Peak hunting season this year will be a quiet and economically devastating time if hunters continue to be prohibited from travelling between provinces. Wildlife Ranching South Africa (WRSA) says the pandemic has taken its toll on the game and hunting sector, and will impact a large number of the country's game farmers, threatening their livelihoods and causing permanent destruction to the industry. WRSA's impact assessment of Covid-19 on the industry produced some worrying figures, especially considering the sector's significant contribution to the economy. The report indicated an 86% decline in hunters and tourists visiting game farms and lodges in March...
Peak hunting season this year will be a quiet and economically devastating time if hunters continue to be prohibited from travelling between provinces.
Wildlife Ranching South Africa (WRSA) says the pandemic has taken its toll on the game and hunting sector, and will impact a large number of the country's game farmers, threatening their livelihoods and causing permanent destruction to the industry.
WRSA's impact assessment of Covid-19 on the industry produced some worrying figures, especially considering the sector's significant contribution to the economy.
The report indicated an 86% decline in hunters and tourists visiting game farms and lodges in March and April, a 52% drop in live game sales, and that 67% of permanent employees have been adversely affected by salary cuts, unpaid leave and retrenchments.
Cancellations from March to December are projected to cause game farmers an estimated R2.5 million in losses, with the WRSA's survey indicating a total loss of at least R1.5 billion until December. The decline in new bookings for the rest of the year will cost farmers an additional R1.2 billion.
The lack of live game trade, which brought in R3.5 billion in 2019 and 2020, will cost the sector a further R1.68 billion. And the estimated loss due to a lack of game meat sales is estimated to amount to a loss of R255 million – an average of R150,771 per respondent in the WRSA survey.
AgriSA commodity chamber head Jolanda Andrag said the tourism sector was "completely dead" in April.
On Tuesday, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (Deff) amended Level 3 lockdown regulations to clarify that travel is only permitted within a province, and that "any form of accommodation for hunting purposes is not permitted."
Andrag and Transvaal agricultural union (TLU SA) president Louis Meintjies said amendments were made without consulting the hunting sector. But Andrag confirmed that government reached out immediately, and a meeting has been scheduled with stakeholders for next week.
Before clarifications were gazetted, the hunting sector found itself in a grey area, where regulations such as interprovincial travel and accommodation was interpreted as not applying to the industry, explained Deff spokesperson Albi Modise.
Modise said the department is aware of the hunting industry's current challenges, but said no exceptions would take place.
"We understand that there is frustration on all levels in society, including hunters. Being worried about one's financial situation and having movement inhibited is difficult, but this is a learning curve. The pandemic is less than a year old," Modise said.
This, he said, was because all regulations function within a broader, countrywide context.
"You can't introduce regulations that contradict broader national regulations. We need to get the industry to understand that government is trying to control the flow of the pandemic.
"Regulations prohibiting interprovincial movement affect all of us, but it is for that purpose that we must make painful decisions that will be beneficial going forward to nip the pandemic in the bud."
When asked how the gap between hunting as a leisure activity and as a wildlife management tool can be bridged, tourism department director-general Victor Tharage told The Citizen that "wildlife management queries should be directed to relevant authorities. We are not responsible for that."
Image of a rifle scope sight used for aiming with a weapon. Picture: iStock
Andrag explained that hunting is more than a hobby, but an essential tool for wildlife management.
"Hunting is an integral part of managing the number of animals on a farm and the ecology in that area."
Herein lies a blindspot within the sector – the blurred line between shooting for fun, and managing wildlife, the latter of which is an essential service listed in the National Disaster Management Regulations.
Meintjies said the current drought is wreaking havoc in hunting regions such as the Northern Cape and Limpopo, with most farmers only able to recover now. This, in addition to managing biodiversity on game farms, means certain animals need to be culled to prevent overgrazing and overpopulation.
For Meintjies, it's a question of "hunting, or letting animals die."
Culling is permitted during lockdown, but farmers make a living from local and international hunters assisting in a farm's wildlife management by shooting a specific species.
"Farmers have said 'damn government, we're going to hunt'. They say they cannot afford to lose their income, and have become disloyal. Farmers are responsible people – we wear masks, keep our distances and do everything we can because we don't want to contract or spread the virus."
Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane reiterated in Thursday's media briefing that no inter-provincial leisure is permitted other than self-drive tours in game reserves and parks. The issue of hunting being an essential wildlife management tool was not acknowledged by the department.
Helping the needy
Game meat is often donated to poor communities, thanks to trophy hunting and culling activities, but game farmers' present difficulties have dealt vulnerable communities an additional blow.
"There is a difference between food security and food on the table. South Africa has food security, but many don't have food on the table, because they have no money to buy food," Meintjies said.
As a result, he said there has been an increase in crime on farms, especially illegal game hunting and snares.
"There are no rules for hungry people. And a revolt is building up in people about this. If a regulation makes sense, you can go with it. But if you can't, what motivation is there to follow the rules?"
59% of wildlife ranchers said they are bracing for high increases in environmental crime during lockdown.
Staff members on game farms who are employed part-time during the hunting season will have little to no income if no hunting takes place for the rest of the year. Around 31% of permanent employees have had their salaries reduced, and 17% of employees were made redundant in March and April.
Around 56% of the remaining permanent employees face pay cuts, unpaid leave or retrenchments by December, should hunting activities continue to be banned.
Kubayi-Ngubane explained on Thursday that freelance tour guides would benefit from R30 million set aside for financial relief.
9,380 tour guides applied for relief, and those who do not benefit from UIF payments will be assisted, she said, with the first batch of 1,378 payments having been made. The second batch of payments will take place after verification processes expected to be completed by Friday.
Wildlife and Environment Society (Wessa) northern areas region chair John Wesson said some regions have experienced marked increases in snare traps, notably in KwaZulu-Natal conservancies and on the west side of Magaliesberg.
Some of these increases are as a direct result of the effects of Covid-19, and take place for poor people to sell and/or consume the meat found in the trap.
Typically, smaller mammals, duikers, warthogs and birds are being caught in snares, as well as leopards.
Meintjies explained that bucks often caught in snares on game farms die cruel deaths.
The hunting sector risks widespread collapse if restrictions continue to inhibit travel and accommodation, which the WRSA warned will result in wildlife losing its value.
This would mean further economic losses, more unemployment, game farmers being put at risk due to an increase in illegal hunting for food, and will push the South African wildlife industry to the brink of collapse.
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