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Timbavati Reserve plan to hunt a super tusker may be a bridge to far

by Don Pinnock, Environmental journalist
09 Mar 2017 at 12:14hrs | Views
Photo: ©Conservation Action Trust
Private game reserves with open fences to Kruger Park have applied for permission to shoot 34 elephants, among them an iconic trophy bull, as well as 5 444 other animals, including rhinos, lions, leopards and buffaloes.

The Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR), consisting of Timbavati, Klaserie, Balule and Umbabat, contain many privately-owned luxury lodges which cater for tourists who pay high rates to experience some of the most exciting wild animal sightings in the world.

What's not well known, especially by guests attracted by marketing websites, is that a reserve like Timbavati is, in terms of its income, primarily a hunting destination, this accounting for 61% of the reserve's income against tourism's 17%.

Hunting is perfectly legal: the reserve applies to Mpumalanga or Limpopo's conservation agenies and, after Kruger Park oversight, its allocation generally gets approved with just a few amendments.

Tourism and hunting are not good bedfellows, however, so over the years the reserves have managed to keep them apart, with almost zero public visual crossover. Tourists, who pay top prices to stay at Timbavati's lodges plus R215 a person a day conservation fee (which nets many millions of rand), would not know that many of the animals they come to see and photograph fall to hunter's guns when they're out of sight.
For those unaware of this arrangement, the latest hunting quota application by these reserves might come as a shock. It includes 193 buffalo (including 76 classic bulls), 34 elephants (including a super tusker), 2 white rhinos, 2 lions, 2 leopards (despite a national moratorium on hunting leopards), 29 kudu,  5 162 impala, 25 waterbuck, 10 hippos and a hyena, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest. It also requests the capture of 30 white rhino and eight hippos. As in the past, many of the carcasses will probably go to Timbavati's abattoir, which presently sells impala and buffalo meat.

Game counts for the APNR show that, apart from blue wildebeest, zebra and giraffe, all other animal numbers went down between 2016 and 2017 - elephants by 142 and buffalo by  1 797. Other than deferring the rhino quota and a warning that there is a moratorium on leopard hunting, however, Kruger signed off on the quota, but appears to have become uneasy with APNR's non-compliance with hunting protocols.
In correspondence with the APNR in January and again in March, Kruger conservation management complained that the APNR hunting protocol had not been signed and warned that no further requests would be considered until this is done. It's officials sounded irritated:

'The fact that hunting and live-animal off-take is the major income for APNR should have ensured the highest due diligence to get any protocols concluded and formally signed within and between entity structure, but this is still not the case. This simply demonstrates ineffective governance and decision-making between entities within the APNR system.

'KNP…will not support future off-takes unless the necessary Cooperative Agreements and the associated hunting/animal off-take protocols have been formalised.'

If quotas are an indication, Timbavati - which is congruent with Kruger - is the prime hunting area. And while shooting animals to raise money is accepted by APNR owners in general - they have high anti-poaching overheads - its scale now sits uncomfortably with a number of them who see hunting an iconic trophy bull elephant and rhino as a bridge too far. This may explain why some of them have not signed the hunting protocol called for by Kruger.

The issue, according to conservationists, is not so much about hunting Kruger animals that may wander across the fenceless boundary - or hunting at all - but going for a super tusker. Elephant numbers in Africa are crashing, with around 30 000 poached a year. It's only a matter of time before the tsunami hits Kruger Park. It may, indeed have begun; since September 2015, more than 80 have been poached in the park - the highest in it's history.

According to a source who asked not to be named, by targeting a trophy bull, Timbavati is pushing towards an ethically flawed hunting economy. This is causing uneasiness between it and other reserves within the APNR:

'Timbavati is risking the cooperative strength of the APNR. Neighbouring reserves don't follow the same line of thinking; they're more tourist oriented. If they push this, they'll be undoing a valuable history and risk alienating tourists. This could rebound on the many people in the APNR who rely on camera safaris and tourist goodwill. Landowners need to become more proactive about decisions like this.'

According to Dr Lucy Bates, an elephant researcher at Sussex University, poaching numbers in Kruger may be low now, but a serious threat is imminent. 'South Africa cannot act in isolation, claiming that its elephant populations are not at risk,' she said. 'They are at risk. Kruger is one of the last bastions of large-tusked bull elephants in the whole of Africa. South Africa should be duty bound to protect and preserve these super tuskers and their genes for the benefit of the entire continent.

Dr Vicki Fishlock, a scientist at Amboseli Trust for Elephants, a research and conservation organization in Kenya, commented that 'old and experienced individuals are crucial. They are so much more than "a breeder". By the time these animals reach this size, they have been part of social networks for five or six decades and have accumulated social and ecological experience that younger animals learn from.'



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