By Jared Kukura, Wild Things Initiative, 27 October 2020 (Article given in Conservation Action Trust). Also see “How American hunting organizations conduct information warfare on social media,” Jared Kukura, Wild Things Initiative, 29 June 2020
In 1996, Safari Club International and their African Chapter held a series of visits and meetings around the African continent. The result was a report called the SCI African Chapter Strategic Plan for Africa. It detailed “possible interventions” that would allow the organization to “promote trophy hunting as a tool for conservation, wildlife management, economic and rural development.”
The timing of the strategic plan was coming at a time when foreign aid was beginning to dwindle for African countries, and SCI was aware that the continent was ripe for exploitation.
The strategic plan innocuously states, “It is time for Africa to be developed by Africans and it is time for conservation in Africa to take on an African flavor.” There are also many references to supporting programs like CBNRM and CAMPFIRE that are supposed to give rural African communities ownership of conservation policies.
But do not be fooled by this rhetoric. The strategic plan very quickly makes it clear that SCI should be aiming to protect and expand wealthy foreigners’ control over Africa’s hunting grounds.
For instance, the strategic plan raises concerns about the indigenization of Zimbabwe’s hunting industry, stating “that if not properly implemented indigenization will eliminate the old-line hunting families and the traditional knowledge necessary to assure a quality hunting experience by overseas sport hunters and management of concessions.”
The strategic plan also casts blame on indigenous Africans for the decreasing financial viability of trophy hunting in Tanzania, adding “one of the biggest problems are smaller indigenous companies who have inside connections to people in power.”
Citizen hunters were also seen as a threat to be controlled in order to protect wildlife for SCI members. The strategic plan listed “uncontrolled citizen hunting” as one of the major reasons for wildlife population declines in Botswana.
Worse yet, the strategic plan recommended that Botswana’s citizen hunters be banned from hunting trophy animals. “Neither the Citizen Hunting Quota in the WMA’s nor the Citizen Controlled Hunting Licenses specify if their quota is for a trophy or non-trophy animal. If the trophy quota is entirely in the non-resident quota (overseas trophy hunters), then in order to conserve the economics and thus trophy quality, BWMA might ask the DWNP to specify that Citizen hunting licenses are for non-trophy animals!”
It is quite apparent there is little regard for the rights of indigenous Africans and rather a concern for wealthy white foreigners and expatriates losing control over their perceived right to own and hunt African wildlife.
The strategic plan emphasized the need to work closely with Africa Resources Trust, describing them as “an ally of the hunter/conservationist and local communities.” Africa Resources Trust is also known by another name, Resource Africa. Resource Africa popped up out of relative obscurity earlier this year, pushing trophy hunting as a community development tool.
Also identified was a “need to consider hiring a Fifth Avenue Public Relations (PR) firm to give trophy hunting linked to community based conservation and development an image to the world.” A portion of the marketing recommendations suggested by the strategic plan included sponsoring rural African community members to spread the trophy hunting industry’s message.
“Sponsor them, rent a booth, take a series of photographs depicting how communities are involved in and receiving benefits from these areas. This will provide these spokesmen an opportunity to represent not only their peoples’ concerns, but to lobby for supporting the concept, “sustainable use of wildlife,” especially low offtake high economic return trophy hunting, for what it is meant to be – a tool for management, economic and rural development in Africa.”
This strategy was also meant to “help diffuse the focus of the animal rights movement in trying to discredit CAMPFIRE.”
Two and a half decades later, we know that SCI took their strategic marketing plan beyond simply sponsoring rural community members. SCI funded disinformation on social media as part of an astroturfing campaign aimed at building support for their claim that trophy hunting can be a community development tool. Unsurprisingly, Let Africa Live, the Facebook page dedicated to deceiving social media users about trophy hunting and wildlife trade, promoted content published by Resource Africa.
Why did SCI have to resort to such deceptive marketing tactics? It seems the support for trophy hunting and the community-based programs it underpins may have been overstated and often manufactured by the likes of SCI.
