Lifting the big cat hunting ban: Some thoughts and a call

Disclaimer: Zambiatourism.com is privately-owned and managed by Biggestleaf and Africa Insites. The views expressed in this post are those of the writer alone.

On the 15th of May, Zambian Minister of Tourism, Jean Kapata, announced that a two year ban on the hunting of lions and other big cats in Zambia was to be lifted.

This announcement has since received very mixed reactions. Many international hunting organizations were quick to celebrate the move and praise the Zambian government. American Hunter, the official website of the NRA, said in a post that it “joins SCI and hunters worldwide in commending Zambia for recognizing the importance of altering its approach to the conservation of these species and recognizing hunting as an important wildlife management tool”.

But social media  has predominantly shown a very different though no less impassioned view of the lifting of the ban. One of my roles for Zambiatourism.com is the managing of their Facebook page, and for the past few weeks I have been inundated with messages, comments and so on from shocked and angry animal lovers and safari goers, many of whom have gone so far as to say that they will now be boycotting Zambia altogether in light of the Minister of Tourism’s announcement. At the same time, I’ve seen various petitions popping up encouraging the Minister to reverse her decision. Some that I’ve seen already have more than 10,000 signatures.

But before I make my own  feelings clear on the lifting of the ban, I feel it is important to acknowledge that both sides of the argument around this issue have too easily allowed their emotions to run away with them  and have hastily jumped on the bandwagon without doing thorough enough research and reflection first.

On the side of the hunters, they seem to get a little giddy on this idea that they, and hunting, are somehow the saviours of African wildlife. Just a few days after Kapata made her announcement, American hunter Corey Knowlton killed a black rhino in Namibia’s Etosha National Park amid much controversy. Knowlton, who paid $350,000 for the right to hunt and kill the rhino, said that he was “absolutely hell bent on protecting this animal,” and that he “felt like from day one it was benefitting the black rhino.”

Similarly simplified arguments about the benefits of controlled hunting for wildlife conservation have been put forward by both hunters and the Zambian government repeatedly in recent weeks. The other commonly held view is that hunting benefits local communities. But reports suggest that in practice such noble claims are hard to back up. One 2013 report authored by Economists at Large and commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Born Free Foundation, among others, surmised the following:

“The suggestion that trophy hunting plays a significant role in African economic development is misguided . . . Revenues constitute only a fraction of a percent of GDP and almost none of that ever reaches rural communities”.

Having investigated nine African countries that allow trophy hunting, the report found that hunting accounted for just 1.8% of total tourism revenue, while only 3% of the money actually reached the rural communities where hunting occurs.

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Another claim often made by the pro-hunting groups is that it helps prevent poaching, in part because the communities in hunting areas are encouraged to see the wildlife as a valuable asset and therefore want to protect it. But if the aforementioned report hadn’t already debunked that theory, the scourge of rhino poaching in South Africa and (more recently) Namibia as well elephant poaching in Tanzania should do the trick. All three of these countries allow trophy hunting. Botswana, in contrast, does not allow any hunting or culling and has almost no poaching, though this has led to increased debate about what to do with an elephant population that is ballooning out of control.

This hints at another issue. Contrary to what many animal rights activists would have you believe, there is some credible evidence that with proper management and administration, controlled hunting could indeed benefit wildlife conservation for certain species at least. But the scourge of poaching has illustrated a number of management and administration flaws in the affected countries, even in Namibia, which has long been held up as one of hunting’s and conservation’s great success stories.

Can we honestly believe that Zambia will be able to succeed where its neighbours have failed in this regard? According to Pieter Kat, co-founder of LionAid, this seems unlikely. He noted that with regards to hunting too often “we just don’t know where the money goes”. Kat went on to say that the Zambian government “caved in to powerful hunting interests” and that their decision to lift the ban was based on estimates of big cat numbers that appeared to have been heavily inflated. While the government estimates there are 4,000 lions in Zambia, other estimates put the number at closer to 400.

Whatever the case, neither Jean Kapata nor the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) have been forthcoming enough with information that adequately or convincingly supports the recent move to lift the ban, and have made little attempt to try to explain the move to the concerned general public. This doesn’t bode well for transparency with regards to the management of hunting and associated revenue further down the line.

But does this mean that condemning and boycotting Zambia altogether is a valid response on the part of hunting’s detractors? No it doesn’t. Zambia (and ZAWA) desperately needs tourist revenue. As some pundits have noted, before the hunting ban was imposed in 2013, 60% of ZAWA’s revenue was generated by commercial hunting. Today, ZAWA is completely cash-strapped and has been bailed out by the Zambian government more than once. There is a rationale, therefore, that says that Zambia’s hunting concessions were created to be an economic engine that allows and pays for Zambia’s national parks (and ZAWA) to exist, and that without these concessions the parks cannot survive.

To put it simply, what this says then is that boycotting Zambia is only going to put more strain on an already struggling ZAWA and on Zambia’s national parks, and this could then have a negative impact on the very same wildlife that the potential boycotters say they want to protect. It will also have a negative impact on the numerous Zambians (from lodge owners to craft vendors) who depend heavily on tourists for their income.

I would also like to ask these potential boycotters where they think the hunters and the hunting money that has undoubtedly influenced the Zambian government’s decision are coming from? It’s certainly not going to be Zambians doing most of the hunting. And before these potential boycotters cast judgment on the hunting policies in Zambia or any African country for that matter, I also ask them to consider the hunting policies and treatment of wildlife in their own countries first. Too many of us Westerners are too quick to point the finger at others (particularly when it comes to Africa) before we’ve had a good hard look at ourselves.

So now that we’ve tried to look a little bit beyond the short-sightedness that is wont to afflict both sides of the argument around the lifting of the hunting ban in Zambia, where does that leave us? How do we proceed?

Speaking in my personal capacity, and considering all the points I’ve raised here, I believe that at this moment in time hunting of big cats is not a good move for Zambia’s reputation, it’s overall tourism revenue, or the vast majority of Zambians who depend on tourism. Whether or not I personally agree with the concept of hunting in general is, in fact, besides the point in this instance.

But rather than boycotting Zambia, I instead encourage prospective visitors to give more financial support to the country’s national parks and wildlife authorities so that hunting doesn’t continue to be seen as such an alluring option. And in the meantime, continue to petition Mrs Kapata to reverse her decision to lift the ban. I believe this approach will be to everyone’s benefit except the trophy hunters. And as far as I’m concerned, those guys have had their day.

We want to hear from you. Do you think lifting the big cat hunting ban is a good or bad move for Zambia? Will it effect your desire to visit the country? Tick a box below and we will do our best to ensure that the Minister of Tourism, the Zambian Tourism Board, Zambia Wildlife Authority and any other parties concerned in this decision know about it. We want to be at the forefront of promoting ethical and inclusive tourism in Zambia and your input is invaluable in this regard. Thank you.

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