Why We Should Continue Hunting Rhinos

Posted On : May 21, 2017

Posted By : Ron Thompson

A white Rhino Drinking


Reflecting, also, responsible and reasoned attitudes towards wildlife management philosophies that relate to hunting generally

As a consequence of the heavy poaching of rhinos in southern Africa, certain elements of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation in Europe - the CIC - are, apparently, currently embroiled in a mental tussle with regards to whether or not they should condone the hunting of rhinos by CIC members.  I am told they are evaluating their opinions on what they believe would be in the best interests of the rhino.  Hunters who take a rhino in South Africa, however, don’t come for just one species.  They come first and foremost for the rhino - sure - but they come with a shopping list that contains many other species. If they can’t take a rhino, however, they won’t come to Africa at all, and South Africa’s entire wildlife industry will then suffer.  And this has all come about because the Europeans consider the rhino to be an “endangered species”.

Here is the TGA’s take on this subject.   First of all, people who don’t live in Africa, who are not directly involved in the management of wildlife in Africa, and who don’t deeply understand the different wildlife cultures of Africa’s many countries - with all the best intentions in the world - cannot determine what is best for Africa’s rhinos (or any other wild animal species).  I have compiled, hereunder, a series of wildlife management considerations for everybody’s elucidation.

Wild animal species - ALL wild animal species - do not organize themselves at the species level.  They organize themselves at the population level.  And THAT is the only place where we need to concentrate our attentions when considering hunting approvals and quotas.  It is only within “populations” that home ranges, territories and rank structures amongst the bulls, have any significance and/or biological applications;  that the principle of habitat carrying capacity has any meaning; where the interaction of species with other species, and their environment, has any real consequence to biological diversity; that ecosystem stability - that is, the ecological importance of maintaining a sustainable balance between the soil, the plants and the animals in that order of priority - can be considered or applied; and where a whole lot more ecological considerations function.

This is why the “endangered species” concept is invalid.  A species does not, normally, become holistically “endangered”. “Endangerment” happens at the population level; for example, one population of a specific species - like the white rhino - can be “endangered” whilst other populations are not. There is TRULY no place within the science of wildlife management, therefore, that the concept of “endangered SPECIES” can be applied. Furthermore, the term “endangered species” conjures up a mindset of total preservation; and there is just too much “total preservation mentality” in the world today - and it hampers “best practice” management in many fields.

I suspect that this same problem exists within many uniformed parts of the CIC - that a prevailing “preservation mentality” (an “endangered species mentality”) - towards hunting rhinos, causes CIC members to have doubts about the wisdom of hunting a rhino in southern Africa.  THIS is the “endangered species” sickness that pervades wildlife organizations worldwide.  It does not occur only in the CIC.  It is a key factor in all animal rightist propaganda because - when they call an animal species “endangered” (and they call every animal species “endangered”) - uniformed people the world over, look upon that species as though it is a sacred cow.  The “endangered species” concept, therefore, is a major weapon in the animal rightists’ hands.  It raises hundreds of millions of US dollars for them every year. Yet it is a fallacy.  People like you and me must TRULY extract ourselves from this unfortunate animal rights dominated terminology.  If we don’t, we will never be able to manage any wild animal population in the appropriate manner.

Many people confuse the terms “species” and “populations”, so let’s have a look at these two concepts separately.

1.) A SPECIES defines an often very widespread host of individual animals that share the same physical and behavioral characteristics (they look and act alike) and which, when they breed, produce fertile young with the same physical and behavioral characteristics.

So, we can visualize the African elephant as a species, each individual of which looks exactly the same as the next one - wherever they occur - and they all behave in the same manner.

2.) A POPULATION can be defined as a group of animals of the same species, the individuals of which interact with each other, in continuum, on a daily basis; and which breed only with other animals in the same group.

