By Hannes Wessels – 

In a world become obsessed with celebrity culture and fascinated only by the gruesome and tragic tales of pop artists and con artists alike, the great tales of yesteryear have all but whimpered out. In Africa we find public interest only surrounds the celebrity trips of ageing pop stars desperate to plug themselves back into the media headlines. Washed-up glamour girls and greying rock artists trawl the continent with a bevy of bodyguards and tabloid journalists pretending to be inconspicuous while quietly saving the world before private-jetting back to Malibu or Monaco. Good coverage of the real, unsung heroes who consistently take big risks to save the precious wildlife are rare in modern times. Bereft of bling and bullshit they are forsaken along with the animals they struggle to protect.

Sadly, for anyone concerned about the future of African wildlife the fact is the picture is bleak. Across the continent population growth combined with slash and burn ‘agronomics’ is devastating the natural habitat. Compounding the problem most African governments are at best lacklustre in their response to environmental problems, at worst, in a host of countries they are fully complicit in a wide range of unlawful activities ranging from poaching, to uncontrolled fishing and logging. Worsening the problem are the ubiquitous ‘do-gooders’ from abroad who seem to spring up in all the wrong places with all the wrong ideas and invariably do more harm than good.

For an example one need look no further than GorongozaNational Park in central Mozambique. Prior to the end of Portuguese colonial rule it was one of the great African game reserves with a range of flora that stretched from enchanting Fever Tree forests to sprawling plains and sandstone cliffs. It accommodated an abundance and variety of wildlife that made it a unique natural marvel. This was before it was turned into a butchery by the newly installed Frelimo regime following the end of Portuguese colonial rule. In the ghastly process the buffalo of the neighbouring Zambezi delta, numbering over 100,000 animals, were virtually wiped out; much of the meat processed into ‘bully-beef’ and shipped to Afghanistan to fill the bellies of  Soviet soldiers. But despite the mayhem some game survived and this attracted the benevolent, but blundering attentions of an American IT multi-millionaire by the name of Greg Carr who admirably sought to save the park from further destruction.

Sadly he has failed. Ignoring the advice of many regional experts who are familiar with the wiles of the crooked authorities he leaped joyfully into their welcoming embrace. Sickeningly, Carr appears to have lauded their labours in relieving him of over 20 million dollars with little to show for it short of a mountain of wrecked vehicles and hundreds of bloated employees. Worse, word has spread and he has managed to create a socio-economic cushion for people and instead of protecting the wildlife (it is a Game Reserve) he has triggered a migration of itinerant villagers thereby intensifying pressure on the game habitat. Management is all but invisible on the ground and the plight of the remaining game is now probably more precarious than before Carr’s intervention.

But Carr’s keeps illustrious company in compounding Africa’s conservation woes. Thanks to the arrogance and ignorance of folks like Bill Gates and Jeffrey Sachs the continent has been showered in millions of chemically treated mosquito nets to suppress malaria but alas most of these have by-passed the bodies they were supposed to protect and ended up lining fishing nets. Perfect if one wants nets that allow no escape for even fingerlings this ill-thought largesse  has devastated fish populations throughout and expedited the destruction of what should be a sustainable source of protein.

In Africa, Western governments have long been generous benefactors for the various government agencies tasked with protecting wildlife.  Ultimately, much of the money is spent on paying the salaries of incorrigibly corrupt officials and providing them with transport to expand their nefarious activities.

“Without Western aid the law-enforcement agencies would not have been able to move and sell all the illegal meat, ivory and fish,” says a safari-operator. “The bad-guys have much to thank them for. African governments are probably the biggest threat to continental wildlife and they have been sustained almost entirely by the donor community.”

But there might be some hope. In Zimbabwe, one of the last privately owned game reserves lies in the semi-arid south of the country known colloquially as the Lowveld. It is home to thousands of antelope, but also holds big herds of buffalo and elephant along with a thriving rhino population. Lion, leopard and cheetah are numerous and their numbers are growing.

“When it comes to game management you can’t argue with the success shown by these guys,” says a local rancher who has had his land confiscated by a ZANU PF official. “And when you look at what is happening on much of the state-owned land where the game is being wiped out it is terribly sad. Run as well managed areas with revenue going back into the area and local community, this whole destructive cycle could be turned on its head in a heartbeat and a sustainable revenue flow established. Unfortunately in much of Africa it’s just slash, burn and kill then move on to the next spot and continue the process until it’s all finished.”

Across the Zambezi in western Zambia is Mushingashi Game Ranch run by Darrell Watt a former soldier and wildlife enthusiast.

“Ten years ago there was little game there,” says friend and former game-ranger Terry Roach. “now it’s a little out of hand. The puku don’t even move out the road anymore. The place is now full of game; plenty of lion, the elephant are settling and the buffalo are back. Darrell’s game-management is well thought out and the wildlife is prospering.”

In Tanzania one of the best managed wildlife operations is under the wing of Tanzania Game Trackers which holds big concessions throughout the country and runs its areas thoughtfully and efficiently.

