The dust kicked up high from the Land Cruiser we were following. A storybook, idyllic scene of ivory-white 4x4s cruised through the African bush, tyres streaming the rich, red earth behind them. We had left the bush landing strip in the grey of the pre-dawn morning. The anticipation of what we were about to undertake was palpable. Soon we would be walking among true land giants. The biggest and most emotive of the African species: the African elephant.
I was there to hunt them. Well, of sorts. We were going to be hunting in a nonlethal capacity. This account comes from almost a decade ago, when I worked for a company that designed and manufactured tranquilising darts for big game. We had been tasked with using the new system as part of a re-collaring project in Kruger National Park. The target was the second largest of Kruger’s known bulls, and it would be my first encounter outside the safety of a vehicle.
An elephant is a truly magnificent animal. From their stature to the intricacies of their interactions, you can’t help but feel humbled by their presence. The story of the bull in question being darted would require an article to itself, but the re-collaring went as planned. During the time it took to unbolt and replace the radio tracker, I helped monitor the bull. As my hand made contact for the first time, passing the stiff bristles of hair, the rough, weathered skin pushed back against my soft finger tips. I ran my hand up his stomach, feeling the cresses and lines like reading braille. It was electric. The heavy, laboured, grumbling breaths reverberated through his chest as I placed my ear against his ribs to listen. It was the most bizarre feeling I had ever had with a wild animal. There was an unexplainable connection.
As I watched the old bull get back on his feet some half an hour later, I wondered if our paths would ever cross again. So far they have not. For all I know he may not be alive. He certainly would have had plenty of natural years left, but with the escalation of poaching across Africa, the animals which remain living are on borrowed time. Back then, rhino poaching was a growing problem, and we helped de-horn more than I can remember. The situation has got worse since then, and the poaching for ivory has escalated rapidly. I fear for all the animals of Africa, but especially these which could be gone in my life time. Of those, the rhino and elephant will leave the biggest impression.
Having shared with you this experience, you may wonder where I stand on hunting this mighty land mammal. It is a particularly relevant question in light of the recent debacle from President Trump, suggesting he would lift the import ban of ivory, followed by a swift reversal as a result of an un-informed public outcry.
I am supportive of management which will safeguard habitats and wildlife into the future. As most hunters know, in many cases this means an approach which builds in the commercial aspect of hunting in the pursuit of older ‘trophy class’ animals. I personally think this should be referred to simply as hunting ‘mature animals’. When it comes to elephant, I believe wholeheartedly that the biggest threat they face is stopping hunting, or enforcing restrictions which will curb the desire for hunters to part with the vast sums of money they put up to hunt animals such as elephants.
I say this because we have the evidence at our finger tips. The unfortunate aspect of discussing iconic or emotive species such as elephant, or polar bears, or rhino, is that people in general cannot look past their emotional response to investigate the facts. This is not helped by incredibly biased and poor reporting, further mis-informing the already badly informed.
The dynamics of the human-elephant relationship are complex. We have historical baggage of the glory days of the ivory trade, which often taints the management practices undertaken today. There is also the little mentioned fact that current over-population in some areas of Africa has destroyed the habitat to such an extent it is no longer suitable for anything. I saw this first hand in the Caprivi a few years ago. Looking over onto the Botswana side, where hunting had been closed, it was a desolate desert of bare, broken trees. The ignorance of the situation when it comes to Africa by the general pubic, home and abroad, makes me hot under the collar. It is fine to have limited knowledge on a place and subject, but do not impart your opinion with the same gravity and weight as those people who have had their feet on the ground or who actually live it on a daily basis.
In a land of poverty and hungry people, wildlife is continually surrounded by the enemy. They are seen as food or money. The only way to change this view is to make the wildlife and the preservation of the habitat they live in worth more to local communities than it is for them to simply take what they want. When you boil it down, for Africa certainly, it is almost as simple as that. One of the only ways to achieve this value and integration with the locals, is to have active, ethical hunting concessions. The game then becomes an asset to them, worth more alive than dead.
In particular reference to Zimbabwe, what is lost on the ranting opinionated general public, is the fact that most of the funding for the Parks department comes from…you guessed it, the hunting industry, with elephant hunting being a key income generator in this. As has been proven since the import ban of elephant ivory to the US since 2014, any restriction and reduction in hunting income can be directly related to an increase in poaching. With fewer people on the ground and reduced anti-poaching teams, the door opens wider for illegal activity.
Elephant populations have fallen from a pre-industrial high of 10 million to just 350,000 today, and they are still falling. It is estimated that 23,000 elephants are illegally poached every year, adding to a trade worth somewhere in the region of $1billion to the criminal underground. This loss is heart breaking, but the reality is that this could be insignificant when compared to the long-term loss as a result of habitat destruction as human populations expand. Beyond curbing the poaching being undertaken, it is this preservation of habitat through concessions protected as hunting reserves, which is so vitally important for all species, not just elephants. In Zimbabwe, there is twice as much land in private reserves as is government owned, and much of this is paid for through hunting.
I struggle with the notion of killing an elephant, but I understand why it has to be done and, importantly, why it should be allowed to continue for purposes of legal hunting. It is quite possibly the only chance the species has of surviving longer than I walk this earth.