Saturday, March 16, 2013

Controversy: Timbavati Rhino Hunting (South Africa)

This is an open letter from Timbavati Game Reserve Chairman Tom Hancock regarding the limited hunting of selected rhino in that reserve. A recent controversy erupted when it was ‘discovered’ (although it has proceeded quite openly for years) that amidst the current and alarming rhino poaching crisis in South Africa, white rhinos were being legally hunted in this flagship reserve along the western boundary of Kruger National Park. Accusations flew and social media exploded with vitriol.

1)      Should an individual’s personal revulsion to rhino hunting translate into ban or cessation? I understand someone’s personal aversion to hunting, or hunters, but do these sentiments equate to sound conservation polices? Ironically, some of the most respected and erudite conservationists say no, antipathy to rhino hunting should not translate into bans because properly conducted it is a tool that has served the species very well.

2)      It is clear that illegal horn traders have fronted as ‘legitimate’ clients with shady outfitters and there is no doubt that this ‘loophole’ is a serious threat to the industry and credible conduct. I agree that this is a serious problem, driving any current benefits towards a zero sum outcome.

The letter makes their case quite simply. Draw your own conclusions:

“The Timbavati does not support the idea of stopping an activity which is legal, sustainable, scientific and professionally managed, supported by numerous conservation-oriented NGOs and research institutions, and which brings in the very revenue required to counter the uncontrolled and highly illegal scourge that is rhino poaching. For the Timbavati to be financially sustainable and for us to achieve our conservation aims and objectives we need sustainable sources of revenue whether it is from limited hunting, photographic tourism other sources.

Individual landowners do not benefit financially from any hunting which takes place in the Reserve and are prohibited from hunting commercially on their own properties. The Timbavati Association is a not-for-profit conservation organisation.

100% of the proceeds generated from sustainable hunting activities in the Timbavati are utilised exclusively for the conservation and protection of not only our rhino population, but also the protection of all fauna and flora under our custodianship.

Sustainable utilisation of our natural resources as practised by the Timbavati is legal, well supported by environmental legislation, government, and SANParks as well as by a large number of reputable, relevant research institutions and conservation-based NGOs [Research available on request]. Sustainable utilisation of natural resources by way of hunting is entrenched in the Policy for Buffer Zones to National Parks.

The general consensus of the scientific community and reputable conservation NGOs appears to be against an outright ban on the hunting of cats and rhino. CITES states that rather than trophy hunting having a negative impact on white rhino population, "available information suggests the contrary".

The Timbavati supports the findings of Endangered Wildlife Trust chief Yolan Friedman and Wilderness Foundation chief Andrew Muir who cautioned that a moratorium on rhino hunting could have “unintended and negative consequences which are prejudicial to the southern white rhino conservation as a whole”.

 “To allow the continued expansion of rhino range and numbers, and so enable overall numbers in the country to grow… the private sector and communities have to provide the new conservation land. The extent to which they do so largely depends on economic incentives and the perceived risk of managing rhino.”

They conclude that a moratorium on hunting could also result in a drop in rhino prices and encourage owners to remove more of their animals.

IUCN Species Survival Commissions (SSC) African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) (Appendix 4) has over the years recognised the generally positive role that sport hunting has played in the increase in white rhino numbers in South Africa. Hunting of white rhino (WR) started in 1968 when perhaps there were only around 1,800 white rhino in Africa. It helped give white rhino a value on auctions that has encouraged the expansion of numbers and range. Thus white rhino numbers in South Africa have increased over 10 fold since hunting started.

The support for the continued hunting of white rhino is taken up by the man who arguably was largely responsible for saving the white rhino from extinction, Dr Ian Player. Dr. Player stated in an interview recently that in 1960 it was estimated that there were 60,000 black rhino in Africa, and only 600 white . By the end of Operation Rhino (of which Dr. Player played a central role), there were only a few thousand black rhino while white rhino numbers were growing rapidly. Dr Player commented, “What lead to this, and what people don’t understand – and don’t want to understand - is that in 1970, white rhino were placed back on the hunting list. That meant that game ranchers were able to buy [white rhino] and have hunters come and shoot them and pay a lot of money to do so. To the great credit of the ranchers, they were taking that money, buying more land and buying more rhino. The numbers of rhino shot were minimal, but what it meant was the habitat was being expanded all the time and that literally lead to an explosion of white rhino.”

