An Open Letter - Look Beyond the Superficial

On the 24th November 2017, I was contacted by a friend who is one of the most committed and engaged wildlife conservationists, rural community supporters and safari lodge operators in Zimbabwe. Mark Butcher, the owner of Imvelo Safari Lodges in north-west Matabeleland, has been the target of an unjustified and disingenuous posting on social media by two well known safari lodge companies. The postings, since retracted, were based on an incident which occurred 11 years ago during the legal hunting of an elephant under Campfire (Communal Area Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) Programme in Matabeleland.

The issue first arose as a result of an article published by Africa Geographic magazine seven years after the hunt, when a video of the hunt surfaced on social media. That article was removed when an explanation detailing the facts and circumstances, as well as the conservation credentials of Mark Butcher, was submitted. Following this recent posting of the video, this is another open letter I have written in his support.

I have also posted a story about Imvelo Safari Lodges that is worth reading to help restore one’s hope for Africa and Her wildlife and people - Miracles in Matabeleland.

Please read the letter, and my essay on “Trophy Hunting” on this website, and should you have valid comments to contribute I shall take them with interest, or if you wish to discuss the issues raised, I shall be happy to do so.


David Peddie
Wildlife Conservation  .  Rural Development  .  Safari Tourism

November 2017

To Whom It May Concern

Re:  Elephant Hunting Safari Video

Three years ago Africa Geographic published a video on their website showing the shooting of an elephant bull during a legitimate hunting safari in Zimbabwe. While the video is not something most of us would choose to watch, and that includes the Professional Hunter, both it and the article were, unfortunately, selective in the presentation of the facts and the circumstances of that hunt. As such, the evocation of emotions of readers, many of whom had / have little knowledge or experience of Africa and the harsh realities of wildlife conservation in many areas, did the magazine a disservice, and damaged the reputation of a significant conservationist.

The hunt in question took place, seven years prior to Africa Geographic publishing it, in a communal land bordering the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. These particular communal lands lie on poor agricultural soils and in an area of erratic rainfall, where the production of crops and domestic livestock is a tenuous way of survival for many.

Hwange National Park has a very large, growing population of elephant which, according to the results of the Great Elephant Census flown in 2015, is estimated at 50000 - 55000. Independent research has shown that it is altering the vegetation structure and possibly affecting the status of both animal and plant life in the Park. As a result, elephant are looking for space and fodder outside the Park borders. Frequently this results in raids on crops and the loss of the communal area farmers’ primary source of subsistence. Injuries, and even loss of life, in attempting to protect those crops is not uncommon.

Under the Government-endorsed Campfire program, despite some issues in its implementation, rural communities are given the opportunity to benefit from the wildlife that inhabits their areas and to protect their livelihoods. Often a small hunting quota is given to a community by the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and an Operator is contracted to use it. That Operator is contractually required to deal with crop raiding animals.

The Operator in the video, and the target of both the old article and recent social media postings, is one of those providing this “protection” service to Campfire rural communities. I use the word “service” deliberately because Mark Butcher is a genuine conservationist of long-standing, who, daily, deals with the difficulties of wildlife conservation in remote locations and trying circumstances. It is his responsibility to manage the quota of animals given to these communities by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. To do so he maintains a hunting safari business, independent of his ecotourism lodges, as part of a long term strategy to contribute to rural socio-economic development based on wildlife and natural resource management that, ultimately, will not require the need for safari hunting.

As unpleasant as this may sound to those without experience or knowledge of the realities of living with wildlife in remote areas, it should be acknowledge that the hunt in question was conducted professionally in the tracking of the quarry, the assessment of the situation and in ensuring a “quick kill”. The fact that the elephant was asleep when found was unusual, but the intended end result of any hunt is the death of the quarry and, having decided to take this animal, the objective was to do so with the least trauma and as quickly as possible. So while watching the video is not something I, nor most of us involved in conservation in the field would choose to do, the conclusion must be that the choice made by the Professional Hunter was the best under the circumstances.

