A free-range Red Hartebeest, hunted and harvested on a cattle farm.
A good comprehension of the answers to the question ‘who owns the wildlife’ is fundamental in understanding how wildlife is managed around the world. Despite the vast number of people, communities, corporations, agencies and governments that that have vested interests and ownership of wild animals, there are only two broad approaches under which wildlife management practices can be categorized, namely public versus private ownership of wildlife.
In North America, the model generally followed is public ownership. That is, the government owns the wildlife, regardless of whether the animals live on public (e.g., federal, state or Crown land) or private land. Under this scenario, government is largely responsible for monitoring and management of wildlife. This happened mostly because the early European colonialists came from countries where wildlife was owned by royalty – Kings Queens, Earls and such – and common folk had little access to wildlife, unless they were poachers. So when they came to North America, the people were bound and determined not to see that system happen again.
However, at first there simply were no laws. Even when governments were created and game laws were passed, most were quite lax. As a result, many populations of wildlife, especially those that were exploited for their meat, hides or feathers, saw catastrophic collapse; some, like the passenger pigeon, went extinct. Bison, which once numbered in the tens of millions, almost suffered the same fate. Beavers were almost gone. Large predators (e.g., wolves and bears) were wiped out over vast tracts of land. The slaughter was intense, especially in the late 1800’s – by the early 1900’s, wildlife was in a sorry state in much of the USA and southern Canada.
Fortunately, saner minds prevailed and actions were taken before it was too late. The banning of commercial hunting was a key in the recovery of many species. Over the past 100 years, there have been great strides in conserving and restoring many populations of wildlife in the USA and Canada. Proponents of the North American approach to public ownership of wildlife claim it’s a model that works and they’re largely right.
Still, all is not rosy with respect to wildlife management in North America. Large predators like wolves and bears remain absent over large expanses of their former range as the public simply won’t or can’t tolerate their presence. The same is true of other game species; for example, it’s unlikely that free—ranging bison will ever be seen on the prairies again. Herds of free-range bison and activities like grain farming are for the most part incompatible, so bison today are found only in selected places like parks and protected areas, or on private, fenced in lands.
Interestingly, bison, elk and other animals are today being commercially raised – by private interests – and their meat and other parts sold for profit. In fact, there are a growing number of private lands in both Canada and the USA that are fenced in and where hunting and access are limited for a wide variety of wildlife species.
It’s unclear as to what wildlife management in North America will look like in the future. While federal and provincial governments are still mostly responsible for wildlife conservation and management, there is a shift in Canada and the USA to give individuals and other private interests more responsibilities and rights to use wildlife, including Aboriginal governments and communities. There’s little doubt changes are looming and how wildlife will be managed and allocated in the future, may have little resemblance to what we have today.
The second model by which wildlife today is managed has private interests owning and managing wildlife. Governments still have a role and may still have wildlife ownership in places like National Parks, but elsewhere, where land is owned by private interests, landowners also own the wildlife. That’s the situation in Namibia, where I recently hunted.
Writing in HUNTiNAMIBIA 2017, Dr. Chis Brown of the Namibian Chamber of Environment showed changes in wildlife numbers in Namibia from about 1770 to 2015. At the start of that time period, it’s thought there were around 8-10 million animals in the country. Numbers declined steadily until the 1960’s, when the animal population was estimated to an all-time low of about a half million.
In the 1960s and 1990s, rights to use wildlife to support a multi-faceted business model were given to farmers. As a result, farmers (for the most part livestock – cattle – farmers; in North America the equivalent would be cattle ranchers) could provide trophy hunting, sport hunting and use wildlife meat for food, including for sale. Surplus animals could be captured and sold. Some landowners have moved on from cattle farming and wildlife is now the primary source of income and the priority with respect to land-use decisions.
In 2015, wildlife numbers in Namibia were estimated at 3 million, the highest since the 1960s.
As one would expect, Namibia sees their wildlife model as a success. South Africa has a similar model and is also largely successful
Again, not all is rosy. Many farmers don’t like predators like lions, cheetahs or leopards for the same reasons wolves and bears aren’t liked by North American farmers. There are also concerns that the widespread use of game-proof fencing cuts off large scale movements of wildlife, an adaptation many species evolved with to survive in an arid environment prone to drought. Other issues involve world trade sanctions for species like elephants and rhino, which need to be managed – but any efforts to manage such huge species are also very costly. Namibia is one of the few places left on the planet with wild populations of cheetahs and black rhinos, but the country is finding it difficult to maintain them because of the actions from the rest of the world with respect to hunting and sale of wildlife, are more a hindrance than a help.
Public vs private ownership of wildlife; two very different approaches to how society provides for the management of wildlife. Both have strong points; both have weaknesses. I suspect that as time passes, we’ll see the two systems increasingly converge.