posted by Daniel Crudge | 1 Comments
Kendall Jones is an all-American cheerleader and Texas Tech student with a bubblegum smile who likes to spend her spare time blasting away at big game in the African wilderness. Lions, leopards, white rhinos, she’s shot them all. In fact, by the age of 19 she’d already got through all the - mainly vulnerable, threatened or endangered - ‘big five’ (that would be lion, leopard, water buffalo, elephant and rhino).
Not content with the tremendous feeling of self-worth that gave her, she then posted gleeful pictures all over social media of her standing over the kills (one even depicts her hugging a dead leopard like a teddy bear). The purpose seemingly to promote herself, in the hope of getting her own hunting TV show.
Well – surprise, surprise – the internet wasn't happy. Animal lovers deemed her a cruel sociopath and called for her head. The hardcore hunting community then weighed in, accusing everyone that hasn’t busted a cap in an animal’s ass of not understanding the fragile nuances of nature. So who to believe?
The worth of a wild animal
According to those with the guns, hunting is an integral part of conservation. But why? How can killing an animal contribute to its survival? Well, speak to some environmental economists and they’ll tell you animals have to prove their economic worth to survive in the world today.
When their habitats could be cleared and used for raising cattle, growing crops or property developments, how can animals compete? Well, so long as the animals are worth paying for – be it by a gawping tourist or a gun-toting hunter – they will be kept in existence. Wild animal attractions, especially big game hunts with their hefty license fees, are big business.
Born to die
"In 2008, (age 13) I took my second trip to Africa to start my Big 5 experience. The first animal I ever shot was a White Rhino with a .416 Remington!!”
An overexcited quote from Kendall Jones’s Facebook page. Not surprisingly it attracted an inferno of heat, considering there are only 17,000 of these in the wild.
“I felt very lucky to be part of such a great program and procedure that helps the White Rhino population through conservation”
To me, it seems like a statement of such juddering juxtaposition that it would shake itself apart in an instant. But the sad thing is, once I started to look into it there were far too many unlikely people willing to lend their support. Even programs like Save the Rhino seem to post information that helps carry her point of view, which hardly fills me hope.
The argument goes that whenever a hunting permit is auctioned off, the proceeds toward conservation in two ways.
First, a large portion is supposed to go to the government for conservation efforts. The problem with this is simply that no one knows how much money goes where once it’s paid to a government. Of the tax I pay to my government in the UK, I have no idea how much goes toward things I do support, like the NHS, and what goes toward things I do not support, like the still ongoing conflicts in the middle east.
The rest goes to the landowners who own the hunting grounds. This is supposed to encourage them to maintain natural habitats, rather than convert them into some other means of income like farmland, and actively try to stimulate reproduction of the species living on their land.
But if an animal is specifically bred for a purpose, does it stop being truly wild? In South Africa, things have started to skew toward the extreme. Now there are lion farms that breed the animals specifically for the slaughter. When they are still young cute cubs, tourists are encouraged to come and play with them, so they grow accustomed to and trusting of humans. When they come of age, they are sold to fenced-off hunting safaris where they are 'stalked' and gunned down, mainly by rich western hunters - their hides, skulls and other body parts shipped home.
This is hardly the ‘fair chase’ they parrot on about. It's the killing of a semi-domesticated animal, and while farming is sure to keep the lion numbers up, these are not wild animals.
Is it merely the appearance of species we want to preserve, or is it their entire essence of its being? I mean, wild cattle no longer exists in the UK, but we have countless cows that we farm for meat.
Alternatives for wild animals bred in captivity
Some conservationists have come up with other, far more humane purposes for captive bred lions in the ‘lion walk’. The experience is pretty much summed up in the name; you take a stroll, accompanied by a couple of animal experts as lions bound around you and play in the grass.
I like the idea of being up close and personal with a lion in this way, but the animal you’re walking with has been domesticated to be more akin to a dog. I’m not taking away from the fact that it is still a wild animal and unpredictable as a result, but these are not animals existing in a state of nature, which is what preserving a species should be all about.
In Thailand is one of the most famous and popular wild animal attraction in the world, the Tiger Temple. Pulling in thousands of visitors a day, it touts itself as a sanctuary for wild animals, but the rumours of clandestine exchanges with a tiger farmer in Laos seems to suggest otherwise.
