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Collar did not Protect Beloved Elephant from Safari Hunter

The bull elephant of Musango was well known to visitors to a wildlife sanctuary on the shore of Lake Kariba in northern Zimbabwe because of his apparent ease in the company of humans. An icon of the country’s conservation community, the elephant was much photographed and even painted by a well-known local artist. Tourists were thrilled by...

The bull elephant of Musango was well known to visitors to a wildlife sanctuary on the shore of Lake Kariba in northern Zimbabwe because of his apparent ease in the company of humans. An icon of the country’s conservation community, the elephant was much photographed and even painted by a well-known local artist. Tourists were thrilled by the experience of being able to walk with him.

Picture of Musango bull in 2009, courtesy of Garth Thompson.

But the five-ton elephant with impressive tusks was also a likely target for poaching, which is rampant in the southern African country. So last year the Musango bull was fitted with a satellite-tracking collar, a research tool monitoring the elephant’s whereabouts and behavior–and what was hoped would be a deterrent to hunters.

A month ago the Musango elephant strayed from the sanctuary into a concession where hunting of Africa’s big animals is a legal and thriving enterprise. On or around May 23 an American hunter killed the bull with two shots to the head.

At the heart of this tragedy is a bitter debate about whether or not hunting truly serves and promotes conservation.

The Hunter’s Report

“A magnificent bull elephant with long ivory extending almost down to ground level,” writes Bill Campbell in a detailed account on the Africa Hunting Report Forum. Campbell, an American who has been on a number of hunting safaris in Africa,  describes how the Musango bull was spotted a hundred yards away–and how he, with assistance from facilitators from Martin Pieters Safaris, his hunting outfitter, wasted no time to shoot.

“As Mart said right afterwards,” Campbell writes, “when you see an elephant like this, you act quickly and decisively, otherwise it can disappear forever from wherever it came.”

Campbell reports that the collar was seen only after the elephant was shot, and how Pieters assured him that it must be a relic from an obsolete tracking program. “Martin was certain that there was no active local program going on as given his involvement in the hunting community and organizations, certainly he would have known.”

The shooting was well within the hunting area, some 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the lake, which is considered part of the park, and 11 kilometers (7 miles) from the Matusadona National Park boundary, Campbell notes in his report.

But although the location of the elephant made the shooting technically legal, Campbell admits being conflicted about it.

“My most disturbing realization [is]  that this situation could have been avoided had there been BETTER COMMUNICATIONS between the non-consumptive and consumptive factions that are essentially competing for the same resources,” he writes.

“Hindsight is 20-20 and we cannot undo what has been done, but had the hunting community been approached, and something said to the effect [that the Musango bull] most certainly…will at some point wonder back out of this protected area and likely into the local hunting concessions…I am 99.9% sure Martin…and everybody else would have agreed, and upon seeing this bull we would have quickly put two and two together and taken pictures instead. I would have been happy with this, just as I am with other ‘off limits’ game such as cheetah, painted dogs and rhino which are a privilege and thrill to see in the wild.”

Conservation Community Outraged

The shooting has enraged the conservation community and a petition calling for an inquiry and remedial action to prevent similar incidents is circulating on the Internet.

Dereck Joubert is a veteran wildlife photographer and filmmaker with decades of experience living in the African bush. He and Beverly Joubert, his wife, are National Geographic Explorers in Residence. He is also a conservationist and he is not buying the notion that an experienced hunter assisted by a local professional outfitter would not notice a collar on an elephant.

“It’s complete spin. If we can see the collar in the photograph a hunter should be able to see it over a gun sight. The issue is that hunters have a moral and ethical responsibility to not shoot animals of a certain size, age, sex, or research animals,” Joubert said.

“Actually, the hunter has a far greater obligation than that,” Joubert added. “He has a moral responsibility to carefully select a trophy–not to shoot everything unless he is told not to.”

Joubert also has harsh words for Martin Pieters Safaris. “Hunting outfitters are allocated a leased concession to be a custodian of its wildlife management for a given period, not to simply kill animals,” he said.

“This is sadly not the first time the hunting fraternity has exemplified itself by shooting collared animals. A leopard was shot in Botswana a few years ago [in circumstances that amounted to] a roll call of ethical infringements. It really is time for the industry to take a serious look at its ethics and take action internally against the infringements,” Joubert said.

The Musango bull was shot in the one million-acre Omay North Hunting Block in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley, “one of the finest unfenced hunting areas in Africa and is known for its large concentrations of big game…a true hunter’s dream,” is how Martin Pieters Safaris describes the concession on its website. Animals offered to hunters include lions, leopards, hippos, buffalo, and elephants.

Omay also shares a considerable border with the Matusadona National Park, a boundary perceptible only to humans. Animals officially protected on one side of the line are fair game on the other, which helps make the area so rich for hunting. Illegal hunting–poaching–takes place on both sides.

“The Musango Bull Elephant was a magnificent animal, considered by some to be part of Zimbabwe’s national heritage,” the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) says on its website. ZCTF was formed in 2001 by individuals “desperately concerned about the unacceptable levels of poaching as well as the destruction of the environment due to the break down of law and order in Zimbabwe,” according to the group’s Facebook page.

