Is African Hunting In Trouble?
Is big-game hunting in Africa on its way out? A veteran safari hunter doesn't think so.
By Craig Boddington
"African hunting is in trouble!" During the convention season just past I heard that line a number of times. Far worse, I heard it stated that “African hunting is on the way out.” That’s a bleak prediction not just for our hunting world, but also for African wildlife. Is it true?
It is true that we who love African hunting and African wildlife--and we who dream of African hunting--have taken some serious knocks in recent months. Two years ago Botswana closed hunting on government land, including suspension of all elephant hunting. A year ago, after outfitters had their seasons booked and hunters had their plan in place, U.S. Fish and Wildlife suddenly banned important of sport-hunted ivory from Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Effective January 22nd of this year, Americans cannot currently bring lion trophies into the United States. Although currently open to hunting again, Zambia has been on-again, off-again, and in the wake of U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s action, it is uncertain if cat hunting will be open this year. South Africa, with a CITES quota of 150 leopards, has not issued any leopard permits for 2016. I could probably come up with a couple more catastrophes, but that’s enough for now!
Predictions of gloom and doom seem part and parcel of African hunting. Clear back in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt wrote that African game was going fast. He wasn’t exactly correct, but in general he and son Kermit found a game-rich paradise that will never be equaled. But not across the board. His safari was conducted after an epic ten-year rinderpest had swept much of Africa. Certain hard-hit species were extremely scarce, including eland, kudu, and buffalo. Greater kudu never recovered in East Africa, and remain very spotty in that region. There is a famous photo of the Roosevelts perched on a buffalo. One assumes it was the best they could do, but, honestly, it’s a young, soft-bossed bull that would no decent PH would allow to be shot today.
The Barbary wild boar is the primary game in Tunisia, which has been open to hunting for forty years. It’s one of several African destinations that Americans know very little about.
Years later, after his 1934 Green Hills of Africa safari, Ernest Hemingway complained that the game was going fast. In 1953, after the safari that gave us Horn of the Hunter, Ruark predicted the same. As I’ve often said, “gloom and doom” about Africa seems almost unavoidable: After a first safari almost everyone seems compelled to believe that he or she saw Africa at its best, and no one following well see its equal. I did the same in 1977, and perhaps I can be forgiven because Kenya closed (probably forever) a few weeks after I hunted there.
One good thing (I guess) about growing older is that one gains the perspective of years. Africa is an unstable continent, and to some extent catastrophe is a cyclical thing. We all remember that Kenya closed in 1977, but many of us have forgotten that this was just one hit in a very difficult decade. Tanzania closed in 1973. Angola, Mozambique, and Uganda petered out due to civil unrest over the next couple of years. Chad closed in 1978, and southern Sudan closed in 1983. Any wonder why, in those days, we thought the end of the game was near?
Fortunately we were wrong, and I think dire predictions are wrong again. Let’s examine briefly the real situation with our recent disasters. First, Botswana is not closed. “Safari hunting” is officially suspended, not closed, on government land. Vast areas of private land remain open with great plains game hunting. It is true that safari hunting will not resume under Botswana’s current government, but Botswana is a working democracy, and that government will not be in power in a couple of years. I predict things will change again, and Botswana will reopen. I believe this because rural Botswanans want it to, and because the country’s gross overpopulation of elephants makes hunting a management imperative.
The ivory ban in Tanzania and Zimbabwe is regrettable for both countries, the outfitters in both countries, and the elephants. However, when Sudan closed in 1983, Africa’s elephants were being subjected to a widespread wave of commercial poaching even worse than today’s admittedly serious poaching problem. Botswana closed elephant hunting and Caprivi was not open at all. We believed elephant hunting was finished. Clearly we were wrong, because we had been overlooking the southern countries that were not subjected to widespread poaching. Today we have great elephant hunting in northern Namibia, and more permits in South Africa every year. Despite the importation issue, elephant hunting is still open in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, and I believe in time Botswana will reopen. Opportunities are not as good as they were just three years ago…but I submit that elephant hunting today is better than it was in 1990.
America’s cessation of lion importation is a most regrettable thing for hunters who dream of facing a lion. In the grand scheme I genuinely believe it is very bad for Africa’s lions, removing much value from an animal that rural Africans regard as a dangerous nuisance. Because of the way the ban was done it appears highly unlikely that sport-hunted lions will ever again be imported from Central and West Africa, meaning Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Central African Republic. That’s a disaster for the lions in those countries. But the door is open for a permit process for lion importation from East and Southern Africa. It will take time to sort through this, but I believe there will be a permit process. Again from the standpoint of years, this is not as new as many believe. Too many of us have forgotten that, starting in about 1973, Americans were forbidden to import leopards, a situation that remained until the CITES treaty in 1983. Today we have a longstanding and relatively simple permit process for importation of leopards. I cannot say this will happen with lions, but since I’ve seen it before this is my belief.
As for Zambia, this last go-round was not the first time Zambia has had a temporary closure. A previous one lasted from about 1998 to 2003. Zambia has reopened, and they are not the only country to reopen. Mozambique reopened in the late 1980s as their civil war was winding down, and not only has remained open but has resumed its place as a primary safari destination. Uganda has reopened and is getting better every year. Other countries are more volatile. C.A.R. has had a long series of openings and closings based on civil unrest, but when it’s safe it’s definitely a hunting country. Chad has reopened twice in the last twenty years, and is open now.
With the cessation of lion importation I hear that leopards are next. Why? We, both the American “we” with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the international “we” with CITES, have a permit process in place and a sensible by-country quota system. There are perhaps two million wild leopards in Africa, an altogether different situation from lion estimate, with the lowest number often quoted at 35,000. This year’s South African debacle is cited, but it’s important to understand that this is purely an internal South African issue. They didn’t have their stuff together and didn’t issue their permits. The Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA) is taking legal action to rectify the problem, and I believe it will be rectified, though perhaps not in time for the 2016 safari season.
In the late 1970s Americans hunters could not import leopards. Since then, the leopard has rebounded and a permit process has been in place since 1983.
So much for current problems. In the main, African hunting is stronger than ever. At this writing some twenty-two African countries have some type of legalized sport hunting for foreigners. This is far more opportunity than was available in 1980! Several of these-—Guinea, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia—-are virtually unknown to American hunters. Others are highly specialized, or have very small and limited outfitting industries. But they are open. Also, in 1980 there was limited hunting opportunity in both Namibia and South Africa, and bush war in Zimbabwe-—then Rhodesia-—made much game country unsafe. Both Mozambique and Tanzania were closed in 1980. I single out these countries because, in terms of numbers of safaris and foreign sportsmen hosted, they are almost certainly Africa’s five most important hunting countries today, probably followed by C.A.R., Cameroon, and Zambia.
Since Roosevelt’s day both African wildlife and African hunting have proven more resilient than we give either credit for. Hunting works in Africa’s wild lands because it places value on wildlife, and because hunting outfitters conduct more effective antipoaching than most African governments. This fact is recognized enough that there are more hunting countries than ever before, and while I don’t believe any hidden hotspots remain, there is potential for additional countries to open or reopen hunting over the next few years. The “potentials” are a fairly long list and my crystal ball isn’t working, but I rate the most likely possibilities to be Angola, Eritrea, Gabon, and Southern Sudan. Right now we’re negotiating some serious bumps in the road, but I do not believe African hunting is in trouble, and I certainly do not believe it is on the way out.