Capstick: African safaris are vital for conservation

Capstick: African safaris are vital for conservation

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If you’ve ever considered walking away from your mundane day job to do something reckless and conspicuously masculine—join the French Foreign Legion, live like a hermit in the Alaskan wilderness, or become a big-game hunter in Africa, for instance—you’re not alone. Peter Hathaway Capstick, one of the foremost big- and dangerous-game hunters in Africa and an accomplished writer about the subject, did exactly that. A New Jersey native who was on his way to becoming a successful Wall Street executive, he abandoned the corporate life in his late twenties to hunt and fish in Central and South America. When he returned to the States, he started a business arranging guided hunts and safaris, then took a job working for Winchester Adventures—a subsidiary of the rifle and ammunition manufacturer—which took him to Africa for the first time. He went on to become a professional hunter and game ranger in several countries throughout the south central region of the continent.

Unlike so many other famous dangerous-game hunters in Africa who built their reputations during the early 1900s or before, Capstick came onto the scene relatively recently—having died in 1996 at 56 years old from complications following heart surgery. He was unique in that he showed an acute awareness of Africa’s history with colonialism and the perpetually changing political landscape, especially how it impacted the safari and hunting industry on the continent. And unlike many other big-game hunters of years past, Capstick didn’t engage in the gratuitous collection of trophies or the wholesale slaughter of game, but was instead, by all accounts, a consummate ethical sportsman.

Capstick after a long day in the field.

A prolific writer, Capstick published more than a dozen books about hunting in Africa. One of them, “Safari: The Last Adventure,” serves as a thorough guide to all things safari—from booking your trip to selecting the proper bullet type, to tips on nature photography. But perhaps more importantly, the text illustrates an essential point: African safaris and hunting tourism have a profound and positive impact on conservation efforts. “Today, when people should really know better, the general public is astonished to learn that African hunting safaris are still not only available but are more popular and more important to wildlife survival and well-being than ever before,” said Capstick. He described the following ways in which safaris remain essential to the health and protection of wild game.

1. They fund conservation efforts

We’ve seen this in the United States with the Pittman-Robertson Act: The revenue generated from legal hunting in the form of state-issued tags and taxes can be reinvested into conservation efforts—animal monitoring and tracking, data collection, and outreach to name a few—to great effect. Today, a guided elephant hunt in Zimbabwe could cost north of $40,000. A few dozen such hunts annually could bankroll entire conservation departments. Capstick wrote of the Selous Game Reserve in southeastern Tanzania, “Whereas the whole area had been poached previously, this concept permitted hunting safaris from America and elsewhere to support three game department bases, one of which alone had a staff of more than 450 people, a dry-season track much longer than the east-west width of the United States, anti-poaching posts in large numbers, three ferries and three bridges, and which still had enough of a surplus from the million and a half shillings produced by the less than one hundred hunting safaris each year to provide the government with a tidy sum for its coffers. Now, that’s common-sense game management, good for the game and hunter alike, as well as for the host government.”

2. They assign a high monetary value to the hunted species

Successful African game conservation isn’t driven by the noble thoughts of “woke” Westerners; it’s dependent entirely upon how valuable the game is to those who live alongside it. Ivory poaching occurs because there’s a thriving (illegal) market for it and few other means of legally monetizing those wild animals. Disadvantaged people can’t be expected to look upon the splendors of nature with the resolution that they need to protect it; many see their next meal. They see dollar signs in an environment where few opportunities exist. Poaching yields money. But what if someone offered to pay even more for the opportunity to legally harvest one of those animals?

A thriving safari industry can sway desperate locals from indiscriminately poaching to protecting their newfound cash crop—the animals themselves—which wealthy hunters would gladly pay a mint to pursue. In the case of non-ivory-bearing game, this applies in much the same way: The game goes from being a nuisance or a valueless presence to a meaningful resource. Giving an example of this, Capstick wrote, “Lions were and are shot and poisoned as vermin legally in cattle country near the Kruger National Park. Now, in hunting areas, they’re worth a couple of thousand bucks each. They sure aren’t indiscriminately killed any longer by farmers or control hunters on lands reserved for safari.”

Moreover, a safari is an involved operation requiring a substantial staff: porters, chefs, trackers, skinners, and innumerable other support personnel. The income generated by those opportunities can make a profound difference to a community.

3. Safaris encourage locals to keep land undeveloped

If wild game becomes a cash crop, it’s in the landowner’s best interest to maintain an environment that favors the propagation and survival of the species. That means, instead of clearing hundreds of acres to accommodate grazing cattle or crops, they may opt to let nature reclaim it, ensuring a pristine habitat for native flora and fauna alike. Also to the landowner’s benefit, unlike domestic livestock, wild animals are typically hardier and require much less management to survive and thrive.

“The interesting thing is that untold hundreds of thousands of hectares and morgen that even a few years ago were scrub grazing for a mix of game and cattle have now been entirely allocated to game. Why? Economics, as always. Game pays its own way, eats nearly anything, is more resistant to disease and predators and generally produces a higher and better use for the land.” Capstick continued by saying, “Even the old enemies become assets to the farmer who switches from cattle to game. One friend of mine used to lose as many as thirty calves a season to leopards not so far north of the city where I live. Now, those same leopards are worth a cool $1,000 to $1,500 each to sport hunters; not a bad trade-off for animals that caused an annual liability of well over ten grand and had to be poisoned! Tell me, is that bad for leopards?”

4. They discourage poaching and bankroll anti-poaching initiatives

Even if a government recognizes the importance of fighting poachers, they may not have the financial wherewithal to dedicate resources to it. Poachers are resourceful and can strike at any time throughout thousands of miles of largely uninhabited terrain. To combat this, task forces of rangers must be stood up. They must be fed, armed, and equipped. They require training. Gasoline for their vehicles. A salary. In some African countries, the predominant means of bankrolling such initiatives comes from hunting tourism. Capstick wrote, “The booming safari trade was producing the funds to support an effective game department that greatly curtailed poaching and the movement of unlicensed game products.”

By contrast, in countries where hunting has been made illegal, the result is obvious and alarming. “Kenya has gone downhill ever since [hunting was made illegal], poaching—like any larceny, impossible to fight without funds and organization—toppling in two-handed ax strokes what was left of the commercially valuable animals.”

Preservation vs. conservation

Capstick noted the distinction between conservation, which he considered the judicious use of a resource, and preservation, which instead resolves to leave the resource entirely untouched. Though counterintuitive, the latter frequently has the opposite effect and is ultimately more detrimental to the health of a species than the former. Legislating to preserve species inadvertently devalues some while making others a target for poachers. Without the infrastructure in place to protect those animals, this only endangers them further.

Those opposed to hunting tourism may see it as a threat to the preservation of wildlife, but in adhering to that view, they lose sight of the greater picture: Effective conservation of game has proven, time and again, to be a superior means of ensuring threatened species will endure.

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