“TGT ploughs an awful lot of its revenues back into its areas and their people operate according to tight rules,” says a former safari guide. “The game is flourishing but they battle constantly against illegal hunters. If everyone, especially the Tanzania Game Department, ran their areas like TGT do, the future of wildlife in Tanzania would be assured.”

In Mozambique Derek Littleton, a Zimbabwean safari operator, manages his concessions in Niassa Province in the extreme north of the country and provides rare relief for the formerly game-rich country’s dwindling wildlife population. His foes include Somali poachers who make the long trek south in search of some of the country’s last big tuskers.

“The Somalis are tough and capable hunters who you have to be careful with,” says Mike, a long-time Mozambique guide. “Derek is doing a good job but he’s got his work cut out for him. He holds a candle for wildlife in this country. For the rest of the country it’s really game-over. There is no real plan, people have a license to kill and the government pays lip service to conservation. The Chinese are in the thick of the trade.  It’s just another Africa tragedy unfolding.”

Paradoxically, to the chagrin of the hand-wringing do-gooders, what these four locales have in common is they are all hunting areas. With strict take-off quotas in place and effective anti-poaching operations ongoing only a minute fraction of the game is ever killed. The formula works and these areas produce rare examples of relatively safe wildlife havens on a largely lawless continent. And much to the irritation of foreign know-alls, the people at the helm are hard-bitten professional hunters who have weathered war and hostile political turbulence with fortitude and a home-grown astuteness that is the preserve of the few whites who have lived a lifetime in the African wilderness. Easily scorned by outsiders as recalcitrant ‘racists’ their sin is they have succeeded where all the others have failed and they have done so at considerable risk to themselves and very often for little financial reward.

“These guys know all the local tricks and tricksters so they are not about to get fleeced like all the NGO’s and ‘do-gooders’,” says Roach. “This does not endear them to the local authorities who would rather be rid of them.”

Best known is Charles Davy from the Zimbabwe Lowveld who, far from being applauded for his conservation efforts seems to be attracting all the wrong sort of attention. Unfortunately for him he is a serial offender; a white-hunter, he has a pretty daughter who attracted British Royalty, he’s rich and he’s locally politically connected. Not much he can do about the first three but what of the fourth.

“I too have lost a lot of my land to government in the course of the last years,” he says, “and I have had to work with people in ZANU PF to keep going but who in Zimbabwe has managed to survive in business without paying some sort of homage to the ruling party. Unfortunately it’s a fact of life here. And yes I’ve built my business around managed hunting but look at the results – we can’t cope with the animal growth. If we could take this model to other countries we could save the game and help the local populace.”

Impartial observers will have to agree with Davy and nobody in wildlife in Zimbabwe is any doubt that the game on his ranch would have been decimated were it not for his protective influences. But in another attack on a ‘usual suspect’ the London Daily Mail chose to ignore the good and took a reckless stab at him  in suggesting he is involved in a Chinese-sponsored rhino poaching cartel involving Mugabe’s close confidante and partner in crime Emmerson Mnangagwa. This seems at best unlikely considering Davy has his own rhino in his own back-yard, he is already very well to do and for a savvy guy with a history of being a tough but fair-minded businessman, notwithstanding the value of the horn, it would seem a pretty silly risk to take.  “I am accused of being linked to Mnanagagwa and Mugabe – I have never clapped eyes on either of them in my life,” he says.

For Darrel Watt on Mushingashi success was also not easily achieved. In taking on the poachers he soon found their ranks were bolstered by government officials including serving members of the custodial body ZAWA. Unfortunately for him some of these officials were well connected and this brought him a great deal of unwanted attention.

“Darrell has been harassed endlessly by government because he’s standing on their toes,” says a well know Zambian hunter who wishes to remain anonymous. “They know there is very little game left in the park (Mushingashi borders on the Kafue National Park) and most of the game that survived has found sanctuary with Darrell so that’s where it all is now and they want the meat and ivory. He’s fought a very lonely battle out there and I know some people in high places would like him dead. It’s a great pity but none of the NGO’s (Non Governmental Organisations) will help a guy like Darrell because they are afraid of standing on political toes. The foreign media is mute because they don’t like hunters. The people the NGO’s pander to and finance are very often the villains but they lack the courage to speak out.”

“Under TGT in Tanzania quotas are strictly applied and lions are only taken if they are old and outside the breeding cycle,” says a local hunter. “But despite all the good they do they don’t have an easy time with the Tanzania government. I think part of the problem is they provide an example that the government would rather not follow.”

It’s a wrench upon the conventional conservation wisdom but the facts show the hunters have got it right and the rest have got it woefully wrong. Those who have come to help have only helped destroy but the madness seems set to continue.  Humanitarian ‘feel-good’ philosophies aimed at stimulating population growth and Western guilt leading to emphasis on ‘politically correct’ interventions that do not ruffle official feathers seem set to stay. As far as the wildlife is concerned its only hope seems to lie with those who make a living out of killing it.