Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Hunters Shoot Themselves in the Foot

Republished Courtesy of African Indaba Newletter

Hunters Shoot Themselves in the Foot
By Ian Parker

I know all about shooting myself in the foot. As a young soldier, I did it. Coming off sentry duty I unloaded my ·303, counting nine rounds out of the ten-shot magazine. The tenth seemed to be missing, so I worked the bolt several times to no avail.
“Why do you do that so many times?” asked a comrade sitting by the fire.
“For safety,” I had replied and, thinking that the tenth round must have fallen to the ground during the initial unloading, I pulled the trigger. The tenth round had been hiding in the magazine all along and entered the chamber on the bolt’s last movement. There was a loud bang and as the muzzle was resting on my foot – well, the rest is history. As I said, I know all about shooting myself in the foot.

I know about hunting too. As a warden assigned to game control and then a contractor undertaking large-scale culling across East Africa, I have probably hunted more than most. I appreciate that little of this was for my personal enjoyment and, while on occasion the activity was unquestionably exciting, my over-riding emotional state was little different to that when, as a beef producer, I slaughter a steer. Done of necessity, there is no pleasure in the act.
Don’t get me wrong … I do enjoy light bird shooting, though again, satisfaction in pulling off a difficult shot notwithstanding, there is no pleasure in actual killing. Similarly, I fish and, in my mind fishing is a form of hunting. In both bird shooting and fishing I only take quarry that I enjoy eating. Pleasure from both activities arises from the environments where they take place and, overwhelmingly, from the company in which they are undertaken. An evening stroll out of camp with a couple of companions, to return with a brace or two of francolin or guineafowl, or a quiet evening’s casting over forest pools and landing a three-quarter pound trout, are experiences to be treasured.

Others might want more ‘body’ to their hunting and, relishing a quotient of adrenalin and danger, want larger quarry. With that I have no quarrel. I certainly understand that the difference between me taking a couple guineafowl and someone else stalking a bushbuck – or a buffalo for that matter - is slight and relative.

The satisfactions derived are personal. Hunting, as I comprehend it, is a private undertaking both in the compulsions that lead to it and in its rewards. One way or another, it is not a ‘spectator sport’ – which is why films about hunting fall so short of the mark and do more damage than good to the hunter’s reputation.

The philosophical arguments for and against hunting are ancient, interminable and largely pointless. Hunting may be cruel, it may be atavistic, it may satiate drives that aesthetes preferred didn’t exist: I’ll not dispute the charges (though this is no concession to verity or otherwise). What surely counts is that throughout civilization’s history, wild animals have been conserved so that they can be hunted. Whatever the flaws in pro-hunting arguments, that fact is indisputable.

The most common and widespread reason resulting in successful conservation across time and cultures, has been to sustain hunting. Other reasons have been successful locally – but none as generally effective as the measures taken to provide hunters with quarry. In view of this success, it is profoundly stupid to turn against it. That, for me, is the strongest case for hunting.
Yet the manner in which hunting in Africa is widely conducted contradicts its own supporters’ claims of it being a sport. It is the hunters who say that they get no enjoyment from the actual act of killing, and that the sport lies in outwitting wary quarry through skill, cunning and physical endeavor.

When animals are shot from vehicles – and let’s face it, many are – then the only enjoyment has to be the act of killing, for driving up to them in vehicles calls for no skill or physical endeavor. When animals are reared as domesticants then taken into the bush to be shot, that, too, undermines the hunters’ stated cases. As I have written in these pages before, hunting big dangerous animals is, like mountaineering, a fit man’s sport. Elderly, over-weight, unfit people who, at best, can only waddle short distances cannot hunt. They are no doubt the reason why so many animals in Africa are shot from vehicles.

In similar vein, the obsession with trophy quality seems to override what hunters claim is the rationale for hunting. There was a time when hunting involved endurance, tracking, getting up to potential quarry, then turning it down, possibly going home with nothing, because the trophies did not come up to the hunter’s standard. Even those opposed to hunting acknowledged the endeavor and admired it.

The reward for that sort of hunting was intensely personal: as I said earlier, hunting is not a spectator sport. Yet the extra inch of horn that is now such a competitive element – particularly in America – is difficult to divorce from public display.

I am well aware of all the economic arguments that favor the short cuts and the ‘tupa nyuma’ style of hunting so prevalent today. Safari hunting is a business, the customer is always right and has to be satisfied. All these factors shape what is happening in Africa. It is disturbing, however, that so few hunters are addressing the fundamental issues and tackling them head-on.

My point: I believe that hunting can produce effective conservation and that this is a powerful argument in its favor. Yet hunters shoot themselves in the foot when they fail to abide by the ‘ethics’ and arguments through which they justify themselves. If, in the end, hunting loses ground in Africa, then this failure will have contributed in large measure to that loss.