Thanks to Operation Rhino, it is estimated that there are approximately 4,500 white rhino (or 23% of the world’s population) on 2.2 million hectares of private land in South Africa  (EWT). The combined habitat on private land is bigger than the size of the Kruger National Park.

In 1968 the Timbavati was one of the first recipients of white rhino under Operation Rhino. Initially 4 white rhino were introduced and over the next 5 years, we purchased a further 22 from the then Natal Parks Board. In 1994, prior to the removal of the ecological disaster that was the fence between the Kruger and Timbavati, our white rhino population had grown to 67. On removal of the fence we immediately lost 70% of our rhino to Kruger. So the Timbavati helped to stock the central KNP areas with white rhino. As the meta population in the Kruger expanded north, our white rhino numbers slowly recovered to such an extent that we believe we are close to territorial capacity. As we have no fence, all game found in the Timbavati (and the Kruger) is legally classified as “res nullius” or ownerless. Therefore the accusation that we are hunting Kruger rhino, from both a legal and logical standpoint, is absolute nonsense.  To the contrary, by removal of the fence, Timbavati helped to increase white rhino numbers in the central Kruger area.

Contrary to popular belief, according to CITES the overall populations of both white rhinoceros and the black rhinoceros continue to increase in the wild despite high and increasing levels of poaching. White rhinoceros populations now total about 20,165 individuals, and black rhinoceros populations about 4,880.

When it comes to hunting, we will always encounter emotive arguments. Our management team have a duty to put emotion aside to make the best decisions based on the best scientific information available to ensure we uphold our objective to “promote the conservation of biodiversity for the sake of posterity, and to manage its ecosystem, landscapes & species populations to serve the ecological interests of the Timbavati and the Open System”.

My greatest fear regarding the uninformed anti-hunting activists is that their sentimentality for individual species, or even for individual specimens within a species, will have the unintended consequence of the decline or even destruction of certain species in the wild.

There are many animal rights activists and members of the public who criticise sustainable hunting without really understanding the harsh realities facing conservation in Africa. And then you get true conservationists who are involved with saving and protecting rhino all day, every day. The Timbavati is the latter and probably does more to protect rhino than any NGO or other private organisation. This comes at huge cost and needs to be paid for somehow.

The Timbavati has one of the most effective anti-poaching units in the world. This comes at a cost.  We have experienced field rangers (who receive paramilitary training), electrified alarmed fences, and vehicles for armed response. In additional there are costs associated with informants fees, fees paid to assist with intelligence gathering, improved firearms to counter increased firepower of poachers and legal fees to represent staff when they are involved in shooting incidents. And we have darted, micro-chipped and DNA-sampled more than 70 rhino in an on-going programme to aid law enforcement in curtailing the illegal trade in rhino horn. The list goes on…

When it comes to the war on poaching we are the Western Front. Not only do we protect rhino located within the Timbavati, we also protect a large number of rhino located in the western section of the Kruger National Park (KNP). We are a Buffer Zone to the National Park. The Timbavati works with the KNP on a daily basis to coordinate anti-poaching activities. We are on the ground, all day, every day protecting rhino at huge personal risk to our dedicated field rangers and management. Armed incidents with well-armed poachers are a regular occurrence.

Specialist independent scientific studies are undertaken for each species to be hunted which analyses the impact of any off-take of the species. From the study, a hunting protocol emerges, which dictates how and which individual specimens may be hunted. All animals removed from the Timbavati through hunting have to be under permit issued by the provincial conservation agency, after approval by the Kruger National Park . This is a lengthy and controlled exercise, and should the sustainability of any species, or any sub-group within a species, be under threat generally indicted by a decline in numbers, the process would prohibit the hunting of such species. The Timbavati would never allow hunting of a certain species if there was any negative impact, short or long term.

