‘Hunting preserves habitat, without it, we won’t have any wildlife left’ – Danene van der Westhuyzen
The President of the Namibia Professional Hunters’ Association (NAPHA), Danene van der Westhuyzen was recently appointed to the Conservation Advisory Board of the Dallas Safari Club.
Van der Westhuyzen, who is one of most prolific professional hunters, will serve on the newly formed board which strives to support conservation research and programme development. The board will also advise and assist board of directors of Dallas Safari Club and its Grants Committee on conservation issues.
Van der Westhuyzen is also the CEO of the Outfitters and Professional Hunting Association of Africa, serves on the board of the Namibian Conservation Board, is a trustee of the Hunters United Against Poaching Fund and works as Business Manager of Aru Game Lodge.
Namibia Economist (NE) conducted an in-depth interview with Danene van der Westhuyzen (DW) to talk more on the appointment at Dallas Safari Club, the link between conservation and hunting and Namibia’s wildlife populations:
NE: You were recently appointed to the Conversation Advisory Board of the Dallas Safari Club. What does being the only female on this board mean to you?
DW: Yes, I get this question a lot. I am a wife and mother, but also a woman hunter. I agree that hunters mostly fall into the “man” category, and I have huge respect for that, but I do however feel that women hunters have a different and important role to play in conservation.
Over the course of a few years, whenever I had a good opportunity, I have asked hunters whether they considered hunting to involve violence or aggression and an interesting outcome took shape. Men invariably have danced around the implications of the question: “No”, they have in one way or another contended, hunting only looks like violence to people who do not understand it. True, it involves killing, but the hunter does not intend harm to the animal, and intention is what counts. If one doesn’t intend violence, then one’s actions aren’t really violent, even if they look that way.
Women have in all cases approached my question differently. “Yes”! They immediately responded, of course hunting involves an act of violence: How else can one characterise what it means to be on the receiving end of a bullet?
I noticed that because women in our society are not supposed to be truly capable of violence, they are more willing—even in some ways more able than men to confront their responsibility for it when it comes to an activity like hunting. This, to me, places female hunters in a unique position when it comes to communicating about values and ethics and also exploring common ground with hunting and non-hunting environmentalists.
This is where hunting and environmentalism intersect: in a concern for the impact of our actions, indeed of our very existence, on the world around us. And this, I think, is where women’s hunting becomes especially significant. Women, after all, know about blood, and about the tissue-thin boundary between life and death. Women know that our greatest responsibility in this life is to leave a safer and more beautiful world for our children.
I believe that shortcuts are for lazy people and crooks. To achieve success you must be brave, have courage, be committed, have integrity and most importantly, have vision. I have never felt that I have had to proof myself because I was a women. I was chosen for this position and Dallas Safari Club has placed their trust in me to make sound and effective decisions. I feed on this trust. Of course the greatest part of success lies mostly with our actions.
NE: What does your appointment on this board mean for Namibia and its wildlife?
DW: This appointment was not necessarily to represent Namibia as a country, but definitely includes it. The Board is comprised of experts in the field of sustainable use conservation and we as members provide subject matter expertise across a broad range of strategic objectives globally, including: Science Based Research, Education, Advocacy, Growth, and Culture.
It does place Namibia most certainly on the map, but more times than often, Namibia is hailed as the best example of well regulated sustainable use, through our excellent government and Ministry of Environment and Tourism’s decisions, strategies and implementations.
NE: Apart from being part of many conservationist/anti-poaching organisations, you are also a seasoned professional hunter. Could you talk about how your love for hunting came to be?
DW: I am first and foremost an animal lover. I am a big patriot of our beautiful country. I am a conservationist.
In Namibia, where our resources are limited to the extreme by only wildlife and livestock, it is imperative to understand this concept, as our whole livelihood depends on sustainable use. Our arid motherland offers enigma in many facets, of which a drought stricken state in which we have found ourselves this year has again protruded its teeth, and we collectively despair and wonder where and how to preserve one of our country’s most valued assets, its nature and wildlife.
We are constantly aware of the fragile predicament we can find ourselves in when the clouds fail to unleash much needed rain. But this is part of our beautiful country’s nature and balance and we, as well as our wildlife, have endured many a year with scorched lands and have grown to love it as much as when we rejoice in the deafening sound of thunder. The real value from a conservation perspective should first and foremost be habitat preservation. This should be our highest priority. And hunting offers this in its fullest force. Without sufficient and natural habitat, hunting as we know it is most certainly not possible.
My father is an avid hunter and taught me the ropes. He always stood out from the others with the way he hunted – always on foot and always pursuing his quarry with respect. He carries the spirit of the veld and has a twinkle in his eyes every time he leaves the city.
I grew up in a hunting environment and it has always been second nature. I am a qualified optometrist, and although I still do freelance work in the city now and then, I’ve been a fulltime Professional Hunter for the last twelve years, and wouldn’t exchange our quality of life. In 2012 I qualified as the first female dangerous-game Professional Hunter in Namibia.
