This week I was forced to reflect upon a career that I chose many years ago without much thought or purpose. A career which has consumed the greater part of my working life and one which I have been dedicated to since an early age. You see, I received a document last weekend, a fancy important one with a great big title and the credentials of a worldwide aid organization stamped on the front and back, claiming to be a rock solid study, conclusion and recommendation about the current hunting situation in Zambia's Game Management Areas - where 99 percent of our hunting takes place, where I have hunted since I can remember.
Growing up as a local has always meant that we deal with what everyone calls the 'Expat' community, a loose term for anyone who is temporarily placed in the country on a work assignment either for the private sector or in the more snooty diplomatic missions and international aid organizations plying their often misguided intentions to our country. It is with varying degrees of mistrust that the locals look upon 'Expats' and one term coined for those who would occasionally grace us with their presence at the Pete's Steakhouse bar was JAFO (Just Another F*#@ing Observer) - all in good humor however, especially if it was a younger member of the opposite sex. However the basic gist was this - here comes some youngster upstart, fresh out of college with an idealistic axe to grind and they are now suddenly charged with making an informed and lasting decision about policy that will eventually effect many people's lives in a country they only heard of 2 weeks ago. They have no experience here, they have no idea of the local cultures, traditions and manners and they are simply temporary - once their job is done they will leave and our plight will be a distant memory.
I've never been one in favor of the giving of aid and poor nations taking these soft loans and co-pays from the international community - I see it more as disabling to the local people than helpful as it breeds ineptitude and fosters dependency - which I think in many cases the aid organizations want and need for their very survival. Everyone has a personal agenda - the politicians here, the people starving on the street, the local businesses, yes even us hunters - it is human nature and even the great big aid organizations have staff who need to justify their jobs and inflated salaries so they can be promoted and sent to another more glamorous country and one day end up in politics perhaps.
What struck me as unusual about this report however was the fact that, although funded by the 'expats', it was mostly researched and prepared by local Zambians who had the necessary home ground experience. And at the end I realized that the findings and conclusions in this document - which will probably and hopefully lead to some very important wildlife policy changes in our country - was to the point and hit the nail on the head.
Traditionally many of the locals mistrust this kind of research, especially the professional hunters and safari operators who it will affect and they will more than likely dismiss this document as drivel. However I have hunted many of the GMA's in Zambia since the new allocation of hunting blocks in 2003 - when this document was researched - and it makes sense, I have personally seen and been party to much of what they term as a failure by the GMA's to fulfill their original purpose - to act as buffer zones around the national parks while supporting a viable hunting industry which contributes to the national economy!
Zambia's hunting zones, the GMA's, were established way back in the colonial period with the realization then that if left unattended, local residents around the national parks would soon decimate the game because they were privy to the supply of modern weapons. Thus the concept of community benefit from the abstinence of un wanton game utilization by the residents - essentially by the tribe that traditionally had right and tenure to that land. Much of Zambia's hunting industry is based upon this system and over the years it has been re-cooked and packaged a number of times to arrive at what is a worldwide term now - Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM).
The common denominator amidst all of this is economic viability, be it for the wildlife authority who collect revenue to fund their operations, the safari operators and the PH's who turn a profit from this business or most important to those who deal with the wildlife interfering in their lives on a daily basis - the local community. Any natural resource has to hold an intrinsic value for humanity to realize it is worth protecting. For those of us far removed and sitting pretty in airconditoned homes with full stomachs and healthy bank accounts the value of wildlife is an intangible object, it means more to us in the heart and soul than for what it can physically provide. However for the people who have to deal with a 6 ton beast destroying their next years food supply - the difference between starving or just barely making it through - it takes on a different meaning and this is where the cracks start showing.
I've been going out into the Zambian bush since I was 5 years old and have never lost my touch with it, spending a great deal of my life in Zambia's best wilderness areas be it for hunting, for fishing, for game viewing for simple soul searching indulgence. Over this time I have witnessed the demise of much of this country's greatest asset and regardless of what I as a professional hunter would like to argue and believe, Zambia's game has steadily been eroded via one notable consistency - poor wildlife management! The blame for this you'd think automatically lies at the door of the government yet it pierces many sectors and spans decades of political genres, safari operator perceptions and greeds, local community welfare, cultural euphemisms and historical prejudices.
