South African Economy Spells Peril for Wildlife

South African Economy Spells Peril for Wildlife

In our seven-billion-person world, the preservation of wildlife is inexorably linked to the economic conditions on the ground. Today in Africa, a growing political crisis and resulting economic crash will lead to the tragic and unnecessary destruction of wildlife in one of the world’s great hunting countries: South Africa. 

We have seen it before—an unpopular president driving an economy into recession, seeking to deflect attention from his failed leadership by advocating the “redistribution” of farmland to a gullible electorate, creating a scenario where habitat is destroyed, wildlife is consumed, and a once thriving country is relegated to the roll of economic failed states. It is a familiar tale in Africa, but this is not Zimbabwe circa 2002. South Africa, the economic superpower of the continent and bastion of wildlife conservation, is on the brink of going the way of Zimbabwe some two decades ago, assuring the destruction of both its economy and abundant wildlife. 

Historically, many of Africa’s darkest chapters have been the result of a failure of leadership, and South African president Jacob Zuma fits the mold. He deals with perpetual charges of corruption.  The High Court of South Africa ruled he violated the Constitution by failing to repay the treasury for some $16 million of improvements to his private home. He survived an impeachment vote in Parliament and was tried and acquitted of raping a babysitter. And then there is the South African economy.

South Africa’s economy is contracting even as most of the rest of the worlds’ economies grow. The country’s debt rating was lowered to non-investment grade, while the South African rand was the world’s second most volatile currency in 2016. Unemployment stands at a 14-year high of 27.7 percent. South Africa is the continent’s most developed and industrialized nation, but the uncertainty created by the scandal-laden Zuma administration has kept investors on the sidelines as the economy teeters on the verge of free-fall. 

“And why should any this matter to me” you might ask? If you care about conserving wildlife it matters, as South Africa’s circumstance is eerily similar to that of Zimbabwe in the early 2000s. 

With an economy in disarray and an upcoming bid for re-election, Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe made “land reform” his primary issue. For several years before, Zimbabwe had a program of purchasing farmer’s land and, in theory, giving small parcels to the poor. And though most of the better farms wound up in the hands of the political elite, the displaced farmers were at least compensated for their losses. The election of 2002 changed all that. 

Mugabe’s new “land reform” policy worked in much the same way as the old policy, but without compensation for the farmers. Landowners were threatened, intimidated, often physically assaulted, and sometimes murdered by the so called “war vets” who parceled the land and made it their own. The result: Zimbabwe went from the most productive agricultural country on the continent, the “breadbasket” of Africa as it were, to a food-debtor nation with unimaginable inflation, chronic shortages and a population with more than 40 percent classified as malnourished. And as you might imagine, hungry masses are bad news for wildlife.

Today, Zimbabwe’s wildlife is but a shadow of its former greatness. Yes, there are still areas where game abounds, but they are increasingly rare. Rampant poaching, enough snares to reach to the moon and back, and competition with wildlife for a village’s small patch of maize or pasture has pitted man against beast in a fight for survival. And in this competition, wildlife eventually, inevitably loses. It has happened in Zimbabwe. It will happen in South Africa.

"If the leaders of Africa’s most developed nation choose to sacrifice their wildlife for the sake of political expediency, I fear the first major domino will have fallen and there will be little chance to preserve species on the rest of the continent."Since 1991 when the Game Theft Act codified private ownership of wildlife in South Africa, both game ranches and game populations have skyrocketed. More than 10,000 game ranching operations occupy 20 percent of the marginal agricultural land in the country, which has transformed poor domestic pasture land into quality habitat for wild species. More than 20 million head of wild game are now in private hands, four times the number in all of South Africa’s National and Provincial parks combined. Privatization of wildlife has created a monetary value in game species and thus, an incentive for landowners to breed and protect them. But giving 10,000 South African farms to 50,000,000 of the nation’s poor will have a decidedly more negative outcome for wildlife. 

When large hunting lands are subdivided into small farm plots, wildlife ceases to have a monetary value. The flow of tourist hunters and their dollars quickly will dry up. Without revenue from hunting, wildlife will become a liability to the new owners, as animals compete with man for the bounty of the farmer’s produce. Coupled with the additional incentive that killing nuisance animals also makes for a tasty addition to the family cook pot, most of South Africa’s wildlife will vanish within months. Economies of scale, institutional knowledge and rural jobs will be lost. A $1-billion-dollar industry will collapse. Habitat will be marginalized by the reintroduction of sheep and goats. And importantly, thousands of South Africans—some whose families have worked the same farm since the 1700s—will have their land taken away without compensation. And though the pain and loss pales in comparison to the African calamity, this is an American tragedy as well.

Though proportionately few American hunters travel to Africa, the 10,000 or so tourist hunters that financed South Africa’s wildlife conservation will lose one of the great hunting grounds on Earth. Not because of embargo or travel restrictions. Not because of war or pestilence. South Africa’s abundant wildlife will cease to exist because of failed leadership and political slight-of-hand. This wanton waste of wildlife resources is reason enough to raise a voice to power and say “Enough,” but there is more.

For the last 25 years, South Africa has been the shining beacon of sustainable-use wildlife conservation. The black wildebeest, the bontebok and white rhino are just some of the species that have returned from the brink of extinction, in no small part due to the dollars generated by sustainable-use hunting. South Africa is a great story of conservation, a convincing elevator pitch for the non-hunter detailing what is right about hunting today. In this perception-is-reality world, South Africa’s wildlife renaissance has been one of the great conservation success stories of our time—proof that hunting is of tangible value to the 7 billion inhabitants of planet Earth. But will this success matter tomorrow?

South Africa is at a crossroads. If the leaders of Africa’s most developed nation choose to sacrifice their wildlife for the sake of political expediency, I fear the first major domino will have fallen and there will be little chance to preserve species on the rest of the continent. If it happens, it is conceivable that in our lifetime, most if not all hunting in Africa will cease; so too will the hunters dollars that give wildlife its monetary value. Competing with a growing African population of 1.2 billion, the continent’s wildlife does not stand a chance.

No wildlife in Africa? It would be a tragedy of Biblical proportions.