Poverty & Unemployment are the Two Principle Drivers that Cause the Village Hunters To WANT to Poach

We have had several robust discussions on our FaceBook page. Samatha Dixon one of our Facebook visitors asked some questions in the comments on the post Xanda is no more.

Here is my reply to her.

Dear Samantha,

I am very happy to answer your questions; and you have certainly presented me with some very eloquent and seemingly erudite ones. My responses, however, may not be acceptable to you because we look at the issues involved from very different perspectives. However, I will do my best; and I trust that you will do your best too – in trying to accept my answers. My explanations, incidentally, come from my heart as much as they do from my head because I have a genuine love for wildlife whilst still having a calculating awareness about how they can and should be managed.

Sometimes it is necessary to practice tough love, and to use hard words, when disciplining your children – especially when you want nothing but the best for them! And one does not spend 58 years of one’s adult life managing national parks, and the wild animals they contain, without becoming emotionally committed to what you do!

I have come to understand that if wild animals are to be ‘saved’ for posterity, mankind has no option but to consider them to be commodities – resources – that should be “used” wisely and sustainably for the benefit of mankind. Mankind holds the future of Africa’s wild animals in his hands, and man will only allow them to persist if they provide some considerable benefit to his survival. You may not agree with me here but hear me out. Listen to what I have to say before you blow your top.

Man’s human population in Africa, south of the Sahara Desert, numbered 95.9 million in the year 1900. One hundred years later, in the year 2000, those numbers had grown to 622 million. And if man’s human population continues to expand at the same rate it grew during the last century, by the year 2100 the human numbers in this same region will have topped 4 billion.

Today, our various human societies in sub-Saharan Africa probably number about 750 million. And we are already struggling to maintain our species diversities, our wildlife distributions and our wildlife populations in healthy numbers. In many countries poaching is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Most areas which represented “Wild Africa” in the year 1900 are now occupied by man – which is the main reason why the geographical distribution of so many wild plant and wild animal species has shrunk, and why their numbers have declined.   This has happened largely – not because of hunting or poaching – but because man’s numbers are growing exponentially and he has outcompeted wild animals for the plant, water and space resources of the land. It has also happened because of bad governance. Think what the situation is going to be like at the end of the current century when there will be six times as many people seeking to use the land’s resources for their own survival – as there are today!

One thing is certain. If we continue to manage our wildlife the way we have over the last 50 years, by the year 2100 the human avalanche that is poised to swamp the continent of Africa, is going to smother our wildlife sanctuaries and decimate their wild animals. I don’t want this to happen; and I am quite sure you, Samantha, also do not want this to happen either. So what is the answer?

There are a number of indicators which can lead us fairly safely into the future. First, we have to understand that “greed” is not the principle factor that is driving the poaching pandemic in Africa. The poachers, the people who pull the triggers, are, in most cases, the village hunters that live on the national park boundaries; and they poach in order to survive. Poverty and unemployment are the two principle drivers that cause the village hunters to WANT to poach. And if we cannot remove those two factors from the equation the village hunters will continue to WANT to poach – forever.

But that is not the whole story. Since the 1960s all the major poaching events that have taken place in Africa – where hundreds of thousands of elephants and have been killed, and thousands of rhinos – have all been orchestrated by the political elites of Africa. It is they – the presidents and their families, their political cronies and their chiefs of police and the army generals – who have employed the village poachers to hunt for them. And they have given these their “poachers” (hunters) immunity from arrest. THAT is why so few poachers were ever apprehended and/or prosecuted. The presidents paid their hunters a pittance and pocketed the rest for themselves. Nevertheless, the poachers were reasonably happy with what they got because “the pittance” was better than nothing.

There are people who say that once you put a price-tag around an animal’s neck you put it on the slippery slope to extinction – because THEN it will be over-harvested because of “The greed of mankind”. This idea has to be challenged because a rural man’s cattle, sheep and goats have had price tags around their necks since time began, and none of them are threatened with extinction. I am one of those who believe that if we can create the same kind of symbiotic relationship that man has with his cattle – between man and “his” wildlife – we can remove the poverty factor from the poaching equation altogether; and THAT will be the greatest thing that society can ever achieve if we are to save Africa’s wildlife for posterity. And the bigger the price tag, the greater will be the people’s profit, and the greater will be their incentive to look after their “geese that lay the golden eggs”.

