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The SCI exists to ‘protect the freedom to hunt’ and promote ‘wildlife conservation worldwide’. Since 2000, the organisation has spent $140 million on achieving its first objective through ‘policy advocacy, litigation and education for federal and state legislators to ensure hunting is protected for future generations.’ A little-known fact is that it also has a ‘donate’ tab on its website. This is interesting because the arguments made in favour of hunting in southern Africa typically entail an attack on NGOs that raise money for ‘animal rights’ as mere emotion-exploiting agents. If you happen to consider that animals are individuals with their own interests and advocate for an integrative rather than aggregative approach to conservation, you are likely to be dismissed as an emotional ‘animal rightist’ (God forbid!) and somehow ‘unscientific’. This is partly a function of the effective propaganda employed by the likes of the SCI, among the world’s most powerful lobby groups. 

It is indeed fascinating that hunting lobbying groups accuse ‘western’ NGOs of unduly influencing conservation policies in African countries. But the very western SCI Foundation (SCIF) – that carries out the second arm of the SCI’s mission – has long had its tentacles in African conservation policy formation. A recent article, for instance, articulates the SCIF’s interest in the 2019 Botswana elections. A win for President Masisi was good news for the SCI, as he controversially reinstated trophy hunting in what had become a veritable wildlife haven. Anti-hunting sentiment has successfully been brandished as ‘Western’ and the SCI has managed to paint itself as a messiah for Africa’s rural communities, as if trophy hunting is somehow African. The subversion of concepts to advance a killing cause is astounding in itself, but the depth of the SCIF’s influence goes far beyond writing articles: ‘SCI and SCIF have met with President Masisi… to express our support for Botswana in these [hunting reintroduction] efforts.’ 

They have had to wait for some time – 5 years – but ultimately appear to have been successful. But it turns out that this is hardly a new engagement in Botswana. A recent book notes that ‘until 2007, SCI’s primary support to conservation in Botswana to date had been the sponsorship of a 2002 Southern African Wildlife Consultative Forum (AWCF) chaired by the director of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Joseph Matlhare. SCI has generated some notoriety in international conservation circles for lobbying against Botswana’s ban on lion hunting’ (emphasis added). No wonder the SCI has made a fuss about ‘animal rightists’ meeting with CITES delegates – it doesn’t like other voices stepping on its turf. 

Fast forward to 2015, the 14th AWCF meeting was hosted in Limpopo Province, South Africa. The meeting was held behind closed doors. The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA at the time) stated that it was an initiative to enhance existing cooperation between governments and hunting industries of participating countries. Providing further evidence of the SCIF’s lobbying power, the Department admitted that the meeting was a platform that ‘will include preparations for the upcoming CITES CoP17 meeting in South Africa’, which occurred in 2016 in Johannesburg. As Adam Cruise noted at the time, this was another way of saying that the AWCF meeting was essentially about the ‘SCI persuading African governments, individually and through CITES, to adopt policies incorporating the conservation ‘benefits’ of trophy hunting’. He substantiated this view with a number of examples of how such persuasion had operated in the preceding years across a range of African states. 

Yet more concerning for our democracy, however, is the lack of inclusion at these forums. Don Pinnock notedat the time that Mpho Tjiane, who was then deputy director of the DEA, had replied to NGOs requesting access that ‘this is a government meeting and is not open to the general public.’ Journalists were similarly refused entry. If our democratic government is going to host meetings that give an exclusive platform to hunting lobbyists, it should expect criticism. When the criticism came, the government insisted that ‘claims of excessive interference by American hunters in South African government policy are not true.’ But the inference of biased persuasion is hard to avoid, especially as the various requests for minutes of the meeting were ignored. A summary of the agenda, now in an ‘outcome document’, is not the same thing. 

A 2015 letter sent by the EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading to the parliamentary portfolio committee on Environmental Affairs requested a hearing pertaining to the Department’s behaviour. They noted ‘the uneven, partial, exclusionary and unconstitutional manner in which the DEA is conducting itself.’ Perhaps the most important point is that the AWCF forum – a platform explicitly propagating the benefits of trophy hunting of rare species – is ‘firmly located within colonialism and the flow of resources from the South to the North’. 

