Blinkered Celebrities

Oh God, I have received yet another petition urging me to support a total ban on trophy hunting. I’m afraid I am not going to sign it, despite being informed that it is supported by a number of ‘prominent personalities.’

‘Why would anyone want to destroy something so beautiful, then stuff its poor lifeless body to keep as some kind of macabre trophy?’ This came from Bunter Johnson’s popsy, Carrie Symonds not long ago. She went on, ‘A trophy is meant to be a prize, something you’re awarded if you’ve achieved something of merit that requires great skill and talent, Trophy hunting is not that – it is the opposite of that. It is cruel, it is sick, it is cowardly and I will never, ever understand the motivation to do it.’

Actually Ma’am, ethical hunting requires a great deal of skill and talent as well as a huge amount of stamina! Ms Symonds is not alone I’m afraid. Lately, it feels as though there isn’t a TV celebrity who doesn’t feel outraged about shooting big game. Since its formation just over a year ago, the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting has amassed a list of supporters that reads like the guest list for a BBC Christmas party. Lorraine Kelly, Carol Vorderman, Nicky Campbell, Michael Palin and Ed Sheeran have all pledged their support. To be fair to Sheeran, he has actually been to Africa. He made a film in Liberia which one African commentator deemed to be ‘the most offensive and stereotypical fundraising video of the year.’

The trouble with all this righteous rage is that big game hunting, or trophy hunting is far from a simple story. Hunting is an industry that for instance brings each of Namibia’s eighty-two community-owned game conservancies an average income of well over five million pounds every year. And according to government figures, the sector has created fifteen thousand jobs including trackers and skilled taxidermists. Even more interesting for the vociferously anti- hunting ‘celebrities,’ Namibia is a country where wildlife is booming, with the rhino population growing six per cent a year and elephant numbers doubling since 1995.

Earlier this year, just over the border, President Masisi of Botswana came in for a personal attack from Joanna Lumley who insisted that he keep in place the ban on hunting elephants. For a bit of context, Botswana has a stable population of a hundred and thirty thousand elephants. In other words, they are thriving at the moment. It is because of this burgeoning population that the decision was made to allow a number of elephants to be shot. This wasn’t just to bring in cash either – it followed a consultation that found rural livelihoods were being destroyed by elephants trampling over farmland and coming into conflict with people. A team had been set up to usher them away, but inevitably the damage is done before they arrive. A number of villagers have died while trying to protect their crops.

Why should Lumley take the lives of elephants over people? And isn’t this white privilege at its worst? In some parts of Botswana almost fifty per cent of people live below the poverty line, so it is easy to understand why, to ordinary citizens, Lumley lobbying the President to keep a hunting ban in place was classic western arrogance.

However much you love animals, it’s really worth trying to look at African conservation issues from an African point of view. Last year, Prince William came in for some stick after official footage was released showing him visiting conservation projects in Tanzania and protesting against poaching. The video featured just one black person, whose contribution was an adoring appraisal of William’s leadership skills. Mordecai Ogada, an ecologist who specialises in community-based conservation, suggested the film conveyed a damaging narrative: ‘The message that goes out is that African wildlife is in danger, and the source of the danger is black people.’

Dr Ogada has a point. The source of the problem lies in the Far East and not with black people at all. And isn’t it a little rich of Prince William and his pals to decide to save African wildlife from poachers when British high society in the last century, spent decades profiting from pillaging African ivory? Add to that, the fact that this noble twit thinks nothing of hunting bears and other European wild animals while gunning down helpless game birds in the name of sport and it all seems somewhat hypocritical.

Another outspoken and ignorant numpty, Ricky Gervais suggested on a 2015 radio programme that rather than hunt animals, why don’t we say, ‘for ten thousand dollars you can hunt a poacher?’ Great idea Ricky: kill Africans for trying to protect themselves and benefit from their own wildlife. Yet I am sure he does not regard himself as in any way racist.