Hunting provides a very great “added-extra” to the financial returns that a rural peasant can expect from someone “helping him” to harvest his wildlife resource. And there are many things that we can do, to use the products of a wildlife harvest to create employment in rural community areas, too. So in one stroke, we can remove the two principle drivers – poverty and unemployment – from the poaching equation. And that is why hunting is important.

Now that I have, hopefully, justified hunting as a management tool, let me address myself to the specifics of your questions:

(1). “How was the lion to know that if he crossed some unmarked line that he would be declared “superfluous” and unnecessary?

There is no unmarked line! When a lion dethrones the king of a pride, he takes over the old man’s territory and his pride of lionesses. He then sets about re-defining the boundaries of his new territory by marking the “line” with ritual spays of his urine. And if any of his territorial boundaries are contiguous with those of another lion’s territory, many fights will ensue. Eventually, however, adjustments are made and the new king settles down to enjoy the fruits of his fighting. And he will fight to the death any other lion that tries to usurp his authority within the boundaries of his own territory.

The old and now deposed king, has to vacate his old territory – because if he doesn’t he will be killed or very badly injured by the new king, and that is not good. A badly injured lion will reduce still further the old lion’s ability to make a kill on his own. So, if he is badly injured, his survival chances are then much reduced. Most deposed lions don’t survive for long. Starvation, particularly, is their greatest problem.

A deposed king moves from pillar to post within the game reserve looking for a place where he can live in peace. He survives principally by scavenging from other predators’ kills; and natural deaths of animals. And he keeps moving because he is constantly walking into other lions’ territories; and he is constantly being chased away.   Eventually, if he travels in the right direction, he will move out of the game reserve onto private land outside. He will know he is safe there because his biggest problem – harassment from bigger and stronger lions – suddenly ceases.

(2). Perhaps these animals that attract a lot of tourists should be fenced in if that is the case? Etc.

Wow! Now we are wandering way off base. National parks are not set aside for tourism! They are promulgated, primarily, to enable the society (government) that owns the game reserve to maintain its biological diversity. And they should be managed, primarily, to achieve THAT goal (that is, to maintain the park’s biological diversity). Sustainable tourism (and nothing at all is worth doing unless it is sustainable) can only (and should only) be imposed on top of a sustainably managed and stable ecosystem. Maintaining a healthy and stable lion population in a game reserve is good for tourism – yes – by lions are not put into a game reserve just because tourists like to see lions. Managed, properly, a lion population will provide tourists with adequate lion spectacles to suit their needs.

(3). Your questions are now of a multiple and crossed-over nature so I am going to try to provide you with an overview of the ecological circumstances which seem to confuse you.

Within natural systems there are normally checks and balances that ensure stability in all wild animal populations. For example, the numbers of lions in a game reserve is a reflection of the numbers and kinds of prey animals that are available for the lions to kill and eat. And the numbers of available lion territories take this into account, too. The size of a lion pride, on the other hand, is often a response to the kind of prey animals that the pride most often kills. Prides that kill and eat mainly giraffes and buffaloes are normally bigger than those which rely on wildebeest and zebra.

There is an hierarchy in the feeding procedures at a lion kill: dominant males get first preference; followed by the big females; then come the bigger youngsters, and finally the weaned cubs are able to join in. Very often the smaller lions have only the bones to pick – so they go hungry. And when the big lions and lioness have filled their tummies to capacity, they may not feel inclined to hunt again for another week, so the babies suffer – often badly.

The eviction of young lions from the family when they are about two years old is another way the prides adjust their numbers. The evicted animals are then known as young nomads, and they very often don’t live long after they leave the pride. Some make it some don’t. And so lion populations regulate their numbers naturally.

Having new cubs and suffering many deaths, in many different ways, are all part of lion pride existence. And only a tiny fraction of all cubs born actually survive to full maturity. So the shooting of an old male lion that is past his sell-by-due-date time is really of no consequence in the bigger picture. Cecil was lucky. Somehow he managed to survive until he was thirteen. Most lions in Kruger National Park, for example, rarely reach the ripe old age nine or ten years.

And for those people who believe that lions SHOULD have the right to live out a happy and contented retirement – after they have been evicted by a younger male – my news will disappoint them. Once a lion has been deposed his life is all down-hill from there on; and it is often a free-fall experience. His biggest problem is starvation, followed by attacks from other predators especially hyenas. It is likely than a great many deposed kings are killed by packs of hyenas that rip them to pieces – but I can’t tell you anything about the frequency of such attacks. Nature is often a very cruel task master.