Dr David Mabunda, CEO of SANParks recently stated, ''We have a good relationship with the Timbavati Association, and they are excellent conservationists. Hunting in private reserves, contractual and provincial parks is allowed within the framework of provincial legislation and sustainable use of natural resources. This framework means that hunting can only take place if it is based on scientific studies, scoping exercises, aerial surveys and the granting of a permit to hunt by the department responsible for conservation. SANParks scientists and rangers are part of the process that determines [hunting operations]. We have reached an agreement with Timbavati and the other privately owned reserves that border the Kruger Park. This agreement states that the area would be managed according to the management plan that applies to the Kruger National Park. And our policy is open to the sustainable use of natural resources.”

Hunting of iconic species will always be emotive and unpopular to the many uninformed. People do not need to enjoy hunting, or to respect hunters. Rather they need to understand the enormous benefits that hunting – including the hunting of white rhino - brings to conservation, not only in the Timbavati, but to the whole of southern Africa.
Do we have a rhino hunting problem or a rhino poaching problem? We all agree we have the latter but to say that they are one and the same thing is simply ludicrous. Sustainable hunting of rhino is legal, and encouraged by environmental legislation and policy, generates revenue for general conservation activities and rhino protection and, probably most importantly, results in the expansion of rhino habitat and numbers.

We are constantly looking for alternative revenue sources to fund our conservation operations. The Timbavati regards itself as one of the few examples in Africa where photographic tourism and sustainable utilisation through harvesting are conducted within the same environment. The Timbavati does not regard these activities as mutually exclusive. Many of our landowners run successful lodges which generate conservation levies, but eco-tourism is not a panacea for all the challenges facing conservation in southern Africa, and the number of lodges that the Timbavati can sustain from an ecological and financial perspective is limited. It is generally accepted by reputable scientists that photographic tourism operations are more damaging to the environment than sustainable, well managed hunting operations. Simple anecdotal evidence from the Timbavati illustrates the point: it takes approximately 18,000 guest nights in lodges (or one guest staying for 50 years) to generate the same revenue that the Timbavati Association receives from one hunter shooting one rhino.

If you are a critic of rhino hunting, ask yourself “What have I done to save the rhino today?” and compare your answer to what the Timbavati does every day, all day.

Tom Hancock”
Follow the fray from here.


  1. "... Simple anecdotal evidence... 18,000 guest nights in lodges (or one guest staying for 50 years)... generate same revenue that Timbavati ... receives from one hunter shooting one rhino."

    Okay, say hunting one rhino fetches about R1 million (doubt it could be more than that?), then if this is equivalent to 18 000 guest nights, the average nightly tariff is only R1 million / 18000 = R55... really? Just checked the website, and the cheapest accommodation is a thatched hut at Umlani bush camp at R3000 per person per night. That translates to (R3000*18000) = R54 million according to the ration you cited. That is, 54 times more than a rhino hunt?

    Your comparison does not add up... please provide the correct data. It is since these distorted figures are always blurted out by hunters' associations that people generally mistrust the soundness of the hunting industry. Considering the vast number of tourists that come for simple game-viewing and the rates they pay for accommodation, anyone will have a hard time convincing the broader, or uninformed (as you so arrogantly put it), public that the hunting industry trumps game-viewing industry.

    Doubtless, hunting has contributed to saving rhino in the past, and it can be managed sustainably, however it can also be abused and can be conducted in an inhumane, immoral and abusive manner. While I am (cautiously) pleased by Timbavati's conduct regarding hunting, I do not as you said 'respect' hunters. I regard hunting a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless. What is sickening though, from not only an emotive point of view, but from one of principle as well, is that the death of a creature for boastful pleasure and sport is needed as incentive to keep the rhino alive.

    That is what it comes down to... hunters say they will keep animals alive for as long as they can soothe their bloodlust and pick one or two off now and then, and (some) game owners will keep them alive for as long as its lucrative, and no longer.

    Still, thanks to all, including hunters and their company, who have the intention of keeping our wildlife alive. If your motives are pure, then I support your cause.

  2. Drageo,
    Thank you for your comment. To clarify, this is a copy of a letter written by Tom Hancock, not me. You make number of erroneous accusations, like “Your comparison” and “as you so arrogantly put it”. I did none of those in this case.

