A recent announcement that the Zimbabwe Wildlife Agency plans to sell the right to shoot 500 elephants this year has reignited a bitter debate over the role of hunting in the country’s public parks, which are reeling from a loss of tourism income during the coronavirus pandemic.
With around 100,000 elephants, Zimbabwe has the second largest elephant population in Africa after its neighbor Botswana. Its elephant population is controlled through the culling, hunting and conversation efforts of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks). The government agency oversees approximately 5 million hectares of national parks and botanical gardens.
Elephant hunting fees range from $ 10,000 to $ 70,000 depending on the size of the animal. The hunting season begins in April and lasts until October, when the rainy season begins. Botswana and Zimbabwe receive most of their hunting tourists from the United States, who pay for the privilege of bringing their tusks home as trophies.
Zimparks says the move is a necessary part of its animal population control and will generate income to fund its operations, which have been affected by a drop in tourist numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The southern African nation has sold an annual quota of 500 elephants since 1992. Last year, in the aftermath of Covid-19, “elephant hunting took place, although the numbers were low,” said the Zimparks spokesman Tinashe Farawo, although he declined to disclose the exact figure. He added that although the quota allows 500 animals, the maximum they have sold in a year is 250.
Farawo says the agency does not receive financial support from the government and needs $ 25 million for its operations each year, including the salaries of its rangers, who often operate in difficult conditions, including extreme weather conditions. .
“We are probably the only wildlife management agency in the world that does not receive funding from the central government,” says Farawo. “We have men and women who spend 20 days on extended patrol looking after these animals. They need allowances, tents, boots, uniforms. [Hunting] contributes part of the money we spend on managing our wildlife. “
A debate on the management of elephant populations
Farawo also says the hunting program helps prevent Zimbabwe’s national parks from becoming overpopulated by elephants and maintains its “ecological carrying capacity,” which refers to the resources available to support a population in a certain area, sometimes measured. between 1 and 4 elephants. per square mile (or 2.5 square kilometers).
He cites the country’s largest reserve, Hwange National Park, as an example. “Hwange is 14,650 square kilometers. The maximum carrying capacity of this park must be 15,000 elephants. But we are sitting on between 45,000 and 53,000 elephants, which means that the concept of one elephant per square kilometer is not happening. ” he says.
The effectiveness of using ecological carrying capacity as a guide to manage both animals and their habitats is disputed in the conservation world. Ross Harvey of Good Governance Africa, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization focused on improving governance on the continent, challenges the logic of “excess” elephants.
“This concept is constructed under the pretext that there is a certain ‘carrying capacity’ for elephants per square kilometer, but this notion has also been debunked by many recent scientific papers,” he says, citing studies from 2018. and 2006 for South Africa. Kruger National Park as examples.
Botswana, which has more than 130,000 elephants, cited carrying capacity as a reason to lift its five-year moratorium on elephant hunting in May 2019. The moratorium was put in place to try to stop the decline of its elephant population. Both countries have the African Savannah Elephant, which has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to poaching and habitat loss.
Tourism in Botswana and Zimbabwe came to a halt last year when countries imposed travel restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19. The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) estimates that the country’s tourism sector lost at least $ 1 billion in 2020 in potential revenue due to Covid-19. Tourism contributed 7.2% and 6.5% of the country’s GDP respectively in 2018 and 2019, according to the ZTA.
Shared views on the hunt
Peet van der Merwe, senior lecturer and researcher in tourism management at the University of the Northwest in South Africa, thinks it is fair that Botswana and Zimbabwe sell their hunting rights because their elephant populations are in fairly good health
“Our research that we conducted in Botswana showed that local communities need these operations and that they contribute to the creation of jobs and income for these communities,” he told Quartz Africa.
Van der Merwe says the elephant hunting rights initiative should be carried out with strict rules and regulations to prevent animal abuse.
But while elephant hunting creates high income in the short term, Harvey believes it is a destructive practice and unsustainable in the long term. “The key is to abolish hunting and devote resources to coordination alternatives, such as regrouping large reserves, creating migratory corridors for elephants, [and] create alternative types of tourism, ”he says. Elephant trophy hunting “is a game for the rich and has no scientific basis no matter what its supporters tell you,” Harvey said.
Van der Merwe says there could be other funds and companies or organizations that are willing to finance the maintenance of the park, but this is not sustainable. “It has been proven in the past that hunting can be managed in a sustainable way,” he says.
Alfred Sihwa, director of Sibanye Animal Welfare and Conservancy Trust, says the problem is complicated by a lack of transparency about the benefits of selling elephant hunting rights in Zimbabwe.
“Our challenge is where the money is going. Zimparks management salaries do not match what communities benefit from wildlife, ”beyond the meat they get from hunting, he says.
The funds from elephant hunting are accounted for, replies Farawo. “We are a public entity, we are audited every year by the Auditor General and for four five years, we have never been judged insufficient,” he said. “All the money raised through sport hunting, which is part of tourism, or through photographic tourism has been accounted for,” he said.
“We are the best at handling these elephants. That’s why we still have them. “
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