The Musango bull lived on the shores of Lake Kariba near the Bumi Hills area. “He was shot in the Omay North area by a professional hunting organization despite the fact that he was wearing a clearly visible satellite tracking collar,” ZCTF states on its website.

“Two facts emerge,” ZCTF adds. “The first is the extraordinary beauty and size of this elephant and the second is that it is so patently obvious that this is a gentle creature, allowing anybody to approach it closely. Musango is also wearing a clearly visible satellite tracking collar. Indeed, Roger Parry, having been given authority by National Parks to dart this elephant [to fit the collar last year], was able to easily get within a few meters of it before firing the dart.

“This elephant was estimated to have another 15-20 years of life ahead of it. He is now dead.”

The petition circulated by ZCTF and others:

  • To request the authorities, once the Minister has given special protection status to any animal, to take immediate and proactive steps to inform all hunters and hunting institutions of such protected status. The Musango Bull was regarded by many as part of Zimbabwe’s national heritage, and is now gone.
  • To get the ZPHA [Zimbabwe professional hunters associations] to define their own ethical and moral standards in relation to collared animals, and specifically this elephant, and to fully investigate, with independent observers, in situ the killing of the Musango Bull.

The Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA), an organization that “supports conservation and ecologically sustainable development through the promotion of ethical hunting,” defends Martin Pieters and lays the blame for the shooting of the Musango bull on a combination of ignorance of the presence of a collared elephant in the vicinity and thick bush which obscured the view of the hunters.

In a statement published on its website, PHASA says: “The internet campaign about the Musango Elephant Bull being shot has been engineered by self-interested people who did not refer to the Association or get an explanation of how this could happen.”

The PHASA statement:

  • Martin Pieters has a clean record both legally and ethically in hunting and has held his licence since 1995.
  • This elephant was shot in a legal hunting area in Omay. It weighed out at 21.8 kg and 20.8 kg and the ivory was long and thin.
  • This elephant was collared by Steve Edwards at Musango (photographic) camp which is located on the edge of Kariba Dam/Omay hunting area. No one had advised the concessionaire in Omay or the Rural District Council that there was a collared elephant in the vicinity. Whilst it is not law to do so, it would have been common sense considering how close the hunting area is and how far elephants can roam. Neither SOAZ [Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe] or ZPHGA [Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association] had been informed of the collared animal. Again, this is not law but in retrospect it might have been sensible.
  • Owing to the good rains in the past season, the bush is very thick at present. The hunters dropped the animal with a frontal shot to the brain, followed by a side shot to the brain. It dropped almost immediately. It was only when they got up to the elephant that they realised it was collared. They immediately removed the collar and took it to the nearest Parks office and reported the incident. This is the correct procedure.
  • In fact there is no law prohibiting the shooting of collared animals, though no reputable PH would do so if he could see the collar. The problem comes when it is difficult to see any collar and this applies to lion as well, where the mane tends to grow over the collar. In fact a collared lion was shot near to Hwange very recently.
  • The problem is that it is not possible to see the collars clearly in the bush. Suggestions that the collars be made of bright colored materials or that the elephant’s ears are painted brightly, are rejected. This leaves the hunter in a quandary. He is left with little option but to assume that unless he has been advised of the likelihood of a collared animal in the vicinity, and unless he can detect the collar, then the animal in his concession may be legally killed. After all, that is what he bought the concession for.
  • It is notable that no one, including those making this drama over one collared elephant which was shot inadvertently, is making a comparable objection to the poaching of ten elephant in Ghona-re-zhou last week. That in fact is far more serious than shooting a collared elephant that no one knew was there, regrettable as that is.
  • It is very regrettable that the collared elephant, and the collared lion were shot. The elephant was shot inadvertently and if Martin Peters had known of its existence he would most certainly not have allowed his client to shoot it. Collaring is done for scientific research reasons, and all reputable hunters welcome this. However practical problem exist and these need to be addressed by those involved, to try and avoid a repetition in the future. Rousing uninformed, emotional internet drama is not helpful to achieving this goal.
  • The SOAZ and ZPHGA Committees and National Parks are active in trying to find a solution.
The amiable elephant with the long tusks and the collar lives on in the painting, tourists’ photographs and the memories of those who cherished him. His story might make a shooter pause the next time a magnificent specimen strays into rifle range.

But perhaps the greatest contribution the Musango bull’s death could make would be to get the two sides–conservationists and hunters–to talk to one another. The hunters say they did not know there was a collared elephant in the vicinity because no one told them. Yet that information has been on the web for months. A regular courtesy call on the neighbors in the national park could easily have established the fact. A professional would know what’s going on around him before the shooting starts.

The Musango bull may have ended up on a trophy wall, but in his life and death he may yet be an ambassador for elephants and their role as keystone species for the conservation of Africa’s last tracts of wilderness.

Related blog posts:

South Africa, Zimbabwe epicenter of rhino poaching crisis

Rhinos Seriously Threatened by Poaching Surge, CITES Hears

South Africa battles to save rhinos from high-tech poachers

Elephants Making Last Stand in Besieged African Park

Kenya Parks are not Havens for Wildlife, Study Finds

Elephants Struggle to Cope With Poaching of Their Kin, Study Finds

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn