A recent announcement that Zimbabwe’s wildlife agency plans to sell the right to shoot 500 elephants this year has revived a bitter debate over the role of hunting in the country’s public parks, which are reeling from a loss of tourism revenue during the coronavirus pandemic.
With an estimated 100,000 elephants, Zimbabwe has the second biggest elephant population in Africa after its neighbor Botswana. Its elephant population is controlled through culling, hunting, and conversation efforts by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks). The government agency oversees around 5 million hectares of national parks and botanical gardens.
The hunting rights for the elephants will range from $10, 000 to $70,000 depending on the size of the animal. Hunting season starts in April and lasts until October, when the rainy season begins. Both Botswana and Zimbabwe receive most of their hunting tourists from the US, who pay for the privilege to take their tusks home as trophies.
Zimparks says the move is a necessary part of its animal population control, and will generate revenue to fund its operations, which were hit by a decline in tourists due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The southern African nation has sold an annual quota of 500 elephants since 1992. Last year, in the wake of Covid-19, “elephant hunting took place, even though the number was low,” says Zimparks spokesperson, Tinashe Farawo, although he declined to divulge the exact figure. He added that although the quota allows for 500 animals, the most that they have sold in a year is 250.
Farawo says the agency does not receive financial support from the government, and needs $25 million for its operations each year, including salaries for its rangers, who often operate under difficult conditions, including extreme weather.
“We are probably the only wildlife management agency in the world that does not receive funding from the central government,” Farawo says. “We have men and women who spend 20 days on extended patrol looking after these animals. They need allowances, they need tents, boots, they need uniforms. [Hunting] contributes part of the money that we incur as we manage our wildlife.”
A debate over elephant population management
Farawo also says the hunting program helps to prevent Zimbabwe’s national parks from becoming overpopulated by elephants, and maintain its “ecological carrying capacity,” which refers to the resources available to support a population in a certain area, sometimes measured as between 1—4 elephants per square mile (or 2.5 square kilometers).
He cites the country’s largest reserve, Hwange National Park, as an example. “Hwange is 14,650 square kilometers. The maximum carrying capacity of that park must be 15,000 elephants. But we are sitting on between 45,000 and 53,000 elephants, which means the concept of one elephant per one square kilometers is not happening.” he says.
The effectiveness of using ecological carrying capacity as a guide to manage both animals and their habitats is contested in the conservation world. Ross Harvey of Good Governance Africa, a research and advocacy not-for-profit organization focused on improving governance on the continent, disputes the logic of “excess” elephants.
“That concept is built on a pretext that there is a certain ‘carrying capacity’ for elephants per square kilometre, but that notion has also been debunked by numerous recent scientific papers,” he says, citing studies from 2018 and 2006 looking at South Africa’s Kruger National Park as examples.
Botswana, which has over 130 000 elephants, cited carrying capacity as a reason for lifting its five-year elephant hunting moratorium in May 2019. The moratorium had been in place in a bid to stop a decline in its elephant population. Both countries have the African savanna elephant, which has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to poaching and habitat loss.
Tourism in Botswana and Zimbabwe came to a halt last year when nations imposed travel restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19. Zimbabwe’s Tourism Authority (ZTA) estimates that the country’s tourism sector lost at least $1 billion in 2020 in potential revenue due to Covid-19. Tourism contributed 7.2% and 6.5% of the country’s GDP in 2018 and 2019, respectively, according to the ZTA.
Divided views on hunting
Peet van der Merwe, a senior lecturer and researcher in Tourism Management at the North-West University in South Africa, believe it is fair for Botswana and Zimbabwe to sell hunting rights as their elephant populations are quite healthy
“Our research that we have conducted in Botswana showed that local communities are in need of these operations and that it does contribute to job creation and income to these communities,” he tells Quartz Africa.
Van der Merwe says the elephant hunting rights initiative should be carried out with strict rules and regulations to prevent abuse of the animals.
But while elephant hunting creates high short-term revenues, Harvey believes it is a destructive and unsustainable practice in the long-term. “The key is to abolish hunting and pour resources into coordinating alternatives, such as joining up large reserves, creating migratory corridors for elephants, [and] creating alternative types of tourism,” he says. Trophy hunting of elephants “is a game for the rich and has no basis in science, no matter what its proponents might tell you,” Harvey believes.
Van der Merwe says there might be other funds and companies or organizations that are willing to fund park upkeep, but this is not sustainable. “It has been proved in the past that hunting can be sustainably managed,” he says.
Alfred Sihwa, a director at Sibanye Animal Welfare and Conservancy Trust, says the issue is complicated by a lack of transparency on the benefits of selling elephant hunting rights in Zimbabwe.
“Our challenge is where the money is directed to. Zimparks’s directorate’s remunerations do not tally with what the communities are benefiting from wildlife,” beyond the meat they receive from the hunting, he says.
The funds from elephant hunting are accounted for, Farawo responds. “We are a public entity, we are audited every year by the auditor general and for the past four five years we have never been found wanting,” he says. “Every money that is raised through sport hunting, which is part of tourism, or through photographic tourism has been accounted for,” he said.
“We are the best in managing these elephants. That is why we still have them.”
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