Since 2011, Mark Butcher has built a successful non-consumptive safari lodge business - Imvelo Safari Lodges. Two of the Imvelo lodges are in or near the communal areas on the southern border of Hwange National Park, one in the communal areas near Victoria Falls, one in Hwange National Park and another in the Zambezi National Park. All the lodges in or near the communal areas are run under a form of joint venture with those rural communities.

Even a limited investigation of Mark Butcher’s conservation and rural community development credentials reveals a man and organisation that are unusual in their level of commitment and contribution.

Imvelo has invested over US$8 million in lodge development and already employs more than 100 people from the surrounding communities on a long term basis, plus some 20-30 part time casuals monthly, with more to be added with the completion of new lodges. It is worth noting that Imvelo’s Jozibanini Camp in southern Hwange National Park is in the area where elephant poaching with cyanide took place before its development. It has created employment and an alternative livelihood for many from the very community which had resorted to helping with poaching, as well as limiting incursions into the Park by putting “boots on the ground” to discourage further incursions.

During the last ten years, Mark Butcher and Imvelo have, for the communities in, and adjacent to, the areas in which they operate:

*   Built 

9 double classroom blocks @  US$ 382 000.0016 teachers houses @  US$ 112 000.00
3 staff toilets / bathrooms@  US$ 16 000.009 school boreholes
@  US$ 87 000.00
75 village boreholes@  US$ 750 000.001 rural clinic@  US$ 38 000.00

*   Provided

680 student and teacher desks and chairs @ US$ 72 000.00
120 sets of school books@
US$ 19 000.00
Cement and fencing@
US$ 7 000.00
Maize seed@
US$ 20 000.00

*   Supported

2 teachers training courses@ US$ 2200.00
International volunteer dental clinics
@ US$ 30 000.00 per annum
(Involving 9 communities (4000+ patients treated in 2017 in the seventh successive year of this massive operation)

There is also a major commitment to wildlife conservation in support of Hwange National Park and Rural Development Councils.

* Game water supplies (15 sites in Hwange NP and communal land) @ US$ 100 000.00 per annum
Fire guards 280kms@ US$ 34 000.00 per annum
Rural Council water supply maintenance@ US$ 6 000.00 per annum
Rural Council meetings@ US$ 2 000.00 per annum
9 boreholes (6 in HNP; 1 in Ngamo Forest; 2 in communal land) @ US$ 90 000.00
Anti-poaching and Problem Animal Control@ US$ 2 000.00 per annum

All of the above are verifiable, and exclude logistical and administration costs which are not recorded. 

It is irresponsible for any organisation, media publication or individual to publish something like this particular video without verifying the facts behind the story. Apart from the extremely distasteful and vitriolic comments on social media made by many who lack the knowledge and experience already mentioned, the absence of factual information and context in the article is unworthy of any organisation or person who claims integrity.

Sustainable utilisation of renewable natural resources, is one of the few hopes we have of conserving functioning ecosystems, wildlife and wild areas in an Africa with a rapidly growing human population and demands on land and resources. While most of us, including Mark Butcher, would like to see an end to trophy hunting as part of the suite of options, the reality is that, in some situations in rural areas, it is a necessary, if temporary, part of the solution. There is no doubt that there are many unscrupulous hunting safari operators whose practice and ethics are unacceptable, but we should be cautious not to tar all with the same brush. Again, even a cursory investigation will reveal that some of Africa’s best known, committed, successful and internationally recognised conservationists use or support the use of hunting as a tool in the progression of wildlife conservation efforts.

These include Clive Stockil (Zimbabwe) and Garth Owen-Smith (Namibia), both recipients of the Prince William and Tusk Awards for Lifetime Contributions to Conservation. I also recommend that anyone interested in developing their own balanced understanding of the complexities of wildlife conservation and rural people in Africa, read an article by Dr Chris Brown, CEO of the Namibia Chamber of Environment - under Resource / Statements / Hunting and Tourism in Namibia.

For the sake of protecting genuine conservation efforts, I would urge you to question sensationalist publishing, ensure that the “evidence” presented is well researched, is from credible sources and is in context with the circumstances.

Yours faithfully,

David Peddie
BSc (Hons), MSc, FRGS, FZSL

Curriculum Vitae                                                   Conservation    Community    Commerce    Culture                                      © David Peddie 2017