By US Ambassador Eric Schultz
Earlier this month my family and I traveled to one of the jewels of Zambia’s National Park system – South Luangwa. What an amazing park! In the span of a few short days we saw lions and leopards and elephants and really everything save rhinos and wild dogs — the last my younger son’s favorite, guaranteeing another trip to the park in the near future.
In addition to seeing the park and its animals we also met with the park officials, NGOs, community leaders and lodge owners committed to conserving the park and its precious wildlife. And in that regard, frankly speaking, the trip had its sobering moments.
The fate of Luangwa’s rhinos is perhaps instructive. Once numerous, they were hunted to extinction in the 1980s for their horns.
One of the arguments many hunters make is that hunting is conservation. We have heard that especially since the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe last month. While that can be true, especially when hunting concessions are sold transparently to responsible professional hunters, the fate of Zambia’s rhinos tells us that there is a different story possible as well – that when hunting is neither ethical nor sustainable nor given to responsible hunters it is really no different than poaching and puts at risk the survival of a species.
Take lions: only males are supposed to be hunted but the death of a male lion often as not also leads to the death of its male cubs. Moreover, every male that’s killed reduces the gene diversity of the surviving lions and – as we saw in Zimbabwe – trophy hunters don’t want just any lion – they want the most dominant males. The result is a weakening of the ability of the lions as a whole to ward off disease.
Moreover, lions and leopards are not easy to count – especially by air – and there is no agreement among stakeholders on how many big cats there are in Zambia. The best way is probably by statistical sampling and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles with heat imaging capability. With those capabilities, we can better estimate the number of big cats left in Zambia. However, without such a reliable estimate, it is to my mind courting disaster to reinstate the hunting of big cats as the government and ZAWA have proposed.
Or for elephants for that matter, whose populations are also in dispute, with many stakeholders noting declining populations and increased poaching, as I noted a few months ago in an article about a trip to Kafue National Park (http://zambia.usembassy.gov/op-ed-04222015.html).
What happens to Zambia’s tourism industry, already the source of so many jobs and with so much potential to drive future growth, if the big cats or elephants go the way of Zambia’s rhinos? In that regard, it was gratifying to see that State House is seized with Zambia’s poaching crisis and considering drastic action.
While poaching must be eradicated, hunting can be a part of Zambia’s tourism industry going forward; albeit a small part. Photographic safaris on the other hand are the backbone of Zambia’s tourism industry. At one point my family and I came across two young male lions basking in the late afternoon sun. This is what the tourists come for and within minutes there were a dozen vehicles and a hundred tourists observing and photographing these magnificent animals. At hundreds of dollars a night, it doesn’t take much to figure out the economic value of Zambia’s lions. Over the course of their lives they are worth millions of dollars in tourism revenue.
By contrast, they are worth $4500 to the Zambian Government and ZAWA. That’s the price of a license to kill a lion, which the Government means to allow once more in 2016, when two lions per concession (and there are 22 concessions) are to be killed. That’s 44 lions, most of whom will be young males like the two we saw on the banks of the Luangwa River.
The community leaders whom I met, many former poachers, told me in no uncertain terms that hunting has done nothing for their communities. The bulk of the money made for the killing of a lion, or any other of Zambia’s wildlife, accrues to the safari operator. They will make tens of thousands of dollars from the hunt but even that is still much less than the value of the animal over time for photographic safaris. Moreover, the “hunt” is often nothing more than luring a lion with bait so the American tourist (and yes, sadly, the bulk of these trophy hunters are American) can kill it.
At a minimum, we would like to see the Zambian Government and the communities near the parks and the GMAs make the bulk of the money from hunting. Why not auction off the licenses? The market value for such a license is almost certainly worth a lot more than $4500 – and if that money is used transparently to further wildlife conservation, then hunting would be contributing to the future of Zambia’s tourism industry — and the communities that depend increasingly on it for jobs — instead of becoming a cover for poaching.
And also at a minimum, couldn’t the Zambian Government insist on ethical hunting and an end to baiting? Baiting is not sport and requires no skill – it’s just slaughter. In that regard, Americans were outraged by the death of Cecil and public pressure has already led American airlines to ban shipment of trophies; can a general ban be far behind if such unethical hunting practices continue?
August 10 was World Lion Day and August 12 World Elephant Day and my family, and I felt privileged to be able to view these most majestic of God’s creatures here in Zambia, one of the few places left where African wildlife can roam free.
Let’s work together to keep it that way so that future generations of Zambians, of Americans, indeed of all nations can also admire the majesty of Zambia’s wildlife.
Let’s keep the ban on hunting big cats and elephants in place until we are sure the numbers support a resumption of hunting – and then by all means let’s charge the hunters an arm and a leg for their (trophy) heads.