THE poaching of rhino and elephant for horn and ivory is having horrendous impacts for both species across Africa.
Local and international conservation organisations and the general public are mobilising time, energy and resources to combat commercial poaching and wildlife crime - in Africa, and across the world.
At the same time, trophy hunting continues to be practised widely in Africa, and includes the legal hunting of rare and endangered species - even rhino and elephant. In America, the Dallas Safari Club has recently auctioned a permit to hunt a black rhino in Namibia - to raise funds for rhino conservation. In light of the current poaching crisis, this has led to a storm of international outcries and condemnation - including death threats against the hunter who bought the permit.
The outrage is centred on the questions 'how can rhino hunting be legal?' and 'should not all hunting be banned?'
There are two aspects to consider when discussing legal trophy hunting: Firstly, does legal trophy hunting have a negative impact on wildlife populations or does it contribute in positive ways to conservation? Secondly, what are the ethical and moral implications of hunting wildlife?
A brief look at the bigger picture is needed: There are very few places in Africa without pressure on the land and its resources. As human populations continue to grow, more and more pressure is placed on all land to provide livelihoods for people.
Agriculture is the most wide-spread land use on the continent. Cropping and livestock herding are subsistence activities on most communal lands. Commercial agriculture utilises large tracts to generate profit. Wildlife is generally seen as a threat to these activities, and is eradicated. In most African countries, wildlife is in severe decline.
In Namibia, the situation is different. Innovative legislation enables rural people to practise wildlife management as a viable land use that generates significant returns. This is the case on both communal and privately-owned land. Returns are generated through tourism, legal trophy hunting, harvesting game for meat, and the trade in live game, which can be moved to other conservation areas with low populations. Wildlife use can be strategically combined with agriculture, or practised on its own. Tourism is only possible in a small portion of Africa's vast spaces. Many areas are too monotonous, too remote or too inhospitable to allow viable tourism development. Legal trophy hunting can, however, be practised in almost all of these areas - as long as there are viable game populations. If wildlife is not conserved to enable returns from hunting for the people living there, other land uses will be practised to generate the income that could have come from hunting - and wildlife will be eradicated.
Put very simply - if wildlife does not generate benefits, it will be displaced by agriculture and other land uses. Even national parks must provide benefits to neighbouring communities if they are to be viable conservation entities, rather than isolated islands surrounded by conflicting land uses and communities hostile to conservation.
By allowing wildlife management to be a viable land use, with both hunting and tourism providing the returns, large tracts of African habitat can be maintained in a healthy state. This includes habitat for valuable, rare and endangered species such as rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah and numerous other species. In Namibia, healthy populations of all these species occur in communal areas, on private land and in national parks - simply because they generate income. Take away legal trophy hunting, and wildlife will be the loser. Commercial poaching is minimal in Namibia, because poaching is seen as stealing from local communities. In the very few incidents of rhino poaching, the help of local people has lead to the arrest of the culprits.
What of the ethical and moral implications of hunting a wild animal?
At some stage, each individual animal must die. That is part of the cycle of life itself. Generally, old or weak wild animals die a painful or violent death - either from starvation or disease, or by being killed and eaten by predators, or by being killed by rivals of their own species.
But the overall population continues to thrive - as long as there is enough suitable habitat available.
Saying 'I don't want any animals to die' does not help the situation. Becoming a vegetarian will not save any African wildlife. Condemning legal hunting does not help either. African land is needed to generate livelihoods - if these livelihoods are not generated through wildlife use, then wildlife disappears. The less wildlife is used, the less it will be able to survive.
Eating game meat is in fact an ecologically sustainable option, because it adds another area of income that gives people the incentive to allow wildlife to remain on the land.
Trophy hunting generally focuses on post-reproductive males, as these have the most mature trophies. Only a very small percentage of the population is hunted (0.5 to 2%), with no impact on the overall health of the species.
This is true for antelope, and for rhino and elephant. Trophy hunting requires minimal infrastructure and has a minor ecological footprint, but it generates significant income - for local communities, for hunting operators, for conservation activities, and for the national economy.
In many parts of Namibia, hunting income far exceeds income derived from tourism.
Legally hunting one old rhino bull for its trophy will generate significant income (several million Namibia dollars) that will help to conserve the species.
The old bull will soon die in any case - starving to death or killed by a stronger bull in a fight for dominance. This would be a natural death, but no returns would be generated for local communities to conserve rhino habitat, or to provide funds to combat poaching. No one would gain anything, least of all the rhino population.
Legal, responsible trophy hunting has proven, over and over again, to have no negative impact on wildlife, while making significant contributions to the conservation of species and their habitat. At the same time, the income generated from legal hunting generates funds for conservation activities, including anti-poaching initiatives, and makes important contributions to the livelihoods of local communities as well as the national economy.
In light of these facts, and in the face of severe environmental degradation through a variety of ecologically unsuitable land uses, can it be considered responsible to dismiss legal hunting just because we personally may not like it or consider it morally wrong? Would we rather see intact habitats converted to agriculture or other land uses than allow hunting? Would we prefer to see all wildlife eradicated, rather than having a few individual animals hunted out of a healthy population in an intact habitat? It's about having to make some pragmatic compromises in order for wildlife to survive in a real world faced with rapidly increasing human pressure. The choice is ours.