As though it will never end, wherever we look at the moment we find illegal culls, controversial lion hunts, a gun trade fuelling poachers and too many ‘authority figures’ either looking the other way – or implicated. This time it is the proposed hippo culling spree in Zambia’s world-renowned Luangwa Valley. With a dodgy tender process at its core that appears to be an attempt by the Zambian Government to cover up a contract-gone-wrong.
This is according to a source close to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), saying the Department was sued by Mabwe Adventures Limited, the hunting company contracted to execute the cull. A recent court ruling in Mabwe’s favour fueled the Department’s sudden backtracking on its 2016 anti-cull decision to avoid paying compensation, the source says.
Zambian Minister of Tourism and Arts Charles Banda confirmed that a contract entered into with Mabwe Adventures in 2015 was still valid, even though operations of the then Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) were taken over by the DNPW under the Ministry of Tourism and Arts.
Flawed from the offset
The contract was awarded to Mabwe under suspicious circumstances. Zambia’s 2017 Parastatal Report notes not only an irregularity with the Mabwe tender but also confirms that a sum of 81 108 Zambian Kwacha (around R110 000) was paid to ZAWA by Mabwe. The report instructed ZAWA, now the DNPW, “to desist from willfully disregarding Government procedures [and] to submit the report of the hippo culling exercise indicating the number of hippos culled as well as the supporting documentation showing the amounts paid to ZAWA for audit verification, after which the matter is recommended for closure.”
The local Luangwa Safari Association (LSA) also raised concern over the suspicious tender in a letter directed to the Ministry of Tourism and Arts last year, saying local safari authorities and associations weren’t “aware of any public Tender Advertisement for the culling of hippos”. According to the DNPW source, local wildlife authorities within the Luangwa region are still working to void the culling contract for not following the legal channels, and for not considering any scientific of conservation management research.
A contradiction of area-specific scientific data
The decision to cull will effectively allow South African trophy hunters into the world-famous Luangwa Valley to hunt at least 1250 animals – 250 hippos annually for the next five years until 2022. According to Banda, the “reason for [the] culling of hippos is to control the hippo population on the Luangwa River so as to maintain a suitable habitat for other aquatic species and wildlife in general.” An outbreak of anthrax, combined with low rainfall, also contributed to the DNPW’s decision to cull. Scientists including those from Zambia’s own Wildlife Authority disagree.
A paper published in the International Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation in 2013 by Dr Chansa Chomba, who headed up the Department of Research, Planning, Information and Veterinary Services for ZAWA at the time, concluded that culls are ineffective in controlling hippo populations. The research found that culling rather stimulated the population growth in Luangwa. “The act of culling removes excess males and frees resources for the remaining female individuals, leading to increased births […] rather than suppressing population growth rate”, the scientific and peer-reviewed research states.
The claim of an ‘anthrax threat’ also falls short. Local conservation groups say “there is little evidence that culling will have any effect on a seasonal resurgence of anthrax. In a year when rainfall levels and vegetation growth have been normal, there is no proof that a cull of healthy animals would prevent any future anthrax outbreaks.”
Against concession agreements and tourism
Hunting authorities in the region are concerned, saying the “so-called cull is in direct contrast with all safari hunting concessions along the Luangwa Valley.” According to the Safari Hunting Concession agreement, stakeholders are not legally allowed to invite external parties into their territories for commercial hunting.
Mabwe Adventures founder and owner Leon Joubert states, however, that the hunting of the hippo would effectively be taking place in the river, which isn’t within the boundaries of the National Park or hunting concessions. He states that “if the National Parks want to hunt in the National Park, they can hunt in the river.”
The precedent set by this mass slaughter in a supposedly protected National Park will blur the boundaries of conservation efforts in the National Parks of not only Zambia but the rest of Africa. “The negative consequences for thousands of hippos and Zambia’s reputation as a wildlife tourism destination cannot be underestimated,” Born Free warns.
Marcel Arzner, a frequent and long-term photographic safari client who has spent thousands over the past three years on trips to the region, cancelled his upcoming visit due to the cull. “My cancellation for the next trip will be followed by many others. The negative impact on Zambia’s tourism industry will be disastrous”.
Hippos are currently listed as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Umlilo Safaris, a South African hunting company, is currently advertising the hunt to clients on behalf of Mabwe Adventures, Joubert confirms. The company boasts how clients can shoot five hippos per trip and keep the animal’s tusks. Each hunter will be charged up to $ 14,000 for five hippos, according to their Facebook site.
Banda and the Zambian Tourism Ministry has provided no adequate justification for the cull, spuriously condemning conservation NGOs for not opposing the actions during a previous hunting spree from 2011 to 2016.
** This is a guest post by Louzel Lombard Steyn for Conservation Action Trust. Read my other shared post by CAP here. For more information connect with Sally Dowling at firstname.lastname@example.org or through their website. Look out for other guest posts from the Conservation Action team as I put my support behind their unwavering efforts.