The Killing Game: In Praise Of Hunting


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Dec 18, 2015
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The killing game: In praise of hunting


South Africa’s alpha female hunter reflects on conservation as she retires from the wildlife industry.

A few years ago Adri Kitshoff-Botha was buying men’s clothes, but it’s not because there was a lack of womenswear to her taste. Kitshoff-Botha was sporting men’s wear because she hunts and, in South Africa, hunting apparel for women is rare, though that is changing.

“I used to buy men’s clothes for hunting, but now ladies can find suitable clothes,” she said with a chuckle.

Last month, Kitshoff-Botha retired after almost two decades in the hunting and wildlife industries. Along the way she broke a few glass ceilings. In 2010, she became the first female CEO of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (Phasa). In 2015, she left that role to become the CEO of Wildlife Ranching South Africa (WRSA).

Hunting has a decidedly male image and has been bound up in concepts of masculinity, for better or worse. In recent decades it has become a flashpoint of broader cultural conflict, the target of animal welfare activists offended on grounds of cruelty by the notion of hunting as a sport or legitimate outdoor activity.

Some activists are opposed to the “consumptive” use of wildlife for commercial purposes.

Recreational hunting in Africa seems especially emotive as it is home to the world’s last great populations of megafauna, which pulls on the heartstrings of affluent Westerners who don’t actually have to share living space with big, dangerous animals. Subsistence hunting is perhaps another matter, but also has its opponents.

For Kitshoff-Botha, her gender has meant much less than her message: that the hunting and private game farming industries are a force for good in conservation. In 2015, Bloomberg TV filmed her stalking and shooting a blesbok under a blue winter sky. The shot was a good one and the animal, struck in the neck, died instantly. The headline for the text story that accompanied the video, published in June that year, was: “South African Hunters Say Best Way to Save Animals is to Kill.”

The headline was clearly “clickbait”, perhaps appropriate for a hunting tale. Some airlines and governments had recently banned the transport of carcasses or trophies such as mounted animal heads, and the uproar over the hunting of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe would erupt just a few weeks later.

Many hunting groups are wary of the media. But Kitshoff-Botha sees no reason to hide, clad in camouflage, behind a blind. Taking her case to an international news service such as Bloomberg was a case in point. “Knowing how the conservation model in South Africa works, I know I have contributed to conservation,” she said at the time, as she stood over the blesbok carcass.

“There was a period when much more prominence, especially from the media, was devoted to the breeding side of wildlife ranching, which created a perception that breeding was the main focus of the wildlife industry, which isn’t correct,” Kitshoff-Botha told President Cyril Ramaphosa, who famously bid millions of rands for a buffalo bull.

The wildlife industry – at least the part that stems from game farms – has four subsectors: breeding and game sales, hunting, ecotourism/game viewing, and game products such as the kudu biltong you find in some shops. This is all business, but it is business in Kitshoff-Botha’s view that has had conservation spin-offs, such as the transition of marginal agricultural land into a wildlife habitat. Making wildlife economically valuable is a great incentive to conserve it. Some critics take issue with this “commercialisation”, or the fencing involved, but it has paid conservation dividends.

“The private ownership of wildlife, the role that it has played over the past few decades to prevent species from extinction has been absolutely crucial,” said Kitshoff-Botha. Examples of this “wildlife privatisation” include South Africa’s white rhino population, about half of which is now in private hands on privately owned game ranches.

“There is still an onslaught from people who do not understand the role that hunting plays in conservation,” she said.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns to contain it, the industry has been taking strain. In May, Daily Maverick reported the hunting industry was in serious trouble because three key sources of revenue – hunting, game viewing and live game sales – had been shut down under lockdown. Kitshoff-Botha has no new hard data on the issue but she said the industry was not out of the woods yet.

“More diversified operations will have a better chance of surviving this,” she said. Game sales were allowed after initially being banned under the hard lockdown, while game products such as meat carried on as these were regarded as part of the essential service agricultural sector. But Kitshoff-Botha said operations that mostly cater to hunters or game viewers could experience serious financial difficulty. A survey of wildlife ranchers earlier this year found that losses for 2020 in the industry were expected to top R9-billion.

Kitshoff-Botha may be retiring, but it seems more women are taking up hunting, even as the sport is in general decline. Much of the evidence for this is anecdotal, but surveys by the US Fish and Wildlife Service show that the percentage of hunters who are women in the US rose from 9% in 2006 to 10% in 2016.

This has relevance for South Africa, as many of the foreign hunters who come here are American. And in 2016, US hunters spent more than $26.2-billion on their activity. If 10% of that was spent by women, it helps to explain why female hunters no longer need to buy men’s clothing.

For Kitshoff-Botha, her gender has meant much less than her message: that the hunting and private game farming industries are a force for good in conservation.

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