If one Zimbabwean anti-hunter gets his way, the popular big-game destination could be the next African country to ban sport hunting. Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force Chairman Johnny Rodrigues said in an interview with SW Radio Africa a ban on commercial hunting will help fight poaching. Tt was the same argument Botswana President Ian Khama used when that country passed a ban on commercial hunting that will begin in 2014.
Khama said the ban “was taken to protect Botswana’s fauna, because hunting licenses encourage poaching. Left unchecked, rampant hunting would be a genuine threat to the country’s wildlife.”
Right now, Botswana’s ban does not extend to highfence private ranches, but the issue is still unsettled, and Khania, a long-time and outspoken critic of sport hunting, could eliminate all commercial operations.
The future of hunting in Zambia is in limbo as well. Tourism Minister Sylvia Masebo banned lion and leopard hunting in February, citing a decline in big cat populations. However, no one seems to know exactly how many lions and leopards live in Zambia, and numerous professional hunters had to make last-minute cancellations for hunts already booked for the upcoming season. Masebo also revoked public-land hunting concessions for all species. Hunting on private ranches is also prohibited with the exception of lands within a high fence.
“Technically, it’s not even legal for the tourism minister to ban hunting; said Conservation Force President John Jackson III. “She basically went beyond her established authority to do this.”
Botswana officials cited declining numbers of game animals as one reason for the closure, which includes elephants, but the country has the largest population of elephants in Africa. One estimate puts the number at 200,000 animals. Jackson says the number of elephants is the main reason some game species are declining.
“Some places in Botswana have no suitable habitat for a variety of game animals because the elephants have destroyed it,” he said. “Closing the country to hunting will just result in further declines in wildlife.”
Jackson adds nearly ten times as many big cats are killed in the name of livestock protection as are killed by sport hunting in Botswana, and poaching is the primary reason big cats are in peril in both countries.
“The hunting quota for lions in all of Botswana is 30, but they kill 200 to 300 per year to protect their cattle. There’s no telling how many more are killed illegally,” he noted.
As many as 60 professional hunters will be affected in Botswana, and an additional 30 to 40 will go out of business in Zambia as a result of the closures. Up to 4,800 jobs will be lost in Botswana as well, according to the Botswana Wildlife Management Association. The hunting bans will also affect American taxidermists and booking agents like Aaron Neilson, who specializes in big cats. It’s not the potential lost income that worries him. Instead, he’s much more concerned about the wildlife.
“Poachers will annihilate the game. Its by far the most tragic thing that will happen as a result of these hunting bans,” said Neilson, a Colorado resident “The professional hunters, the booking agents, well all figure it out but the wildlife? There won’t be any in a few years.”
Neilson has hunted in eight different African countries and has seen firsthand how effective poachers can be even when legal hunters are present. Once they leave, however, the country will undoubtedly fall into total chaos as poachers swarm across the landscape. Some poach to feed families and villages, but most sell meat in larger cities, killing as many animals as they can. A few sell trophy parts like elephant tusks on the black market
“They typically use snares and put out hundreds or even thousands at a time,” he said. “Snares are indiscriminate. They catch anything that steps in or walks through them, even elephants. This is a travesty.”
Kenya banned commercial hunting in 1977. Since then, wildlife populations have declined by 70 percent, according to a report by University of Pretoria (South Africa) Senior Research Fellow Peter Lindsey, largely a result of widespread poaching. The country has also lost an, estimated $20 to $40 million in revenue from sport hunting each year. Botswana stands to lose $20 million in revenue annually, according to a report by the Safari Club International. About 75 percent of the money generated by sport hunting remains in Botswana, compared to just 27 percent of all other tourism revenue. Much of that money is funneled back into local economies and is the primary source of funding for the country’s wildlife conservation efforts.
Despite the financial benefits of hunting, Zimbabwe’s Johnny Rodrigues wants leaders of his country to end hunting and put more emphasis on photo tourism. Leaders in Zambia and Botswana fully expect an increase in photographic safaris with the hunting closures, as well. However, Neilson, who has extensive experience hunting in Africa, says it’s unlikely ecotourism will make up the difference.
“There’s no reason they can’t have hunting and photo safaris. Much of Zambia isn’t conducive to photo safaris, so I’m very skeptical it will see an increase in tourism,” he said.
There is hope that hunting may come back to both countries in the future. Liberia and Uganda recently reopened hunting after both countries were closed to commercial hunting for several years. It’s a typical pattern throughout much of the continent. Seasons open and close with unpredictable regularity, thanks largely to corruption, war, and political unrest. That’s why Jackson and Neilson don’t think Zambia or Botswana will reopen hunting anytime soon. Botswana’s president has been trying to shut down sport hunting for years and Zambia’s tourism minister is simply ignorant, said Neilson.
“She said sport hunters brought about the end of tigers in Zambia. There have never been tigers in Africa. This is the kind of person we are dealing with,” he said. “These people are easily influenced by outsiders and are highly corrupt. Corruption is rampant.”