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The Selfishness of the Rifle Sight (On Hunting for Conservation)

By John Roberts
12 October 2015 01:04:00

Given my job you might assume that I’m some sort of bleeding heart animal lover.  Funnily: the internet world is split between those that assume that I am and those that like to assume I’m an evil animal torturer but that’s another story.

Thinking about it, I probably am an animal lover; nowadays to the extent that I felt sorry recently when the spider that had taken up residence on my car wing mirror got blown away and that I feel guilty for stepping on snails.  But it may surprise you to know that, at certain times in my life, I’ve killed & butchered my own meat, I’ve put both mammal & bird road kill out of it’s misery and I’ve shot at (& probably missed, but not intentionally) feral cats and dogs.

I also grew up in rural England where fox and stag hunting were part of the community and, thinking back, my major gripe with the hunts was that their followers seemed to think it was their right to block those narrow Devon lanes and not, incredibly enough, that they were chasing what remained of my country’s wildlife to exhaustion and then hoping to shoot them before the dogs ripped them apart.

I cut my teeth in conservation in Nepal where it was abundantly clear that without the Prime Minister, Royal Family and Colonial, ahem, Guests’ historical lust for shooting tiger and rhino, which gave rise to the feudal need to protect them (so they could later be shot), there would be fewer, less pristine, National Parks and little wildlife.

Indeed it can be argued that the lack of blood lust among historical Thai rulers is one reason why we have so little wildlife left.

Ironic maybe, but arguable.

So I have always been less likely than most, it seems, of my Facebook friends to start building the gallows for those people who are posted from time to time as the embodiment of evil, people who pay vast amounts of money to go and shoot an African animal.  

No I don’t understand the urge but if all the money is going back to protect that one animal’s cousins and the habitat it lives on - and as I’ve said many times, the point of conservation is not individual animals or species, it is keeping ecosystems intact - then, well, there’s a lot of evil out there to worry about, if that’s how you get your kicks & you can show it helps off you go, just don’t block the roads.

Recently though I was lucky enough to spend a month in East Africa with our partners, the Cheli & Peacock Community Trust and Elewana Safaris.  Kenya doesn’t allow hunting but in Tanzania, by area, a majority area of ‘protected’ land is administered by hunting companies so they can shoot limited numbers of stuff on it.

On paper there are some great laws that ensure that this works & these laws are often pointed to to justify hunting.  Now you can tell by the fact that I have put inverted commas around the word protected above and used the phrase ‘on paper’ (& there are those inverted commas again) that, having travelled through some of the hunting blocks, I have some skepticism that what is written into law is always followed.  

However, I didn’t do a proper investigation and I often castigate people who go off half cocked (if you’ll pardon the shooting derived idiom) on an assumption about captive Asian elephants based on something they read on a blog written by someone who once visited an elephant camp.  So I’ll refrain and tell you that I do think there is a chance that hunting, when properly controlled, can be a force for conservation.

But I would like focus on my emotions for once and rail against the sheer selfishness of going on safari with your rifle, bow & arrow, tickle stick or whatever it is that you feel best challenged to kill stuff with.

Of course when we partner we partner with the best, so over the course of my month with Elewana & Cheli & Peacock I saw a lot of game in a lot of different circumstances even though I was mostly travelling from one meeting to another.

For conservation reasons a lot of our properties are outside National Parks on land leased from the local communities which, in partnership with those communities, we can then protect for wildlife so you can come and view it - a pretty neat system, very high maintenance but worth it.

This land is a necessary part of the system as, for wide ranging animals such as elephants, very few of Africa’s National Parks can sustain the numbers, however fast they are dropping, that there are year round - elephants have always migrated to follow water and range into surprising places so they need as much protection outside the core areas as possible.

We had great sightings of wildlife as relaxed as it is possible to be when you know that somewhere around there’s a hungry ball of claws and teeth, sometimes lots of them.  The claws and teeth side themselves were perhaps more relaxed - so much so that watching lions, cheetahs and leopards for extended periods was not just possible, it was almost the norm.

Once we’d had our fill or were late for our meeting off we drove knowing we’d seen something wonderful, natural, primal and (here’s the point) knowing that there was a chance we’d see something similar tomorrow - sometimes we even got on the radio to let other people know so they might have the chance to enjoy an experience similar to our own.

