Sunday, 6 April 2008

Louis Theroux's African Hunting Holiday

In South Africa hunting is big business. If you book with Safari S.A. you can have "comfortable camps, great food and unforgettable hunting" for as little as $350 a day. You can bring the kids along as well for $25. We wouldn't want them to miss out on the fun! Should you bag something for the office wall prices range from $100 for a hapless baboon to $3,200 for a red lechwe (a species of antelope). Louis Theroux's semi-Fortean hunt for weird phenomena takes him to Shingani Safaris. Proprietor Riann Vosloo has the animals that can attract the big spenders. Fancy bagging a hippo? That will be $8,000 thanks. If you have money to burn how about offing a rhino? A mere snip at $100,000! For hunters on a budget there is a cheap menu, which is made possible by fencing in animals on reservations and the advent of controlled breeding. A cheap and easy experience opens up South African game hunting to the masses!

In his typical fashion, Louis latches on to a couple of neophytes. Paul and Ann-Marie are the first arrivals at Shingani of a 22-strong party of hunters from Ohio. For Paul the chance to hunt South African game is a dream come true. He's looking to hunt zebra and baboon. The latter, says Vosloo, make a beautiful trophy, not least because their intelligence makes them difficult prey. Ann-Marie however has never been hunting and is just along for the experience. Louis heads out with them on their first hunt, accompanied by their personal hunter and a couple of trackers, to retrieve the animal in case it gets wounded. Their jeep stops and Paul takes aim with his rifle but this time he is unsuccessful. No blood trailing into the bush means the zebra got away unscathed. He tells Louis he's shaking and his heart is hammering. Ann-Marie's caught up in the excitement too. She likened it to being in a casino surrounded by gamblers. Because everyone's doing it you feel the compulsion to join in. Asked if she thinks she would feel bad she said it would be if the animal's death was meaningless. But the meat of the animal is either sold or given away, so it isn't wasted.

Ann-Marie does have a problem with the zebras because they look too much like horses. But she was excited by the sight of the animals. Inevitably, she relents. Her small party take up residence in a blind overlooking a watering hole. The bolt is loaded, she takes aim and fires. An unfortunate impala who had stopped for a drink dies almost instantaneously. Ann-Marie's bolt tears through its lungs and passes out the other side, spraying much blood to the delight of the onlookers. They emerge from the blind and take trophy shots. She describes feeling overwhelmed - it was intense and interesting. She feels bad looking at the dead beast but then philosophically muses whether its quick death was preferable to the drawn out fate it would likely face on the reservation.

Louis hooks up with a couple of others from the Ohio hunting party. In their real lives, Anthony owns a haulage firm and Rich works in a recycling plant. They go on a night time hunt where Anthony shoots and fatally wounds a kudu. The trackers find it on its back, its head eerily propped up by its horns. Anthony is eager to pose with his kill; "this is important once you kill a wonderful beast like this". The Ohio party returns to camp with a bumper haul of animals. Louis reflects on not being able to share the hunters' excitement and presses Anthony on his. He tells Louis you need a passion for hunting to enjoy the celebrations, to understand why to "take an animal like that is a dream come true".

So much for the hunting experience. Louis explores the business side with Pete Warren, a big game breeder who sells his animals to safari outfitters. He's quite blunt about what he does. There's more money in breeding game than raising cattle. He doesn't love his animals, they're merely livestock, commodities. They're part of an artificial hunting experience feeding a demand. For example, Riann recalls that when he was a boy he would be pleased if he managed one kill in the three month hunting season. Because of the industry even novices can bag five or six in a day.

Louis, as the liberal stand-in for the voyeuristic audience fields the questions us outsiders are dying to ask. Is hunting cruel? Riann thinks opponents of hunting just do not understand. They are especially hypocritical if they eat meat - the difference between a carnivorous opponent of hunting and a hunter is the former's separation from the reality of the slaughter house. With hunting death is visible and out in the open, and it is this what is deemed so objectionable.

Pete is grilled about the seeming pointlessness of the exercise. Breeders spend time and effort raising these magnificent animals only to sell them on and have them shot, so why bother? Once again Pete is typically hard headed. Once-endangered species like sables would never have been brought back from the brink if it wasn't for hunting. With the development of a market for game livestock there is an economic incentive to conserve. It allows for stronger and more physically impressive specimens to be bred and is a means of making money out of what is here. If hunters from overseas want to come to South Africa to kill animals they are ensuring the survival of the species.