The more I look at this hunting scenario, the more it points to the individuals involved and their respective beliefs, actions and needs. You see, as a PH I hold very different views of what should be done in a GMA, how and when, to those held by the Safari Operator who owns the hunting lease or rights to it. Far too often and in too many of the GMA's I have hunted, I have been appalled at the attitude, perceptions and actions of the safari operators. Of course one cannot expect an operator to function as a charity, the purpose of their venture is profit - in fact much needed for all parties concerned. However there is a fine line between taking a profit and plundering a resource, a line which more often than not exists only in the minds and beliefs of individuals. All too often this line of restraint is exceeded - with the excuse - because the existing laws allow it and the pursuit of more daily fees and dollars demands it.
As a PH you know, especially when it comes to the cats, when and area is exhausted and in need of rest and you find yourself standing at the airstrip with a sense of resignation as a leopard or lion client flies in eager and full of hope. The safari operator, sitting in an office in town looks through his quota list and sees one leopard left or perhaps a lion not taken during early season and in his mind it flashes money, it is an attractive figure in his books. Perhaps he even knows his area is tired but then that age old hunting adage - there are no guarantees - forces him to accept that enquiry from an overseas booking agent hell bent on comission. At the end of the day it leaves you as the PH with a feeling of failure to your client because you may have been unsuccessful or worse still, been faced with immature trophies - that's if you're one those PH's who gives a damn!
The excuse at the end of the day is this - we are forced to shoot all these animals, they are given to us legally on our annual quota, we are allowed to do this because the wildlife authority sanctions it. These are the other factors to consider, the wildlife authority stipulations for example, which force safari operators to utilize at least 75 percent of their animal quota. So safari operators are more or less forced to take animals even though they may know it is not viable - the reason - the wildlife authority is looking at this as a numbers game, the more they allow operators to shoot the more revenue comes in. Now if there were viable populations to be utilized on an annual basis then this would not matter, however the research upon which these animal quotas are based is outdated and vague at the best of times and game number are on the decrease countrywide.
And here again it is the individual - the one heading the operation - typically one man, who stands with responsibility and consideration upon his shoulders. More and more it seems to me those who have been in the business since a very early age, the ones who have that affinity with the African bush, it is these men who stand up to the dilemma and are the ones who realize what should be done regardless of cost.
A couple of years ago existing GMA's were suddenly split into two or three and the existing safari operators were told they had to pay for another hunting concession as well as another quota of animals. Essentially it meant a GMA of 3000 square kilometers with an annual quota of 180 animal species was now split into two 1500 sq km areas each with an annual quota of 180 animal species? In any mans book, this does not make ecological or conservation sense, in fact it simply does not make sense. However it does make a whole lot of sense numbers wise to certain operators looking for more hunting land that they had perhaps missed during the initial GMA allocation and it makes even more dollar sense to the wildlife authority.
What happened? Many of the operators refused to accept this additional fee so the 'new' GMA's were allocated to other safari operators who happily started hunting and taking the (additional) quota. Some however paid the fees and simply went about their business as if nothing had happened - it meant paying double their annual lease fee and paying for animals not utilized but they realized there was no option - if they didn't accept this move another safari operator would move in and start taking game which was already under severe pressure. The number of operators who did this was few and far between and to be straight up, it was those who have been in the business for many years and who are mostly local Zambians not foreign outfitting companies - they know how the system works and they realize the pressures existing upon the wildlife.
Up until a few years ago, the principle of a community benefitting from the wildlife on their traditional land was but a pipe dream. However since 2003 it was formalized in the GMA lease agreements and now the community had a Resource Board who would represent their needs and see to the efficient and prudent allocation of funds from the hunting revenues. Today 50 percent of the revenue from the trophy fees and 20 percent of the concession fees are allocated to the community for various projects and priorities. The chief for example gets a 5% cut while the majority of funds are allocated to employ local village scouts for anti-poaching work. The problems that exist within this system is the filtering down of funds to the intended grassroots recipients and often the most important ones like salaries for the village scouts is non existent. The process is hindered from the top down starting at the disbursement from the wildlife authority but also gets mis appropriated at resource board level and often scouts wait 6-8 months for their salaries. What do they do to feed themselves and their families during this time? Should they carry on their essential duty to the GMA or should they sit idly by and wait until their salaries are paid?
In the many areas I have hunted, often the only money these scouts see is through their mandatory attendance on a safari hunt and usually comes in the form of a gratuity from the client and the PH. Otherwise, these scouts see little salary for their efforts and in most cases their enthusiasm turns firstly to apathy and then to alternative means to make a living and to keep their families fed. It is usually with the encouragement and assistance of the resident PH and the safari operator that these scouts become effective units and more often than not their income and supplies come from the hunting camp within the GMA. It goes without saying, if you are a concerned safari operator and PH then you don't rely on the higher authorities to take care of the scouts, you'll be waiting all season, and you do what you must, usually in the form of monetary assistance and food supplies. Often in GMA's where there is allot of poaching I encounter hard-assed safari operators who don't want to part with their pennies and insist that the scouts go out and work but must collect their pay from the resource board and stick to their terms of the lease agreement - if you approach it in this manner then you're at the losing end of the battle.
