By Stephen Corry
This is the sixth article in Director Stephen Corry’s series on conservation. For a full list of all articles, please click here.
A version of this article was published by Counterpunch on March 10, 2017.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) presents itself as the savior of animals. At the same time, though infinitely more quietly, it actually thinks hunting them is vital for conservation. In its fight against “poaching,” WWF funds park guards who beat and sometimes kill people, including innocent victims. How can it reconcile these aspects of its work?
A recent brawl between its South African office and one of its trustees, Peter Flack, illuminates the close link between conservation and big game hunting. This may shock those who support the organization through its “adoption” program for elephants, lions, and so on, fundraising aimed at those who believe in animal rights.1 It’s very hard to believe these WWF donors would agree with such creatures being shot, especially by those in the same organization they’re funding.
Anyone who’s studied the history of environmentalism and big game hunters, on the other hand, won’t be a bit surprised at the connection. The Boone and Crocket (America’s first hunters’ club, founded in 1887) still advertises itself as “pioneers of conservation.” That’s true: Conservation was born when sport hunters initially wanted to stop other hunters killing “their” game. These other hunters were largely tribal people or poor colonists after meat or skins to eat, use or sell. In contrast, rich hunters weren’t shooting for the pot, even when they ate their prey. Their prize was the “fair chase,”2 backed up with a souvenir head, horns, or stuffed animal.
WWF-South Africa (former) trustee, Flack, is such a hunter today. He’s a member of the huge South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association (note the name). Hunting, he says, has pervaded his entire life. It’s an understatement: all the books he read related to hunting; all the artwork he bought depicted wildlife. WWF would have seen no problem in this when it invited him in as a trustee over twenty years ago.
Peter Flack’s stance is more honest than WWF’s; he makes no excuses for his hunting.3 He was introduced to shooting as a young man, when the South African springbok cull “was a big… social event… (which) became an annual fact of life.” Flack could scarcely believe his good fortune: “That I could be so lucky! That someone would… allow me, free of charge, to cull his springbok.”4 After a few years, “the novelty of… all day shooting springbok began to wear off,” so he branched out and began shooting in and around Kruger National Park where, thanks to the vast variety of game, he was like “a child loose in a sweet factory.” Flack has every weapon necessary for “every type of wildlife, in every type of terrain, available on the African continent.”
He also has eight large rooms stuffed with his trophies. He’s delighted to have so much space: His stuffed animals have “room to breathe.” He even spent years expensively computerizing lists of species to identify which creatures would complete his collection. Flack is forceful about this obsession, describing, “the satisfaction in shooting a black-faced impala,” which was, “as much due to the five hour walk and stalk… as it was due to the fact that the magnificent ram comfortably exceeded… minimum trophy standards and completed my collection of the three… subspecies.”
It’s no exaggeration to describe Flack’s enthusiasm as evangelical, but he certainly doesn’t approve of all hunters. Although it may sound arcane to non-shooters, he distinguishes between himself, competing to fill his trophy rooms, and others who, “compete to enter animals in record books.” The latter, in his view, have a “disease.” “The worst of their kind are callous killers with little or no regard for hunting or wildlife. They give genuine and passionate hunters and conservationists (which latter two terms are synonymous in my view) a bad name and play into the hands of animal rightists who say that all hunters merely kill for thrills or pleasure” (my emphasis).
In November 2016, Flack was asked to resign from WWF, but not because of his hunting background. As he pointed out, hunting and big conservation have always been bedfellows. WWF telling him to go was precipitated because Survival International – which is leading the fight against the abuse of tribal peoples in the name of conservation – had publicized Flack’s hunt for a forest elephant in Cameroon. WWF didn’t say so in as many words, but this clearly risked exposing conservation’s real relationship to hunting. Flack, on the other hand, had never made a secret of his elephant bag (if you knew where to look): He wrote blogs, and transported the stuffed animal, including tusks, back to South Africa to exhibit. WWF classifies forest elephants as “vulnerable,”5 and also says they’re “endangered,” and “on track for extinction.”6
Survival does not oppose sport hunting or the display of trophies; that’s not its business. Its argument is with the treatment tribal peoples are subjected to in so-called protected zones, particularly when it was their land in the first place. Flack’s been dragged into Survival’s campaign to stop WWF funding human rights abuses because he killed his elephant on land stolen from the Baka “Pygmies.”
By paying forty-five thousand dollars to the Panamanian-registered company, Mayo Oldiri, Flack was able to take part in what he called “the last great… adventure in Africa.” Mayo Oldiri funds the Dallas Safari Club which in turn funds several conservation projects, including WWF’s. Meanwhile, Baka hunter-gatherers are not only largely forbidden from hunting to feed their families in protected zones, they are also frequently harassed, beaten up and even tortured by patrols supported both by the sport hunting operations as well as by WWF.
This is because WWF and the Cameroon government diced up Baka land in the last twenty years, in an echo of how the European powers arbitrarily carved up their African empires a century earlier. WWF agreed to the lines on the map delineating national parks as well as hunting areas for tourists. They also set aside some zones in which Baka are supposedly allowed to carry on hunting (so long as it’s “traditional”) but these are very small, the rules about them are vague, and they’re often ignored by the park guards anyway.
