COMPARING BIODIVERSITY IN OCCUPIED
VACANT HUNTING BLOCKS
By Karen Seginak
Photographs by Karen Seginak & Mike Angelides
Foreword Mike Angelides
I have been at the center of the paradigm that sustainable hunting is a major conservation tool for some time now and, it seems, the argument against it is always more or less the same. Condemnation is always influenced by emotions, propelled by misinformation and intensified by a general lack of understanding of how regulated sustainable hunting works and why it is considered a conservation tool.
Conservation by definition “is a careful preservation and protection of something, especially: planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction.
With an ever-growing global population, it is now more critical than ever before for the custodians of vast wilderness areas to enforce and promote sustainable use of habitat and wildlife. In many remote ecosystems the only viable way of doing that is through legal and regulated tourist hunting. Wildlife is a renewable natural resource and when managed properly it is nurtured and replenished resulting in a continuous and profitable resource for the Country, the local villagers and the outfitters, thus making it sustainable.
This study will show that well-managed regulated hunting conserves habitat that would otherwise be lost.
At the 2020 Dallas Safari Club convention, I met with Mike Angelides, of McCallum Safaris, where we began planning how to illustrate the realities, challenges, and benefits of hunting tourism in Tanzania. The many battles that occur daily on social media and in the press illustrate well that people calling for bans on trophy imports or outright bans on hunting altogether do not understand the challenges that outfitters face and the consequences that will result should they no longer be able to viably operate in remote, wilderness hunting blocks. Since there is absolutely no substitute for firsthand experience, we decided that I needed to go to Tanzania to not only visit the McCallum Safaris' concessions but to also visit a recently abandoned hunting block, adjacent areas with a variety of uses permitted by the local communities, and some villages as well. We also felt it was necessary for me to visit some photo tourism areas to compare and contrast, since many critics of hunting claim that this is universally a viable alternative use.
My three-week trip did, indeed, provide me with much-needed insights and all new perspectives. But three weeks only began to address a multitude of questions and to identify many more topics that need truthful representation to those who do not understand the merits of hunting and the realities of wildlife conservation in a country like Tanzania. And also, honestly, to provide hunters with a deeper understanding of the challenges faced, and why their contributions are essential to conservation-minded outfitters with effective, involved programs.
Flying into McCallum Safaris' Lukwati Game Reserve hunting blocks, I witnessed aerially the obvious landscape uses and abuses on a grand scale that occurs virtually everywhere outside of game reserves and national parks. The only land not utilized is that which is too rugged, too wet or designated for wildlife and actively patrolled.
Departing from McCallum Safaris' camps, on the two-day drive back to Arusha, I was able to view these changes on a more intimate level. It was truly a sobering experience. The transition from the healthy, intact miombo woodlands where McCallum Safaris operates to the steadily advancing phases of encroachment and resulting wasteland areas was sad and frustrating, to say the least. A definite illustration of unsustainability and ecosystem collapse.
The ten days I spent in McCallum Safaris' hunting areas was not nearly enough. As a biologist, I fell completely in love with the miombo ecosystem, a place I had never been to before and had mistakenly envisioned as somewhere possibly rather monotonous and unremarkable. How wrong I was. The biodiversity, from the smallest of invertebrates on up to the elephants, the various complexities occurring between all the floral and faunal components, and the importance of the multitude of springs and other hydrological features there inspired me greatly to learn all that I can about this area.
I hope to describe the importance and uniqueness of these forests to others, particularly in the context of how crucial the outfitter’s role is in protecting and maintaining these marginal yet remarkable places as intact, healthy, sustainable ecosystems. Not just for the wildlife, but for the people living in adjacent communities as well. Deforestation and degradation resulting from unsustainable uses such as unrestrained slash and burn agriculture and unrestricted cattle grazing can only occur to a certain point before a devastating cascade of deletory effects wrecks the ecological and hydrological integrity of the entire area. Due to encroachment, McCallum Safaris' hunting blocks now constitute the final frontier. The last land between anthropogenic effects and the shores of Lake Rukwa.
