Africa’s Charismatic Megafauna

In South Africa, the saying goes, 'wildlife must pay its way'. It's not enough to be endangered you have to generate revenue to be conserved.
Elephants at an artificial watering hole in Addo Elephant Park. The Park is more than one and half thousand square kilometers and supports an elephant population in excess of 600 animals.

Conservation efforts in South Africa are an incredibly complicated affair. So it’s refreshing when an article on ‘Lessons in Park Management in South Africa‘ starts one chapter with the uncontroversial declaration that ‘people like big furry things with teeth’. That simple statement underpins so much of the decision making that occurs around wildlife conservation all over the world. For activists and ecologists the name given to creatures that fit this description is ‘charismatic megafauna’.  In South Africa that term generally refers to the ‘Big Five’; the African lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhinoceros (actually two species, white and black rhinos).  These are the creatures that draw photographers and hunters and crowds of tourists from around the world.  If you happen to be one of the less conspicuous species your only chance of survival is to share habitat with the Big Five and, even then, two of them are probably trying to eat you.

In Australia we tend to think of wilderness areas in terms of sprawling National Parks covering entire geographic regions and overlapping state borders.  Australia has 280 thousand square kilometers of National Parks – more than the entire landmass of New Zealand.  But South Africa is much more densely populated and, apart from the vast Kruger National Park, its wildlife reserves tend to be much smaller, more isolated areas.  From that same essay on Park Management:

In contrast [to the US], protected areas in South Africa have no such policies or paradigms requiring a wildlife population to be self perpetuating. Many of the protected areas in South Africa contain predator and prey populations that number fewer than 50 individuals, and in some cases, fewer than 10 individuals……The downside to conserving small-but-important populations in closed systems (e.g., a fenced park) is that managers must replenish populations when they are extirpated, manipulate animals to preserve genetic fitness, maintain desired sex and age ratios, manage for disease, and intervene for other needs

It’s all very hands-on and the net effect is that South Africa’s game reserves operate much more like large, open-range zoos than the sprawling wilderness areas in Australia and the US.  One of the drawbacks of this micro-management of animals is that certain species fail to acquire crucial survival instincts or simply don’t have the necessary range or terrain to escape predators.

Just outside Pilanesberg I spoke to a someone that ran a breeding program for Africa’s grazers.  He told me that some of the smaller reserves needed a steady supply of prey species like gemsbock and impala because tourists demanded lions even though some reserves were not large enough to support a pride.  Lions, he told me, hunt even when they don’t need to eat.  So some parks simply let their herbivores be hunted down and then re-stock with fresh animals.

A photographer at Addo Elephant Park on the Eastern Cape told me a similar story.  He was invited along in 2003 when lions were brought from the open ranges of the Kalagadi Transfrontier Park and introduced to the enclosed elephant reserve at Addo.  He showed me a somewhat unusual photo; a lioness, drowsy and dehydrated from being tranquilised, crouched at a waterhole to drink while a zebra watches only a few meters away.

A report from the ecological society of America explains that the 2003 Addo lion translocation:

…provides a powerful experiment to test the responses of prey species to large predators. . .Laundre et al. (2001) suggest that behavioural changes are required by prey species to adapt to new ‘‘landscapes of fear’’ following predator reintroductions

According to the photographer, for the zebra and impala, the process of adapting to that new landscape was slow, costly and gory.

The demand for Africa’s Big Five has also prompted some park owners to introduce species to areas well outside their natural range and even bring in exotic species such as the scimitar-horned oryx (more or less extinct in the wild but historically found only in north Africa), Barbary sheep (also only found in the wild in North Africa) and the Mouflon (eastern Europe and the Middle East). Visitors to the parks you generally receive an identification flyer listing the various species and sub-species within the park. The larger the list the more easily the park or game reserve can market itself to potential tourists or hunters.

The value of trophy hunting to tourism and conservation efforts in Africa is fiercely debated. The hunting industry claims sales of permits and hunting safaris are a crucial source of revenue for rural communities. Hunters, mainly from the US and Europe, pay up to $20,000 US for a Lion, $12,000 for Water Buffalo, $40,000 for an elephant and $4,000 for a giraffe. In South Africa alone the industry was worth more than $1 billion RAND in 2014 (105 million AUD) but this a fraction of the overall tourist revenue which exceeds $100 billion RAND and there’s little evidence to indicate that the massive fees charged by hunting operators (up 70,000 dollars for a safari hunt) trickle down to the communities where the hunts take place.

What is clear however is that hunting provides a powerful incentive for land owners to ‘re-wild’ areas that would otherwise be cleared for agriculture or commercial grazing. If the real threat to Africa’s biodiversity is habitat-loss then the proliferation of private game reserves has been instrumental in bringing many species back from the brink of extinction.