In a heated exchange with WWF’s South Africa CEO, Morné du Plessis, Flack is rightly scathing about Cameroon’s anti-poaching efforts. Its police, he says, often supplied the weapons and support to the actual poachers and hardly ever prosecute those caught. In Flack’s view, “the real pity is that there has not been more hunting in Cameroon as this would have provided more… anti-poaching efforts… which are desperately needed in this corrupt and incompetently managed country.” He means of course more big game hunting by people who pay, rather than tribespeople hunting for subsistence (although he supports their right to do so).7
Other big game hunters really should be grappling with a monumental theological crisis around subsistence hunting. On the one hand, they’ve always opposed it because it reduces “their” game, but on the other hand, tribal hunters surely deserve recognition as the original authorities, the respected “elders,” as it were. After all, tribesmen are infinitely more expert than anyone else at tracking and stalking, they have a much deeper understanding of their prey, and are far more respectful towards the animals – aspects which are also engrained in the beliefs of the big game hunters. Tribesmen are also of course highly skilled at making their own weaponry and, most importantly, their communities are better conservationists than anyone else. The main difference between tribal and sport hunters is that the former in Africa are all black, and almost all the latter are white, and rich.
In his refusal to resign from its board, Flack accuses WWF of insulting all South African hunters, as well as, “13.4 million hunters in North America and the children of the president elect of the USA.” His singling out Trump’s sons, both avid sport hunters, is an interesting aside.8 “Sportsmen for Trump,”9 for example, falsely elevated Don Trump Jr. to be one of the youngest ever board members of Boone and Crocket, which it calls “America’s first Wildlife Conservation Organization.” (In reality, he’s not on its board, at least not yet!)
Flack’s elephant hunting expedition is certainly not an isolated incident: About eighteen thousand trophy hunters visit Africa annually. According to Humane Society International,10 in the ten years from 2005 trophies from some 5,600 lions, 4,600 elephants, 4,500 leopards, and 330 rhinos were imported into the United States alone. The same source claims, “Many of the species sought by trophy hunters are threatened with extinction.”
This story is really just an everyday example of how little African conservation has changed over the last hundred years. White people can hunt but African subsistence hunters can’t. If they try to (or even if they don’t), they are evicted, beaten up and labelled “poachers.” And yet targeting tribal hunters diverts action away from tackling the true poachers, who, as Flack rightly says, are usually in collusion with exactly the same government employees who are supported with conservation grants – effectively, money given by a public which is routinely being conned.
What’s new? The very first national park in Africa, now called Virunga, was instigated in 1925 by American hunter and taxidermist, Carl Akeley. It’s world famous for its mountain gorillas. Like Flack, Akeley kept trophy rooms; they are visited today by millions in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The very first gorilla he spotted nearly a century ago is on display. The hapless creature’s first encounter with its white cousin was its last. Akeley immediately shot and stuffed it.
In Virunga, as with other African parks subsequently, the tribal owners were unceremoniously pushed off their lands. In some places, entire tribes ceased to exist because of a disastrous model of “conservation” which has deprived millions of their lands and way of life. It’s still going on.11
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that the real reason WWF South Africa is evicting Flack is because Survival International is drawing attention to WWF’s duplicity in supporting trophy hunting on one hand, while colluding in forbidding subsistence hunting on the other. At the same time as the organization carefully models its image to attract support from the animal rights faithful, it quietly asserts the importance of sport hunting,12 the very thing those animal lovers detest. WWF bosses doubtless want to see the back of Flack because he exposes them to public scrutiny. Flack refused to go, but was unceremoniously booted out anyway at the end of 2016.
Survival International spent years raising the issue with WWF without result, and is now appealing for public support to push the industrial-sized conservation giants into respecting the rights of those whose lands they claim. Survival has, for example, now made the first ever formal complaint “admitted” against a non-governmental organization (WWF) to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the intergovernmental body which exists “to build a stronger, cleaner and fairer world.” WWF invokes OECD guidelines when criticizing extractive industries. It’s time it started abiding by them itself.
If WWF really respected the environment, it might start by respecting tribal peoples, who are often far better at protecting their land than professional conservationists. So, incidentally, might all factions in this dispute – including the sport hunters and those who believe in animal rights.
It all boils down to whether or not tribal people have the right to survive or whether others, including those in the conservation industry, have the “right” to destroy them. And, make no mistake, depriving them of their land and self-sufficiency does destroy them.
Some people clearly believe animal rights trump human rights, and that it’s good to execute people summarily, illegally and without trial, if they’re on land which they may have called home for generations, but which has been turned into a “conservation zone.” It’s an extremist belief, but widely held.
Others, including this writer, believe that the excuse for genocide is always some supposed “greater good,” and that if “conservation” carries on endorsing people being killed, it will be forever tainted with the blood of innocents. It will also fail utterly in its objectives and eventually implode as local opposition to it grows increasingly angry.
Many people benefit from conservation, trophy hunters included. Those who believe in human justice as well as the environment should think about whether it’s time to come out and say so.
Stephen Corry regularly, though without great enthusiasm, shot game as a child through freezing English winters in north Norfolk. He has worked with Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, since 1972. The not-for-profit, which is successful at halting the eviction of tribal peoples from their ancestral homelands, has an office in the San Francisco Bay area. Its public campaign to change conservation can be joined at https://www.survivalinternational.org/conservation. Baka testimony about the treatment they receive from “anti-poaching squads” can be viewed at https://www.survivalinternational.org/films/djami. This is one of a series13 of articles on the problem.
2 According to Boone & Crockett, this is, “The ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.”
3 See https://www.peterflack.co.za/hunt-conservation-erudite-views/ for his interesting exchanges with an animal rights enthusiast.
7 Peter Flack, personal communication, December 11th 2016.
12 WWF makes a point of opposing the illegal ivory trade (but does not oppose legal trading in ivory). It also opposes unsustainable sport hunting (but not “sustainable” sport hunting, for example in the area hunted by Peter Flack). It’s perpetually trying to appeal to mutually hostile audiences, both having its cake and eating it.
13 See https://www.truth-out.org/author/itemlist/user/47328