Dead in the water

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The Zambian government has its back against the wall as global pushback proves extremely effective in protecting the country’s hippos.

A hippo cull allowing international trophy hunters into Zambia’s world-famous Luangwa Valley to kill at least 1 250 animals over the course of five years has been cancelled for the fourth time. Despite local resistance and a harsh global backlash, the Zambian government has reapproved the cull annually from 2016 to 2018, only to see it fail each time. This year is no different.

Photo: Burkhard Ley

A recent update from the cull contract holder Mabwe Adventures Limited states that the Zambian government “have bowed to pressure and have therefore reversed the decision to cull hippos in the Luangwa Valley”. The decision has been hailed as a victory for local Zambians living in the Luangwa Valley. However, it may only be temporary, as Mabwe still intends for the Zambian government to uphold the contract, initially entered into with the now-defunct Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA).
Mabwe’s objective is to take high-paying international hunters, led by South African outfitters, on hunting excursions in the region’s biggest tourism drawcard – one of a few remaining hippo hotspots in Africa.

Suspicious tender

Zambia’s 2017 Parastatal Report highlighted an irregularity in the Mabwe contract, confirming that a sum of 81 108 kwacha (about R90 000 at the time of publishing) was paid to ZAWA by Mabwe. The report also instructed ZAWA, now the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), “to desist from wilfully disregarding Government procedures”. The inquiry came after Zambia’s Luangwa Safari Association (LSA) raised concerns, stating that local safari authorities were not even “aware of any public Tender Advertisement for culling of hippos”. The association argued it was suspicious that a South African outfitter would be awarded a contract to cull in the Luangwa region, when locals had no knowledge of a tendering process.

Despite the irregularities, Mabwe has been pushing to see the contract succeed. In 2018, the DNPW reapproved the hunt for 2019. According to tourism and arts ministry secretary, Howard Sikwela, they “had no powers to overrule the decision due to contractual obligations”. In its most recent communication announcing the 2019 cancellation, Mabwe owner Leon Joubert states, “[The Zambian Government] still holds our contract as valid, but as Mabwe, we cannot execute it fearing to be on our own, should legal suits be actioned against us.” Joubert says he considers the cancellation “a temporary setback, but not the end of the road”.

Violating its own laws?

While Mabwe suggests an ongoing battle to see the contract through, local Zambians are considering their own actions should the cull proceed.

This latest cancellation of the cull comes after the communities living in the Luangwa Valley voiced their disapproval in an official statement to the government. According to Isaac Banda, the national coordinator for the Zambian Community Resources Board Association (ZCRBA), the communities believe the cull “is in conflict with the spirit of co-management of wildlife with communities in these areas” and is a “full violation of the signed hunting concession agreement”.

“There could be negative consequences faced by the government for violating its own laws,” Banda says.
The ZCRBA statement, “on behalf of the Luangwa Valley communities at large”, indicated that the areas outlined for the cull ought to be governed equally by three parties, namely the government (the DNPW), local communities (represented by the ZCRBA), and safari hunting operators. The culling contract, however, gives exclusive hunting rights of the entire concession to safari hunting outfitters only. According to the ZCRBA report, “It is clear to the community that this cull is a thinly disguised money-making venture, dressed up as a wildlife management tool.”

Photo: Mohit Pise

Justifications fall short

Born Free president and co-founder, Will Travers, welcomes the decision to cancel the cull and says Zambia’s reasoning for approving it has always been flawed. “Originally, it was to prevent an outbreak of anthrax. Then it was because the water levels in the Luangwa River were low. Now it is because there is a perceived hippo over-population. None of these justifications stand up to scrutiny. Zambia’s own research shows that previous culls have served only to increase the population growth rate.”

A paper published in the International Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation in 2013 by Dr Chansa Chomba, who headed up the Department of Research, Planning, Information and Veterinary Services for ZAWA at the time, concluded that culls are ineffective in controlling hippo populations. The paper states, “The act of culling removes excess males and frees resources for the remaining females, leading to increased births rather than suppressing population growth rate.”

Zambia’s own tourism ministry shared a report on the 2018 count of hippo on the Luangwa River, showing a decline of about 800 animals.

Hippos are currently listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, with approximately 130 000 left in the wild. The Luangwa Valley communities say they hope the current ceasefire indicates the government’s consideration of their appeal to call off the cull once and for all. Repeated requests for comment from the Zambian Ministry of Tourism and Arts for an update on the matter have gone unanswered.

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Written by: Louzel Lombard Steyn

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