SCI was not just fighting a propaganda war against Western animal rights groups. They were fighting a battle on the ground amongst rural African communities, as acknowledged in their 1996 strategic plan. Tanzania’s wildlife was declining and there was “a developing antihunting bias among grass roots people.”
Additionally, the strategic plan stated that “the anti-hunting movement in Tanzania is mainly a grass-roots movement. Because people see no benefits from hunting or wildlife, they see hunters as people who are shooting out the game with no benefits to them. The Parliamentarian from Maasailand has openly stated that he will request that all hunting in his jurisdiction be closed. The message is out that “trophy hunting is destructive.””
Also noted was the presence of a “growing anti-hunting movement in Botswana” and that it is “of great concern that the Chief, who oversees one of the major hunting areas in Botswana, the Okavango Delta, is antihunting.”
These concerns about rural communities not supporting trophy hunting have also been recorded in the decades following the implementation of CBNRM and CAMPFIRE.
A 2002 report found that many community members felt disenfranchised by these programs because they were largely controlled by foreigners and white expatriates. Criticism from community members covered many aspects including how trophy hunting was removing black Africans from traditional hunting grounds in favor of white foreigners and that it was viewed as a newer version of colonialism.
In 2009, one of the lead authors of the 1996 SCI strategic plan, Andre DeGeorges, published a report on the realities of community based programs supported by trophy hunting in Africa. Even DeGeorges was forced to admit the failures of CBNRM and CAMPFIRE in developing rural African communities (and trophy hunting’s lack of benefits).
Noting that only a small portion of the trophy hunting industry’s money reaches communities, DeGeorges stated that “nowhere in CAMPFIRE has wildlife come to represent a viable mechanism for household accumulation.” As well, black Africans were forced to abide by regulations created by comparatively wealthy government officials and safari operators and were largely disenfranchised throughout various levels in the hunting industry.
DeGeorges cites a presentation by South Africa’s rural black communities to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, “…this industry is an ‘old boys club’ of white men who keep the clients and their networks to themselves for financial gain. The standards and requirements set for one to become a professional hunter, which you need before being registered as an outfitter, or before you can become the director of a hunting academy, are stacked against black individuals.”
This type of criticism has not disappeared. CBNRM is still scrutinized today, with research indicating that while some communities may receive economic benefits, there are major concerns with equality and power dynamics.
Other than making it clear that there was a growing antihunting movement in rural African communities, SCI’s strategic plan also described how trophy hunting was causing declines of wildlife populations in Tanzania.
“Everyone interviewed expressed concern that huntable lion are experiencing a major decline in numbers.” There were three causes listed, with the first being “excessive quotas from subdivisions of hunting blocks.”
A decade and a half later, Craig Packer’s research showed that trophy hunting was indeed a major contributor to lion declines in Tanzania. Packer did not disclose anything that SCI was not already aware of or even disagreed with, but he did go public. And that was a problem for SCI.
Despite having more than thirty years’ experience studying lions in Tanzania, Packer was forced out of the country for bringing attention to the industry’s failures. SCI capitalized on the scientific vacuum by funding their own research via the Tanzania Lion Project.
In what is surely only a startling coincidence, Amy Dickman, another lion researcher based in Tanzania, then became a prominent scientific voice against trophy hunting bans and was arguably the most featured person in SCI’s disinformation campaigns on the Let Africa Live Facebook page before it was shut down (Dickman was featured five times in the last five weeks of operation, more than anyone else).
SCI was clearly aware of the distressing signs coming from Tanzania’s trophy hunting industry. The strategic plan noted that “the feeling by all people interviewed is that current government quotas are not sustainable in many of the hunting areas.”
When discussing unsustainable trophy hunting in Maasailand, there was concern about how much hunting quotas were increasing, “There was no scientific basis for this level of increase in quotas. It appears to have been a(n) economically based decision that may not be sustainable according to the safari industry present at the SCI African Chapter meeting. Everyone agrees that some increase was acceptable but not to the extremes such as noted above.”