    I too was amazed at the 18000:1 guest-nights to rhino hunter ratio. Unfortunately I do not have accurate data to refute or confirm this calculus. Like you, I can only make coarse estimations. I agree it sounds very high. The gist of that comparison however is to highlight the relative reduction in physical impact a hunter may have compared to other visitors when considering per capita revenue. I think there is little debate that ‘eco-tourism’ can manifest in very environmentally destructive ways, especially when conducted at the economies of scale that might be required to generate useful returns in large conservation areas. Lodges, roads, vehicles, waste, utilities, supply chains etc all come with environmental costs. Furthermore, these facilities are often located in the most scenic areas and rapidly blight the landscape (purely a profit motive, few are charity venues or eschew the most beautiful locations out of ethical solicitude). Often erroneously referred to ‘non-consumptive’ tourism is more damaging than people like to admit. Hunting often requires far less facilities for larger returns. There are many areas that hold little aesthetic appeal for many tourists but can be well served by hunting in order to achieve the social incentives for conservation. Conversely, as you rightly allude to, hunting can be destructive, corrupt and a disservice to legitimate conservation, but so can ‘lodges’. Context is key. In some contexts hunting may be a poor choice for managing wildlife, in others it may be best and others may find a happy balance across spaces or seasons.

    I must challenge your belief that hunters “…will keep them alive for as long as it’s lucrative, and no longer”. This is not true. The profit motive extends well beyond hunting and its practitioners. Under a private property regime wildlife needs to provide a return, or survive off donations. Most land in SA is private. Regardless of the nature of the wildlife business, money is a major incentive to land owners. The financial motives for lodges to incur costs for charismatic species can be the same as hunting outfits. I have seen game viewing and hunting reserves managed identically insofar as they create very high densities of ‘desirable’ species, engage in bush ‘enhancement’ for easier viewing, build high densities of artificial water points (with attendant problems) etc. By contrast there are many outstanding conservation efforts that see contributions from hunters with zero personal profit motives. Many involved with these causes incur high time, financial and labour costs. Think of groups like Ducks Unlimited (a serious force in conservation), Trout Unlimited et al. They sell their missions based on business plans to benefit landowners and governments through preserving the ecological services provided by good habitat and are funded by donations and sales of hunting licenses. Most of their supporters have no, or very little, financial return on consuming wildlife. My point with this comparison is that it provides evidence that the conservation moral- economy is in fact well peopled by concerned hunters, and of course non-hunters, with no income motive. People with differing animal ethics are equally concerned with the issues of habitat and populations. Many conservation NGO’s see substantial contributions from financially disinterested hunters who have a deep seated desire to conserve the foundations of wildlife populations.

    I guess we disagree on our environmental worldview and moral reasoning in terms of what we consider ethical relationships with animals. We ALL cause some level of animal mortality from our lifestyles and hunting is not a proxy for environmental disregard. There is no natural law that predetermines ethical superiority based on participation in hunting.

    1. Firstly, I apologize for the personal address. I am afraid I started reading at the tail end of the post, and did not see that this was in fact a letter.

      I acknowledge your above comments on the undesirable ecological effects of eco-tourism. Much of what you had mentioned is visible in the Kruger National Park, for instance. This I do not deny. Although, regarding the issue of revenue generation, I remain largely convinced that game-viewing parks trump that of hunting-reserves. This is easily supported by the comparative frequency of income and the size of target markets for the two respective reserve types. Moreover, conservation fees are usually charged in addition to hospitality fees - the returns of each may be applied to the betterment of that end. Yet, as you have also emphasized, this does not hold in all contexts. For smaller reserves and less popular holiday destinations, I comprehend how the converse could be true.

      I reiterate that I do not deny the contribution of the hunting industry, and simply do not favor it. Personally, I will not hunt an animal - likely for the same reasons I will not slaughter livestock myself. I simply do not consider it a leisure to kill. Perhaps I do not have the stomach for it. A common argument from the pro-hunting community is that this constitutes hypocrisy, since I do not refrain from consuming meat and do not condemn farming, but am highly critical of hunting. The difference from where I stand is evident - livestock are bred for that purpose, is in no danger of extinction and seldom have an alternate role to play, neither as a commodity nor as a part of an ecosystem.

