As summer draws to a close, many of Zimbabwe’s elephants will be shot on cameras. But some will be shot fatally, by guns. After an unscheduled pause in 2020 thanks to the pandemic, fresh hunting permits are being issued, putting the controversial practice of trophy hunting back in the crosshairs.
‘We have to pay our staff’
Every year since 1991, Zimbabwe sells permits to hunt 500 elephants. The right to shoot and kill one elephant is yours for $10,000 (roughly Rs7.4 lakh). The hunting season begins in April and lasts until the onset of monsoon in November. Park authorities say this is necessary and in the best interests of the animals and the locals. “COVID has brought our tourism down significantly. We have to pay our staff. We need money for fuel, uniforms and the upkeep of our national parks and animals. Our parks are self-funded; the government does not fund us,” Tinashe Farawo, spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, tells CNT over the phone. The ZPWMA is a government agency in charge of managing wildlife of the country. Its website spells out its vision: “To be the world leader in sustainable conservation”. For this, the ZPWMA needs funds. “We have a budget of $25 million (Rs186 crore), and sports hunting forms a small but important part of the funds.”
Zimbabwe’s elephant population is almost 83,000, according to the last census in 2014. “The population grows by about 5% every year. So, we have above 100,000 elephants. Our maximum carrying capacity is 40,000. The overpopulation is leading to several accidents, including damage of crops and [human] fatalities,” Farawo says.
He suggests that care is taken to minimise the impact on the species—the elephants that are “harvested” are usually old and likely to die a natural death after a few years.
The African country draws most of its hunters from the US, Russia, Europe and Mexico. “In addition to paying for the license to kill the elephant the tourists pay professional hunters to guide them and have their trophies treated by taxidermists and exported back to their home countries,” according to a Bloomberg report. “The skin of the elephant is used to make bags and belts, while the tusks—the most coveted part—are used for artefacts, jewellery and other gift items. Domestic trade is permitted, but not international,” Farawo tells CNT.
But it’s not the game that everyone is after, he says. More than the “offtake” of animals, what draws people is the thrill of being in the wild, says Farawo. “People love spending time in the bushes, watching the sunrise, sunset and stars. Some of them spend 18 days but aren’t successful with even one shooting and that doesn’t seem to bother them. Even though the quota is 500, we don’t exceed 250 harvests per season.”
‘Trophy hunting is not sustainable’
While park authorities point out that 500 hunting permits account for less than 0.5% of the elephant population, conservationists say it is still a matter of concern. In March this year, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species declared the African savanna elephant as endangered and the African forest elephant as critically endangered—just two levels away from being extinct. “Five hundred elephants per year since 1991 translates to 15,000 elephants. Animals do not need to pay with their lives to ensure that their species is protected,” says Simiso Mlevu, spokesperson for the Center for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), a Zimbabwean environmental and human rights advocacy group.
“Trophy hunting is not a sustainable means of generating income for conservation. It is the obligation of the government to fund conservation. When the government falls short, there are development agencies willing to assist,” she tells CNT.
Trophy hunting is an unethical practice that agitates animals and leads to man-animal conflict, Mlevu adds. “Elephants are generally peaceful animals, but they retaliate if a member of their family is attacked, killed or injured. Killing one elephant has serious repercussions and can cause huge emotional distress to the entire herd.” Moreover, it is the locals that bear the brunt of the hunting. “Trophy hunters armed with guns are well trained and also enjoy extra protection from rangers. Once they leave, it is the locals who bear the brunt of wildlife vengeance. The locals do not have anything to defend themselves with when elephants attack.”
Zimbabwe is not the only country that allows trophy hunting, and the elephant is not the only animal that is prey to this sport. About 13 African countries, including Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa, permit the hunting of animals that go beyond Africa’s big five—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo. In 2015, American dentist Walter Palmer paid $50,000 (Rs37 lakh) to shoot Cecil, a lion that was a major tourist attraction at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. While Botswana—home to 130,000 elephants—banned trophy hunting in 2014, the ban was lifted in 2019. In December 2020, Namibia auctioned 170 “high value” elephants due to the rising population.
Hunting as a means of sustainable tourism?
Does trophy hunting help the locals? The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which certifies the conservation status for species, says yes in its guiding principles.“Well-managed trophy hunting can provide both revenue and incentives for people to conserve and restore wild populations, maintain areas of land for conservation, and protect wildlife from poaching.” When wealthy hunters pay a fat sum for permits and their prolonged hunting expeditions, it helps the economy and discourages locals from taking to poaching. That is how it’s meant to work, in theory. But a 2015 report by National Geographic says that “a closer look at trophy hunting in Africa shows that the industry employs few people and the money from the hunt fees that trickles down to needy villagers is minimal”. For most African countries, the industry is said to generate between 0.3% to 5% of the total tourism revenues and on average, local communities receive only 3% of the gross revenue.
Do some animals need to be culled so that the rest can survive? It’s a question with no easy answer