By Charles Jonga
Shylet died as she walked home from her older sister’s house at dusk. She was 22 years old, and she had her six-month-old baby in a sling around her waist.
The baby died, too. Shylet’s sister Charity and her husband heard the screams, but by the time they dashed the short distance to the scene, they were too late to save either mother or child.
Both had been killed by an elephant on the outskirts of their village in Zimbabwe.
That was on New Year’s Day, 2022. The previous year, more than 40 people in Zimbabwe were killed by wild elephants.
Shylet probably stood no chance. She and her baby were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For communities outside the cities in my country, and throughout much of Africa, animal attacks are a very real problem. Lions, crocodiles and hippos are also responsible for many deaths every year
A police spokesman, Inspector Wiseman Chinyoka, said a herd of elephants had wandered close to her farming community in the Chipinge district. They were probably looking for food.
Shylet meant them no harm. But either startled or scared by the sight of a human, the elephants attacked.
For communities outside the cities in my country, and throughout much of Africa, animal attacks are a very real problem. Lions, crocodiles and hippos are also responsible for many deaths every year.
However, there is a solution. Intelligent conservation protects both wildlife and humans. As the director of rural community conservation programme Campfire, I’ve devoted the past 18 years of my life to making it work.
But a misguided plan by British MPs threatens our efforts. The Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill, brought to Westminster by the Conservative MP for Crawley, Henry Smith, aims to introduce a total ban. Mr Smith’s deeply counter-productive proposal has its second reading in the House of Commons today. If it passes, UK travellers will be forbidden by law to bring back any hunting trophies.
However, there is a solution. Intelligent conservation protects both wildlife and humans. As the director of rural community conservation programme Campfire, I’ve devoted the past 18 years of my life to making it work
It might seem counter-intuitive, but licensed and regulated hunting plays a crucial role. We need hunters, who pay a high premium, to cull within a strict quota. These hunters expect to be allowed to keep their trophies.
Double standards are at work if British hunters cannot bring back trophies from their African trips, but are allowed to shoot stags on the Scottish moors, for example, and mount their heads and antlers.
That sounds like MPs are telling African communities: ‘Don’t do as we do — do as we tell you.’
The British are a nation of animal-lovers. Of course, I understand why so many disapprove of hunting for sport.
But it’s naive of MPs to imagine that African wildlife will thrive if safari hunting is prohibited.
No, the opposite is true. The only people who will benefit from this UK ban are the poachers. And those hit the hardest will be in villages and farming communities — and the animals themselves.
I have no doubt Mr Smith and the celebrities who support his Bill are sincere. But I cannot believe that any of them knows the first thing about real conservation. Perhaps they think African people don’t know what is best for their own continent and its wildlife.
But a misguided plan by British MPs threatens our efforts. The Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill, brought to Westminster by the Conservative MP for Crawley, Henry Smith, aims to introduce a total ban
The truth is that Campfire — Community Areas Management Programme For Indigenous Resources — is dedicated to protecting our wildlife as well as the local people we represent.
In the past, elephants have had to be culled to prevent overpopulation in small areas. Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority estimates that there is enough food and space for 50,000 elephants to live alongside humans on their land and in national parks.
But a recent count put elephant numbers at 84,000, placing huge pressure on farmers. A hungry herd can destroy a year’s maize crop in under an hour, leaving a family destitute.
For more than 15 years, Campfire has run an effective and humane conservation programme that licenses hunters to kill limited numbers of game animals, for a serious fee. These hunts are conducted under the supervision of a qualified professional, abiding by a strict code of ethics.
And the income has proved transformative.
Wildlife benefits through investment with anti-poaching schemes. In 2010, in the Dande district, 40 elephants were killed by poachers. However, thanks to investment in anti-poaching measures, this number has fallen steadily, settling at around just two elephants a year.
That’s 38 elephants a year saved from slaughter, thanks to trophy hunting. Many British people, understandably, might find it hard to appreciate the difference — but if you’ve seen the devastation left by poaching gangs, you will know the two bear no comparison.
Big game hunters try to kill the animal cleanly and instantly. No part of the carcass is wasted — meat from an elephant means valuable nutrition for people in poor, rural communities.
Poachers work in secret, with no regard for the suffering they inflict on animals. It is common for rhinos and elephants to be left bleeding to death after their horns and tusks have been hacked away.
Their bodies are left to rot, prey for vultures. No one who has seen this sickening sight could believe it was preferable to allowing the controlled hunting of game.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but licensed and regulated hunting plays a crucial role. We need hunters, who pay a high premium, to cull within a strict quota. These hunters expect to be allowed to keep their trophies
In parts of Africa where conservation has broken down, the consequences can be horrific. In the Masai Mara of Kenya, conflict between farmers and lions has led to a spate of poisonings.
Antelope carcasses laced with the weedkiller paraquat have been dumped by angry cattle herders, trying to protect their livestock. It leads to an agonising death for lions and other scavengers such as hyenas, which eat the carcasses. This is the result of short-sighted and sentimental planning.
Far better to teach rural communities that these magnificent animals have huge economic value. They bring money to remote parts of Africa, because tourists come here to see them — and, yes, sometimes to shoot them.
That might seem harsh. But in Britain, it is normal for farmers to shoot foxes if they threaten livestock such as lambs or chickens. And we wouldn’t dream of interfering with that policy.
So what gives British MPs the right to dictate what can and cannot be done in the best interests of farmers and wildlife in Africa?
Campfire covers 12 per cent of Zimbabwe, across 58 districts, and active hunting takes place in 15 of these. On average, communities receive more than £800,000 a year as their share of income with rural local authorities.
This money goes direct to the local people from Safari Operators. It helps to offset the costs of living with wildlife (such as property damage) and to invest in projects bringing long-term benefits — such as clinics, drilling boreholes, purchasing farming equipment and erecting fences to protect land and property.
And because of the proceeds received from trophy hunting, children in rural areas have access to good-quality education, in schools built with funds provided by Campfire.
In parts of Africa where conservation has broken down, the consequences can be horrific. In the Masai Mara of Kenya, conflict between farmers and lions has led to a spate of poisonings
The numbers this benefits are vast: 200,000 households participate in the programme. A further 600,000 are indirectly helped by the investment in social services and infrastructure projects.
As Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi said in 2019: ‘Western conservationists speak as if there are no human beings here, as if it’s just a big zoo and they are the keepers of that zoo. We cannot continue to be spectators while others make decisions about our elephants. We are just being rational, as any Brit would be if there were thousands of elephants marauding over the UK.’
Since President Masisi made that speech, controlled hunting in Botswana has had a dramatic effect in reducing poaching and minimising conflict between rural communities and wildlife.
It’s a tough balance. But we know what we’re doing — unlike the MPs in Westminster who fail to understand our side of the story. We cannot permit British politicians to disrupt our vital conservation policies.
Charles Jonga is the director of Campfire Association, Zimbabwe.