The “Canned Hunt” Controversy

a sable antelope bull

Heated controversy about hunting, and some particular types of hunting, has led to much confusion. A lot of words are thrown about without giving much thought as to what they actually mean. These include “canned hunt”. Everybody knows that canned hunts are bad, but what exactly is a canned hunt? Can any hunt in an enclosure be called “canned”? And why?

Night and Day

Situation 1. A hunter enters an enclosed area which is big enough to fit a few small European states. The area contains a few wild animals that descend from those that, perhaps decades ago, were released there for the purpose of hunting. Climbing up a small hill (that would pass as a high peak in some of the said states), he glasses around and a few hours later makes out a shape of an old, wary antelope bull. Two or three unsuccessful stalks and five to ten miles of walking later, he ends the hunt with a long, carefully considered shot.

Situation 2. A truck drives to a small enclosure in the bush, stops, and unloads a handsome bull antelope with an impressive rack. The bull was born in captivity, from parents artificially matched to produce the biggest horns, spent life consuming a special high-nutrition ration, and has been purchased at an auction for a hefty sum. One of the ears sports a bright plastic tag. A few days or perhaps even hours later, a pickup arrives. A hunter kills the antelope without even bothering to leave the truck seat.

Enclosed area the size of a small country
This image is taken in a fenced area in South Africa – 12,000 hectares in size

These situations are as different as night and day, with 5,550 shades of grey in between, but in the heat of the controversy both can go by the name of “canned hunt”. De-jure in both cases the animal has been put into an enclosure by a human, with a deliberate intent to hunt it, and the hunter’s actions – from the amount of money they pay to the decision to kill or not to kill – are dictated by the animal’s antler or horn size. What is the difference? The devil, they say, is in the details, and these details can sink the whole hunting industry.

The Root of Evil?

I often wonder if the record book and the various hunting awards are the root of all evil in the trophy hunting industry. How different things would be if we followed the German example of only shooting the old, sick, lame and injured animals or the Namibian trophy scoring system where the score is heavily weighted towards the age of the animal and not the length of their horns? On the other hand, organizations like the Boone & Crockett and the Pope & Young clubs in the USA keep trophy books without any negative impact on the American hunting industry or the North American Conservation Model and in reality serve as a testament to its success. Ultimately it’s about your personal standard of ethics, as to what is acceptable or not, and how those ethical standards are judged by public perception.

For some hunters it’s all about the record book and hunting awards. Sadly, for some it means crossing that undefinable ethical line to achieve their goal of being entered into the record book even if its page 6 for the said species. This choice to pursue pseudo fame through a record book entry is not by accident, it is a conscious act. Admittedly, most hunters aren’t keen on the trophy book craze, and would prefer a genuine hunting experience instead. But some hunters seem to be obsessed only by inches and grams. Supply follows demand, and demand is boosted by marketing of suppliers; the vanity of a few becomes a problem for many because the most revolting practices provide justification for calls to ban all hunting, lock, stock and barrel.

A herd of sable antelope running
Game farms create a surplus of rare species that can be used for rewilding – but does that justify selective breeding and put-and-take ‘hunts’?

Captive Breeding

The demand for guaranteed record-book class animals, no matter the cost, inspired many landowners to take to captive breeding. In many instances this has led to the un-wilding of many game species, as they were being bred in captivity with the specific intention of supplying the trophy hunting market. Captive breeding does not necessarily mean in a cage but rather a small overgrazed enclosure which is unfortunately an absolute killer for biodiversity and any terrestrial conservation value. In many instances the minimum size of these enclosures is even permitted and specified by the nature conservation authorities.

It can be argued that these projects have a conservation value as the breeders are improving the genetics. However, research proves that most human actions fail to make a significant influence on free-ranging animals (read more about it here). The argument completely falls apart when the breeders start manipulating the genetics by breeding colour variants supposedly for the trophy hunting market. Fortunately the colour variant market has crashed but now these animals are just being released back onto the game farms and contaminating the original wild indigenous stock.

Put-and-Take “Hunts”

These breeding programmes have led to the practice of “Put and Take” where animals are sold live at game auctions to be released for hunting much the same as people breed pheasants to be released for a bird hunt which has been an acceptable practice for many years in Europe and the USA. Why should we have different standards for birds and animals? The answer is a matter of probability. British gamekeepers estimate that the hunters kill only about a third of the birds they release. In other words, every pheasant has about a 66% chance to escape the guns and live to die of natural causes. In most cases, any captive bred kudu or sable has good reasons to envy the European “penned” pheasant or partridge.

Many of these released animals unfortunately still have ear tags with documented horn lengths and in their time may even have been named by their original owners. Somehow, shooting one of these animals under these conditions just makes the situation feel such a farce. On the other hand, we need these animals to restock new areas which has been the backbone of our conservation success story in Namibia and South Africa. It may be better to use fully wild or free range animals for the stocking process, but with certain species they are just not available.