Out in the bush, in the remote areas where roads exist because we hunt there, local people live a tough and ongoing struggle with nature and for survival. Often in these outlying areas the service one would expect from the government - schools, medical clinics, clean water - are rudimentary and at best sparsely supplied and staffed. Three years ago, about the time when you start thinking of a cold beer, a frantic fisherman came running into camp asking for our help - his friend had been bitten by a crocodile and his leg was, as he termed it 'buggered'. His right leg was completely ripped to shreds below the knee and when we found him he lay half unconscious in river sand. Blood streamed from his knee and below this nothing remained except the bare bone. With some trepidation we managed to stem the blood flow and bandage the wound for the trip to the local clinic, 30 miles away. If it was not for our vehicle, and they had requested the help of a group of resident hunters nearby, this man would have bled to death. Today he walks around with a pirate stump fashioned from mopani hardwood and still catches fish for a living. It is our duty, as PH's and operators to provide this kind of basic care to the local people, and normally what transpires is the building of an onsite clinic or school with hunting funds which is then staffed and supplied by the government.
Having the support of the local community, not only the chief, but the women out in the fields and the men who wander the bush searching for honey, is 90 percent of the battle won against poaching and settlement encroachment. It is a game that you should know how to play if you are a seasoned safari operator or PH and one which means the difference between success and failure. However in some GMA's I see a total disregard from both sides, evident in the many snares you find, evident in the huge settlements taking over once pristine hunting grounds, and I wonder where this operator has failed, or perhaps why the people here do not care for their resource? 9 out of 10 it will be because communication, understanding and tolerance have broken down between the operator and the locals.
A good PH friend of mine was out on a hunt, far out in the western sands of Zambia in a vast and sparsely populated GMA. He was covering with another more fancy, flashy PH out of Zimbabwe, after Lion - a safari booked upon last seasons spectacular results. Day in and day out a young male would walk into the bait, big bodied but thin around the ears and shoulders, clearly a 3 or 4 year old boy testing his skills and territory. Other baits had strikes but the big one didn't show and as the safari started nearing its end the inevitable happened - the throw away youngster from day 3 now suddenly started looking like a shooter in the eyes of flashy pants and he started hinting to my friend that it may not be that young a male, perhaps it had a mane less gene. Now, there are lions that don't grow manes, but you don't need a mane to clearly read the age of a male - it is clear if it is on the young side - and the much talked about black nose is not necessarily the indicator.
Here came the dilemma which we all face as PH's and it is one which is as variable as black and white from PH to PH. Your client has paid top dollar to hunt a lion, he wants success and there in front of you is a lion that is not considered dependant upon its mother, but it is young and is NOT a trophy male, it is merely a lion that will one day become great. What takes priority? your client and their insistence that any male is OK, the safari operator insisting that the quota must be filled and trophy fee paid, or your gut that says this is not right, I will stick to my principals?
Unfortunately, over the last 3 years, I have seen photo's in the glossy safari magazines - adverts for famous booking agents and safari companies proudly showing off this seasons trophy success - and it seems the PH's have folded and given in. Now suddenly many areas of Zambia have a mane less gene and many 'old mane less rogues' are being taken (much to the delight of the local tribes!?!?). Seriously, as PH's there remains many that either have no idea what a mature male lion is or simply don't give a damn and want that nice fat tip at the end of the hunt. So what happened with my friend? He is not Zambian but in all his hunting he has remained true to his ethics, regardless of where he hunts, I have great respect for him - allot more than many of the Zambian PH's I know.
This report and its findings, whatever it may result in, highlights the fact that our hunting industry is far from perfect, it is something which sorely needs rethinking and hopefully a total restructuring! There are many conflicts, pitfalls and viable solutions. Some hunters have started out with the right principals in their areas from day one, some have never held wildlife at the core of their beliefs (almost as if it is not within their culture) and the rest fall somewhere in the middle, all under the same label and umbrella - African Trophy Hunting!
Until the day the laws are perfect for everyone, where the right in your heart and your business intellect meet favorably and each and every person affected is content, we have to make do with what we have - admittedly it is not perfect but at least it is some form of safeguard and protection for what does remain and I will continue to support and protect, tirelessly, this thing we call trophy hunting because it is often the last line of defence for the remaining wilderness!