Sustainable Use – A poorly understood and under-appreciated concept. By Dr. George Hughes.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa requires that our natural resources should be used in a manner that is sustainable and will not rob future generations of the benefits that can be derived from them.

In the case of the wildlife of Southern Africa, indeed nearly that of all Africa, 250 of the 350 years since the arrival of the colonial powers saw the exact opposite of what our Constitution requires. By 1900 some 3 large mammal species had been driven into extinction and every other large mammal of any consequence or use had been reduced to miniscule remnants from which no economic or aesthetic benefit could be further derived. All were on the verge of extinction.

Had our Constitution been written in 1900, intelligent people would have asked why we bothered to include such a clause. Wildlife was essentially worthless to South Africa.

By the end of the 19thCentury, however, we in South Africa already had visionaries who were conscious of the tragically mismanaged wildlife resources and had taken dramatic and indeed unpopular decisions to try and safeguard what was left. In the then Colony of Natal, the first protected areas for wildlife in South Africa were promulgated in 1895 followed in the Transvaal Republic by Sabi Game Reserve (now Kruger National Park) in 1898.

From then onwards until the 1950’s a painstakingly slow recovery of the decimated wildlife populations took place within those and additional protected areas. By the time I joined the Natal Parks Board in 1961 the wildlife managers of the day had begun to realise that some species, in certain protected areas, had reached, or were nearing, a carrying capacity beyond which predictable damage to the habitat would be experienced.

A decision was taken to remove thousands of animals, firstly by shooting, which proved an inadequate solution, and secondly by live removal for translocation to other protected areas and subsequent sale. This was an exciting and challenging period in wildlife management with some serious failures and stupendous successes, but the overall result was astounding. South Africa created the greatest wildlife industry the world has ever seen.

The wildlife managers of South Africa became globally famous for many of the programmes undertaken to restore large mammal populations. The success of the rhinoceros campaigns are perhaps the most dramatic, but they were no more important from a biodiversity conservation standpoint than the restoration of viable populations of buffalo, impala, hartebeest and eland.

These successes were due not only to the efforts of formal conservation staff whose hard work over some 70 years had produced surplus animals, but when they were joined by veterinarians, scientists and private landowners the full potential of our wildlife resources began to be realised.

Since the 1960’s South Africa’s large mammal populations have grown exponentially and today recent estimates of our ‘national herd’ probably exceed 20 million animals. My own retirement estate in Howick, with a mere 145 hectares of natural veld and grassed and landscaped environment, currently holds some 250 head of wild indigenous mammals which bring joy and reward to our residents. Similar relocations and protection have occurred all over South Africa, proving so successful that these achievements are somehow now being taken for granted. They should not be.

This phenomenon of wildlife resurgence has created the skills and the tools to manage wildlife on an industrial scale.  Democratic South Africa gave enormous impetus to our tourism industry and the wildlife component is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown. Tourism brings billions of Rands to the country annually and is growing apace.

The private sector has responded magnificently to the challenge and more and more land is being converted from marginal commercial farming to profitable wildlife areas. The formal protected areas continue to make available surplus game for stocking new areas and the staggering success of the private sector participation in wildlife management has seen an incredible growth in the numbers of many species.

It is a sobering fact that nearly 30% of the world’s rhinoceros are now owned by South Africa’s private sector alone. The Private Rhino Owners Association can take justifiable pride in its achievements. Our public sector hosts another 57% of the world’s rhinoceros.

Hunting of surplus game has brought billions of Rands into our country and the domestic consumption of the meat and other by-products of large mammals (and reptiles such as crocodiles) is contributing significantly to the economy and creating both direct and indirect employment for our people.

To have been a contributor to this success through the pioneering work carried out by the formal conservation bodies of South Africa and, in my case, as a result of being a staff member of the Natal Parks Board, has been a reward beyond price and a fulfilment of everything that I and my colleagues throughout the country had hoped and worked for.

So I find it both distressing and surprising that there appears to be little general appreciation for the achievements of the country’s conservation bodies and we seem to spend a great deal of time being criticised because of these successes. There is serious abuse hurled at the private sector who have invested both time and money in rebuilding large mammal populations on their land. Negative attitudes towards hunting and wildlife cropping abound and these activities attract not praise but moral criticism.

To make matters worse, great confusion is sown through the media with little understanding being demonstrated of the differences between legal and justifiable hunting and, for example, the illegal poaching that is currently ravaging our rhinoceros populations.

South Africa’s wildlife managers have every legal and moral right to use the restored wildlife populations for the benefit of this country. The private sector, especially, has every legal and moral right to beneficiate its investments in wildlife and should be seen as a credit to its staff and the country as a whole.

For example, at the moment South Africa is fighting, at enormous financial cost and economic damage to the country, a poaching war that has been, in pursuit of rhinoceros horns, decimating our restored rhino populations. It is possible to win this war, not by throwing more guns and high-tech equipment at the problem, but rather by legally supplying the market for rhino horn and this could be done without deliberately killing a single rhinoceros.

Problems have arisen as a result of the globalisation of wildlife conservation and the growth of a plethora of Non-Government Organisations many with specialised interests and assisted by the skilful use of social media to spread their own brand of evangelical ‘conservation’. The influence of misused social media is most certainly not restricted, as has been recently demonstrated, to political goals in the United States, France and the United Kingdom.

Many such bodies are totally opposed to the use of wildlife for the benefit of humankind…in any shape or form. To such groups the sustainable use of larger mammals such as the elephant or rhino is morally unacceptable and rather than using surplus animals for legal hunting, protein or products they would see the prevention of surpluses through artificial contraception. This is, in my view, undesirable in the extreme. Such practices impose a massive additional time and financial burden on managers and one must ask why.

To most professional managers of wildlife, all of whom know that successful conservation produces surplus numbers of all species, this is a strange and unexpected set of outcomes. To us, legal cropping and hunting is not morally indefensible, but a logical outcome of a century of hard work to prevent the extinction of our wildlife. It also produces a financial return to the taxpayer who has already paid for a century of wildlife restoration effort or a justifiable return on investment for a risk-taking private owner.

To those of us who have worked in the conservation field it is anathema when animals, especially wild animals, are abused or over-exploited for profit alone and such practices are to be utterly condemned. Such things should never be confused, or allowed to be confused, with the legal beneficiation of wildlife resources that are the product of lawful and ethical endeavour.

Our success is a proudly South African product.

South Africa through sound, legal and ethical conservation practices today produces enormous quantities of surplus wild mammals and these should be used for the benefit of our country and people. Were there such things as a Nobel Prize for the sound management of wildlife resources, South Africa should be a winner.