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In Africa, Hunters Pay to Tranquilize Game for Research

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
June 16, 2003
 
They stalk their prey, fix their sights, squeeze the trigger and even
experience the peculiar delight which hunters take in seeing the animal
go down. But blood does not gush from a bullet wound, and life does not
fade terminally from the eyes.


This novel way of bagging tusks and horns as trophies does not involve death—it is supposed to help conserve precious lives. It is a new kind of safari called "eco-hunting" or "green hunting," and it is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to the old blood sport of big-game hunting with a high-powered rifle.

Hunters, especially from the United States, are paying big money for the thrill of this kind of hunting and bagging two of Africa's storied Big Five: elephant and rhino.

Instead of a bullet, however, a dart is fired which tranquilizes the animal and makes it sleep, long enough for veterinarians to draw blood and other samples for their clinical work—and for the hunter to have photographs or video to record a foot resting proudly on the quarry, or standing beside the prone animal, rifle clutched across the chest.

In the case of elephant and rhino, the time the animal is asleep also allows for a mold to be taken of the tusk or horn from which a replica is made for the hunter to put up in his trophy room.

These extras all add to the price of the safari, but ideally the purpose is not merely to put money into the pockets of reserve owners and hunting operators.

Game rangers and conservationists insist that the primary objective should be game management and research. The idea indeed comes from the older practice of sports fishermen paying to catch marlin and other game fish which are then tagged and returned to the sea.

Scott Ronaldson, game warden at South Africa's Timbavati Nature Reserve, one of several private sanctuaries that shares an unfenced border with the public-owned, 5-million-acre (2.2-million-hectare) Kruger National Park, says green-hunting of elephant and rhino has been carried out on the property for the past two years.

Aimed mainly at monitoring the population dynamics of elephant, it is part of a five-year research project run in cooperation with the Kruger Park by the Association of Private Nature Reserves, which is constituted of Timbavati and other adjoining privately owned sanctuaries, Klaserie and Umbabat.

Ronaldson explains that while the animal is down and the hunter is about his business, the rangers and veterinarians quickly get on with their tasks.

Blood samples get taken, and, if an elephant, a collar gets fitted for tracing the animal's movements. A rhino would be earmarked and have a microchip implanted in the horn as an anti-poaching device and a means of identification when reclaiming an animal that has strayed onto another property.

The animals are selected carefully. It could be an elephant matriarch, as her movements and habits would reflect those of the herd; or it could be a particularly impressive bull which is in musth, an aggressive state associated with the rutting season, whose movements could provide valuable information on breeding patterns.

A bull called Mac that was fitted with a satellite tracer in May last year has produced some surprising insights into the distance it roams. It first moved south into Kruger and then over the months it moved slowly north for about 200 kilometers (125 miles) before turning back. It is now heading back to Timbavati along much the same route it followed on the outward journey.

Ronaldson says green hunting holds the further advantage of safeguarding big tuskers, like those whose genes are important for maintaining the strain. With real hunting, it is those with the big tusks that normally get targeted, resulting in their gene line getting weaker and weaker.

The response from conservation groups so far has been positive, says Ronaldson. It is after all a case, he says, of killing two birds with one stone: The hunter is happy and the research can be done. "With real hunting there is always the mixed emotion. People say they want to shoot an elephant, but when it is done and they see it lying dead, there is the regret."

"With green hunting, the animal goes down, the hunter completes his part of the bargain while the collar is fitted, the antidote is administered, and the animal gets up and walks away. Everybody is happy."

Potential for Abuse

This would be true, of course, where the motives are genuinely to bring down an animal—for research purposes only—in situations of proper control. But because there is money to be made, there is potential for substantial abuse.

One who has concerns about this is David Zeller, newly elected president of the International Rangers Federation (IRF), a federation that furthers the professional standards of rangers throughout the world. He is stationed at Skukuza, administrative headquarters of the Kruger National Park, which places him close to where the green hunting is taking place.

"What," asks Zeller, "if someone decided to have the same animal hunted over and over? It goes down, staggers back to its feet, only to be brought down a month or so later by another dart. People are capable of canned-lion hunting. What would stop them doing this?"

"Canned lions" is the term used in South Africa for the practice of using tame animals, bred in captivity or taken from zoos, for hunters' quarry. They are released in enclosed areas where hunters "stalk" and shoot them, often for a steep price. It has been drawing a growing public outcry. The South African government's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism has condemned the practice, but it has been under much pressure to go further and outlaw it.

Zeller's organization, the IRF, has not taken a position yet on green hunting, but he is personally concerned about proper control of the technique.

It may be preferable to killing, and it is not hard to recognize the great potential it holds for research and game management, especially with hunters paying for it. But what if it were to create just another commercial bandwagon with the animals being used as unnecessary targets? There has to be strict conditions and controls, he says.

"This is a new thing, and we need as quickly as possible to have a national policy set that will help our provincial authorities to apply the right criteria for issuing permits," he says.

A bad darting, for instance, could see an animal run for ten minutes before going down. This could be critical in tracing it in the bush, and in getting the antidote administered in time. It could even cause the animal to turn on the hunting party, forcing the rangers to kill it. "So there has to be questions about the hunter. Is he a good stalker and marksman, or clumsy and trigger-happy?"

In the context of this particular form of hunting, says Zeller, one of the key requirements is that there should always be a veterinary surgeon present, not only to carry out the research aspects and to resuscitate the animal, but also to assist in setting the conditions for the hunt. This is particularly applicable in the case of rhinoceros, which are prone to developing breathing problems under sedation.

Gerhard Verdoorn, director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a Johannesburg-based group with a mission to conserve the diversity of plant and animal species in southern Africa, says there has actually been a case of a rhino being darted five times in one year—"and that is simply not on," he says.

As a conservation tool, he says, green hunting has its merits. Unfortunately, he added, commercial hunters are getting in on the act, and that spells nothing good.

Verdoorn is working with the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association to put a stop to the gruesome practice of canned-lion hunting, and in the process will bring up the question of green hunting and the need to make sure ethics are established.

Timbavati's Ronaldson shares the concerns about the potential for abuse and the need for controls. He says the reserve's own green-hunt program is strictly limited to animals that need to be darted for research purposes or for fitting security devices.

The choice of animal is done on well-considered, scientific grounds, he says. The hunter is selected by tender. The hunting party has to include veterinarians to ensure the darting dosage is correct, to see to the animal's health while under sedation, to ensure that the required operations are carried out speedily and efficiently, and to duly administer the antidote.

Experienced rangers need to be on hand to provide back-up in case an animal turns on the hunting party, and there need to be trackers both to find it and to follow it through the bush if it takes flight after being darted. "By its very nature it is an intricate operation and needs to be very carefully planned," says Ronaldson.
 

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