Killing for Conservation in a Big Game Reserve

Impala Touran Reddaway
Near the Limpopo River in Zimbabwe, small-scale impala hunting helps to fund anti-poaching patrols. Touran Reddaway

A confession: I am one of those cowardly meat eaters who prefer not to dwell on how my steak started life. I also hate the idea of hunting, although I can rationally accept that to shoot a wild animal for meat is, in fact, kinder than the common alternative of battery farm and abattoir. Nevertheless, there is something repugnant about the stereotypical hunting enthusiast; the red-faced American who takes profound pleasure in killing, who displays stuffed heads on his walls and bullishly defends his "right to hunt".

For an urban European like me, the hunting debate is purely theoretical until I find myself on a farm in Zimbabwe, where I feel morally obliged to confront the reality of my evening meals. I tag along with Digby Bristow, whose family has farmed near the Limpopo River, on the border with South Africa, for generations. In 1980, Bristow sold off the cattle and allowed the natural ecosystem to reassert itself. He now offers safari tours and a small amount of hunting which is, he says, essential to funding local conservation efforts.

We start in the cool of the early morning. Bristow, a cheerful, tanned, athletic man in his mid-fifties, calibrates his rifle and takes some practice shots before we head out in a battered old Land Rover with a couple of game scouts. Soon we are rattling at speed over the bush, swerving past thorn bushes and thundering across dried-out river beds, a hint of dew on the breeze.

The yellow, cloud-streaked horizon ahead is dotted with kopjes and mighty baobab trees, and the startling greenery of the jungle is visible in a valley below.

We are looking for impala, the beautiful, gazelle-like animals that roam the farm in huge numbers, around 8,000 of them over 32,000 hectares of stony scrubland and forest. Bristow hunts impala for meat, for his own family and his employees, and to sell to help finance the anti-poaching patrols that guard the land 24 hours a day.

We see plenty of other animals as we clatter over the landscape – a herd of zebra, a male ostrich and some loping giraffes – but only a few minutes into the drive, I spot a flash of white-flecked copper hide in the bush about 100m away. Instinctively, I point. Bristow switches off the engine and I am suddenly filled with regret – if this sighting ends in a kill, I will be responsible.

Then the absurd hypocrisy of this dawns on me. I am here with the sole purpose of observing an impala being shot, so what's the difference who spots the game, who pulls the trigger, who eats the meat, who participates as an observer?

For the next 10 minutes, Bristow moves slowly over the bush, training his gun on the herd ahead. When he trudges back to the car without having fired a shot, he has two words of explanation in his thick South African accent. "All female." A strict code of conduct emerges over the course of the hunt: Bristow never shoots from the car, or near watering holes. He always makes sure he has a clear shot of the heart for a clean kill, and will only shoot mature bucks to preserve the equilibrium of the herd.

This last rule proves time-consuming as the morning stretches on, the sun beats down and we spot only females and half-grown bucks. Then, eventually, a single adult buck materialises from out of the long grass, condemned by his statuesque horns, which are visible from 200m away.

He is just within range. As Bristow sets off I creep self-consciously behind him like an inept detective, painfully aware of every snapped twig. Suddenly, there is a deafening blast. The scouts run off, and I follow blindly.

When we reach the fallen animal, they set about dragging it back to the car. It's heavy and as they try to swing it into the back it hits the side, hooves clattering against metal. There is no way it can feel anything, but it is so recently alive that I wince for it. Bristow is irritated – "Come on men! Try again." There is an unspoken recognition that the dead animal should be treated with respect. The scouts swing again, and this time it lands in the car.

As we drive away, I crane my head around, transfixed by the beauty of the impala's hide and the awkward angle of its neck as it lies by the feet of the scouts. I force myself to take in this startling contradiction of vitality turned to carrion; it seems outrageous to be this close to such an elusive animal, to be able to touch it. The scouts watch me curiously – "She doesn't like hunting!" They are right.

Elephant Touran Reddaway
Each year, the National Parks release hunting quotas - which can be as low as 0.75% for rare animals like elephants - funds from which are ploughed into local conservation initiatives. Touran Reddaway

This was a meat hunt, at the more easily defensible end of the spectrum from trophy hunting, for which tourists pay huge sums to export their kill. Proponents say that it provides the money necessary for local conservation while making very little impact on the ecosystem. Every year the National Parks release quotas for each species; the average stands at 4.8%, while some – like elephant – are as low as 0.75%. The money from trophies – around €30,000 per lion, for example – is given directly to the local community in return for tolerating (read: not killing) wild animals that either prey on their livestock or compete with their cattle for grazing.

Opponents of trophy hunting say it has neither moral nor monetary justification, pointing to photographic safaris as more lucrative alternatives. They also argue that these safaris employ more of the local workforce and teach them valuable skills in tourism management, unlike the very specified skills of game scouts and professional hunters.

The problem is that ecotourism is often a contrived enterprise. In order to satisfy box-ticking tourists, parks require disproportionate numbers of animals such as elephants, which have no natural predators and ravage vegetation at the expense of others. As for rhino, which have been poached almost to extinction, Bristow says that although his land is ideal for them, the small army required for their sole protection is far beyond his budget.

Witnessing the effects of poaching is what finally convinces me that hunting might, counter-intuitively, have a legitimate role to play in conservation – at least in Zimbabwe. Animals on public or badly managed private land here are massacred by local villagers, so much so that the land neighbouring Bristow's is almost barren. It's not hard to see why – poached impala and other antelope are easy sources of food and money in a country regularly afflicted by droughts, where 80% of the population is unemployed and cattle are worth nearly €500 a head. Tens of thousands of animals are caught in snares by Zimbabwean poachers every year, suffering long, excruciating deaths.

I picked up many snares myself while walking through the bush, acutely conscious that each represented a dead animal. Bristow's fencing and patrols keep at least some poachers out, and the money from hunting trophies buys partial co-operation from local villagers – as one farmer put it to me: "Only when an animal becomes valuable is it protected."

When I think of killing an animal for pleasure, I feel sick, as many people do. But the wildlife I have seen here would probably not exist without the income from hunting tourism. It is a paradox I am still getting used to.