Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The trend of using tranquilliser guns to dart-and-release trophy wildlife has drawn attention to the verifiable worth of Africa’s controversial hunting industry.

Big-spending hunters come from Europe (particularly France and Spain), and the US, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Their time spent at a game ranch can be lucrative for owners.

And with the negative publicity so often cast on canned hunting, "green" hunting may seem like a responsible alternative.

Darting of trophy species ordinarily occurs under the strict supervision of wildlife vets, who designate for darting only those animals in need of veterinary care, or who are to be relocated.

Green hunting is marketed as a thrill for hunters without the kill that usually comes with it.

It has been under fire for the dangers of suffocation, drowning, heart attack, hypertension, heatstroke, or even predation that it can pose for targeted animals, which may run for up to four minutes before collapsing. It also introduces unqualified people into the veterinary process.

Modern "tranq" darts can be delivered by airgun, blowgun, or crossbow, using a wide range of commercial tranquillisers whose effects can be to paralyse or anaesthetise the animal. The most
common delivery mechanism is
a single-shot air rifle, in which compressed air is used to propel the dart.

Veterinarian Dr Carrie Cizauskas says opioids are the most common tranquilliser drug type used to immobilise large game.

Wildlife vets use opioids such as fentanyl or carfentanil, but often prefer etorphine (M99), which is up to 10,000 times as potent as morphine sulphate, to sedate larger herbivores such as elephant, giraffe, hippo, rhino, and eland, and some carnivores such as spotted hyena — though not lion.

As little as 5mg will render an African elephant unconscious, and M99 is so lethal that a single drop can kill a human within minutes by comatose respiratory failure. So it is a restricted schedule 6 drug, and only veterinarians may administer it, or prescribe its use.

Dr Katja Koeppel, of Africa’s leading veterinary school at the University of Pretoria, says the continent’s tranq-control regimes are mostly derived from SA because of its experience in wildlife management.

"Green hunting is not allowed by the SA Veterinary Council, but there is very little control in Mozambique, while Botswana and Namibia are very controlled, especially the drugs and their use."

To bring the animal around again after it has been treated by a vet, biopsied, microchipped — or in the case of "green hunting", posed for a selfie — the drugs are reversed by antidotes.

Koeppel says for carnivores, vets often use drugs called cyclohexamines, such as ketamine (infamous as a date-rape drug), combined with a sedative — but there is no reversal drug for cyclohexamines, so vets need to wait a long period for a jackal or lion to reawaken.

In 2014, Botswana outlawed trophy hunting, saying it undermined anti-poaching efforts. The decision put 1,000 people out of work and cost the country 0.2% of its GDP (3.66% of its tourism income, about US$20m), going by 2009 IUCN figures.

Green hunting is marketed as a thrill for hunters without the kill that usually comes with it.

But as Maraya Cornell noted in National Geographic, photo tourism generated almost $1.5bn for Botswana, directly and indirectly employing 69,500 people.

Botswana now has the greatest potential market for "green hunting" – though the jury is still out on whether it’s the kindest shot.

But the value of trophy hunting, as a fraction of the GDP of African countries, is disputed by governments, economists, the hunting lobby, and by two opposed blocs of conservationists: sustainable hunting, and animal rights groups.

According to a 2015 report by Africa Check, which promotes accuracy in the media, the dispute over the economics of trophy hunting came to a head following a 2006 article in the journal Biological Conservation, which estimated the African hunting industry was worth $200m/year.

The report was strongly criticised in a 2013 investigation by Australian think-tank Economists at Large, commissioned by the African Lion Coalition. The highest percentage of GDP given by the IUCN is for Namibia’s hunting industry, at 4.52% (6.57% of tourism revenue).

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