There are said to be 150 different elephant populations in Africa, every single one of which exists in its own habitat (normally in a national park or a game reserve) and it is biologically separated from any other population.  Thus, the elephant populations of Kruger National Park in South Africa; the Gonorezhou National Park in Zimbabwe; the Luangwa National Park in Zambia; and the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, are all distinct - they are quite separate from one another - they never mix - and the individuals of one population never breed with elephants in any other population but their own.

Now we can start to explain something about the management of populations.

To manage any population of wild animal you first have to determine its safety status. To do that properly, you really need to know the sustainable carrying capacity of its habitat. Populations can be classified as being “SAFE”, “UNSAFE” or “EXCESSIVE”.

                NB: The carrying capacity of a habitat is the maximum number of animals - of a particular species - that the habitat can sustainably carry without causing irreparable damage to the habitat’s vegetation.

SAFE population of animals is one the numbers of which are healthy; that is reproducing well; and that is causing no irreparable damage to its habitat.  In other words, the habitat is being maintained in a dynamically stable and sustainable condition.

An UNSAFE population of animals is low in number; is not reproducing well; is declining annually - and the reasons for the decline seemingly cannot he halted.  This is a population that might well be defined as “endangered” - because it is certainly heading for local extinction. But, rather, let’s stop using the word “endangered”. “UNSAFE” is a far better comparative description.

An EXCESSIVE population is one that exists in very large numbers (grossly in excess of the carrying capacity of its habitat); that is reproducing well; that is increasing annually; and that is causing great and irreparable damage to the vegetation of its habitat.  If nothing is done to drastically reduce the numbers of animals in this kind of population, it will destroy its own habitat; it will destroy the specific habitats (and food supplies) of every other animal species with which it shares a common environment; and their game reserve sanctuary will end up becoming a desert. Every single one of southern Africa’s elephant populations is in this class - EXCESSIVE. Not one of them, therefore, is sustainable.  There are simply too many elephants. Many plant and animal species have already disappeared from many southern Africa’s national parks as a consequence.  Many more are under threat.

There is only one thing the wildlife manager needs to consider when determining a hunting quota for a SAFE population of animals - the quota must not exceed the annual incremental rate of his breeding herds.  If the population increases each year by 10 percent, the numbers of animals he makes available for licensed hunting must be drawn from within that number. The calculation is as easy as that - although there are many other “management” issues to consider, too.

                NB: When I was director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board in South Africa, for example, we “pegged” the white rhino population in the Pilanesberg National Park at 200 animals.  That meant, because the population increased at 10 percent per annum, we reduced the population by 20 animals every year.  This allowed us to reserve 10 huntable bulls per year for licensed hunting; and we captured another 10 animals (cows and juveniles) which we sold as breeding stock to private game ranch owners.  And this happened every year.

UNSAFE populations should normally not be hunted at all - but this may not necessarily be the best thing to do.  If the bull component in an unsafe population is too high, that may be the reason why its breeding rate is low - so some of those bulls need to be removed; and what better way to remove them than by hunting?  Sometimes too many bulls inhibit breeding - as is the case with black rhinos - where a sex ratio of one bull to four cows has been recommended as the best option for maximum reproduction. So there are normally always surplus bulls available for hunting.

When it comes to EXCESSIVE populations, the overall management requirements include - in the first instance - a reduction of the population by 50 percent.  So within this number there could be massive EXTRA opportunities for hunting. Nevertheless, these huge reduction numbers are best achieved by professional managers (expert culling teams) because the primary management objective is to stop the habitat damage as quickly as possible.

  What most non-South Africans don’t realize is that South Africa’s commercial wildlife industry exists because private ownership of game is made legally possible only when each game ranch is surrounded by an “adequately fenced” enclosure.  Whereas this has increased profit margins and made the industry economically more viable, it also introduced many unconsidered consequences.

The fences - although often encircling very large properties - have considerably altered the much acclaimed and desirable “free-range/fair chase” kind of hunting.  Although the fences have excluded the TRUE “free range” factor, they do not affect the “fair chase” aspect of it at all.  Fair chase hunting, therefore, is just as available in South Africa as it is on any other wildlife rangeland anywhere in the world.