Guess what, those people that followed us were also staying in Lodges that worked with the local community to protect the land, that employed, tipped, empowered people to protect wildlife, gave them tools to maintain traditional grazier livelihood next to the wildlife and not in competition with it.

When walking I must have driven my guides wild; used to not being overburdened with length I carry a short lens on my camera.  This means that when I wanted a nice photo we had to get as close as possible to my given target.  This form of stalking probably bought me as close as I was prepared to go towards what a huntsman feels, the danger of coming up downwind of a beast who could do you harm in bush that contains his cousins and a few other nasty things.

So I get the adrenaline & the skill involved in tracking - always have.

It wasn’t all work, work, work. At times I just sat, watched and thought, beer in hand, while the wildlife came to me, particularly at lodges in dryer areas that were close to water.

From that vantage point it was easier to tell those elephants used to living on the protected areas from those used to being harried, by poachers or by hunters (to the elephant it matters little whether the guy with the gun has a permit or not) by the way they used the waterhole.

They’d either march up to this place in the middle of their traditional rangelands and spend minutes, half hours at a time, drinking, flighting, playing, elephant-ing like they owned the place - which, of course, they do.

OR you’d spot them on the horizon, some 500m out, moving from bush to bush, stopping at each to check the wind, they’d move in a very slow ark, never a direct line, if there was a movement, other game, us, they’d stop and wait for an interminable time, seemingly weighing up the need to drink with the need to remain unseen.  When they finally made the waterhole they’d sup up a trunk or two and move off, this time in a dead straight line, away from all unfamiliar smells.

I wasn’t planning to bring my perception of an elephant’s emotion into it, but I live with elephants. I cannot claim to read elephants’ minds but I have watched them for 16 years now, wild and captive, and I cannot think of any justification for keeping a sentient being living so close to the edge, with the need to move with so much care in their own natural surroundings as those elephants who know man only as a dangerous enemy.

It is written so frequently now that it is almost accepted wisdom that captive elephants live in a permanent state of terror and this is the reason why elephant captivity cannot be allowed.  There are many reasons why elephant captivity should not be encouraged and should be phased out but I can tell you now: the vast majority those elephants are not living in terror, if you want to see a terrified elephant (& why would you?) go to a hunting block and spot the difference between these elephants and ours, whose every physical need is catered for, calmly following their mahout around.

All other arguments aside: the sheer selfishness of using a gun to capture a sighting that others could enjoy tomorrow & of making an otherwise enemy-less beast live in terror ought to stop you in your tracks.

While I can see that limited, controlled, regulated hunting can be a force for conservation I would urge everyone who goes out to see these wild animals to do so with binoculars & a camera, not a gun.  

Elephants seen on foot from Tortilis, Kitirua Conservancy, Amboseli

Elephants seen on a walking safari on Kitirua Conservancy, Amboseli.

Relaxed eles at the waterhole from Tortilis

Relaxed eles at a waterhole from Tortilis Camp, Amboseli

Relaxed elephants at the waterhole from Kitich Camp, Namanyuk Conservancy

Relaxed elephants at a mountain waterhole at Kitich camp, Namanyuk Conservancy - we have reason to beleive these elephants roam from herds at Samburu and at Laikipia, climbing up through the desert for the Mathews Range's dry season water.

Ele stalked on foot from Tarangire Treetops, Randilen Conservancy

An elephant digging in the riverbed for water, stalked on foot, from Tarangire Treetops, Randilen Wildlife Management Area

Relaxed elephants behaving, Tarangire Treetops, Randilen WMA

...we're still on foot, the elephants are relaxed enough to be elephant-ing - bit of 'young bull' sparring.  

Elephant Herd on Foot from Tarangire Treetops, Randilen WMA

...walking back to Tarangire Treetops, on the Randilen Wildlife Management Area, eles still relaxed.

Sparring eles at the Tarangire Treetops waterhole.

..back at my (& their) watering hole, more elephants, still sparring at Tarangire Treetops.

Nervous wild bull ele, Tarangire Treetops, Randilen WMA

Not hanging around, a bull more used to hunting blocks visits, briefly, the waterhole at Tarangire Treetops, Randilen Wildlife Management Area.

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