In an article originally published in Africa Geographic John Hanks lays out the arguments in favour of trophy hunting including some compelling statistics;

50 years ago South Africa had no hunting industry at all; there were no wildlife populations to support one. Trophy hunting now takes place over a large area of the country where cattle ranching has given way to the farming of wildlife species that previously occupied the land. That it can do so is a tribute to the public conservation agencies and landowners who built up wildlife populations on private land from an estimated 575 000 in 1966 to at least 18.6 million by 2007

It’s a familiar argument to anyone who has spoken to the owners of the game reserves. One particular scene from a documentary on trophy hunting by Louis Theroux illustrates just how fraught the debate is amongst those involved.


Opponents argue that the benefits of hunting can be just as easily accrued by the more conventional unarmed safaris. But that idea is more hopeful than certain. Wilderness Safaris, one of South Africa’s most high-profile tourism operators, has a position statement on trophy hunting that admits that ecotourism has its limitations.

‘The reality is that ecotourism on its own cannot ensure the conservation of Africa as a whole. There are areas that cannot support high-end, mid-range or even low-end photographic ecotourism. It is in these areas especially that hunting (conducted ethically, responsibly and sustainably) has a role to play. This has been true even in stable developed tourism industries like South Africa’s, and is certainly true in less mainstream destinations like the Central African Republic or Burkina Faso.

Trophy hunting, however, is only one of two grim sources of potential revenue. Closely connected is the question of what to do with the vast reserve of ivory that the South African government has accumulated over the years- some of it confiscated from poachers but the majority collected as a by-product of culls and natural deaths of elephants in parks and game reserves. The size of South Africa’s full stockpile is unknown but in a one-off legal ivory sale in 2008 South Africa contributed roughly 60 tons of ivory. The sale was designed to bring in revenue to fund anti-poaching and conservation measures but studies indicated that it contributed instead to a surge in demand and the abrupt increase in poaching which is still taking place today.

The ivory trade was halted officially in 1990 but the continuing demand (mainly from China and SE Asia) has fed a black market worth tens of millions of dollars each year. South Africa’s growing stockpile puts the government in an impossible position. Many experts claim that destroying ivory (as other African nations have done) will create a perception of scarcity and drive the price on the black market higher. On the other hand a legal trade in ivory (even if the revenue directly funded conservation efforts) would undermine years of efforts by environmental groups to outlaw the practice- potentially reversing one of the few successful international agreements. A legal trade would also provide a market for poachers to camouflage the sale of illegally-obtained ivory.

Caught between economists predicting completely opposite results from the same course of action South Africa has remained paralysed while the elephant population has dropped steadily year on year amidst widespread poaching. And so the ivory problem continues to grow – awaiting a more desperate economic circumstance or a more decisive attempt to halt the trade.

Recently the government of Swaziland broke ranks with its neighbors and pushed for the legalisation of the ivory trade. In a document submitted to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) the authors compare the African ivory ban to Prohibition in the US and insist that efforts to discourage demand are rooted in racism.

Swaziland would question another contentious point about “demand reduction”. Who are we to tell those who believe in Eastern traditional medicine that it doesn’t work? It is common cause that what works in the mind also works in body and soul – religion is a good example of this. You will never persuade Africans who believe in African traditional medicines that they do not work for them. Nor Asians that Eastern traditional medicines do not work for those who believe in them. It is the height of arrogance to equate rhino horn to fingernails and disparagingly label what Westerners do not understand, as fictitious.

Others would argue that the height of arrogance is assuming that certain groups of people are incapable of changing their cultural practices. For the sake of Africa’s charismatic mega-fauna we have to trust that education and awareness will eventually succeed in reducing demand.

Thankfully the CITES hearing ignored the petition by Swaziland and renewed their commitment to shutting down the illegal ivory trade. Ginette Hemley, writing on behalf of the WWF delegation, issued a statement commending the Chinese government in particular;

“…China’s support for the decision here at CITES on the need to close domestic markets demonstrates major progress. It has already committed to phasing out its large domestic market and clearly believes others should follow suit. To affirm its leadership on this issue, China must now put in place a firm timeline to close its domestic market as soon as possible. This would send an even more unmistakable signal to the world’s other major markets. . .Today’s decision gives countries a clear mandate – shutter domestic ivory markets and fully join the fight to save the world’s elephants.”


George Wright Forum – Lessons from Park Management in South Africa
National Geographic – South Africa an outlier on ivory policy
CITES submission – Rationale for Swaziland’s proposal to CITES to legalize trade in its Rhino horn
Africa Geographic Magazine – Hunting – a Great Debate
Griffith University – Compromising South Africa’s natural biodiversity – inappropriate herbivore introductions
Griffith University – Spatial and temporal changes in group dynamics and range use enable antipredator responses in African buffalo













Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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