The second thing the fences did, was to create “island populations” of wild animals on every single game ranch in the country.  One of the parameters determining a “population” is that individuals in a population breed ONLY with other animals in the same group.  It is a fact, however, that on a South African game ranch, even though animals of the same species may be able to rub noses through the wires of the game ranch boundary fence, with their counterparts on the adjoining property, they cannot breed with each other.  This effectively means that, resident on these game ranches, there are 12,000 different populations of every species of wild animal in South Africa.  Furthermore, ALL these populations are relatively SAFE because they are being properly managed - including white rhinos.  

The wildlife management implications of this reality are huge - because management is only possible at the population level. If true wildlife management is to be practiced in South Africa (on these game ranches), therefore, government should not intervene by prescribing national hunting quotas for any given species.  If the government, for example, gives a national hunting quota of five black rhino bulls in any one year, it is entirely possible - within the concept of “best practice” wildlife management - that all five of those bulls could come off a single game ranch property.  The hunting quota considerations - if government plays the game properly and adheres to the principles and practices of wildlife management - SHOULD evaluate the status of every single black rhino population in the country (on every single game ranch) and determine, for each ranch, just how many black rhino bulls that ranch can hunt during that particular year.

Notwithstanding the fact that well-over a thousand white rhino bulls COULD (theoretically) appear on South Africa’s white rhino hunting quota lists, the figures show that less than 100 are shot on license every year.  This is an insignificant number when you consider that the country as a whole carries some 18,000 white rhinos; when the numbers of white rhinos on private game ranches number 6,500; and when the average annual incremental rate for white rhino populations, is 10 percent.  A 100 - bull hunting take-off, therefore, doesn’t even feature on the overall rhino conservation picture. 

Licensed rhino hunting in South Africa, however, is conducted only on private game ranches.  It brings in a huge amount of money that ALL goes towards paying for the very expensive and vital anti-poaching costs incurred by the private rhino owners.  It would be most unfortunate, therefore, and quite contrary to the “best interests” of the rhino in South Africa, if the CIC decided to NOT allow its members to hunt white rhinos in this country.

I spoke to the President of the Private Rhino Owners Association in South Africa on the morning I wrote this article - to verify my figures - and he was horrified to hear that some elements of the CIC were even considering the discontinuance of rhino hunting in South Africa.  The association, he said, is constantly laboring under a great financial burden - to pay for the massively expensive costs of maintaining its anti-poaching program - and he told me that should well-intentioned but misguided people in Europe and the Americas stop all rhino hunting - in the mistaken belief that they were doing the right thing for the so-called “endangered” rhino - it would have disastrous consequences for rhinos.

So, my advice to those people in the CIC - who are worrying over the possibility that hunting white rhinos in southern Africa might be deleterious to the species’ survival - is: “Please think again.” Paradoxically, stopping the hunting of rhinos would have that exact effect.  If rhino hunting were to be discontinued, it would eliminate much needed income to the embattled rhino owners who spend a fortune every year: employing hundreds of expert people in their private anti-poaching units; using expensive night-flying helicopters; and buying ever more sophisticated night-vision equipment.  The money these hunts bring in is the only thing that is keeping the rhinos on the game ranches from sliding down the slippery slope to extinction.

In 2015, there were some 12,000 privately owned game ranches in South Africa which cover 16.8 percent of all agricultural land in the country.  This compares with 6.1 percent in government protected national parks and nature reserves. The private game ranches contain 16 million head of game animals compared to just 6 million in the protected areas; and the wildlife industry contributes nine billion Rand to South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product.  Twenty percent of all red meat consumed in the country is venison; and the industry permanently employs over 100,000 people.  Rewards from game ranching are three times greater than that which is possible from conventional domestic stock farming.

And all this happens because of hunting!  So let’s keep on hunting!  It is the only activity in the longer term that can possibly save Africa’s wildlife for posterity.

Ron Thomson. CEO - TGA.