I was recently challenged by a respected wildlife conservationist on the ethics of hunting big cats over baits. He was actually comparing it to canned lion hunting and felt there was little difference between the two practices! I must confess I have never thought that there is any comparison between these two methods of hunting lion and leopard. I consider the hunting of these species using baits to be the “right” way to hunt them while shooting them “in a cage” to be completely immoral, unethical and wrong. However, the fact that I was asked this question by the conservationist in question - a pro-utilisation man - got me thinking about the issue and decided me on addressing the subject in this column. (For the sake of this discussion let us define ethical hunting as the morally correct way to hunt).
Leopard differ from lion in that they are more nocturnal of the two species. They are solitary animals and move around secretively and stealthily. They are relatively light animals spending some of their time up trees and do not leave obvious tracks. These facts make it impossible to deliberately set out to find and stalk a leopard as one would any of the antelope species for example. The exception to this is where leopard are hunted in flat desert conditions such as parts of Botswana. Here their tracks are easy to follow and this, coupled with the outlawing of baiting, has led to what I consider a rather distasteful and unethical method of hunting these cats. They are literally run down by trackers and all terrain vehicle combinations. Once they are exhausted or cornered the hunters shoot them often, allegedly, from their vehicles.
Bearing in mind the factors which make leopard impossible to hunt by stalking, (and assuming one agrees with the hunting predators - a whole new subject of its own) the method used to secure this trophy in Zimbabwe is that of baiting. For those who know little about it, this method of hunting requires skill, careful planning and a bush of that essential ingredient for hunting success - luck. Well-known veteran Professional Hunter, Lou Hallamore, has devoted a book to the subject of hunting leopard - most of which refers to the do's and don’ts of successful baiting!
When baiting a leopard, the hunter needs to select the right location to hang his bait in relation to both the proximity of a cat and the location of his blind. It is no good simply hanging a few baits in trees and hoping for a leopard - I have seen a hunter try this in the same area as we were hunting and all he succeeded in doing was wasting six impala carcasses. Our party hung three baits and had three cats feeding within four days. The position of the blind is critical as one has to be able to approach it without being seen or heard - not so easy when you consider this structure is situated not more than 50m from the bait. Leopard have very keen senses of sight and hearing and, should they suspect anything, will disappear without a sound. It is not easy to achieve the right combination of the factors mentioned so far to end up with one’s leopard on the bait and be in a position to take a shot.
Should anyone believe that there is no element of danger in this procedure, let me explain a few more of the details necessary for a successful hunt. Firstly, as leopard are predominantly nocturnal, the only chance of catching him on the bait are at first and last light. One therefore has to be in position either well before dawn or in the afternoon, before the cat arrives. The adrenaline starts pumping when you arrive at a point one or two kilometres from the bait at 4.30 in the morning and have to walk slowly and quietly through the bush in the dark avoiding such nasties as cow elephant herds! The same game is played in reverse in the evening when one leaves one’s blind after dark.
The question though must be asked - “Is this a fair way to hunt a leopard?” To be honest I am inclined to answer “Perhaps not, but it is the only way to hunt a leopard”. (I cannot agree with the use of dogs to hunt leopard unless, perhaps, it is to hunt a wounded cat, and neither do I agree with running a cat to ground in desert conditions). If the hunter is experienced in the hunting of these cats, has at least 14 days of hunting and is hunting in an area where there is a good population of cats his chance of success is high - say 75%. This would seem to indicate that the cat does not stand much of a chance but, if one were to compare these figures to those of say buffalo, impala, warthog, zebra or kudu, where a 100% success rate is easily achievable, perhaps hunting leopard by baiting can be justified as “fair chase”.
Turning to lion hunting, I agree that these cats can be successfully hunted by tracking in the drier months of the year, particularly if they can be followed from where they have been drinking or feeding. This is without doubt the most challenging and satisfying method of hunting these cats. However, when the conditions do not allow (and this is most of the time) the hunter must once again resort to baiting these cats and much of what I said about leopard applies.
Lion are much larger and MUCH more aggressive and intimidating than leopard. It only needs a few minutes sitting in a blind 50 metres away from a snarling, feeding pride to convince even the bravest of people of this fact! Furthermore, they often take exception to being observed from blinds and like to reverse roles with the hunters finding themselves becoming the hunted. This possibility adds to an over production of adrenaline when approaching one’s blind in the pre-dawn or when leaving it after dusk as well. One cannot compare this type of hunting of lion with the practise of “canned lion” hunting where, for starters, one is hunting a semi-habituated animal which has no opportunity for escape, and secondly, there is little or no element of danger and no hunting skill involved.
I would conclude that the hunting of cats on baits may sound to some like “shooting birds in a cage” but it is in fact, a form of hunting which requires skill, has more than a little element of danger involved and is not a one-sided affair. When compared to other methods of hunting cats, baiting is the more ethical and often, the only way to secure a trophy which is the bottom line. Unfortunately, without that US$ being earned, how else do we justify the continued allocation of land for wildlife production?
|About The Author: Charl Grobbelaar is the executive officer for the Zimbabwe hunters Association and a committee member of the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters & Guides Association (ZPHGA).
Editor's Comment - As the government ecologist responsible for hunting in Zimbabwe for a number of years, I went into the hunting of cats, particularly lion in some detail. Baiting is less likely to secure a trophy than tracking in suitable terrain. I, therefore concluded that baiting is an ethical method of hunting, and even more so in view of the number of hunters that are chewed up by leopards (in Zimbabwe, over 80% of PH’s injured or killed since 1980 have been taken by leopards - hunted over baits). Please bear in mind that ‘Baiting’ doesn’t equal ‘feeding station’. Baits are put up by the hunter at the start of the hunt and cut down at its conclusion. Animals are not fed regularly at a single site weeks, or months before the hunter arrives, and there is no conditioning of the animal to human presence. If you haven’t tried baiting as a form of hunting its difficult to appreciate the tension, thrill and ease with which you get nothing. At the magazine we invite comments from our readers, particularly the Botswana PH’s who usually hunt by tracking (and whose mauling rate seems to be even higher than Zimbabwe’s) or the South African PH’s who frequently use dogs.
~ D. Heath ~