Trophy hunting inflicts and perpetuates abuse, subjugation and control. These themes have been recently picked up in the academic literature. In the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Dr Muchazondida Mkono concludes that Zimbabwean citizens essentially see trophy hunting as ‘the product of complicity between white men and greedy African leaders’. The issue is less about animal rights – for them – than about this complicity. There is evidence of resentment towards the neo-colonial character of trophy hunting in the way that it privileges western elites in accessing Africa’s wild resources. In Conservation Letters, Chelsea Batavia and her co-authors make the moral case, similarly, that supporting trophy hunting ‘does not befit us as moral, rational beings, and it is time for the conservation community to wake up and face up to the chauvinistic, colonialist and utilitarian anthropocentric undertones of the practice… Continuing complicity by conservationists without fully exhausting the other options is not now, nor has it ever been, appropriate.’ Some of these ‘other options’ are explored in a response letter to a pro-hunting letter published recently in Science: ‘Sustainable alternatives [to trophy hunting] exist and could reduce reliance on a small and narrowing cohort of wealthy Western “donors”.’

Despite this evidence of trophy hunting perpetuating a neo-colonial chauvinism, a number of African governments seem content to continue to allow exclusive access to the SCI and its Foundation. Meanwhile, the subversive tentacles of the lobbies’ reach are only growing. They now parade ‘representatives from rural communities’ as meeting with ‘owners and directors of Safari Hunting firms at the ongoing AWCF.’ The 2019 forum meeting took place in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, two weeks ago. The explicit aim was to take a united stand against western nations’ moves to ban trophy hunting imports. Demonstrating the effectiveness of how the narrative has been subverted, delegates at the 2018 AWCF meeting stated that inviting trophy hunting was a sovereign choice which African countries, free from colonial rule, should be able to make without interference. The irony of making these statements at a meeting organised by a western lobby group, that excluded African civil society voices, appeared lost on them.

Also lost on governments that should know better is that overtly excluding civil society voices that – on the grounds of the available evidence – are opposed to trophy hunting, is highly anti-democratic. When DEA defended its hosting of the AWCF in 2015, it claimed that the meeting was ‘not a policy-making platform’, but nonetheless stated that the SCI-F funded initiative ‘assists with a coordinated and pragmatic approach towards the implementation of and compliance’ with CITES, among others. That sounds a lot like policymaking, or at least merely playing with words. The published ‘outcomes’ of the meeting were hardly minutes of actual engagement.

The same concerns that existed in 2002 still exist today. AWCF meetings are only advertised on SCI and hunting websites. No non-hunting stakeholders are made aware of, or would qualify, for attendance. To deliberately – in the words of the EMS and BAT letter of 2015 – silence and exclude the voices of NGOs in favour of a cosy relationship with an American hunting lobby, on matters of the highest priority conservation issues, suggests that participating governments have already made up their minds and are not open to dissent. The 2019 agenda and minutes do not appear to be available in the public domain as yet.

In light of the destruction that trophy hunting is wreaking, especially on imperilled elephant and lion populations, it behoves South African authorities to avoid blatant partiality in policy formation. Attendance at AWCF meetings does not accomplish this. It also raises the following questions: 

  • How many officials, paid for by South African taxpayers, attended the meeting in Victoria Falls. Why did these officials attend the meeting?
  • Is the South African government not concerned at the perception it is creating of actively supporting a hunting lobbying group at the expense of civil society voices that are raising alarm bells about the negative ecological and social externalities generated by trophy hunting? If not, why not? 
  • Why is a US hunting organisation being given free rein to facilitate government-government meetings in relation to African wildlife policy, and why does the South African government actively support this?

It is time to put an end to the narrative that poor rural African communities unequivocally support trophy hunting. It is also time to put an end to the idea that trophy hunting can somehow be well governed in corrupt contexts. The practice is self-evidently repugnant, and the willingness of some scientists to ignore such repugnance in the name of science is deeply unscientific. There is, in the end, no dichotomy between morality and science. The fact that the SCI and its Foundation have to go to such great lengths to justify killing under the banner of ‘conservation’, and actively exclude dissenting voices through AWCF meetings, tells you everything you need to know. Trophy hunting is fundamentally extractive and clearly has colonial roots. Rationalising it now as an anti-colonial policy choice under ‘sovereignty’ is deeply disingenuous. 

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