PART 1: THE TROPHY HUNTING ANGLE
The pioneer of the desert elephant population of Namibia, was shot on June 25th 2019 in Damaraland. He was killed as a trophy, under the guise of being a problem animal. Voortrekker was never known to be destructive to property or farmlands, and was in fact revered by the communities within his home range. He was the most viable breeding elephant bull in the country.
In addressing the emotional rhetoric on social media, let’s attempt to unpack the various scenarios around Voortrekker’s death.
In hunting terms, old males past their prime are recognised as trophies. Weed out the weak to allow young bucks opportunity to ascend the genetic ladders. This logic is undeniably flawed and is irrelevant in elephant societies.
Furthermore, the naive model of a sustainable, fair chase, sport hunt, wherein all proceeds benefit the bigger picture did not exist. Trophy hunting operates on the premise that the trophy is worth more dead than alive, which in the case of Voortrekker is a calamitous comparison. Sure the community made some short term cash. And certainly the PH. But ultimately at what cost?
Therefore there was no trophy value in killing Voortrekker.
PART 2 : NEGATIVE IMPACT OF TOURISM BOYCOTTS
In the wake of the incomprehensible hunt there has been precious few inklings of hope emerging from the desert. Everyone, quite rightly, is still in a state of outrage.
It’s clear that government and conservation policies need to change, which is essentially where public pressure should be focussed. However, amidst the storm, it is worth commending and supporting the pro-elephant conservancies at ground zero (Soris Sorris, Tsiseb and Otjimboyo), who in understanding the value of elephant conservation, appealed to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to protect Voortrekker.
This is another example of the great elephant’s legacy. He forged a historical partnership with these communities.
Due to cancelled bookings, the Namibian tourism industry has lost millions of N$ in the few days since Voortrekker’s death. This reaction is inevitable. But there are many reputable eco-tourism operations and community conservancies who will get caught in the fall out. They depend on tourism dollars, and are pro-conservation because of them. Please consider this should you be considering cancelling your safari. Feel free to make contact for advice.
PART 3: UNIQUE DESERT ADAPTED ELEPHANTS
There are far fewer than 200 desert adapted elephants remaining in Namibia. These elephant typically frequent the most arid valleys and remote conditions, seldom if ever, venturing out toward the eastern plains. Their habits and behaviour are far more specific than elephants from the east and elsewhere in the country, and there is some speculation within scientific communities about the merits of a sub-species. There is no doubt that they do require special attention, and cannot be lumped with the inland herds or those of Khaudom, Etosha or Caprivi. Unfortunately, generalised census figures do not reflect this.
Voortrekker was the pathfinder for an isolated population on the Ugab River, southern Damaraland, consisting of 25 animals. He was one of only two breeding bulls remaining. This group of elephants have not successfully reared a calf for 5 years due to droughts and conflict related stress. Desert adapted elephant society, like their environment, is extreme, delicate and complex, and the futures of the herds here without Voortrekker’s patriarchal presence, and guidance, is more of a concern than ever.
Extremely docile, Voortrekker was never known to be aggressive to people, and was much respected by many local people from the pro-elephant conservancies within his home range. He seemed to intuitively know how to co-exist with the communities of the desert as he did with the landscape itself. His and the Ugab herd’s known range limit was a long way from the Omatjete community, where the alleged damage and threat to human life incident occurred. This would suggest that he was not even there, let alone responsible for any damage or threatening behaviour.
Yet a bounty was sanctioned on Voortrekker’s head, based on being a problem animal.
PART 4: THE FINANCIAL MYTH
The financial success of the Namibian conservancy models depends on viable and sustainable eco-tourism. Between the Brandberg and the Huab River, an area within Voortrekker’s home range, the majority of people are directly employed, directly benefit or indirectly benefit from eco-tourism. The conservancies here, largely because of Voortrekker’s influence, were increasingly pro-elephant and supported the concept of co-existing with the herds.
Namibia is a specialised wildlife destination, with an alternative kind of attraction than say in Botswana or South Africa. While the desert landscape is mesmerising, elephants are the focus, and a marquee elephant such as Voortrekker is absolutely pivotal in this. In short, the local communities depend on tourism; tourism depends on elephants; and the elephants, ecologically and socially, depended on Voortrekker.
A paltry sum of N$120k changed hands for Voortrekker’s bounty. Based on this, it’s estimated that the impoverished and drought stricken Omatjete community, desperate for government assistance, profited by a handful of dollars each. How is this remotely logical to justify the hunt? What actually did happen on the ground (and didn’t), and the chain of corruption behind it, is for another chapter. Elephant based eco-tourism in the area, of which Voortrekker was the figurehead, is a sustainable long term revenue stream worth millions of N$ per annum.
Known all around the world as an iconic Namibian treasure, the bottom line is that he (as are all other desert elephants for that matter) was worth more alive than dead. It surely, unequivocally, cannot possibly be argued otherwise.
Therefore there was no financial logic in killing Voortrekker.
PART 5: RELEVANCE OF ANTHROPOMORPHISM
A conservative and outdated attitude toward elephant conservation and problem solving is one down the barrel of a gun. That Voortrekker had to pay his way in order to be part of the landscape. There are folks who claim that elephants are not capable of sentient understanding, and that killing Voortrekker leaves no moral or ethical aftertaste.
If you respectfully like to discover why Voortrekker’s sanction was wrong, then let’s make contact. If you are an elephant hunter, or endorse elephant hunting, then I invite you to track and stalk wild elephant with me; I can assure you of the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin, but the elephant will stay alive.
Then you can decide for yourself if elephant do not merit anthropomorphic understandings.
If it does not transform you then so be it. But, if it does, then the onus is on you to dedicate the rest of your life advocating elephant conservation in memory of Voortrekker.
Therefore the rhetoric around Voortrekker’s death, questioning and challenging our belief systems and morals toward our natural world, is relevant