Balule trophy hunt — how not to shoot an elephant
Don Pinnock - Daily Maverick
Balule trophy hunt — how not to shoot an elephant

Elephants are sentient and feel pain, which raises moral questions about hunting them. Kruger National Park, Limpopo. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

This is a story about an apparently illegal kill licence, a botched trophy hunt, the gratuitous pain and suffering of an elephant and the right to shoot iconic wild animals.

Hunting does not provide the precision kill of an abattoir, but what happened in Maseke Game Reserve on 3 September was beyond acceptable, even in hunting circles. Apart from a botched hunt, it may also have been illegal.

Maseke is within the Balule Nature Reserve, which, in turn, is in the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR), an area to the west of Kruger National Park. There are no fences between Kruger and the APNR, so animals can and do move freely between the two.

A paying client took a shot at a bull elephant but merely wounded it. The professional hunter accompanying him then pumped four more bullets into the animal but also failed to bring it down. 

balule trophy hunt

An elephant bull in the Kruger National Park, Limpopo. (Photo: Glalo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

The elephant took off towards the Grietjie section of the Balule reserve, a non-hunting area, pursued by the hunting party. They couldn’t keep up, so a helicopter was called in. By then the animal was in Grietjie and the chopper drove the wounded animal back into Maseke where it was shot and finally killed, its body by then carrying eight bullets.

This incident is not a hunting outlier. In 2018 in Maseke, a young elephant was shot 13 times — screaming in pain within view of traumatised guests at a lodge in Parsons Nature Reserve bordering Maseke. The professional hunter in charge, Sean Nielsen, claimed the elephant had been “shot in self-defence”. Nielsen is the hunting concessionaire for Maseke Game Reserve which is owned by the Maseke tribe.

According to Balule chairperson Sharon Haussmann, that hunt had the correct permits in place, but she said the incident “did not comply with the sustainable utilisation model of ethical hunting in accordance with the hunting protocol that governs all reserves within APNR and to which Balule and hence Maseke are bound.” That would also go for the latest hunt.

Was it legal?

There is a question regarding the legality of the permit for the Maseke hunt. According to the Humane Society International-Africa (HSI/Africa), the issuing of a hunting permit contradicts a high court interim interdict which prohibits the allocation of permits for trophy hunting of African elephants, leopards and black rhinos in South Africa. 

It followed a successful legal challenge brought by HSI/Africa in 2022 against the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) and others. Judge Patrick Gamble found that the Department of Environment had failed to comply with the consultative process prescribed by the National Environmental Management. 

Pending a review, the minister was therefore not permitted to issue a quota for trophy hunting and export of elephant, black rhino or leopard without valid non-detriment findings. The review hearing is only scheduled for January 2024 so has not been held. Therefore, according to HSI/Africa’s executive director, Tony Gerrans, the the prohibition on hunting of trophies still stands.

balule trophy hunt

Elephants with a juvenile at the Kruger National Park, Limpopo. (Photo: Sarel van der Walt / Gallo Images)

The hunt evidently sparked a “vigorous debate” on WhatsApp by Grietjie landowners furious about the incident, including about the helicopter chase on their land. In a letter to the landowners, Ian Nowak, the general manager of Balule, apologised, but said Maseke Reserve “conducted the hunt in accordance with the requirements and protocols”, that the hunt was legal and that no protocol violations were committed. Balule provides the overall administrative system for Maseke, with both situated within the APNR.

HSI/Africa rejected this assurance. Gerrans said, “We are horrified by this unnecessary tragedy. Given the high court’s interdict prohibiting the permitting of elephant hunts, the letter’s conclusion that this hunt was lawful is incorrect.

“Furthermore, no animal should ever experience the pain and suffering that this elephant endured. The practice of trophy hunting is not only profoundly inhumane but also poses a grave threat to our biodiversity and tarnishes South Africa’s global reputation as a sustainable and responsible tourist destination. To injure, chase and kill any animal in this way is unacceptable.”

Hunting in the APNR

The hunt, apart from its obvious cruelty, raises wider questions about hunting in the APNR. These reserves are unarguably prime or even core wildlife areas. And because there are no fences between the APNR and the Kruger Park, by “supporting” APNR annual offtake quotas as it does, Kruger is essentially giving permission to hunt animals which it’s obliged by law to protect — with permits being granted by the provincial authority.

Within the APNR, some reserves, such as parts of Balule, Klaserie, Timbavati and Umbabat, allow hunting and others do not. Animals can move freely across the borders of neighbouring reserves, which means that protected animals from one reserve or even the Kruger Park can be killed by trophy hunters within another reserve.

balule elephant

Olifants Camp and the private Balule Camp in the central Kruger National Park, Limpopo, give you acess to the mopane shrubveld of the north as well as the game-rich plains to the south. Elephants swim across the Olifants River. (Photo: Gallo Images / GO! / Villiers Steyn)

Each year the APNR is allocated quotas for the hunting of a range of animals. According to Nowak, it has permission to shoot 50 elephants annually. Of these, Balule is allocated 22 and Maseke, in turn, has a licence to hunt 12. He says the APNR quota “is to allow for better breeding opportunities for the average and above average bulls.” Elephant experts we contacted called that unscientific nonsense.

Questions have also been raised about general hunting offtakes in the APNR. In reply to a parliamentary request for these numbers for 2022/23 and 2023/24,  Environment Minister Barbara Creecy said that SANParks was not at liberty to release them and that the request should be routed to the relevant provincial authorities. It is unclear why the minister should not wish to provide the information requested as it is certainly in the possession of her department and comprehensive replies have been provided to similar requests in previous years.

In 2021/22, SANParks supported the hunting of 4,449 animals (including 55 elephants, 64 buffaloes, 26 kudus, four warthogs, three hippos, nine hyenas, six giraffes and 4,265 impalas) in the APNR. 

The proceeds

In 2019 (the only year for which financial figures could be obtained) hunting netted Balule estates alone R2.8-million, according to their financial statements. However, a desktop calculation using the SA Professional Hunters’ standard rates, estimates income attributable to the hunting of animals allocated to Balule to be R10.9-million. So who received the difference of R8-million? 

On the same basis, hunting income for the entire APNR was estimated to be R29-million, of which R17-million was disclosed by the APNR representatives to the Parliamentary Environmental Affairs oversight committee as having been received. Of this, only 9% was declared as having been used for community outreach.

balule trophy hunt

‘Trophy hunting’, specifically, is a form of hunting in which the hunter’s explicit goal is to obtain the hunted animal’s carcass or body part, such as the head or hide, as a trophy that represents the success of the hunt. (Image: ifaw / Wikipedia)

The wider question is about the hunting of rare and protected animals. According to Gerrans, the latest incident “once again demonstrates the inhumanity of hunting sentient animals merely for bragging rights and to display parts of their bodies as trophies on a wall. Too many endangered and threatened animals continue to suffer and die within so-called nature conservation reserves in what is best described as a blood sport.

“HSI/Africa has challenged the way this horrifying activity is permitted by the government, and we call on all South African wildlife administrators to abide by the high court order which prohibits the permitting of elephant, leopard and black rhino hunts until such time as the court can rule on the merits of the permitting process.”

With clients who can’t down an elephant and professional hunters who seemingly can’t provide the coup de grâce when the clients miss, this means that a miserable fate awaits another 11 elephants for which hunting permits have been issued in Maseke. DM

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