On September 3, an incident within the Greater Kruger reignited the debate around the co-occurrence of tourism and trophy hunting in this iconic wildlife region, with Balule Nature Reserve again making headlines through problematic elephant hunting.
This article originally appeared as a column on Tourism Update here. Follow them to stay in the industry know.
The incident involved a client on a supposedly legal elephant hunt in the Maseke Game Reserve, a region within the Balule Nature Reserve (BNR). Accompanied by a professional hunter (PH) and reserve representative (RR), the hunting client missed his aim, wounding the animal, whereafter the PH and RR fired further shots attempting to bring down the animal. The injured elephant was pursued onto Grietjie (a neighbouring property that does not allow hunting) and a helicopter was used to drive it back to Maseke where a total of eight shots ended his life.
A torturous death and distressing event that has stirred emotions among Balule’s land and lodge owners, many of whom strongly oppose trophy hunting within the reserve. Grietjie landowners and residents expressed their grave concerns about the number of shots fired and the use of a helicopter to drive the elephant back to Maseke, suggesting it brings into question the professionalism of the PH and even possible protocol violations.
The event is reminiscent of one in December 2018 that saw a similar pursuit of an injured elephant bull after the client missed his shot, following it from Maseke onto a neighbouring concession and seeing 13 shots required to end its last agonising hours. Some of these shots were fired in front of leisure tourists who went on to testify publicly about the traumatic event that saw two worlds collide – that of the photographic safari client and the trophy hunter. An angry altercation between Sean Nielsen, the Maseke hunting concessionaire, and one of the tourists after the hunt added fuel to the fire.
A further incident within Balule was the illegal hunt of a collared elephant on 13 August 2018. The young bull was part of an ongoing Elephants Alive research project sponsored by Youth 4 African Wildlife. Affectionately named ‘George’ by the research team, his death was unnecessary and the warden involved was convicted and charged for it.
Yet another elephant hunt in December 2019 in Balule was caught on camera and picked up by PETA. It shows a trophy hunter from California taking an unhurried five or more shots at an elephant in Balule’s York concession, an incident noted by PETA as a violation of the Animal Protection Act, the Elephant Norms and Standards and the National Scientific Assessment of Elephant Management.
What are the Greater Kruger Hunting Protocols?
The Greater Kruger Hunting Protocols, endorsed by all signatories within the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA), including the South African National Parks (SANParks) and Limpopo Economic Development, Environment, and Tourism (LEDET), manage all hunting activities in the region. Within the APNR, only Balule Nature Reserve is allowing elephant trophy hunting in 2023. Balule’s hunting quota is currently set at 22 elephants, which appears disproportionate to its land percentage of the APNR. Of these 22, Maseke has been allocated 12 elephants for hunting despite covering only 14% of Balule.
The Balule quota is calculated on the entire area’s animal population, yet only 50% of the reserve allows hunting, which requires explanation. Also in light of the four questionable hunts detailed above, it is curious that Maseke is awarded a quarter of the 50 elephants allocated for hunting in the APNR. SANParks would not provide 2022/23 or 2023/24 hunting offtake figures when asked by an MP in a parliamentary question and does not appear to be fulfilling its oversight obligations regarding the GLTFCA agreement, citing funding constraints in an answer.
What are ‘Open Systems’, and why do they make way for grey areas?
An integral issue is that of the practice of hunting in open systems which extend beyond the boundaries of private game reserves into the Kruger National Park. While in fenced private game farms animals are bred specifically for hunting, open systems – where all fences have been dropped, present a different set of challenges. In the Greater Kruger, the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ prevails. This concept describes a scenario where a group shares a common, limited resource and is left to use it as they will. The ‘tragedy’ in question is that individuals act in their interest and, in doing so, potentially affect the rights of other forms of tourism. In open ecosystems, such as the Greater Kruger, the industry’s sustainability and conflict with ethical tourism, therefore, remain a pressing concern.
Why is this hunt raising questions?
It again raises concerns about whether hunting is being properly regulated within the Greater Kruger National Park area, particularly in the APNR. Balule Nature Reserve shares an unfenced border with the Kruger and landownership is widely spread from private ownership to the Maseke tribal land where the recent incident occurred, and where PH Nielsen holds hunting rights. Most importantly, this tragic episode contradicts the prevailing High Court interim interdict issued after a successful legal challenge brought by Humane Society International/Africa in 2022 against the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment and others. The interdict explicitly prohibits the allocation of permits for trophy hunting of African elephants, leopards and Black rhinos in South Africa. Tony Gerrans, Executive Director of HSI said of the event, “We are horrified by this unnecessary tragedy. Given the High Court’s interdict prohibiting the permitting of elephant hunts, the reserve’s conclusion that this hunt was lawful is incorrect.”
Conservation funding. Who does it best?
These are cruel reminders of the complexities surrounding this issue and the need for a broader conversation about trophy hunting and conservation funding in the region. Unfortunately, the receipt and allocation of proceeds within Balule is opaque with no recent public accountability. 2019 was the last year that BNR figures were available and indicated a sum of R2.8 million (€139 204) generated from hunting, however, this figure doesn’t match the R10.8 million (€536 945) estimate calculated using professional hunters’ rates and the allocated ‘offtake’ numbers. Looking towards joint-hunting/eco-tourism reserves, those that have upped their conservation levy, as was seen in the Timbavati for example, are raising enough funds to cover anti-poaching, community upliftment and conservation efforts – so showing less reliance on hunting. With the growing global sentiment around big game hunting, particularly for sport, the funding through the trophy hunting model should possibly come under more scrutiny. Ignoring the growing public anti-hunting backlash poses a risk to the reputation and sustainability of the Greater Kruger – especially with the increased understanding that said hunts will take place in the same area as the tourists’ game viewing.
The blurred boundaries between tourism and trophy hunting
This unfortunate incident calls into question whether travel agents and tour operators know that with no fences and animals roaming from protected areas to nearby hunting concessions, the very elephants their conservation-conscious clients are seeing and appreciating on a game drive today – may be shot by a trophy hunter tomorrow. Possibly even within earshot.
In summary, if tourists knew their photographic safari was conducted on the same reserve as trophy hunting, would they prefer to take their high-value spend elsewhere? I think so!