NE: There are articles doing rounds that Namibia’s legendary wild game numbers may be plummeting, is this true? What’s your take on the issue?
DW: In the last decade, numbers of gemsbuck, springbuck and mountain zebra have increased over 10 times. The elephant population has risen to around 20,000. In the northwest of the country, where lions were down to under two dozen, they now total roughly 150, with a dramatic range expansion since 1995. Since then the numbers of wildlife have stabilized, with droughts and Namibia’s arid conditions accounting for “boom and bust” dynamics.
So yes, numbers are definitely plummeting on communal land, but mainly because of Namibia’s ongoing drought the last three years. On private land, where land owners have invested incredible amounts of money to re-establish wildlife, wildlife are plummeting as well. Even though many are spending their very last cent on trying to sustain these populations with food and water, it is just not sustainable, and I know of many people who would have to close down their businesses and pay back deposits of international hunters and tourists who wanted to visit Namibia this year. It is a sad picture for our wildlife, because many people will again look to other ways and means to survive, with the value of wildlife crashing. This is the most important factor being overlooked by the public: the value of Namibia’s wildlife.
At independence in 1990, there were no registered community conservation areas. Freehold conservancies did not exist, and a mere 12% of land was under recognised conservation management. At the end of 2015, land under structured natural resource management covered 43.7% of Namibia.
People began to realize that game indeed had value through trophy hunting, and increasingly thereafter our wildlife came to be seen as an asset. Since the mid-1970s the numbers of wild animals on private land has increased drastically. Today 80% of wildlife is found outside of protected areas, and remarkable wildlife recoveries have taken place on communal land. This was initially most evident in the north-west, where wildlife had been reduced to small numbers through drought and poaching by the early 1980’s. It is estimated that there were only 250 elephant and 65 black rhino in the north-west at this time, and populations of other wild animals in different areas had been reduced by 60 – 90% since the early 1970’s.
Wildlife populations, including elephant, lion, and black rhino, have recovered significantly over recent decades, on both private and communal land, and this is largely attributed to these policy changes. Namibia is now internationally renowned for its wildlife. Namibia currently hosts the world’s largest population of free roaming cheetahs and black rhinos. But without the empathy and willingness of our public to understand the important role that hunting plays in the value of our wildlife, we might be facing another disaster.
NE: Most non-hunters do not understand how hunting an animal makes someone a conservationist. Can you explain how hunting benefits multiple species?
DW: While the personal reasons one participates in hunting are varied, hunters cherish wildlife. The social benefits of that pursuit contribute to a healthy life. Hunters hunt for many reasons but at the core is affirming man’s place in the circle of life – body, mind and soul. This deep understanding motivates hunters to appreciate the power of nature to support all life and to practice good stewardship of natural resources. Hunters have an inherent interest in serving as protectors, custodians, stewards and promoters of conservation, as well as improving and sustaining wildlife populations.
Hunting motivations and functions are highly variable and multiple: they may include meeting subsistence needs, sourcing high quality meat from non-industrial sources; being outdoors and connecting to nature.
Selective trophy hunting only removes a very small percentage of an animal population. The average off-take by trophy hunting varies between 0.6% of a population (Elephant) and 2% of a population (antelope species), while the average yearly increase of wildlife in Namibia is between 20-25%. Specimens past their prime are targeted, specimens which have fulfilled their reproductive role; old animals with charismatic, worn trophies – that after all is the essence of trophy hunting.
People say life is not that complicated, but life is very complicated. What’s simple is wanting an ice cream, a doll, or to win a game of tennis. Simple is sitting at the back of a well shaded game viewer with cold drinks in the back, remarking how beautiful Namibia is, all the while hoping for the chance to see a predator make a kill. Simple is wanting to make a difference and play a part in conservation with all your heart, but just talking about it.
Life becomes complicated when you are a hunter. Hunting, after all, is a necessarily bloody business. It reminds us that we kill in order to live; that we live by virtue of the deaths of other beings, sentient and non-sentient. It becomes complicated because it seems that a large part of the public perceives hunters as “murderers” and “killers”.
With all of these onslaughts going on, our wildlife has never been more vulnerable, and our hunting community has never been more weak and desperate. We constantly have to argue to uphold and save our businesses, our hunting community and most importantly our passion and our history. Hunters play a leading role in conservation. We invest in and conduct studies and scientific assessments, and as science progresses, our members are the final implementers. However, many people tend to ignore our local knowledge, which is vital in conservation – why is this going to waste?
It is an indisputable fact that hunting provides the necessary economic incentive to conserve our wilderness areas and to justify them against the pressures of alternative use like agriculture and livestock keeping. We do not merely hunt, we are also nature lovers who strive for sustainable and ethical hunting methods that contribute to conservation strategies.
Hunting is also an indelible part of our history and has its place in teaching us who we are. It provides us with an expansive sense of what it means to be a human being. Hunting is the one thing that preserves habitat – and without a healthy and natural habitat, we won’t have any wildlife left – what a grey and ugly world to be left behind for our children.