Amy Roberts: Killing to conserve
May 19, 2015
It’s been a bit odd this week, waking up to the sound of an alarm clock, rather than the thunderous roar of lions, or the deeply satisfied purr of cheetahs, or the chilling "whoooo-wheee" call of a hyena.
The past few weeks I’ve been in South Africa, volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center called Moholoholo. Which, I can only assume is Afrikaans for, "Everything here can kill you."
While the animals rotate frequently, depending on which species has been caught in a poacher’s snare, or hit by a car, or orphaned, when I was there we had lions, servals, caracals, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, honey badgers, bush babies, raptors, impalas and a host of other creatures native to Africa.
I used up a lot of my vacation time and budget to volunteer at Moholoholo because, like everyone else there, I love animals. I often cried myself to sleep after seeing the cruelty man can inflict on them. I had to cover my eyes when they showed photos of innocent animals, brutally killed by poachers. I covered my ears when I heard an animal crying in pain as we tried to help it. I plugged my nose when I smelled the rotting flesh of an animal that had bitten its leg off in an attempt to free itself from a poacher’s trap.
I never knew my heart could break multiple times a day.
Or that my opinion could change so drastically.
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South Africa has long held a special place in my heart, and each time I’ve been, I’ve been disgusted by the wealthy trophy hunters from other countries who, I’ve always thought, murdered animals for little more than a trinket and new photo to use for their Facebook profile. Most recently, a Utah mother and trophy hunter, Rebecca Francis, came under fire on social media after she posted a picture of herself lying next to a giraffe she’d shot and killed. Comedian and animal rights activist Ricky Gervais let her have it. Gervais comments sparked outrage and condemnation aimed at Francis. And I was one of the millions of people who thought she deserved it.
But now, I’m not so sure.
Let me be clear, there is no circumstance I can imagine where I would take an animal’s life for pleasure. I would never raise a rifle and pull the trigger for the joy of watching a beautiful creature die. But as much as I wouldn’t do it, I now realize despising people who do hurts the animals even more.
It’s difficult to say and accept, but trophy hunting is key to conserving wildlife.
Hundreds of years ago, animals migrated thousands of miles. Elephants roamed from South Africa to Angola. And then man came along and started building fences and highways and constricted the animal’s movement. And man began farming land. When crops were destroyed by elephants, antelope, rhinos and other herbivores, landowners started killing the wildlife and welcomed poachers. Predators like lions and leopards suffered the same fate when they killed a farmer’s livestock. The South African government, for all its faults, recognizes the importance of preserving the country’s wildlife. They asked landowners to live in harmony with the animals. But the only way that can be successful is if the landowners are compensated for allowing wildlife on their property. They have to be able to feed their families without cows and crops. And so, trophy hunting is a solution.
Trophy hunters will pay tens of thousands of dollars to kill an animal. That money is then divided up between landowners in the area, allowing them to make a living off their land. It also motivates them to report poaching activity and monitor their land for traps and snares, because they want to keep the wildlife there. There’s been a major cultural shift the last few decades. Farmers used to hate the wildlife and killed it. Now, they do everything they can to protect the animals.
The hunting is incredibly regulated and only specific animals at specific times can be killed. When I was there, a trophy hunter killed an elephant and donated the meat to Moholoholo. Which meant the animals I was caring for were able to eat wild game instead of purchased beef. And the money saved allows the sanctuary to care for even more animals. In fact, the meat is almost always donated locally. Nobody ships 2,000 pounds of Cape buffalo meat back home.
Before this trip, I would have never considered trophy hunting as a viable solution to conservation. But I think it is. You only have to look as far as Kenya to see the appeal. The Kenyan government has outlawed hunting of any type, and has since lost over 70 percent of its wildlife. In South Africa, when trophy hunting was introduced, the wildlife population doubled.
People have to eat. And they’re always going to care more about their children than a hippopotamus. If they can’t sustain themselves living in harmony with nature, the animals will suffer.
It is horrible that some animals have to be the sacrificial lamb for their species to survive and thrive. But the alternative is to start culling humans.
Amy Roberts is a longtime Park City resident, freelance writer and the proud owner of two ill-behaved rescue dogs, Boston and Stanley.