Hunting as a Wildlife Management Tool. By Cleve Cheney

The December 2020 series of “Art and Science of Hunting” by Cleve Cheney (Game & Hunt Magazine) is looking into the role of hunting in wildlife management. And although Cleve Cheney speaks mostly about South Africa and its typically fenced territories, with a little imagination you will see that this approach applies to many other areas as well – even without game fences, wildlife is encroached by our fields, factories, roads and settlements…

There are very few natural habitats left in the world big enough to allow nature to regulate wildlife populations without any intervention from man. Even South Africa’s biggest national parks are too small to allow for this to happen. Smaller parks and private conservation areas may also not be afforded the luxury of a laissez-faire (“hands off – let nature take its course”) management approach. The main reason for this is that most conservation areas are fenced, or lie adjacent to, or are surrounded by areas of human development, and the wildlife within these areas are limited with regard to movement.

A game fence in South Africa

Being fenced into or restricted to a wildlife enclave presents practical management challenges (Figure 1). The land can only support a certain wildlife population. Once the wildlife population approaches what the land and its resources can sustain in the medium to long term, the physiological condition begins to decline as there are too many animals competing for a finite resource – plants to eat, water to drink and suitable habitat to provide shelter and living space. This may result in periodic animal die-offs, which can result in a substantial financial loss for private landowners. It could lead to a reduction in unsafe animal populations and to habitat degradation.

What is an unsafe animal population?

“An unsafe animal population is very low in number relative to the potential sustainable carrying capacity of its habitat. Without help, this population seems unable to increase beyond, say, the 25% level of the habitat’s sustainable carrying capacity. Or it is a population that is constantly declining and the reason for this decline seemingly cannot be halted. And/or it is a population that is hanging on to survival in a constantly degrading habitat. The fact that the causes of the population’s decline seemingly cannot be reversed means the population faces extinction” (Thomson, 2006).

What is a safe animal population?

A safe animal population is one that is thriving, or one that is at, near, or above the saturation level of the habitat, and/or one that reproduces more young each year than what is required to maintain the population in a stable, numerical state” (Thomson, 2006).

Wildlife managers of finite conservation areas are therefore tasked to see to it that unsafe populations are managed in such a way that the population is preserved, meaning that management intervention is aimed at preventing any population decline and assisting in ways that will allow the population to stabilise and grow to the point where it can be considered safe.
 The second objective of wildlife managers is to ensure that safe populations are used wisely and sustainably, which will benefit not only man but also the habitat and the long-term viability of the wildlife population.

Wildlife management can thus be summarised as having two basic functions: the preservation management of unsafe populations of wild animals (or plants), and the conservation management of safe populations of wild animals (or plants). 
This is the ultimate of managing all renewable natural resources – both domestic and wild – on planet Earth.
With this in mind, we look into the wildlife manager’s tool chest to see what he has available to achieve the following management objectives:

  • Utilising safe animal and plant populations sustainably (conservation).
  • Ensuring that unsafe populations are conserved so that this number stabilises or grows to the point where the population will ideally, at some point, reach safe levels (preservation).
  • Protecting the sustaining habitat from being degraded in any way.

The word “conservation” implies the possibility of some form of consumptive harvest, which can benefit mankind and biodiversity in its broadest context. This involves using “wildlife management tools”. The tools most often used by wildlife managers are the following:

  • Capture and translocation
  • Culling
  • Harvesting
  • Fire
  • Hunting

The preservation management approach for an unsafe animal population is that it should be protected from all harm. The purpose of this management strategy is to optimise the survival, breeding and living conditions for every individual in the population. This can involve a host of linked management activities such as predator control, a reduction in the numbers of those species populations that compete with it for habitat resources, habitat manipulation, and maybe the introduction of new genes (reintroduction).

Hunting can therefore be used to help struggling, unsafe populations by assigning huntable quotas of predators (if present), which will contribute towards the decline of the unsafe population, or by hunting safe animal populations that are competing with unsafe species for resources (which may be limiting). In either case, the reduction of safe, huntable species will be to the advantage of the unsafe populations by reducing the level of predation and making more resources available to these unsafe populations. Reduction of competing or prey species may also be achieved through capture and translocation, or culling/harvesting operations.