The irony of a trophy hunting ban – one that’s lost on its celebrity followers – is that the best way of preventing poaching is to sanction controlled hunting. I tried to explain this recently in my novel, Ivory Challenge, but not everyone seems to agree with me. Let’s go back to Namibia – the mantra there when it comes to big game is that ‘if it pays it stays.’ In other words, local communities look after wildlife because it is legal to sustainably monetise it. In Kenya and a few other countries, hunting is illegal and poaching is rife. There is bleak logic in the fact that if poor and hungry people can’t charge tourists to cull certain animals, they will simply slaughter them and make money from selling their body parts.

In fact, only a few hours ago, I watched a BBC programme about the trade in tiger carcasses that is carried out in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and controlled by China. It is a brutal business and mirrored in South Africa by a similar trade in lion bones. World governments and even CITES (the United Nations Convention into Investigating Trade in Endangered Species) are all too scared to stand up to the Chinese and wildlife trafficking – not only feral cat bones, but ivory, rhino horn, abalone and pangolin scales – is escalating to an alarming degree.

Come on, Ms Symons and Ms Lumley, as well as all you other mewling ‘celebrities,’ protest with the Chinese representatives and forget about the people who bring in a great deal of money to impoverished countries for the privilege of taking home trophies of their hunt.

Remember Cecil the lion – of course you do. How can anyone ever forget him. This animal was legally shot by a Minnesota dentist and the ensuing public outcry from people who did not know Africa at all virtually forced the dentist out of business.

But Cecil was a lucky cat. Dr Palmer’s crossbow bolt saved him from a far worse fate. Let me just tell you briefly how lions live and usually die. Male lions in particular become old very quickly. They enjoy a brief period – usually around two years – as pride leaders with all the attendant privileges. This is when they are in their prime between five and eight years old.

But their halcyon days quickly come to an end. Wearied with advancing age and continuous fighting for their kingship, they are driven out by younger males, sometimes after a brutal battle which leaves the exile with torn muscles, crushed bones or festering sores that will not heal. Alone and without the hunting prowess of female lions to help him feed, the big fellow rapidly loses condition and is soon reduced to scavenging or eating lizards and beetles in attempts to survive.

Sometimes they resort to hunting porcupines and end up with quills through their paws and faces which make it impossible for them to eat at all. Their end is slow and terrible.

One way or another, the king of beasts slowly becomes a barely walking skeleton. In the end he just staggers from shady spot to shady spot and is probably lucky if hyenas tear him apart while he still lives. If that does not happen, he will grow weaker until he is unable to get up at all. Then it is a matter of waiting for the vultures and the ants or whatever finds him and eats him slowly. Dehydration and shock will take the last of life from the luckier ones.

I have lived much of my life among lions and although I do not regard myself as an expert, I give talks on how they live. I watch the horror in the faces of my audiences when I explain the true facts and show them photographs to back up what I say. It is not what they have seen when they watch lion documentaries or animated children’s movies. Nor is it what they hear from the celebrity brigade in their crusades to stop hunting.

Reality is very different to fantasy I’m afraid and the problems are not as simple as those who have only seen lions on television imagine. For one thing, human beings have broken the ecosystems that once enabled Nature to regulate itself. Not even the largest wildlife parks can sustain the giant-scale cycles and migration patterns which make self-regulation possible.

Animals at the top of the food chain multiply until there are so many that their numbers simply have to be reduced. Mankind has made it impossible for nature to do this. In so doing, we have inherited a huge responsibility. If we can’t create game parks as big as entire countries, we will have to do the necessary – that means reduce the numbers in a way that makes economic sense. You don’t do that because it is pleasant. You do that because it is necessary.

Despite what the emotional ‘celebrities’ and do gooders may think, Cecil was a lucky lion. He was old but still mobile and if there had been no hunter to end his life, he would have endured a huge amount of suffering.,

Petitions to ban hunting or ‘celebrity rants’ from the likes of Symonds, Lumley and Gervase will achieve nothing to help lions in the wild, Nor will dropping pennies into collection boxes to save the Cecils of this world.

The hunters, whether you like them or not are the ones dropping real dollars and writing genuine cheques that do not only save Cecils but all the warthogs, wildebeests and little creatures that the sentimental warriors customarily ignore.

A vote against hunting is a vote for destroying sustainable conservation of wildlife. The real world is bigger and far more violent than cat’s sandbox. It is up to us to try and preserve it and we cannot do that by banning hunting..

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