The world’s wealthiest hunting organisation, Safari Club International (SCI), and  professional hunting groups, met with the South African Department of the Environment (DEA) and representatives of other African nations behind closed doors last week to discuss policies for managing wildlife.

According to a media statement from the DEA, the 14th African Wildlife Consultative Forum, which was held in Limpopo from November 9-12, is an annual SCI-sponsored initiative that “provides an important platform for African countries to enhance existing co-operation between governments, including hunting industries of participating countries”. The statement continues: “The AWCF is further a platform for sharing experiences in wildlife management, and hunting in particular, and will include preparations for the upcoming CITES CoP 17 meeting in South Africa next year.”

In other words, the meeting is about the SCI persuading African governments, individually and through CITES to adopt policies incorporating the conservation ‘benefits’ of trophy hunting.

SCI already heavily influences government policies to a number of African nations.

In 2013, Zambia issued a ban on hunting lions and leopards because of declining populations due to over-harvesting by trophy hunters. Zambian Tourism and Arts Minister, Jean Kapata at the time said that “big cat numbers were too low to have a sustainable hunting industry”.

However, after intense pressure from the SCI, Zambia reversed the ban. Zambia’s Green Party president Peter Sinkamba told The Times of Zambia: “Much as we are aware that the PF [Patriotic Front] government is facing serious budget deficit challenges, it is extremely outrageous to resort to unleashing safari hunters on to limited populations of big cat species, regardless of the fact that safari hunting is allegedly most profitable.”

A similar scenario occurred in Namibia. In 2010 the country issued a hunting moratorium on big cats and placed the hunting industry under review.

It was reported that in some areas whole populations of leopard and cheetah were being wiped out. Hunting operators were running leopard and cheetah hunts with dogs, as well as canned hunts – in some cases canned hunts with dogs.

But the moratorium only remained in place for one hunting season. In 2011 Namibia, in partnership with SCI, launched a census “to manage the sustainability of the leopard population”.  A questionnaire was distributed to 1 500 farmers to assess the distribution and relative abundance of leopards throughout Namibia. There were only 400 replies. These, however, were extrapolated which produced a flawed national estimate of leopards of over 14 000.

Namibia has a CITES trophy hunted export quota of 250 leopards per year, a questionable figure, according to experts of the International Union of Conservation of Nature, because it is based on “insufficient ecological information and lack of scientific data”.

Unsurprisingly, the pro-hunting census-takers recommended that the quota “remain at the current level”. 

The US will not allow imports of trophies of cheetahs as it has deemed that cheetah hunting is not conducive to the conservation of the species. Namibia, together with SCI, has repeatedly petitioned the US to lift the ban but the country has declined each request.

It is little wonder then that journalists and conservationists, who were not invited to the forum in Polokwane, are concerned that South Africa will succumb to the cash-waving advocates of trophy hunting, despite the DEA insisting that “claims of excessive interference by American hunters in South African government policy are not true”.

Ban Animal Trading South Africa (a registered NPO fighting for the rights of animals) demanded that the minutes be made public, something the DEA has since done but the link is simply a summary of the proceedings and lacks any meaningful detail.

Ian Michler, who produced the film Blood Lions, has stated: “Given the non-transparent nature of the conference, it’s hard not to infer a conspiracy between hunters and governments in proposals that will be presented to CITES in the public’s name.”

It is expected that CITES will deliberate on issues such as ivory and rhino horn trade and the revision of trophy hunted export quotas at the next Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg in 2016.

Karen Trendler of the NGO, Working Wild, says: “It is of grave concern that issues of this nature and importance are discussed at closed meetings with what appears to be predominantly pro-hunting representation.”

The commonly held mantra that trophy hunting benefits conservation has come under fire recently, especially following the death of Cecil the lion.

Many leading wildlife experts, like National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Dereck Joubert, and Kenya’s conservation doyen, Richard Leakey, agree that trophy hunting is not good for conservation because it fuels corruption at the highest government levels, causes the loss of healthy animals that are still key for reproduction and social cohesion but, most importantly, contributes to the decline of Africa’s wildlife populations already in a free-fall from rampant poaching.

It’s time politicians and legislators realise it too.