A few years ago I found myself in the South African bush across a campfire from Hans “Scruff” Vermaak, owner of Coenraad Vermaak Safaris in South Africa. Scruff is almost a classic film version of what a PH (professional hunter) is supposed to be. He wears the classic Fedora and tan safari outfit. He is manly, easy with stories about charging elephants and lions he had to stop with his double rifle, and he is wonderfully engaging.
Ernest Hemingway, as others did in his time, called those in Scruff’s profession “white hunters.” But that night, showing he was a modern version of the classic mold, Scruff introduced us to a tracker whom he’d helped navigate the tests to grow into a PH in his safari company. This PH was a black man named Mphaleni, though everyone calls him “Patches.”
Between Scruff’s tales of dangerous encounters with dangerous game, I pushed him, as a journalist who really wants to understand is apt to do, on a question that was bothering me: Are visiting hunters really helping the African lion?
A conservationist I respect, a South African who works as a PH and a guide for photo and tracking safaris, passionately, and over the course of a few evenings, explained the scenario to me. He made me understand that Africa is a continent far away from my comprehension.
Outside that campfire that night was the Rooipoort Nature Reserve, a 100,000-acre private property founded in 1893 by Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes founded the diamond company De Beers. He’s South Africa’s Andrew Carnegie. He earned money to do what he wanted and he wanted a private hunting preserve. Maybe he didn’t then know that protecting the game in this preserve so he could hunt them would actually save many game species, but it did. According to De Beers, this property is now administered with a “progressive conservation philosophy [that] aims to demonstrate that wildlife has more than just an aesthetic value.” The red hartebeest and black wildebeest, to name two species, were virtually extinct elsewhere in southern Africa in the mid-twentieth century. By trapping and transferring animals from this property—herds protected by the selfish self-interest of hunters—areas around southern Africa were able to begin new herds.
So I hoped Scruff, who was then president of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa, would give me some perspective. He did. Here’s some of what he has to say about hunting and the African lion.
Miniter: Does the wild lion have a future in Africa? Press reports here often make it seem that wild lions will soon be a memory.
Scruff: Without responsible lion hunting outfitters will not be able to fund their operations, which include very costly anti-poaching efforts and community benefits. The lion quota is generally what generates a large portion of an outfitter’s income. Without this income safari companies cannot fund anti-poaching and community-enhancement programs, let alone their own operational costs.
Ultimately what will happen is that the concession simply won’t be viable; the outfitter will close down his operation and then the land will be left unprotected. As a result, communities will move into these areas and bring with them their livestock. Humans + lions + livestock = wiped-out lions for good. This is the biggest threat to large African predators. Lions will become a memory in many parts of Africa if responsible, sustainable lion hunting is not permitted.
Miniter: Where does hunting benefit lions? How does it help them?
Scruff: Sustainable and responsible lion hunting benefits lions because it allows the safari operator enough funding to set up proper anti-poaching units; provide benefits and assistance to rural impoverished communities. The outfitter should also educate the communities on the importance of nurturing wildlife. They will not nurture wildlife unless they derive sustainable and ongoing benefits from it. This, once achieved, reduces poaching and it enhances the lives of very poor people living alongside wild animals in vast rural areas. Lion hunting also makes the safari operators business viable; if it’s not viable it closes down and when this happens, the land that was once protected becomes a free for all zone where poaching escalates, where wildlife becomes a nuisance and we all know what happens then.
Many people from the western world believe that all of Africa is what you see on Discovery Channel, where there are wide open spaces, endless herds of wildlife living in harmony with one another."Lions will become a memory in many parts of Africa if responsible, sustainable lion hunting is not permitted." They seldom see or are ever shown the real Africa, which is not a rosy picture as depicted on TV. Africa’s human population is exploding; there is massive poverty and disease. The poor communities who live alongside wildlife battle daily to survive. They will do anything to survive and put food on the table—just like any of us would. It’s tempting to poach an elephant or a rhino for a $5,000 reward (which in most cases is more money than they would earn in many years if not their lives); it’s tempting to lay a snare line 5 miles long that kills indiscriminately to sell meat to the illegal bush meat trade; it’s tempting to kill lions by any means including poison when lions kill your livestock. It is a piece of cake to poison a whole pride of lions to sell their bones on the black market destined for Asia.
