South Africa has just announced that last year 1,004 white rhinos were poached in the country, up from 668 the year before and just 13 in 2007. An ever-worsening tragedy in itself, and the threat to South Africa’s responsible tourism industry, which plays a huge role in protecting habitat and providing jobs, is vast.
“From a responsible tourism point of view we have to make it a priority,” Fedhasa CEO Eddie Khosa was quoted as saying last month. “Our wildlife resources are key to South Africa as a tourism destination and a pillar of our economy as a result so it is in our best interests to make sure that any negative perception in the marketplace does not impact on our occupancy rates.”
How best to protect these animals, however, is fraught with ‘negative perceptions’. Around the same time as this news, one of South Africa’s neighbours Namibia was in the press for the future death of one rhino. Each year Namibia auctions of licenses to hunt three rhino – a strategy that it says brings in much needed funding, all of which is spent on conservation. In 2013, for the first time, it auctioned off one of its licenses externally – sold at an auction in Texas for $350,000, considerably more than its earlier, internal auctions had raised.
The result – countless posts and comments decrying the move as immoral (with a few in support of carefully controlled hunting as a realistic conservation strategy); more than 80,000 people signing online petitions against the auction; and the FBI said to be investigating death threats.
It’s all rather confusing, even more so considering that last year WWF presented a Gift to the Earth award to the Namibian government for the success of its tourism-based conservation. The country has the world’s largest population of free-roaming black rhino, and expanding populations of lion, elephant and cheetah. At the same time, there remain calls for a tourism boycott of Namibia on account of its continued seal cull.
Another SA neighbour, Botswana, has been in the press recently, because as of 2014 all commercial hunting is banned on communal land. This received lots of praise from the same communities opposing the Namibia hunt, and was criticised by various groups ranging from farming and hunting organisations (who pointed out the ban only applies on state lands), to tribal rights organisation Survival International, who say the ban will severely damage the Bushmen’s traditional, subsistence-based hunting way of life, and announced a new boycott of Botswana tourism.
In Mozambique in 2013, meanwhile, the white rhino was quietly declared extinct.
And so to hunt? Not to hunt? To boycott tourism? Or to engage? When it comes to hunting I don’t know if there is a single right answer. I know I’ll never understand why people kill animals for sport. I also understand that I must look past my emotionally-guided beliefs to try to understand the actual conservation merits of various approaches in different cases.
When it comes to tourism, however, I find it a lot easier. Responsible safari tourism has a significant role to play. And we’ve got more chance of it working by coming together than by drawing apart. We need to support responsible safari initiatives like Africa’s Finest. And engage constructively in online forums like Safari Talk, or at events like the responsible tourism programme at WTM Africa.
If we don’t, then soon our discussions will not be how best to save the rhino. They’ll be how to “responsibly market” the remaining Big Four.