WILDLIFE CONSERVATION “INSURANCE”
What’s the current best policy?
By Karen Seginak
2020. An appropriate number for a year when our vision should be corrected to perfect sharpness. The rapid onset of the covid-19 pandemic has unexpectedly upended virtually everyone’s schedules and livelihoods. Travel is greatly restricted, both locally and globally. Incomes have abruptly ended. People are hoarding resources, with little regard for others. Delineating essential vs. non-essential permeates most aspects of our lives. And many plans, from the mundane to the epic, lie in complete shambles. The best optimism we can muster is a speedy return to some semblance of normalcy. But none of us can know when that may occur.
Despite our own status of suspended animation, nature goes on. In some situations, it may benefit from our absence. But in many others, that will definitely not be the most likely outcome. Although we derive various forms of sustenance from healthy ecosystems, maintaining wildlife biodiversity, unfortunately, is somewhat of a “luxury” in so many regions of the world, readily losing out to other land uses. This occurs on some scale in even the most developed regions, but particularly so in areas where, unless it has value, wildlife is typically treated as competition, worthy of persecution, or simply of little or no concern. The most compelling factor that ensures wildlife’s persistence on the landscape is that it has legitimate value, and that it is utilized in sustainable fashions.
That essential value is largely granted via hunting and non-hunting tourism. But, with much of the world now in varying degrees of lockdown status, tourism has largely been forced to a grinding, screeching halt. A very saddening, maddening, frustrating turn of events for all of us who had made plans or intended to. But whilst we all struggle with the new changes required and disappointments endured, those of us who truly do care about conservation must absolutely do what we can to ensure that wildlife can also shelter in place. It never has any choice but to do exactly that. We may end up having the year off from travel, but wildlife conservation needs are not canceled or shut down. Ever.
Commitments to anti poaching must continue and arrests must continue to be made despite having no safaris to fund it.
Many mistakenly believe nowadays that conservation battles are fought and won via social media debates, petitions, bans, and opinion pieces, but no, the bottom line is that conservation requires money. Typically lots. And plenty of blood, sweat and tears afield, especially from those responsible for providing the indisputably most critical component – adequate, quality habitat. Anyone who does not understand and respect that has never firsthand been involved with conservation, I can assure you. And anyone who has never had to entirely pay the bills required to operate as an outfitter or land owner needs to inquire as to what it can cost. It’s usually a soberingly significant set of figures. Many different expenses fill their accounting spreadsheets, and are incurred each year, throughout the year, not just during hunting season.
And now, the pandemic-induced travel restrictions have created a global economic dam of sorts, blocking much of that critical cash flow, primarily from the USA and Europe, affecting the African continent the most. For who knows how long? But can we find alternate ways to at least, in part, “be there”, even though we can’t currently go? I sincerely hope so. We should postpone our trips, not cancel them. That helps. But we should also realize that outfitters absolutely cannot postpone their commitments and responsibilities to the wildlife, landscapes, and people in their hunting areas. Although it is a part-time experience for we traveling hunters, it is full-time, year round, dedicated work for them and their staff. And the wildlife cannot postpone life either.
News reports are showing how nature currently has free rein in many developed areas, since human residents are now more confined indoors. But they aren’t reporting much yet (nor have they ever) on what happens when humans get free rein over wildlife, in wild areas, as what so often occurs when hunting blocks must be abandoned due to bans or exorbitant governmental fees, for instance. Or what happens when counter poaching units are absent or grossly underfunded and overextended. In these scenarios, usually wildlife loses out and declines greatly due to habitat destruction, human encroachment, unsustainable levels of livestock grazing, bushmeat poaching, and illegal wildlife trafficking. Land and its inhabitants rarely remain idle in these places, and one person’s tragedy quickly becomes another’s triumph. Some triumphs allow for biodiversity to exist, whilst many others do not.
Encroachment causing habitat loss is the biggest killer of wildlife.
Hence the title of this article. We all need now to invest in conservation “insurance”. UGH! Who genuinely ever enjoys making insurance payments? Not most people, including myself. But we do it because we can’t afford to replace the things we insure should they become damaged, stolen or destroyed. So that we can continue on with our lives, even when catastrophes strike. And, in the case of life insurance, we pay it so that others will be taken care of and benefit from it when we have passed on. Insurance is a bargain, relatively speaking, compared to outright replacement of valued things.
From my three decades thus far as a wildlife biologist and my travels as both a hunter and photo tourist, I can affirm that it is far easier and less costly to maintain wildlife and its required habitat than it is to ever have to recreate it. We’ve all seen evidence of and/or participated in herculean efforts required to restore ecosystems in ravaged, depleted places like war torn countries or areas subjected to various land abuses. Even little projects that we tackle on smaller tracts of land with a more benign history of uses easily illustrate how important habitat is and how expensive and exhausting it can be to have to manipulate it back into more wildlife-supporting quality. We hunters can rightfully take great pride in contributing immensely to the restoration of many areas and species globally. And we have many more such projects left to work on. But this pandemic may bring us to a critical tipping point too, which is the maintenance of the successes we currently hold. We must do all that we can to not regress or have to retrench those, and we must strive to minimize anyone having to make difficult, gut wrenching, heartbreaking decisions that will not bode well for the wildlife we treasure.
