It is doubtful that many people outside of conservation circles had heard of the Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe’s southern Lowveld until the UK’s Daily Mail – known for its sensationalist reporting – ran an article on January 3 headlined “Outrage at safari firm 'kill a lion' raffle prize: Oxford academics who tracked Cecil the lion are linked to group running 'sick' contest”.

The headline was wrong on several counts: the ‘outrage’ came from just two sources, animal rights group, LionAid, and a Conservative MP, David Jones, “who has lobbied against lion trophy imports”. Secondly, although Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, WildCRU, has a team conducting predator research at Bubye, this is a very tenuous ‘link’ to the raffle, which was independently organised by respected professional hunter, Martin Nel.

Nel had offered 100 raffle tickets at $1 500 each with the grand prize being an 18-day guided hunting or photographic safari at Bubye for two, to raise funds for research and anti-poaching measures. Part of the prize included either a lion hunt, or the option of having a lion collared and spared from being hunted. It was a generous offer, as just the trophy fee for a lion is $47 000.

Following the Daily Mail’s story, Nel cancelled the raffle, and says on his website that “I challenge everyone to look beyond sensationalist reporting and Facebook posts and discover the facts for themselves… There are not enough photographic tourists to pay for the conversion of hunting areas into non-consumptive wildlife operations.” He also makes it clear that any hunting will be strictly “fair chase” – carried out on foot – and that “you will be hunting aged male specimens only”.

I have stated it before – on an emotional level, I am not a fan of hunting. But on an intellectual and scientific level, I am fully supportive of fair chase hunting as a vital conservation tool – it is hunting that has seen more land than all of Africa’s national parks combined preserved for conservation.

Bubye Valley is a classic example. This massive, 344 000 hectare tract of wilderness was originally consolidated around 1900 as a cattle farm by Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company (Lemco), and it became the main supplier of canned bully beef to the Allies in World War II (the company’s founder, Baron Justus von Liebig, invented the Oxo cube in the mid-1800s).

When the devastating droughts of the late 1980s and early 1990s hammered southern Africa, the farm was put up for sale – by now there was virtually no game in sight: the lions were extinct, as were the elephant, the rhino and the buffalo.

Zimbabwean businessman, Charles Davy, father of the more famous Chelsy, put together a consortium of international investors who bought the land with the intention of turning it into a wildlife sanctuary, with income being generated from trophy and sport hunting, and the sale of venison.

Initially just 17 lions were reintroduced – today there are more than 500. Once the land was secured for conservation, elephants began moving in. Today there are around 700, and too many of them are young bulls, and need to be controlled to preserve the habitat. And Bubye, where all the rhinos had been wiped out, is now home to the third-biggest Black rhino population in Africa after a large number of rhinos in more vulnerable locations were translocated to the conservancy.

As Dr Byron du Preez, head of the Bubye WildCRU predator research team, says: “’Trophy hunting’ is a phrase that can divide opinions like none other. I’m not going to venture into the philosophies regarding the morals and ethics of hunting and hunters because there is simply no place for emotion in conservation and, as a scientist, I deal in facts. Whether you like it or not, hunting is a conservation tool like none other. That is a fact.”

Bubye spends over $300 000 a year on anti-poaching measures, all of it derived from trophy hunters. The $150 000 that would have been raised through sacrificing one lion through the lion raffle would have been used to save many, many more rhinos, elephants and lions.

Worth thinking about, isn’t it?

This column first appeared in Die Burger.