The haunting lion hunt: A lion too far
Isn’t it time to stop hunting them before they disappear?
Last week a lion was baited and then shot in Umbabat, a private reserve in the Greater Kruger National Park.
As an environmental journalist, my profession requires me to be objective, to give all sides of the story and let readers make the judgment call. But somehow that lion kill was a lion too far. I'm well aware that, on average, poachers down an elephant in Africa every 15 minutes. That South Africa is losing more than 1000 rhinos a year. That millions of pangolins and shark fins are being turned into Chinese soup. That rain forests are being flattened to plant oil palms so we can fry our fish and chips.
But that lion just did it for me. It wasn't just that a rich, egotistic American from Kentucky pumped a bullet into a beautiful wild creature. It was the cascade of justifications that led to its death and followed it to the taxidermist. The sort of justifications that always seem to cloak trophy hunting and the general exploitation of wild animals.
The lion was baited with the carcasses of a buffalo and elephant that had been killed on the same hunt.
Neighbours fear the lion was Skye, the dominant lion in a pride with cubs. Skye has reportedly been missing since the hunt and on Friday it was reported that one of his cubs had been found dead.
"There is a possibility you might be removing an animal that might be a pride male and then infanticide might take place, but the removal of a group of young cubs that is in the population is part of the calculation. You know there are risks," Johan Eksteen of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Authority told the London Times.
Wow, really? Justifiable collateral damage?I knew Kruger authorities had refused permission for the hunt to take place. But it's the MTPA that would have issued the actual licence, so I asked Eksteen why they ignored Kruger.
He replied: "The KNP letter saying that they would not support a lion hunt was sent before Umbabat submitted any predator population figures. We did get the information later in the month. Based on the information, the hunt of one lion was regarded as sustainable."
Eksteen quoted section 24(b)(iii) of the Constitution: "Everyone has the right to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development [his emphasis]."
Thank you, Johan; nice touch, quoting the Constitution.
Let's hold off "sustainable" for a moment - I have a big problem with it, but we first need to deal with the bigger issue. Umbabat is part of the Associated Private Nature Reserves, which consist of Timbavati, Klaserie, Umbabat and Balule, in total an area of about 185000ha. Within them are among the finest wildlife lodges in the world, many extremely expensive and exclusive. What few guests know - and would certainly not be told - is that the reserves are hunting the animals the guests are paying considerable sums of money to see.
Each year reserves within the APNR apply to Kruger to hunt animals, many of which migrate from the national park as there are no fences between them. Each year, almost routinely, permission is granted with some adjustments and suggestions. This permission is then ratified by the provincial authority, after which the hunting can begin.
The reserves ritually refuse to make these quotas public; it could negatively affect their classy tourism profile. But Kruger is a state entity, so it's possible to request the quota information through the Promotion of Access to Information Act and the park is obliged to supply it. That's what an animal rights group, the EMS Foundation, did.
The list was startling.
This year the quota includes 53 elephants, up from 34 in 2017 - despite a decline in elephant numbers from 2772 to 2224 between 2015 and 2017. It includes a bull older than 50. For Umbabat it had no upper tusk limit, so could potentially be a 100lb (45kg) tusker, which many argue should never be hunted.
It also includes 36 buffaloes (despite a 68% drop in numbers to 2327 in 2017), 44 kudus, 19 warthogs, seven hippos, a lion, a leopard, eight hyenas, five giraffes and 4171 impalas - 4467 animals in all. In the world-renowned Sabi Sands private game reserve, which also borders Kruger, no hunting whatsoever is allowed.
The request to hunt a lion and leopard had been expressly denied by Kruger. It had gone further, noting a lack of auditing: "[We] cannot comment on the revenue income or expenditure reports received from Umbabat, since it is not clear from the report how the entities within Umbabat as a federal system manage and monitor income generated as a result of the animal off-takes."It is also not clear towards which conservation, management and socioeconomic
activities the revenue generated is being directed. It is the mandate of MTPA as issuing authority to verify that management takes place."
Last year Kruger authorities said Umbabat's future hunts would only be approved "if appropriate agreements embodying these principles are in place". This year it listed 11 problems in the reserve's administration of hunting, some so serious it would have been reasonable to expect the application to be rejected in its entirety.
But the hunt went ahead anyway.
When the APNR dropped their fences with Kruger in the 1990s, they secured the legal right to hunt wild animals within their boundaries, even if these trotted over from the main park. Several of the reserves have abattoirs on their properties. Timbavati, evidently, has a hunters' museum so you can get a feel of what you're about to shoot.
Tourist lodges in the APNR deny they benefit from hunting, although they generally have impala and warthog on their menu. The benefit they do gain is the funding of conservation and anti-poaching operations organised by landowners (lodges are mostly tenants). And this involves hunting.
Herein lies another conundrum. As poaching escalates, so does the cost of environmental protection and particularly anti-poaching operations. The APNR quite reasonably point out that they need to raise funds for this and that hunting is the easiest way to do it. The hunter of the Umbabat lion is said to have paid over R1-million to pull the trigger. The other income is from gate fees.
Owners may also pay a levy, but nobody seems prepared to say how much. It is probable that they pay as little as possible, preferring to support hunting as the cash cow. Why not, if it's legal?All of this is predicated on the notion of sustainability. Let me be frank here and say I think the way both hunters and very often conservationists use that term is hogwash. The always unasked question is: sustainable for who? It is unlikely that a lion, seeing its mate shot, would deem that sustainable. Nor an elephant, rhino, hippo or kudu.
Sustainability is a neoliberal way of saying we shouldn't kill more than the reproductive rate of our victims. Is that any way to qualify as good citizens on this planet? But hey, it's all perfectly legal. It's embedded in our world-class Constitution.
I don't know how to stop people who want to kill beautiful wild animals, or poachers from poaching, people wanting rhino horn or ivory; the APNR paying for protection without hunting, Kruger feeling OK about neighbours killing its animals without paying the park a cent for the right.
But I do know that at the root of all of this are people who profit handsomely, large amounts of money changing hands and a system shot through with corruption. It makes me ashamed to be human.
We are so damned reasonable about why we kill this planet creature by creature, biome by biome. We are such sophisticated apes, so clever with our tongues. We make laws, frame agreements and sign off on licences by which we tell ourselves this is the right and legal thing to do. It's all well-documented cover for a war we're conducting on all those creatures on earth that we do not eat or keep as pets. We are essentially stealing land and life from species that have accompanied our journey for millions of years. Most people don't seem to be aware of this - or to care.
Lions are one of Africa's greatest natural heritages. It's a point made by environmentalist Michele Pickover: "Kruger Park cannot simply hand over our natural heritage to private entities and individuals motivated by profit. If cultural heritage was handled in the same way, it could mean that our national heritage institutions would be able to sell off items such as the records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Taung skull or Sol Plaatje's diary to private collectors to do with what they want. In principle, there's no difference."
Africa's population of wild lions has fallen 90% in the past century. There are now only about 20000 left. Would the US or China approve if hunters from South Africa shot their bald eagles or pandas? Don't think so.