As well, “this decision is believed to be having a major negative impact on trophy quality, and in combination with other factors (e.g., human encroachment, poaching) potentially on the viability of game populations over much of Tanzania ‘s hunting areas.”
Before giving SCI credit for realizing how economically driven decisions surrounding hunting quotas can have negative biological consequences on wildlife populations, please note the strategic plan also stated that “quotas for trophy hunting have to do with maintaining the economic viability of a population, and have no impact on the biological viability of a wildlife population.”
Additionally, the strategic plan noted, “Well before the biological viability of a population is reached as a result of trophy hunting, trophy quality will be down and hunters will stop coming until suitable time has allowed for trophy quality to return. This becomes an economic decision determined by market forces, not a biological decision.”
On one hand, SCI knew that unsustainable trophy hunting occurred in Tanzania due to economically driven hunting quotas. But on the other hand, SCI also recommended economically driven hunting quotas saying it would have no negative biological consequence. It is understandable if you are confused.
As previously mentioned, SCI was conscious of the growing grassroots opposition to trophy hunting in Tanzania. But also noted was that “in general the grass roots, living among wildlife, receive no direct benefits from hunting unless a particular safari operation uses its own money for development.”
Furthermore, “Meat from trophy hunted game, in theory, should also be provided to rural communities. In reality, most of it is used to feed camp staff, or as lion/leopard bait.”
There you have it. Those quotes were not taken from Western animal rights groups and were not pieces of antihunting propaganda or misinformation. Those quotes were taken directly from SCI’s strategic plan for Africa.
SCI has known for decades that trophy hunting was decimating wildlife populations and disenfranchising rural African communities. And what have they done with that knowledge? Silenced critics, suppressed opposing research, funded studies with the explicit purpose of preventing restrictions on trophy hunting and wildlife trade, and funded disinformation and astroturfing campaigns to appear like they have grassroots support from rural African communities.
If those actions sound like what Big Tobacco and Big Oil have been doing for decades, that is because they all use the same playbook. Groups like the Heartland Institute, Cato Institute, and Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) worked with the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to deceive the public and they just so happen to promote trophy hunting and commercial wildlife trade.
It is no coincidence that SCI is intertwined at all levels with the fossil fuel industry, including sharing funding sources and marketing firms. Their actions are not unprecedented but perfectly predictable.
“Is promoting trophy hunting and wildlife trade a form of denial?,” Wild Things Initiative, 9 December 2021
“Did wildlife conservation fall victim to an anti-science countermovement?,” Wild Things Initiative, 6 December 2021
“Trophy hunters unmasked as trolls target government over clampdown,” Conservation Action Trust, The Times, 7 December 2020
“How to Manufacture Support for Trophy Hunting using Social Media,” Wild Things Initiative, YouTube, 30 November 2020
“Trophy Hunting and Conspiracy Theories: A Perfect Match?” Jared Kukura, Wild Things Initiative, 17 November 2020
“Lies, Lies, and More Lies: Comparing How Trump and Safari Club International Operate,” Jared Kukura, Wild Things Initiative, 9 November 2020
“What We Learned from Facebook’s Takedown of Safari Club International-Funded Disinformation Campaigns,” Jared Kukura, Wild Things Initiative, 12 October 2020
“Analysis of an October 2020 Facebook Takedown Linked to U.S. Political Consultancy Rally Forge,” Stanford Internet Observatory, 8 October 2020
“An astroturfing operation involving fake accounts (some with AI-generated images) that left thousands of comments on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Clients included Turning Point Action and Inclusive Conservation Group, a pro-hunting organization“
“Reply-Guys Go Hunting: An Investigation into a U.S. Astroturfing Operation on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram,” Stanford Internet Observatory, Cyber Policy Centre, 8 October 2020
“Facebook bans marketing firm running ‘troll farm’ for pro-Trump youth group,” The Washington Post, 8 October 2020