Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Huntin' and shootin' still taking their toll
The pioneer television naturalist Armand Denis (older readers will remember On Safari with Armand and Michaela Denis) recounted in his autobiography (called, of course, On Safari) his visit to the palace of some Eastern prince in the late '40s. The palace walls were decorated with numerous heads of some exotic antelope that even then was so rare as to be classified "endangered". When Denis pointed out the imminent danger of extinction if this beautiful animal continued to be hunted, the potentate gave a sly smile and said, "But I think there will be enough to last my lifetime". I have never had much empathy with the macho hunter who gets a sense of fulfilment or adventure out of using modern technology, usually in the form of a high-powered rifle, to kill at long range an animal that was not trying to harm him. Fortunately, the era of the "big game hunter" has passed in most parts of the world. But so, unfortunately, has the big game they used to hunt. When Canadian scientist and author Farley Mowatt went to the Soviet Union to try to get support for some type of conservation effort for wolves in the USSR, he did not expect the decision that was ultimately made there. To his astonishment, the Soviet authorities banned all hunting of wolves, making them a totally protected species for the first time anywhere in the world. This was doubly surprising given the high level of support for hunting in the Soviet Union prior to the decision. Even game wardens in nature reserves saw their job as mainly shooting undesirable animals. But banning hunting does not of itself secure a safe future for a species. As long as there is profit to be made from them animals will be at risk. Banning the sale of ivory may stop elephants being killed for their tusks, but they are still killed by poachers who cut off their feet for sale as waste-paper bins. Gorillas are killed by poachers who cut off the gorillas' hands to sell to tourists as souvenir ash trays. And rhinoceroses have been hunted almost to extinction because there's money to be made selling powdered rhino horn in Asia as an aphrodisiac. I used to think that only very backward people could think that such a product could give them an erection resembling a rhino's horn, but these days my e-mail is littered with spam messages offering an enormous range of products all of which seem to be promising that they will give the user a penis the size of a blue whale's. Meanwhile, back in Africa, the poachers continue to kill wildlife because no other work offers anything like the kind of money they can get from this trade. In the middle of last month, the European Union threatened to suspend trade in grizzly bear hunting trophies (you know, claws, teeth, skins, mounted heads, whole stuffed bears standing erect). The threat would be put into effect unless the Canadian province of British Columbia demonstrated "credible evidence of progress" in grizzly protection, including the creation of up to 14 reserves where hunting is forbidden, by December 1 this year. It sounds good, and it is certainly an encouraging step. But hundreds of grizzlies are killed by hunters every year in British Columbia, bear stocks are dwindling everywhere, and the giant bears' forest habitat is being cleared and destroyed all the time. Around 40 percent of the bears shot in BC are killed by foreign hunters who pay handsomely for the privilege of knocking off such a magnificent beast. These well-to-do "thrill seekers" come mostly from the EU and the US. Environmentalists already maintain that continued hunting will lead to the bears' numbers falling below a sustainable level. Fourteen relatively small reserves are a sop, not a solution. Meanwhile, in Britain, Labour MPs have voted for a complete ban on fox- hunting in England and Wales. Labour leader Tony Blair, like the good Tory he really is, opposed the measure but his Party colleagues thought it was time to dump this ruling class privilege. As the New Worker put it "the root of the matter is ending a 'sport' which should have been banned years ago. "Working class 'blood sports like cock-fighting, bear-baiting and dog- fights were all banned in the nineteenth century because of the cruelty to the animals involved and the gambling which accompanied it. "Chasing a fox across the countryside and tearing it to bits by a pack of hounds was exempted because this was a sport of the country gentry and the rich and therefore okay." The huntin' and shootin' set argued as they always have that abolition of fox hunting would lead to destitution in rural areas. New Worker quite rightly characterised this as "plain nonsense" but pointed out that even if it were true a bit of government money pumped into "popular sports like horse racing and show-jumping" would more than offset any ill effects.