The hushed voices, the bated breath, the hand steadying a gun; the hunter and the hunted caught for a moment in a fragile balance of life and death before a shot rings out across the plain. This is an African hunting holiday – not exactly what my mind jumps to when I think of a dream getaway. Is this really a twenty-first century reality?
Surprisingly, big game hunting is still a hugely lucrative industry across South Africa, despite concerns over the diminishing numbers of endangered animals. It’s no longer the old-fashioned man vs. nature experience though, beyond donning safari hats and khaki jackets, but an artificial ‘canned hunt’. Now on privately owned game reserves, tourists come to be rewarded with the luxury of slaughtering whatever animal takes their fancy; from an elephant prized at £10,000 or more for a kill, to one of the big cats, reaping anything from around £2500. Websites detail animals on offer as an Argos catalogue would advertise Christmas toys – with pretty much guaranteed success.
This undercurrent of pretence surrounding big game hunting is perpetuated by game farmers who tempt tourists with the promise of a shiny trophy – not scarred like the leopards that roam the African bush or the elephants that trek miles to get to the nearest watering hole. Bred in captivity, some lions are fed on unborn calves until they are released with no chance of escape; conditioned to be the prey rather than the predator.
You may have the physique of a couch potato and severely limited hand-eye coordination, but that £60,000 rhinoceros tusk can still be yours, even if it has been shot point blank from the back of a 4×4 with the gun aimed for you. Seeing children return home with their first kill exposes how the odds are stacked so greatly in favour of the hunter that the challenge is negligible. Likened to playing tennis without a net, can it really be called a sport when everything is done to make sure the hunter gets his trophy?
Unfortunately, where there is demand, there will be supply. Recent studies expose trophy hunting as the single largest contributor to the decline of the lion population in Africa. In one reserve, a population of 54 rhino had been reduced to only five over the last ten years. Monitoring and policing is ineffective, this being the responsibility of the individual governments who often lack the resources or the resolve.
The alternative is ecotourism, bringing local communities almost 15 times the amount of money earned by livestock or hunting, whilst providing employment and promoting wildlife as a long-term economic resource. Kenya, the only African country where trophy hunting is completely illegal, has a thriving safari industry bringing in around £480m annually.
Slammed as ‘insensitive and grisly’ by animal rights groups, there is something deplorable about trophy hunting. Those in favour question if the sport is worse than slaughtering cows for meat, or paying to shoot pheasants on large British country estates. Whatever the arguments, shots go astray, and an animal will suffer greatly until put out of its misery. To me, killing a majestic creature seems fundamentally unpalatable, whether the meat goes to local villagers or not. South Africa’s statistics give a good an answer as any: the lion population has decreased 30% in the last twenty years, cheetahs have disappeared from 76% of their historic range on the African continent, and hippos have seen a 7-20% decline in population over the last decade.
Posing with an elephant’s tail or manhandling the limp form of a kudu into various positions for a great holiday snap shows the desire of the hunter to assert dominance over nature. Surely these animals deserve better than to be killed and hacked apart for a short lived thrill? The excess of wealth in some cases has left a deficit in compassion, animals being mere commodities and killing just a frivolous form of amusement.