And here lies the rub for socialists. On the one hand the commodification of species ensures their protection. Great stuff. Safari outfitters provide jobs, hunters' bloodlusts are sated and South Africa has a real economic compulsion to protect its biodiversity. But hunting markets cannot be a lasting solution. Conservation is only possible in so far as it delivers the animals hunters want to shoot. What of fads? What happens to a species that becomes "unfashionable"? Breeders will, of necessity, tend toward what the market dictates. In other words some species win out at the expense of others through a process of selection that is anything but natural. And what happens when the market contracts, as it surely will at some point? Capital has no problem wastefully disposing of unsold commodities. Game are no different. It is quite possible they too could find themselves bound to the abattoir just like conventional livestock.


Anonymous said...

I did think about watching that programme but I dunno it just seemed so barbaric with these rich idiots taking pot shots at big game.

Probably the 16 yr old anti-hunt sab is coming out of me...

Anonymous said...

I watched it, thought that it was like shooting fish in a barrel, I can't see what the attraction is over and above shooting on a range. I imagine "real" hunting is probaly more to do with the tracking and stalking of the quarry as well as a bit of camping than the actual kill, and could be enjoyable in this way and as a way of connecting with ancient human behavior. People on this kind of must hunt just like killing as that's all it is.

On the point about safe guarding species by the hunting market, this is only the case due to the pressures of a market economy that creates the reality of farmer needing to dirive income from either cattle or game. Under a planned ecomomy this simply would not be the case, people would produce the required ammounts of food and plan where wild species could be preserved rather than this being the choice of a few well off farmers.

Anonymous said...

Conservation is only possible in so far as it delivers the animals hunters want to shoot.

Since hunting has been a popular sport for millenia, it is not unreasonable to assume it will be popular for some time. Especially if they can manage to drive the costs down.

Neil - planned economies all had incredibly inefficient agriculture, which would certainly do nothing to reduce the land area we needed to devote to farming. So tough luck for any other species that wanted access to that land.

QT said...

I was having a quite similar argument the other day about horse racing; my point being that yes, horse races like the Grand National are dangerous for the horses - but if it wasn't for horse racing, they would never have been born.

Anonymous said...

@ ad - A properly run Planned economy would be far more efficent than any market based economy. Currently the game farms are completley unproductive as far as food production goes, all the effort and resources merely provide rich Americans with a couple of hours killing. So the market once again provides for the wants of the few over the needs of the many, hardly efficent by any objective measure. This is the great waste of market economies we all get busy satisfing the wants of the few rather than the needs of the many, that's why half the world is hungry.

Anonymous said...

@ ad, Also please consider that the planned economies you are thinking of (probaly USSR) started it's planned economy firstly in the teeth of war and secondly from a much lower technical base compared to the western developed countries. Proof of the success of the planned ecomomy was the vastly improvced rate increse in production following it's inception which took the country from a semi-feudal state to a super power in a few decades, despite isolation and reactionary actions by the western block.

Anonymous said...

ian - that argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny. You could say the same for any animal that is bred purely for its fur or its meat. If I had been bred solely to eventually be tortured or killed I would rather not have been born.

My mother uses a similar argument. She coos over the cute little lambs in the fields in front of her house, then says it's sad they're being taken away. Of course, I'll reply with something about where they are being taken to (the militant non-animal eater in me I suppose) and she'll say "but if we didn't eat them we wouldn't be able to look at them being all cute". That's as ridiculous a statement as the one about horses in the Grand National.

The link needs to be broken between cruelty and conservation. The conservation works highlighted by Theroux's programme are very worthy, but a blasé acceptance of them going hand in hand with cruelty follows. It isn't a black and white issue, of course, but conservation without cruelty (that should be a slogan or something :p) is possible, as hinted to by the acknowledgement of the national parks in the programme. There's no easy answer.

Unknown said...

The program is definately not an accurate reflection of what true 'hunting' in South Africa is. The program shows nothing more than what can be referred to as 'canned' hunting where customers are almost assured of killing the animal as they are either driven right up to the animal or are placed in a hide merely metres of a waterhole which obviously attracts the animals.

True hunting is vastly different and takes various forms; all of which are far more sporting as they offer a far smaller success rate of a) finding the correct animal and b)getting close enough to have an attempt.

This really does not accurately reflect hunting in SA and the so called Professional Hunters or PH's in the program are in fact a disgrace to all true hunters!