The option also exists of capture and relocation of unsafe populations to a more suitable habitat, or an area with less competition/predation. 
The conservation management of safe species may include capture and translocation, culling, harvesting, or hunting. Here the objective is to reduce populations or maintain them at a level where they do not damage or degrade the sustaining habitat. Safe species are usually more abundant and the market for the capture, sale and translocation of these animals may be somewhat limited. However, there is always a demand for species to hunt, even those in abundance, and the harvesting/culling of excess animals can make a valuable contribution to food security.

african hunting main.jpg

Hunting may be conducted as trophy hunting, or as general recreational hunting if shooting a trophy animal is not the main aim. Trophy hunting is conducted by the safari hunting industry, administered by hunting safari outfitters who own safari hunting businesses. Outfitters attend hunting conventions to solicit clients wishing to hunt for trophies and for the hunting experience. Foreign hunters are guided by professional hunters who host them. Daily hunting fees are also negotiated. Outfitters contact game ranch owners to purchase trophy animals for their clients to hunt. Hunting clients are put up in accommodation ranging from luxury lodges to tented bush camps. The outfitter thus pays the landowner for the trophy, as well as for accommodation, food, beverages, and services.

The international hunting safari industry brings large amounts of foreign currency into African countries where hunting is allowed. Countries that do not sanction hunting – under coercion of donor funders and/or animal rights pressure groups – lose out and are not making wise use of their natural resources. Sport hunting is a justifiable and wise use of the wild animal natural resource because it brings in substantial income at a low environmental impact and lends monetary value to wildlife.

Despite the high revenues generated from international trophy hunting, ordinary recreational hunting can inject substantially greater revenue into the wildlife industry. These hunters do not hunt trophy animals but are happy to harvest “normal”-sized representatives of a species. Generally, they also utilise the meat from the animal taken. Hunting is, therefore, a legitimate wildlife management tool, which ensures that habitat integrity is maintained by keeping animal population numbers below the carrying capacity of the land. If this threshold is crossed, habitat damage ensues, which is detrimental to all species of wildlife.

The big advantage of hunting over culling or harvesting is that it can generate more income. This is a significant factor as running a game ranch is an expensive enterprise and hunting can help subsidise costs. Culling/harvesting is usually carried out by staff, which removes a potential source of income, namely the fees paid by hunters for accommodation and services, as well as the costs of the trophy and/or venison. Hunting is therefore a justifiable management option. It can generate revenue while at the same time helping to achieve management objectives.

Ultimately, what wildlife managers are trying to achieve when tasked with managing a protected conservation area, is to ensure that the habitat is not negatively affected or downgraded. When habitats are not protected from the effects of overpopulation, it eventually leads to a decline in habitat quality and a loss of species biodiversity, which means the variety of wild plants, animals, birds, reptiles, fish (in some cases), amphibians and invertebrates decreases over time.

Graph illustrating what happens if populations aren't managed

Soils can also be permanently damaged. As habitat is degraded in one year, the carrying capacity declines so that in the following year fewer animals can be supported. Habitat modification also results in some species being no longer able to survive in the area. Consequently, biodiversity begins to decline. If nothing is done to stop or reverse the situation, it is self-perpetuating, ultimately resulting in some species becoming locally extinct and the habitat being degraded to the extent that it may take decades to recover.

Choosing the most lucrative options to achieve a management objective should be the goal of all wildlife managers – both in state-controlled, protected areas and in the private sector. Hunting is arguably the greatest source of potential per capita income accruing from “wildlife tourism” with the least environmental impact. A lot more could be said about this.

Hunting as a Wildlife Management Tool by Cleve Cheney originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of the Game & Hunt (Wild & Jag) magazine. Reproduced with consent of the copyright holder.

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On BookYourHunt.com, you can even find the category “Management Hunts”. And although in most cases these are hunts specifically targeting non-trophy animals, they offer a good and affordable opportunity to experience hunting in Africa.

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