These are the realities faced by Africa’s wildlife and people. Unless humans benefit sustainably from wildlife it will be wiped out. Huge chunks of Africa are not conducive to eco-tourism (photo safaris). This is where hunting operations play a crucial role—and one of the most important species in assisting operators in protecting these vast tracts of land is the lion. If the hunting operator leaves then the wildlife is doomed and the first to go will be the large predators. At the end of the day it is not the Western World or conservation NGOs that will determine the future of Africa’s wildlife. The future will be determined by Africa’s impoverished people.
Africa’s rural peoples need to benefit sustainably and in real terms from Africa’s wildlife (handouts and donations only get them so far); they need to be involved, included and part of the solution.
Miniter: I’ve heard some argue that lion hunting (or hunting in general) puts money in the pockets of local peoples, not just distant and possibly corrupt bureaucrats. This is an incentive for them not to poach. But I see very little research backing this up.
Scruff: There are many examples of this in Africa where communities are benefiting from hunting operations. A classic example is our Sankuyo Concession in Botswana where, after hunting was stopped, this community was left abandoned and destitute. They were promised that a photographic safari operation would replace our hunting operation. This never happened and now a community is unemployed. They receive no benefits and thus there is no incentive not to poach in order to survive.
Following are some of the benefits this community received from our hunting operation: weekly mobile medical clinics; employment of 40-plus people from the community; a substantial annual payment for our “hunting rights,” which was more than a couple hundred thousand U.S. dollars; meat we delivered to the village on a regular basis from hunted animals; funding for the school and sports such as soccer; we ploughed their fields annually; we assisted them with transportation for funerals and burials; we transported sick people to town and so on.
Most of Africa is not suitable for photographic safaris. The concession I am referring to was primarily made up of 300,000 acres of nonstop mopani forests where visibility was poor, thus creating the need to track game on foot, which is perfect on a hunting safari. Photographic safaris are a business, they need to be profitable in order to fund conservation programs, community programs and anti-poaching. If they don’t have the funding it won’t happen. My point is that a photo operation in this area would fail dismally, which is why the promises the community were made never transpired. These days poaching is out of control there. You can’t blame the community for trying to survive through the illegal bush meat trade and illegal ivory sales. They were forsaken by anti-hunters and their allies. Our annual hunting quota was painfully conservative—zero impact on any populations—and there was no poaching at all and the community was content; they valued wildlife because they benefited sustainably from it through our operation. The sad fact is that so many people, particularly from the urbanized Western World, don’t fully grasp the challenges in Africa. They are fed nonsense by animal welfare groups. Often, these people have all the right intentions, but they are actually harming Africa’s wildlife and its people.
On another note, isn’t it ironic that Africa’s healthiest wildlife populations are in countries where regulated controlled hunting is allowed; in fact, wholeheartedly supported. Kenya lost 80 percent of its wildlife since they stopped hunting in 1977. To the contrary, South Africa’s wildlife population has expanded from about 1 million in the late 1960s to an estimated 18-plus million head today. Namibia has had a similar success story, as have certain regions of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. South Africa was home to about 500 rhinos in the 1950s, but today we have 20,000 despite the poaching epidemic. Kenya, which was once home to thousands of rhino, now has about 800 left and half of these were reintroduced from South Africa where we have been sustainably hunting rhino since the late 70s/early 80s.
Miniter: Is Zimbabwe stable enough to support sound lion conservation?
Scruff: Yes. Look at the Bubye Valley Conservancy, one of the greatest success stories in Africa, built on hunting, where one of Africa’s most spectacular lion population is thriving. There are other areas where lions are thriving as well—Matesti, Save, etc., etc.
Miniter: How can hunters be sure their outfitter (PH) will only target non-pride lions and that the money they are paying and more is a benefit to lions?
Scruff: Check references and speak to other outfitters and ask direct questions regarding this important issue. Contact the countries respective professional hunting associations as well.
Miniter: What else can American hunters do to help preserve this incredible species?
Scruff: Support SCI (Safari Club International) and DSC (Dallas Safari Club), local PH associations in Africa, as well as other true conservation NGOs that support sustainable use and that truly have a positive impact on the ground in Africa. Understand that it's more than our right to hunt this iconic animal: It's a privilege that should not be taken for granted. It’s important to understand why responsible, sustainable hunting is beneficial to lion conservation and lion habitat protection and while you’re out there hunting a wild lion remind yourself of this. If a lion is too young, it’s too young, never put pressure on a PH to shoot the wrong lion—you will discredit yourself in his eyes and he will know that you’re not there for the right reasons and he will conclude that you’re not a true hunter and conservationist. Be prepared to go home without a lion. Support the community where you will be hunting; give the PH funding for this specifically. Show an interest in conservation programs in the area and support them if the PH believes in them.