(4). Re Captive bred lions.

Don’t confuse what I have said above with the issue of captive bred lions. THAT is another story entirely which I am not prepared to discuss in this context.

(5). You must be a vegan to credibly object to trophy hunting.

I don’t know where you get that from – except from some sarcastic remark that I might have made (and which I make all the time) when I talk about anti-hunting animal rightists who perpetually try to persuade everybody to become vegans. There a lot of people who eat meat but still object to trophy hunting. I think they are misguided but they are entitled to their views. And I have no objection to people being vegans. But I do object to people who make determined attempts to destroy trophy hunting (a) when they haven’t the foggiest idea about trophy hunting and (b). When there are placing obstacles in the way of the only process that can possibly save Africa’s wildlife from total annihilation. Simply by protecting lions (or elephants; or whatever) from being killed is NOT going to do ANYTHING to save the species from extinction.

Allowing trophy hunters to shoot deposed pride males early in their final declines, is the best way to euthanaze them; a bullet is a far better death than starvation and being eaten alive by hyenas; and the profit the land owner makes by selling the hunting experience is used to keep his land wild and away from the plough (which subject that opens up another whole can of worms that I am not going to venture into now).

(6) Trophy hunters should by their principles and eat only what they kill.

Now we are entering the realm of the ridiculous. And “ethics”(in anything), incidentally, is something that people do when they on their own. It is a very personal ‘thing’ and it is not something that you can ascribe to an activity. What is “ethical” to one hunter, for example, is unacceptable to another.

CONCLUSION: I am going to close this discussion down by addressing your sniping at my “qualifications”. I have a university qualification but, more than that, I have 58 years of intense experience in the field and THAT is infinitely more important than any academic degree acquired in the classroom. In your last paragraph you imply that trophy hunting has caused the decline of wildlife populations in Africa – which is a matter that I addressed in the first part of this letter. You are wrong! And in the first part of this letter I tell you why you are wrong.

You know, you are so angry with yourself that towards the end of this letter you become almost incoherent. That’s a pity because I believe you are essentially an intelligent person and that, if you could break out of your doctrinaire philosophy for just a few seconds a day, and think about what I have told you in this letter, you will come to understand that there is a lot of truth in what I have said. I hope you will take those few seconds a day that I recommend – to contemplate on the advice I have given you. And, if you turn over a new leaf, please feel free to contact me again.

With kind regards

Ron Thomson

I am NOT a ‘trophy hunter’ - and never have been. I am not involved in the trophy hunting safari business. I am also not a game rancher. But I have ‘administratively controlled’ professional hunters and safari outfitters in my capacity as a government game warden. I am an 80 year old ex-game warden with 60 years of continuous experience in hands-on wildlife management, and national park management, in Africa (1959 to 2019). In breakdown, I have 24 years experience in the management of national parks in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe - and in the management of the wild animal populations that lived inside those national parks; one year as the Chief Nature Conservation of the Ciskei in South Africa; three years as Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board in South Africa; and I worked for three years as a professional hunter in the South African Great Karoo (taking foreign hunters on quests for plains game trophies). I discovered, however, that professional hunting was not my forte. I worked as an investigative wildlife journalist for 30 years in South Africa. I have written fifteen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the subject of wildlife management and big game hunting in Africa. Five of my books are university-level text books on wildlife management. I am a university-trained ecologist; was a member of the Institute of Biology (London) for 20 years; and was a registered chartered biologist for the European Union for 20 years. I have VAST experience in the “management hunting” of elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and hippos (as part of my official national park work in the control of problem animals); and I pioneered the capture of black rhino in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley (1964 - 1970). My university thesis was entitled: “The Factors Affecting the Survival and Distribution of Black Rhinos in Rhodesia”. Look at my personal website if you want any further details about my experience: www.ronthomsonshuntingbooks.co.za.

Ron Thomson has 189 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

One thought on “Poverty & Unemployment are the Two Principle Drivers that Cause the Village Hunters To WANT to Poach

  • July 26, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    this is the best ever reply I have seen to one of this animal rightists.
    Congratulations, and please carry on enlightening them… and the rest of us too!


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