Fenced freedom: The problem of being wild


Who owns South Africa’s wild animals? It’s a question of life and death to many creatures that wander out of the Kruger National Park across unfenced boundaries into some adjoining private reserves. 

As they step over the invisible line, their status apparently changes from res publicae (owned by us all) to Res nullius (owned by nobody) and trophy hunters are shooting them. This has been going on for many years – ever since 1993 when the fences came down between Kruger and private reserves such as Timbavati, Balule, Klaserie and Umbabat, collectively the Associated Private Game Reserves (APNR)

'Owned by us all'

For obvious reasons, it isn’t something animal-loving tourists are told about. 

Quotas include elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard, waterbuck, zebra, kudu, hippo and warthog.

United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa put his finger on the issue when it originally arose: ‘Surely we cannot condone the destruction of a national asset for the commercial gain of a private institution and the pleasure of a select group of rich hunters.’

According to Kruger and APNR officials, it’s not only condoned but also perfectly legal, agreed on in a memorandum of understanding between the two parties.

'Fenced freedom'

In South Africa, an animal’s wild freedom ends the moment someone encloses it within a fence or pen or shoots it. In that instant it becomes private property. When the fences came down between Kruger and its western neighbours, however, the unintended consequence was that the private reserves were contained within a larger area safeguarded by the Protected Areas Act and, arguably, the law of res communis – in the public domain as a common heritage to humankind. Elephants and male lions range far and ungulates like buffalo and wildebeest migrate with the rains. 

So are trophy hunters in the APNR shooting animals that are national assets?

In 1991, however, the concept of res nullius was radically altered by the Game Theft Act. It holds that if your fenced game escapes, you still own it. It also says that if you lure game from someone else’s property you’re guilty of an offence. 

This muddied the water of ownership considerably. In terms of the Act, wild animals that wander into Kruger from APNR land no longer belonged to Kruger. But the reverse is also true, and because Kruger is controlling numbers by shutting down waterholes, the more abundant APNR waterholes might be luring animals which are liable to be hunted. But maybe this could be labeled as an unintended consequence.

'Unintended consequence?'

There’s another problem too, because hunters prefer and pay more for the biggest and best, it’s been argued very strongly by biologists that this weakens the gene pool as, in trophy hunting only the best are eliminated. 

APNR chairmperson Mike Anderson said he was not in a position to divulge the current off-take numbers, which are not publicly available but a report from 2009 revealed a quota which included 55 elephants, 144 buffalo, 5003 impala, 19 kudu, two lion and one leopard..

However, there’s another side to the story, paradoxically, any wild land that’s fenced needs to be managed in order to maintain its wildness. And, particularly with the present levels of poaching, this is hugely expensive.

According to Anderson, hunting revenues are used to sustain the environmental integrity of the parks and for community outreach programmes.

An APNR statement warned that a ban on hunting in its area would result in a reduction of anti-poaching patrols and the closure of ecological research and community support projects. 

‘Hunting is a dirty game,’ said Balule warden Craig Spencer. ‘.. rangers don’t like hunting. It’s not a great policy to burn your furniture to heat your house. On the other hand it’s like a bank. You see there’s a road to be fixed and you figure will cost about one and a half buffaloes.’

However the position of Sabi Sands, a Kruger-linked reserve not part of the APNR, raises questions about the dire predictions of closure as no hunting takes place there.

'Not hunting in Sabi Sands is costing us'

‘The reason we stopped,’ said Jurie Moolman, who owns Djuma within Sabi Sands, ‘was that it was too disruptive, for example, because you knock over a dominant lion and you have cascading consequences in the pride.

‘I’m not against hunting in general. People don’t appreciate how much of this country is preserved for wildlife because of hunting. Not hunting in Sabi Sands is costing us. We have to raise all our income from just the gate, beds and levies but we’ve got used to the idea that the animals don’t belong to us.’

As it usually does, debates around conservation end at the doorstep of costs. ‘The goal of everybody in the APNR is to conserve nature, to look after it, said Marco Schiess, who owns Umlani Bushcamp. ‘Personally, I don’t like hunting but I can’t see an alternative.  Hunting seems the only answer, without it members’ personal levies would have to go up.’

As things stand, it appears that we humans may have to kill wild animals to save biodiversity. It’s an argument that sustains trophy hunting as it’s maintained that there’s no alternative. It is however a moot point whether wild animals need to die to fund the lifestyles of a privileged few. For the time being, Sabi Sands seems to have found another way.

(Source: Conservation Action Trust)

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