      Finally, and likely most importantly, the primary factor influencing my (dis)regard for hunting is the concept of 'trophies'. I am familiar with trophies as being a testament of some great accomplishment or a great deal of hard work or endurance... I cannot see the merit in being able to kill an animal using a firearm - I have seen children do it without effort. Of course, therein lies yet another reservation I have. People often allow, or even encourage, their children to hunt. Though this is not limited to children, I am concerned that people may get desensitized to the act of killing through hunting.

      Understand that I grew up among leisure hunters and their children, and I can testify that the majority of those kids had no regard for the life of an animal. Some of them shot at random dogs in the street, stray or not, and they showed no compassion for anything that is vulnerable or weaker than themselves. They could not behold so much as a picture of an animal without expressing their desire to kill it. I do not believe that this is healthy conditioning. Might I say that their parents often displayed similar behavior.

      I concede that my comments regarding hunters are at times overly harsh and greatly generalized, and I do apologize to any individuals that hunt and have some profound underlying philosophy to support it (that is other than a desire to kill). My problem does not so much lie with hunting as a conservation mechanism, but as a form of recreation. It is, as you also mentioned, something that emanates from differences in worldviews, I suppose.

      In the context of recent events, understand that it is not difficult to lose faith in hunting societies, considering the high level of involvement in poaching incidents, and also taking into account a great deal of misrepresentation of facts regarding their industry for monetary purposes, political leverage and the legalising of trade.

      Thank you for your informative reply, and your mature engagement in debate. You have a very impressive blog.

  3. Hi, no need to apologize.
    I agree that not all hunters are ‘virtuous’ or compassionate enough. Interestingly I found that killing and taking responsibility for an animal’s death has bread in me a different awareness of compassion. I accept death, I happens quite viciously even in my backyard ecosystem, but I am less tolerant of unnecessary cruelty and suffering the more I hunt. Causing death without a intervener at an abattoir has made me less inclined to accept the cruelty inherent in a lot of livestock industries and prefer to strive for a clean kill by my hand than hope someone else is as conscious of that.

    I have often heard people profess that they would rather eat livestock for the reason you have given. I consider that questionable from two viewpoints. 1) Environmentally – while livestock like cattle have been shown by people like Joel Salatin and Alan Savoury to be potentially very beneficial to plant and soil health if managed in certain specific ways, most often livestock farming has a deleterious effect on the environment and as such I am not certain I would consider it superior from that stance. Of course the variables that could measure these effects are many and judgement would need to be reserved for certain cases with knowledge the context. That livestock can and do cause the decline or eradication of wildlife is also reason to be highly critical of it from a conservation view; not just large wildlife can be threatened but environmental health on a far larger scale can suffer from livestock. Livestock certainly have provided motives for the extirpation of wildlife but modern hunting practiced within the parameter of science based legislation has led to more increases than declines as far as I know? The same cannot be said for the recent history of livestock as it is managed in many instances.

    2) Secondly, there are issues of welfare and suffering of the individual. Because a cow is bread for the purpose of slaughter does make it less sentient or less capable of suffering than a Kudu or Whitetail Deer. That many domestic animals experience significant suffering, discomfort and pain in industrial meat production systems, in my mind, makes it ethically inferior to most hunted animals. Wildlife live under conditions of natural circadian rhythms, natural mate selection, no confinement, no therapeutic drug use, no branding, typically no transport etc. I concede that in some Southern African game ranches these factors are slightly influenced by more intensive management than under more ‘wild’ conditions. However I believe my point is still worthwhile. Most domestic livestock enjoy no such natural freedoms in fact many endure just the opposite, many living in conditions of extreme discomfort and pain. By virtue of this I would think that eating a caged chicken of crate confined pig can’t possibly be more ethical than eating a Gemsbuck shot on a Kalahari ranch?

    Interesting topics and necessary debates…
    Ironically if most anti-hunters and hunters sat around a table they would probably soon realize that they all want the same end result – healthy ecology, wildlife conservation, minimally fragmented habitats and a secure future for these.

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