If you couldn’t make it to the NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Indianapolis this weekend, or if you just couldn’t tear yourself away from the show floor for the “Fighting Poaching: How the Hunting Community Can Stem the Tide” seminar on Saturday, then you’re in luck. The lively event was live-streamed on the American Hunter Facebook page and you can watch it anytime. Co-moderator, NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum (HLF) content chief and senior editor of American Hunter Karen Mehall Phillips organized the event, assembling the panel from some of the most experienced anti-poaching experts in the field, both in the U.S. and abroad. Co-moderator and NRA HLF Co-Chair Ward “Trig” French balanced prepared questions with input from the audience and deftly steered the conversation when talk of anti-poaching efforts segued into the topic of how hunters need to control the manner in which they tell their stories—including what experiences from the hunt they emphasize and which hunting photos they share.
Mehall Phillips opened the seminar by welcoming everyone and introducing herself and fellow moderator, Ward French, as well as the panelists.
BILLY BIRDZELL A U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer, U.S. Special Operations team leader and author, Birdzell now specializes in training anti-poaching units in Africa and getting America’s Special Operations veterans to assist with anti-poaching operations.
JOHN BORKOVICH An occasional contributor to the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum website, NRAHLF.org, Borkovich is an award-winning, accredited wildlife conservation officer and author.
COL. CRAIG BODDINGTON, USMC Reserve, Ret. Internationally known outdoor writer and wildlife conservationist, author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, Boddington is an anti-poaching activist, particularly relating to African big game.
IVAN CARTER Carter is an African professional hunter, wildlife conservationist, writer and world-renowned TV host of “Carter’s W.A.R.” on the Outdoor Channel. A native of Zimbabwe, he is on the front lines in Africa fighting poaching and promoting wildlife conservation issues continentwide.
CATHERINE SEMCER A regular contributor to the NRA Hunters' Leadership Forum website, NRAHLF.org, Semcer is a worldwide speaker and debater on hunting issues, has vast experience in fighting poaching in Africa through work as a professional wildlife conservationist with H.O.P.E. (Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants) and as a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).
A welcome surprise to the lineup was the addition of Kathi Lynn Austin, founder of the Conflict Awareness Project and an arms trafficking expert most noted for bringing down Russian arms trafficking kingpin Vickor Bout. Austin delivered an overview of the complexities of wildlife anti-poaching efforts, especially in Africa and Afghanistan. She discussed how stopping the illegal arms trade is the most direct route to stopping poaching. Illegal wildlife trafficking is now ranked fourth, behind human, drug and arms trafficking. Austin pointed out that rhino horn, for example, is more lucrative than gold, diamonds or cocaine, with most of it going to Vietnam and China. She outlined how by focusing on any firearms recovered at a poaching crime scene, investigators are able to trace back to the leaders of international poaching syndicates so that it isn’t just the poacher who suffers the consequences of the crime. (If you’d like to know more about her work combating rhino poaching in particular be sure to read the special report “Follow the Guns, An Overlooked Key to Combat Rhino Poaching and Wildlife Crime.”)
The panel discussion officially kicked off with the panelists defining poaching. Although Boddington noted that “there are no gray areas” regarding hunting laws, Birdzell and Borkovich emphasized that a poacher is someone who knowingly and with intent breaks the law. Borkovich made clear that treating hunters with respect and informing them when they unintentionally break a law will only serve to draw them into the fold where they can be counted to say something when they encounter poaching in the field. Semcer noted the commercial component involved with poaching, especially when it relates to Africa. Carter boiled poaching down to any time an animal is killed outside the confines of the law.
What if you’re booking a hunting trip to Africa, for example, how do you know which side of the law your outfitter or professional hunter (PH) is on? Boddington explained that researching the history of the outfitter is essential, but that asking about the outfit’s anti-poaching efforts will also reveal much. Birdzell followed up that if an outfitter claims to deliver meat to villagers, ask to go see that being done. Ask to visit the school that was erected with hunters’ dollars. Rather than just accepting a verbal reassurance, demand to witness the efforts firsthand. Carter added to also inquire as to what is actually needed by anti-poaching units, a set of binoculars you no longer use, for example. Semcer pointed out that if you do these things, you will have a rich and full hunting story to tell and share on social media, one that goes far beyond the trophy photo and tells the full story of hunting and its role as the world’s No. 1 wildlife conservation tool. We also need to allow the African villagers to tell their part of the hunting story.
Discussion turned to how we as hunters measure our success. One of the reasons the Boone and Crockett Club emphasized measurements was to show the health of various domestic wildlife species when market hunting nearly wiped them out. Today, although conservation efforts continue for many species, the emphasis can shift from how big the trophy to how rich the hunting experience. Carter pointed out, though, that we shouldn’t lie. We hunt because we love the hunt, the chase, the game we are stalking, and people will see through us if we lie. He noted that anti-hunters would be astounded if they knew that by winning a battle to stop hunting in certain areas of Africa, they have lost the war by creating a vacuum that allows poachers to operate unfettered in the abandoned regions, resulting in far greater loss of elephants, for example, than places that allow legal hunts. The very animals the anti-hunters seek to protect are the ones they open to poaching exploitation. Hunters must work hard to tell these stories.
Of course, even the use of the word “trophy” sparked debate. Although the majority in the room—and more than once attendees said they wished there were a thousand people in the room—noted that the average person equates trophy with killing an animal for its antlers or horns and leaving the body to rot. Anti-hunters have co-opted the term and it’s up to us as hunters to take back the narrative of what defines us and what we do. Former rock-and-roller, pro-Second Amendment spokesman and avid hunter Ted Nugent came to the event and stood up for taking back our language and being proud of what we do. He got pushback from others in the room, and French reminded everyone that the research paid for by the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum revealed what average people think about trophy hunting—and it’s not good. He said that we can still be proud, but that we need to be smarter about how we tell our stories. Nugent noted his large following, his ability to resonate with the average person and that he has changed anti-hunting minds by speaking out boldly.
Earlier in the seminar an attendee suggested that because of the way hunters are vilified on social media, as this website has reported on repeatedly https://www.nrahlf.org/articles/2018/9/18/nra-mobilizes-against-escalating-social-media-death-threats-to-hunters/, none of us should be on social media. On the other hand, Semcer noted that many hunters complain about how hunting is portrayed in the media, but they aren’t on social media themselves, striving to help tell the true story of hunting. Carter mentioned that on his website, Carter's War, you won’t find any pictures of hunters with their kills. What you will find are pictures of everything else associated with hunting, wildlife conservation and community development.
There is no single solution to wiping out poaching at home or abroad. Though the work of the CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe was repeatedly mentioned as a way to approach the problem using community-based solutions. What is clear, though, is that hunters can no longer be silent about the intangibles that stir in their primal hearts on a hunt. Birdzell said it best when he reminded us that the pen is mightier than the sword, that the Constitution is just a bunch of words and that we need to master our storytelling, en masse, if we ever hope to staunch the onslaught of anti-hunting messaging. So, what’s your story?
About the Author: Erin C. Healy is the associate editor of the NRA Hunters' Leadership Forum. She edited a lifestyle magazine on Cape Cod for 14 years and provided marketing services for her local guntry club prior to working for BLADE magazine. She served in the U.S. Army, is an NRA Life Member, a National Wild Turkey Federation member and sends her Jack Russell terriers to ground as often as possible.
Follow NRA Hunters Leadership Forum on Twitter @HuntersLead.