Despite the beauty and biodiversity that McCallum Safaris' hunting blocks protect, however, these lands honestly are not viable for photo tourism. Although spoor and sightings indicate that there is indeed good numbers of game in the area, the thick, intact nature of the bush makes sightings typically difficult, infrequent and ephemeral. The presence of significant numbers of tsetse flies also presents challenges that many tourists find intolerable. Due to the varying moisture conditions in this ecosystem, wildlife also can and does move into areas unreachable by even off-road travel, and most species (with the possible exception of buffalo) typically don’t occur in miombo woodlands in dense concentrations rivaling traditional tourist hot spots like the savannahs of the Serengeti. Air charters into McCallum Safaris' camps are very expensive, and travel by road takes two days and offers little of natural significance to photo tourists. Converting these blocks to photo tourism would also require massive amounts of infrastructure from upgrading roads to building more extensive and luxurious camps, all potentially damaging to the integrity of these sensitive, fragile areas that can be subject to impressive seasonal flooding.
During my stay at McCallum Safaris' camps, I was also able to briefly spend time with some of their anti-poaching staff. We visited one of their recently vacated blocks, where we saw many signs of encroachment and poaching already happening. Bicycle trails utilized by poachers, leading to the villages. Trash items scattered along the roads. Planks of wood discarded along the roadsides, remnants of illegal timber harvesting. Entire trees, most of significant size, cut down to obtain maximally one liter of honey worth $10 USD at most.
Cattle dung and tracks from invading pastoralists. Trees cut down to span waterways so that poachers could utilize them as bridges. Freshly burned areas that were likely burned too hot and too late to be of benefit to wildlife, but to make game more visible to poachers. We drove a short ways into an adjacent game controlled area, where a variety of uses are permitted by local peoples. Slash and burn agriculture clearings, although permissible, were of potentially ecologically detrimental size, and, according to the game warden for the area, are not legally limited in acreage. Bee hives were prevalent, but entire trees were killed via girdling to make the hives. And cattle were ubiquitous.
I spoke in-depth with the game warden, game scouts and anti-poaching staff for McCallum Safaris' area and an adjacent one about the challenges they face, the violations they witness, how local people view wildlife, their funding needs, the qualifications required of them, and what they feel is needed for effective conservation in hunting concessions and adjacent areas. Universally, they responded that stakeholders are critical, manpower and funding are essential but often severely limited, and education is necessary. Not only education for the local people but for themselves as well, as several of them, expressed to me a desire to learn more about the ecology of their area but books and internet access can be difficult to obtain. When I explained to them that part of the reason I was there was to learn firsthand about what it is like to try to effectively conserve areas in Tanzania, they all wished that more people would come to see for themselves. And they were genuinely incredulous that people in America and Europe are fighting “battles” on the internet and in courtrooms about how things should operate in Tanzania. They were unaware that such ignorant nonsense occurs.
Although I had hoped to visit the villages and speak with the residents to learn more of their perspectives and to see McCallum Safaris' contributions to the communities firsthand, I simply did not have enough time and hope to do so on future visits. I did, however, speak with some of McCallum Safaris' staff who are residents there plus I inquired with the game warden and game scouts as to how villagers feel about trophy hunting and outfitters. And what they thought would happen if McCallum Safaris' presence and contributions were to vanish. Or if hunting were to be banned outright. Universally, they replied that the benefits Mike’s hunting programs provided were important to them individually, to communities as a whole, and to maintaining areas in their natural states. Without hunting, everyone agreed that these lands would be not only poached heavily but also quickly converted to unregulated, unpatrolled agriculture, human habitation and livestock grazing areas. When I explained to them that some Americans and Europeans want to ban hunting in Africa, again, they were incredulous. They honestly could not comprehend why anyone would even consider such a potentially destructive action.
No one I spoke to offered opposition to hunting in any way. When I asked how they perceived potentially dangerous or destructive wildlife like lions and elephants, the standard response was – they hate them. They are only willing to tolerate them if they realize some benefit from them. Other game is viewed as a potential subsistence or commercial resource to be poached, unless an outfitter is occupying the block and actively hunting, in which case the government and the outfitter can afford to engage in active patrols and enforcement. They all agreed that more funding and manpower for patrols is necessary, particularly during the rainy season when access is critically limited. And some stressed that poaching has a highly cultural element to it, in that if your relatives poached, you, too, will likely poach. And although there are informants in the villages, most fear retribution from the poachers should their identities be revealed. Most stated that although poaching of mammals is indeed a violation they would love to minimize, they doubted that it could ever be truly, fully stopped, only minimized. The physical presence of outfitters in hunting blocks was universally noted as the major deterrent. Additionally, they mentioned that fish poaching was on the rise in some areas, there is little evidence that anyone targets birds, and the most significant poaching is that of honey, and illegal timber harvesting, as it senselessly destroys habitat.
