, the fishermen casts their nets in among the semi-submerged animals to catch fish which are attracted by the giant herbivore's dung.

Generally in Burkina Faso though, hippos are coming to be seen as a nuisance, so the government has made hunting hippos legal again from next hunting season, putting them in the same category as lions, antelopes, warthogs and an aviary of birds.

Lassane Sawadogo, the government's national director of wildlife and hunting, said the move was justified.

"The number of hippos is today exploitable. That is why we asked... to make it an animal to be hunted again," he told IRIN.

A thorough survey of hippo numbers in Burkina Faso is underway and once completed, Sawadogo's department will fix an annual hunting quota. Hunters will have to buy special permits, which could cost up to 600,000 CFA francs, roughly US$1,100.

Over in the west, Boni says hippo hunting is essential to prevent the population rampaging out of control. But he said if there was another realistic way to manage the numbers he would welcome it.

"We are ready to transfer part of the hippo population to neighbouring countries or even to Europe," the Provincial Director for the Environment said. But he noted that transporting the heavy animals would be expensive.

Franck Alain Kabore has a wildlife concession in Arly, about 400 km east of the capital Ouagadougou, where he manages the land and its animal population and in return enjoys a cheap rent from the government. He told IRIN that he was happy about the legalisation of hippo hunting and hoped to attract big game hunters to his reserve.

Kabore streesed that this activity would benefit the local population by providing well paid jobs and a welcome source of free meat.

Locals will be entitled to one third of the meat from each kill and there will be no shortage of takers. Hippo flesh is considered a delicacy across much of West Africa.

"We will also be able to employ guides who will be paid a daily rate of about US$ 10 a day, a handsome fee in a country where the majority of the population live on less than a dollar a day," Kabore said.

Having sorted out hippo control, the government is facing a more difficult problem in dealing with a population explosion among elephants.

Elephants numbers have rocketed from around 350 in the 1980s to more than 5,000 today. Weighing up to seven tonnes, and needing around 300 kg of grass and leaves each day, a fully-grown elephant can also make a quick meal of a village's crops and there are fears that farmers might start poaching.

"I am worried for the population of elephants in Burkina. The concentration is very large for a small country," Sawadogo told IRIN.

Kabore agreed that urgent action to control elephant numbers was needed. He explained that maintaining land where elephants roam is costly as herds tend to stick to favoured routes and wear away the pathways and vegetation in the process.

"It is high time that the government assisted us with accompanying measures for elephants too," the game rancher said. He argued that restricted elephant hunting would also attract a specialist and lucrative tourist trade to Burkina Faso.

In some southern African countries -- Botswana, Namibia South Africa and Zimbabwe -- elephants are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, and controlled hunting is allowed. But not in Burkina Faso.

Kabore, who recently attended a government meeting on the matter, does not expect his own country to join the elephant hunting club any time soon.

"The government has already expressed its unwillingness to allow the killing of elephants," he said.

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