Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What the World Wildlife Fund knows but won't tell you

Yesterday was my second Independence Day in Botswana. Last year I watched the Eagle Island staff get shellacked by the nearby village in a soccer match. The 47th year of independence found me at Selinda Camp, a wonderful lodge close enough to the northern border for one to climb the tallest termite mound behind the staff quarters and get three bars from a Namibian cell tower. The game viewing at Selinda is off the hook, out of hand, pumping at the moment. We saw four herds of buffalo with more than 300 head each, a pride of eight lions, and a herd of elephants so thick one could walk across(if one were insane) in a half hour flight.

The guests and I were invited to a dance celebration when we landed. Mousadis(Matswana women) tied skirts around the waists of all the ladies while informing them that it's the law of the land that no woman can be seen in trousers on Independence Day. I do love irony.

The 47th year of Independence also ended commercial hunting in Botswana. Here are some of my insights after a year in country reading(Blood Ivory by Robin Brown is a good place to start), listening and thinking about the shooting of things for money in Africa.

Cat hunting was outlawed five years ago. Prior to that, if a farmer had an issue with lions or leopards taking cattle, he contacted a professional hunter(PH). The PH brought in a client that paid the farmer for the privilege of protecting said cattle. Farmers cried foul when the law was enacted making commercial cat hunting illegal. The government acquiesced by allowing farmers to kill one lion or leopard per day if in the act of protecting one's cattle. In the past, a farmer tolerated the occasional lion kill because a hunter gave him thousands of dollars to kill a lion that took a hundred dollar cow. Now farmers kill every cat that gets close to the herd. One can't blame them for protecting their livelihood. That is the current completely legal and accepted practice. Better? Not even debatable if one leaves emotion out of the discussion.

Farmers will cry foul soon about the damage from elephants. There's no reason to believe that the government will react any differently to the elephant problem. Except that they may once again sanction culling of the herds as they did in the past. Who will they employ? Well, last time they used PH's shooting from helicopters. Herds were completely wiped out as opposed to just taking the most mature animals as a trophy hunter does. The argument that lions will keep the elephant population in check holds little water, especially since the lion population continues to suffer since the end of lion hunting.

Roosevelt created the National Park system because he wanted every generation to be able to hunt elk. Hunters are greedy that way, they want to be able to keep hunting. Sure there are bad eggs but with hunting outlawed only outlaws will hunt. It's estimated that three thousand mounas(Matswana men) are now out of jobs due to the hunting closures. What do you think people talented at tracking and killing animals will do to feed their families?

PH's and their crews keep poaching in check not only by employing those skilled at hunting to do so legally but by patrolling areas. The government proposes requiring each photographic concession to hire a patrol of four men to monitor poaching in their areas. They will not be allowed to carry firearms. How hard would you look for armed and desperate men?

The hunting concessions that are now open for photographic concession bidding are the areas that were deemed unattractive for picture-taking tourists when the concessions were re-divided to encourage photo-tourism in the 1990's. I've flown over some of those areas and I can agree with the original assessment, not places I'd spend thousands of dollars to visit.

Speaking of thousands of dollars, the average legally taken elephant was estimated to be worth $100,000 in licenses, fees, charter flights, etc. to the Botswana economy. The meat went to the village nearest where the elephant was taken. That's about ten times what the average photographic tourist puts into the economy. Monies will still be pumped in, but illegally and disproportionately.

But what concerns me most can best be understood by relating an amusing scene I witnessed(several times by now) when I first arrived between a camp manager and a chef.

Chef: We are out of spinach.
Manager: Why didn't you tell me yesterday when I placed the fresh order?
Chef: Yesterday we had spinach.

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