To get more perspective on the photo tourism industry in Tanzania, I booked a few outings via McCallum Safaris’ photo safari connections, which many of thier hunting clients also do to varying extents, to experience some of the country’s more iconic places. Hunters often do double duty like this, contributing to non-hunting programs as well as hunting ones when they travel, which I feel is an important point overlooked by critics.
I visited three national parks – Arusha, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Serengeti, plus one national conservation area – Ngorongoro Crater. As an avid nature photographer myself, I was already aware of many of the limitations of photo tourism and its clientele, but this variety of places I visited gave me additional, Tanzania specific (and to some extent Africa in general) insights. I spoke extensively with my guide, a few other guides, and some park and lodging employees about the challenges their chosen approach faces and what the expectations of their guests are. Universally, they remarked that tourists expect to be able to see wildlife easily, closely, and comfortably. They also remarked that many tourists only wish to see very specific animals, such as the big cats, for instance, or elephants, and many are honestly not all that interested in the nature present there, they simply wish to enjoy a holiday in a nicely appointed lodge.
Guides and other employees told me that serious photographers hoped primarily to capture scenes involving predatory events, were fickle about only really wanting to be out in the field when light conditions were perfect, and were typically uninterested in any of the non-iconic species. Guides told me that very few, if any, of their clients ever inquired whether the lodges they stayed at genuinely contributed to conservation in any way, and although some people knew that poaching was an issue, in general, most did not understand the scope of the problem, nor did they inquire if they could contribute in any way to help fund anti-poaching efforts.
Although it was a blissful experience for me to visit these places during the pandemic, where they were grossly under occupied, all guides and employees assured me that during a normal year, there were many problems associated with the mass number of tourists it requires to fully support the photo tourism model, ranging from wildlife harassment to excessive traffic to sheer logistics alone. No guide that I spoke with was anti-hunting. Quite the contrary, they were all very curious about hunting as their knowledge of it is minimal, at best. Another point they made is that, although park visitation fees are significantly lower for Tanzanian residents than non-residents, large numbers of locals do not usually visit these places. Primarily because they don’t view nature as having great intrinsic value like international tourists do.
Rangers and guides also impressed upon me that not only can poaching be a significant problem within any non-hunting protected area, but surrounding areas can be even more problematic, as some parks, like Arusha and Mount Kilimanjaro, for instance, have no buffer zones. This leads to many violations occurring within the edges, at the very least, of national parks. Additionally, in some areas like Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, where saturation levels of infrastructure have likely been attained, restrictions are being placed on any new construction of tourist facilities, thus further limiting a model that currently only barely keeps some parks afloat financially. And, an area like the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, although reknowned in photo tourism circles, is co-occupied by Maasai pastoralists, creating many conservation challenges and issues unique to such shared occupancy.
This initial trip to Tanzania provided me with invaluable insights and perspectives that I could never have gleaned without such firsthand, in-person experiences. And without the invitation, collaboration and cooperation of a conservation-minded outfitter like Mike and McCallum Safaris. It should be quite intuitive to anyone concerned about wildlife that the basic requirement is habitat to support biodiversity. And that any program which protects habitat via the funding that a sustainable use provides should be considered absolutely essential. Particularly in light of the realities of steadily advancing human encroachment currently. However, it is sadly evident that far too many people who claim proper conservation is a priority of theirs are actually more concerned about their negative feelings about hunting and hunters. Feelings that have largely been promoted by an ignorant, biased media, blissfully unaware of or willingly in dismissal of, the true issues at hand. My hope is, and my goals are, that, in collaboration with McCallum Safaris, I can return to Tanzania to continue to learn the truths and to be able to present and explain them to various audiences potentially capable of understanding the scope and seriousness of the challenges being faced, and what is at stake should misguided policies and campaigns succeed.
The author is a wildlife biologist with three decades of experience conducting field studies for a variety of environmental consulting firms, NGOs, universities, and both state and federal governments, as well as a published and award-winning nature writer and photographer.