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User Icon     Posted on Feb 20, 2020     by Jim Hook     

African Conservation from the Air

It might seem strange to some, that a ‘Conservationist’ has written an article for Fayre Game Pursuits. It’s not though as there are many shared beliefs between a ‘conservationist’ and someone who hunts game for food. What is a ‘conservationist’ anyway? I’ve been given this label, so I thought I had better understand what it means.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, a ‘conservationist’ is someone who cares greatly about the conservation of the environment and who works to protect it. I imagine, and hope, that everybody in this great nation of ours would say that they are a ‘conservationist’, at least in spirit. I’m reasonably confident that the vast majority of people who subscribe to Fayre Game Pursuits believe in the preservation of the natural order of things and are against waste of life, of any life, including animals. To look at it another way, I am labelled as a ‘conservationist’ and I follow Fayre Game Pursuits. I enjoy reading about the art of hunting and the techniques employed by hunters to catch their quarry, followed by the methods of cooking said quarry. Hunting is a fascinating subject, as old as mankind itself. Practiced by every carnivore on earth, since the dawn of time, in fact. ‘Survival of the fittest’, after all, came down to being the best hunter. Then something went wrong. Supposedly, we became intelligent! We learned how to farm.

I was given the label ‘conservationist’ because of the work I do. Having served in the military as an Army helicopter pilot, I have transferred those skills and applied them to supporting aviation in anti-poaching, mostly in Africa. I suppose therefore, that does qualify me as a conservationist. I don’t feel like one. All I have done is apply a skillset I learned whilst serving and, in my opinion, put it to good use by helping those who use aviation to help protect endangered species. My company is called, SKYHUNTER. OK, I do have a view on conservation, especially this particular area of conservation, but I’m not going to get all Greta Thunberg on you because I don’t have the answers! I’m not sure anybody does.

I work in a sphere where we are preventing the native population from hunting their native animals. Ironically the indigenous population witnessed Europeans coming to Africa over the past 100 years and almost wipe out most of the species we now classify as ‘endangered’! I do not feel we are in a position to lecture but we are in a position to support and help. We come from, arguably, one of the most developed countries on earth. We have levels of science that are incomprehensible to many and with that knowledge comes responsibility. We, in my opinion, have the responsibility to help steer other less developed nations from making the same mistakes we made. However, it’s a tough ask getting these native communities to trust us.

I confess that I am emotionally invested in this. The first time I saw an elephant that had been killed, I cried. 26 years’ service in the British Army couldn’t stop my tears when looking at this magnificent animal lying dead in front of me. It had been hunted down on the savannahs of the Congo, chased most likely by South Sudanese poachers. They had used a bow and arrow to catch their quarry. Sounds very traditional, very tribal, and if you have images of tribesmen in loincloths stalking a majestic elephant, let me stop you there. They use a bow because they know we have ‘Listening Posts’ dotted around the area. The arrow is laced with a poison that merely paralyses the elephant. Soon after the arrow had been embedded in its rear left hindquarters the elephant had collapsed, no longer able to coordinate its legs, its breathing erratic, its eyesight blurred. Despite this, the elephant would have seen the four or five poachers encircle and close in on him. They would have prodded the huge beast to make sure the poison had worked properly. Then the Elephant would have watched as the men started their petrol driven chain saw and closed in on his head. You can fill in the rest. Suffice to say the elephant, still able to feel but not able to do anything about it, would have died from shock and blood loss. When we arrived, the Tusks were gone, as were the poachers.

A few years later, in the Serengeti this time, I witnessed a small rhino calf being looked after by a conservationist. This little, but incredibly solid and powerful, baby could not bear to be left alone. 24 hours a day, someone had to be close by to comfort it. At night, someone had to sleep next to the baby rhino, his arm carefully placed through the metal bars, designed to protect this unarguably dedicated volunteer, in case the baby has more nightmares and lashes out. That ‘little’ rhino needed that comfort, that reassurance that it is safe and not alone. It had witnessed the chain saw massacre of its mother. I spoke with one of the worlds experts in this field and she told me that the calf has PTSD and all that goes with it. When it is fully grown, a black rhino with PTSD will be a very dangerous animal indeed.

Then there are the snares, normally made from wire, to snag a passing antelope perhaps, but I also saw them in the rain forests of the Congo set purely to catch gorillas. Horrible devices that can only cause agony to whatever they snare.

Apart from the horrific way in which some of the worlds most endangered species are being killed, just looking at the sheer numbers tells you that we can’t let this keep happening. A Born Free Foundation statistic states that on average 55 elephants are illegally killed in Africa every day. That’s roughly one every 26 mins. Sadly, they don’t produce young at a rate of one every 26 mins. Nobody really knows the real knock on effects of there being no wild elephants in Africa. I’m reminded of the case in Yellowstone Park where they reintroduced wolves and the eco system flourished in ways we didn’t realise it would. The reverse will surely be true when all the elephants are gone.

So, we are fighting a losing battle. At best, we are delaying the inevitable. The ‘human / wildlife’ conflict needs to be carefully managed and the local people educated. This, whilst other pressing issues like sanitation, medical facilities, implementing an education system, the threat of disease such as Ebola is ever present, all battle for media attention whilst we conservationist continue to shout “don’t kill the animals that have just destroyed your crops”. Meanwhile, orders from the Far East for ivory from horns and tusks keep coming. The promise of 6 months income for a farmer for a pair of tusks is what the conservationist is fighting against.

To have the luxury of a buoyant herd of animals that require culling for the good and benefit of the herd is but a dream. When poachers seek a tusk, they don’t study the herd and look for the old male that isn’t going to survive the next dry season. Rather, they kill the one they think they can get away with. What they don’t realise is that it may well be the matriarch of a herd in a herd that could be several years away from producing a viable successor. The loss of a matriarch could mean the loss of the herd.

Some people may think that ‘conservationists’ are found hugging trees and refusing to walk on grass for fear of treading on some innocent insect. Some people may think that hunters are merciless killers, hell bent on killing and getting a kick from the power they feel when they do kill. No doubt there are those types of people out there, but they are the tiny minority. We have to see past the popularity the minority enjoys in the media these days, (for whatever subject it would appear), and understand the real issues. Only in this way can we have the types of conversations needed to find real solutions. If we don’t, our claim to fame will be that we can remember when elephants, rhinos, lions and tigers roamed the wild.

Barry Jones, Skyhunter

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