Former volunteers, like Turner Barr, have pointed out that when you compare the number of adults kept there at any one time to the number of cubs that pass through, things don’t really add up. Since the cubs are the biggest draw, what happens to them when they are too cute to feed with a bottle?
But it’s the whole set up too. Seeing pictures of tourists pulling on a seemingly doped up tiger’s tail makes me very uncomfortable - it’s not something I’d want to do to my own cat.
It’s not just big felines either. Elephants are used to carry slews of tourists on jungle treks every day. You may think that a creature of that size is surely strong enough to carry two puny humans, but when you take into account the bulky howdah and the fact the elephant’s curved spine is not built for this kind of work, it becomes backbreaking – literally.
On top of that, the conditions the animals are kept in between shifts is reported to be dire. Keeping any animal is expensive, especially one of that size. If elephant trekking is to be a profitable business, something has to suffer. Here’s a clue, it won’t be the owner’s income. As a result, most elephants are underfed and under-watered.
It doesn’t just damage the individual animal either, also the species. Most working elephants are taken out of their natural habitat in Burma, preventing them from naturally breeding, which further threatens their numbers in the wild.
If you want to see elephants, the Elephant Nature Park (where you can also work as a volunteer) is a genuine sanctuary for injured and abused animals – mainly from the nearby elephant treks. Although the work they do is stellar, you have to remember if the animals weren’t being broken down on the treks in the first place, this park wouldn’t need to exist.
It’s not all bad though, we have to remember there are forms of truly ethical animal tourism out there. To see animals exist within their natural habitat, visit one of the vast game reserves or national parks across Africa or Asia. This is an industry we must not just protect, but encourage and grow.
I love Martin Quinn’s philosophy, and I even have a soft spot for how he’s promoting interaction with the lion walks, but they are not wild. They have not grown up in a natural environment to be, well, lions. We should be able to prove that an animal as incredible as these big cats is worth more alive than dead without having to tame it into being a giant domesticated house cat.
Places like Kruger National Park in South Africa have incredible landscapes, filled with amazing wildlife of all kinds, including the all the ‘big 5’. They promote responsible tourism, do great conservation work and, best of all, hunting is prohibited. There’s also cheap hostel accommodation options available with the reserve on their doorstep. With flights around £400-£500 return, off-season, it’s a worthwhile trip for any traveller.
Our own track record
Of course, it’s all good and well sitting in front of a computer screen in London talking about the plight of animals in Africa. It’s hypercritical, as we did exactly the same thing to the natural predators on our little island centuries ago.
Did you know the UK was once home to Lynx, hunted to extinction during the Saxon times? Brown bears were baited and killed off as far back as 1000 AD. The wolf was finally killed off completely in around the 1500’s. But why? Why hunt a species with such single-mindedness that you wipe them out completely?
Simply, they were a menace, especially to farmers trying to turn a profit. They are the same arguments used by locals when it comes to talking about natural predators like lions and tigers in Africa and Asia. And people will never be satisfied. Foxes are menaces to chicken farmers, now the badger is a menace to cattle farmers, and so we feel the need to kill them to preserve profit.
Now we’re talking about reintroducing wolves into the wilds of the UK (something I am for). But to make the argument palatable, even conservationists have to make the argument that they will help tourism. They will boost income and this can be used to compensate anyone who finds themselves out of pocket by their reintroduction. It’s not about their natural place – they have to pay their way.
Ever shrinking world in which we live in
I suppose we have to accept that wildlife numbers will never be quite the same as they once were. There will always be a struggle for land and resources and humans will always win that struggle. As the world’s population continues to grow and grow, wildlife will be further and further squeezed as ever increasing tracts of land needed for food production and other things.
However, arguing that killing them is the only way to save them is ridiculous. Eco-tourism should be – and surely can be – economically viable for private investment and enough of a draw. I understand that conservation work cannot continue at a sustainable level if left to the limited funds provided by charities and government subsidies.
But ultimately, all this incessant talk about the economic worth of wild animals is basically us as the human race saying “this planet is mine and I will not share it”. These animals did not invent the very much made up system of market value and wider economics – that is a system we made and choose to live under. These other species do not have a choice, they simply have it inflicted upon them.
The world has been going that way for a long time. The economic system has become more important than the lives of all the animals that live under it, humans included.
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