A herd of red lechwe jumping a fence
A common game fence is no obstacle for many species, including red lechwe

High Fences and Property Size

In South Africa and many other countries landowners have the right to protect their financial interests by enclosing their properties to prevent their introduced and locally bred game from dispersing onto neighbouring land. According to South African law when a wild animal is on your property you are the rightful custodian of this beast. There are other laws which govern the utilisation of this animal but for now I want to focus on the fencing issue as to whether it is canned or not.

Unfortunately, in the minds of many international hunters any high fence hunt is a canned hunt. This is not true. In the strict sense of the term, a “canned hunt” is a hunt for a specific animal with a very high probability of harvest (“situation 2” above). A “non-canned” hunt is a hunt after one of a multitude of animals, with each of the multitude of animals enjoying a high probability of escape. In most cases, to ensure success in the course of a canned hunt, the animal is confined to an area small enough so that a hunter can’t fail to have a shooting opportunity. Most fair chase hunts, by contrast, have to take place on large scale enclosures.

How big can these enclosures be? Well, the Kruger National Park is bigger than Israel – but is high fenced to protect the surrounding community members and farmers from human wildlife conflict situations. However, the Park, although enclosed, is perceived as a natural environment – due to its size. Most game farms, admittedly, are smaller than that, but are big enough nonetheless.

An anti-poaching team patrolling the perimeter
Fences don’t only prevent game from escaping, but also help to combat poaching

In short, hunting behind a fence does not mean that you cannot have a fair chase hunt. A walk and stalk hunt on a respectable size property is always a fair chase hunt as the animal has an opportunity to escape. It’s the side shows that may bring these issues into disrepute, such as shooting from pickups, put and take hunts, animals with ear tags, named animals, etc.

Fenced Areas vs. Hunting Concessions

People for whom hunting on any enclosed game farm is a canned hunt often say they don’t want it, they want to hunt on an open territory. These territories are known as hunting concessions, and are available for hunting in Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Burkina-Faso, and other countries of Western, Central and Eastern Africa.  But hunting in these areas is much more expensive, so international hunters now look south. They finally end up comparing Namibia with South Africa.

In Namibia the farms are normally huge and as yet many remain unfenced. “Unfenced” usually means they aren’t surrounded by South African style high game fences. But these “unfenced” farms are still demarcated by ordinary jackal proof stock fences. These “low fences” prove to be a barrier to many species that do not jump or crawl under them, so don’t be blinded by this fact when comparing hunting areas.

Namibia is a very arid country, and carrying capacity is much lower than that of the higher rainfall areas of South Africa. Therefore, the territory owner need much more land in Namibia to stock the same number of animals than their South African counterparts. In other words, an average Namibian game farm is typically much larger than a typical South African game farm.

A big 'Dagga boy' buff in Mozambique
Most hunters prefer to pursue free-range animals like this buffalo in Mozambique, but such offers are more expensive

Unfortunately, as the Namibian wildlife industry is becoming more commercialised, they too are seeing more and more areas being enclosed. With the introduction of non-indigenous species like Blesbok, Black Wildebeest and even completely out of range species like Nyala, the proud owners want to protect their financial investment in these species and so are following the South African example of game fencing their properties.

SAHGCA Position

Just as most hunters prefer a genuine hunting experience, so does the majority of South African stakeholders in the hunting industry. As proof, I would just like to refer to the 43,000 membership strong South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SAHGCA) policy stance on predator and captive breeding:

“SAHGCA recognises the vital role hunters play in socio-economic development and conservation of wildlife heritage and have done so since the creation of the Association in 1949. More than 1,4 billion km2 of extensive wildlife areas and habitats in sub-Saharan Africa is conserved to ensure the sustainability of hunting stock, while also conserving biodiversity. This area exceeds the area encompassed by national parks.”

“SAHGCA does not support the intensive and selective breeding of game, for the sole purpose of hunting. Hunting captive bred animals and put-and-take operations are not representative of traditional and responsible hunting. The environmental concerns together with the negative public image caused by the captive breeding industry are of grave concern and should be discouraged. Illegal and irresponsible actions that tarnish the reputation of the industry should further be eradicated.”

For the Ethical Hunting

At the end of the day, the question of canned hunts depends on your interpretation of the ethical standards. To me, as a hunter, you should always hunt as if Big Brother is watching you. Making the choice to do the right and ethical thing, even if no one else will know or see. You should always be able to defend your moral principles that govern your behaviour in public. It’s OK if your interpretation and definition of ethics are different to mine, a point upon which we may agree, and I’m not about to force my standards on you. But I still believe we must embrace a policy of fair chase hunting, if we want hunting to continue to the next generations. As we all know, when canned food goes bad, it doesn’t simply become inedible. It gets toxic.

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