We simply cannot afford to be without some conservation “insurance”. But how do we do it? What’s the best, highest premium we can each afford so as to provide the highest level of coverage to all who are beneficiaries? I don’t know the complete answer to that, unfortunately, but I will suggest that a good start is to not assume now, or any time in the future, that the price of our hunts is the only cost we should incur.
Outfitters operating costs include government fees, hunting block lease fees, taxes, salaries, food, vehicle insurances and upkeep, building maintenance, APU logistics and provisions, etc. Since hunting is often their only profession, they must generate enough income above operating costs to cover their personal needs also. Additionally, many invest significant amounts out of their own pockets to fund anti-poaching or community projects. If you have not done so already, I implore you to ask the outfitters you know where they could use the most assistance? And would cash donations or tangible items be the most useful? It may not be exciting-sounding to say you donated fuel for ranger patrols, money for tires, concrete for building projects, or some other such non-glamorous essentials, but, honestly, it may be of huge significance to enabling outfitters to maintain the areas where you enjoy hunting. I ask this question every time I go to hunt or photograph wildlife somewhere, and, not only do I have yet to hear someone respond with – no thank you, we don’t need any additional help, but, to my dismay, I also all too often hear – we wish more people would ask that question. And not just inquire, but contribute as well.
We cannot complacently view this pandemic as simply a temporary setback of our plans, because depending upon how long it lasts, there could be very serious permanent impacts for the hunting industry and the conservation it supports. We hunters have historically excelled at holding down the fort, so to speak. Not just in saving places for wildlife, but enhancing and expanding them, whilst also providing a buffer zone around more protected areas. Such efforts have not only enabled non-hunting tourism opportunities to be established, but we also give value to so many less iconic places where photo safari tourists are far less likely to desire to ever go. Our model of sustainable use is characterized by a lower impact and higher input per person. We have experience in shouldering more costs. Therefore, our shoulders should be strong enough to carry some more, not just now, in the midst of crisis, but on into the future. And we have a stellar history of generously contributing impressive amounts of voluntary funds via conventions, auctions, outright donations, and humanitarian contributions.
In some ways, this pandemic mimics a ban. Albeit an all-encompassing one, though, as all industries are now affected. Therefore, it is a fantastic opportunity to illustrate to the world that we do not hunt solely for the kill. That hunting tourism is essential for wildlife conservation, but that we, as hunters, recognize that our responsibilities are full-time ones, not just ones we adopt whilst on holiday.
Teamwork has been an integral part of hunting ever since we humans figured out how to hunt, helping our species to evolve in many beneficial ways. We should employ those teamwork skills, as a global community of hunters, to help hold on to the places and biodiversity that hunting tourism conserves. If you are uncertain whose efforts need the most assistance, and would appreciate transparency, accountability and tax deductions for your contributions, please contact any of the 501c3 hunting organizations or foundations as well as any of the professional hunter/outfitter organizations. Group “insurance”, after all, has advantages, such as cost savings and collective efficacy.
Let’s all contribute as generously as we can. The best hunters are eternal optimists, trying hard with no quit in them until the hunt is absolutely over. We need to fully adopt that attitude in this endeavor also. Please ask the outfitters you know what you can do to help until we can all be back afield. Please challenge others to join in with you as well. And please continue to do so when this pandemic is over. Many people now restricted due to the pandemic are re-evaluating their priorities, deciding how best to proceed forward. For me, wildlife conservation has always been a top priority. Despite all that I’ve already contributed, however, I am sorry to admit that not until recently, after conversing in depth with as many industry professionals as I could, did I fully realize that there was so much more I could be doing to promote and support it.
All of us are currently reminiscing about the treasured hunting experiences we’ve had, the conservation successes we have funded, and the wonderful friendships we have forged in so many places we have traveled in country and around the globe. We have the chance and the strength to ensure there will be more such opportunities in the future. But the future starts now. The only way to ever stop something from ending is to find ways to keep it going.
Let’s all pitch in to do what we can. Many of the world’s best stories were generated by our most adverse times. We have a unique chance right now to write another chapter in the book of hunter- funded conservation that we can rightfully be proud of. Let’s do it! Let’s purchase some “insurance” so that wildlands and wildlife will not only persevere but also flourish on into perpetuity. So that we can tell this story around the campfires in these hunting areas that we cherish. Not just to each other, but to many generations to come.
Can we all collectively make a difference? I think so. But the only surefire way to know is to try. Thank you, in advance, for any additional commitments and support you are willing and able to make to help ensure wildlife’s presence and value during these extra-daunting times, and on into the future.