Hunting 'has conservation role'
By Elli Leadbeater
Rifle-toting tourists hunting exotic animals could actually help protect Africa's vulnerable species, a leading conservationist has suggested.
Elephant populations had benefited from a permit system that allowed sport hunters to kill a limited number of the beasts, according to Eugene Lapointe.
Mr Lapointe was head of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) between 1982-90.
Animal welfare campaigners rejected the idea as "morally unjustifiable".
Writing in the BBC News website's Green Room, Mr Lapointe, president of the International Wildlife Management Consortium (IWMC), said that despite the best efforts of conservationists, the number of threatened species continued to grow.
He suggested that it was time to reconsider bans on hunting "Unfortunately, most African economies are poor and wildlife conservation has to compete with many pressing demands for public money.
"So conservation projects are going to be most successful if they can be self-supporting; in other words, if they can generate income and provide local jobs," he wrote.
A number of nations in southern Africa had adopted a "sustainable use" philosophy, including Namibia, South Africa and Botswana, he added.
"They have issued permits to sport hunters to kill a limited number of elephants that are pre-selected according to factors like age and sex. They cannot shoot breeding animals, for example," Mr Lapointe explained.
As a result, these nations had well-stocked and healthy elephant populations and poaching was not a major problem, he observed.
The idea of "trophy hunting" being a weapon in the conservationists' armoury to protect vulnerable species was supported by Peter Lindsey from the University of Zimbabwe.
"Realistically, for conservation to succeed, wildlife has to pay for itself in Africa," Dr Lindsey told a recent meeting at London Zoo.
"If local people do not benefit, it is usually lost."
Trophy hunting involves allowing high-paying guests to shoot in the company of a professional hunting guide. Each hunter pays, on average, 10-20 times more than most eco-tourists would for their holiday.
He said that it could encourage landowners to accommodate and protect threatened wildlife in areas that do not appeal to most eco-tourists because they are politically unstable, too remote, or simply less scenic.
In South Africa, landowners were given permission to allow shooting of excess male white rhinos once the species began to recover after a sharp decline.
This gave landowners an incentive to buy and provide land for the rhinos, and this is thought to have significantly accelerated their recovery.
Dr Lindsey, who is not a hunter, carried out research to assess both the positive and negative effects of hunting on conservation.
He found that the industry is not without setbacks. Estimates of how many animals can be shot without threatening the population are sometimes based on guesswork, because no research data is available.
Irresponsible lodge owners, who allowed illegal and unethical practises, such as hunting caged animals or shooting from cars, posed a severe threat to the industry's prospects.
Hunters also needed to find ways to make sure that the money from rich tourists did not end up in overseas bank accounts, but reached local communities, he added.
These concerns were shared by animal welfare groups. International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) spokeswoman Rosa Hill called the idea of shooting elephants and rhinos "morally unjustifiable".
"There is very little evidence that the funds raised from killing wildlife are ploughed back into conservation," she said.
"There are also biological reasons why trophy hunting is not a good idea. Generally, hunters want to kill the biggest, strongest and fittest animals and this can have disastrous implications for the species.
Ms Hill said a lack of knowledge about how many animals there were and how the creatures behaved could result in a sudden population crash.
"Trophy hunting quotas are not set with proper knowledge of true population sizes, so it can be difficult to measure a species' decline," she explained.
But Dr Lindsey believed that the overall shortfalls did not outweigh the conservation benefits.
He said "The industry's not perfect, and we have to work on the problems; but there is no question in my mind that if hunting were to be banned, the conservation consequences in Africa would be dire."
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