It was about four years ago, winter, first day of snowfall, and I was out doing weather photos near Laggan in the Cairngorm national park. I’d ventured off the main roads and out in to the more remote areas, along the old General Wade military route to Fort Augustus. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the area, this is what you might call “proper Scotland”, the most beautiful countryside in the world.
I’d been driving for only a few miles, stopping occasionally to take photos, when I spotted a stag up ahead. I’d never seen one in the wild before, and it was quite awe-inspiring to see such an impressive creature. I photographed him from a distance, assuming he’d flee as I approached, but as I continued along the road the stag didn’t move. In fact, he was joined by another stag. And another. Lots more. They moved to the side of the road as I approached, but showed no fear of my car. It was amazing to see these beautiful creatures at such close proximity.
I continued in to the wilderness, as far as you can go before you reach a river and an old wooden bridge that is no longer safe to cross by car, and then I headed back. This time when I found the herd of stags they had walked away from the road and were stood by the treeline at the top of a hill. I took a few more photos of them up there and went home.
It was only when I looked at the photos on my computer that I could see, just a few feet past the treeline, was a fence. A tall, man-made fence of wire and wooden stakes, out in the middle of nowhere.
I asked around and found out that the “wilderness” where I’d seen the stags was actually owned by an estate that offers hunting holidays. The stags are bred to be hunted, and are kept fenced in to make sure the so-called hunters are guaranteed an easy shot. A group of young men from England was booked in to the hunting lodge that evening. The next day they would go out in to the Scottish wilderness, probably not even aware of the fences, and they’d find a captive stag, believing it to be wild, and they’d shoot it. They’d paid around £500 for the privilege.
This happens every day at hundreds of estates around Scotland.
Contrast that with the media frenzy this week over the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, shot by American dentist Walter Palmer. The lifelong hunter has killed (or “taken” as he says) dozens of animals around the world, and posted photos online of him posing with their carcasses.
There has been a huge outcry on Twitter and Facebook about Cecil being killed, skinned and beheaded, yet very few people that I know have posted anything. And it’s not because I have lots of pro-hunting friends (as far as I’m aware I don’t), or because my friends and acquaintances are particularly heartless (again, not as far as I know).
The reason is that I live in a part of the world where hunting is accepted, or at least people are willing to turn a blind eye to it. And that’s because it’s seen as being integral to the local economy. The logic is: Hunting brings tourists, tourists bring money, and money creates jobs. It has gone on for so long that it has entered that weird twilight realm of “tradition”, where any wrongdoings can become accepted, protected by the longevity of their occurrence. Children grow up believing that killing animals is a normal part of daily life, and that there’s nothing wrong with the people who enjoy it.
(By the way, with regard to the economy, hunting isn’t especially important. Across the whole of Scotland, deer stalking is worth around £70 million annually, and directly sustains 2,520 jobs. Compare that to the combined Scottish food and drink industries, which are worth over £13 billion annually and sustain over 113,000 jobs. Oil is worth £30 billion annually and sustains over 200,000 jobs. Sources: Scottish Natural Heritage / Scottish Government.)
Considering the global shock over Cecil being killed, you may be surprised by the worldwide availability of hunting holidays…
Just like an English tourist can pay £500 to shoot a captive stag here in Scotland, or an American dentist can pay £35,000 to shoot a captive lion in Zimbabwe, you can pay to shoot lions and buffalo in Tanzania. You can pay to shoot leopards and elephants as part of a government initiative in Mozambique. You can pay to shoot white rhinos in South Africa. You can pay to shoot lions, leopards and rhinos in Namibia. You can pay to shoot bears and wolves in Montenegro. You can pay to shoot elephants and reptiles as part of a government scheme in Cambodia. You can pay to shoot seals and whales in Canada. You can pay to shoot pumas in Argentina. (Remarkably, all of that information comes from a mobile phone company trying to promote its satellite products to hunters.)
People such as Walter Palmer are not the real problem here. You and I may dislike hunters for wanting to kill animals, but the fact is that they’re operating within the law. (Even though Cecil the lion was shot illegally, it appears quite likely that Walter Palmer was misled by his tour guides and believed he had the correct permits.)
The real problem is that around the world, there are thousands of places where people can pay to kill animals, and I’ll bet you that every one of those places has the same localised support for hunting as exists here in the Scottish Highlands. Enough people around here believe that hunting is vital to the local economy so it continues as a kind of “dirty secret”. A lot of people don’t like it, a lot of people would happily see it banned, but they keep their mouth shut because they don’t want to upset anyone.
There is also the issue of politics. I wouldn’t pretend to have any understanding of the local politics in places such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Cambodia, but here in the north of Scotland it’s fairly clear. Politicians representing hunting regions stay quiet on the issue, some because they support hunting themselves, some because they don’t want to be seen as traitors to their local community. And politicians outside of hunting regions don’t want to get involved because it’s not their job to do so, and they don’t want to take the flak for interfering. And so it goes, on and on.
It’s only when the people in hunting communities, here in Scotland and around the world, stop welcoming hunters, accommodating them, and appreciating them, that people such as Walter Palmer will stop travelling the globe to “take” animals that have been bred to die.
Campaigning outside Walter Palmer’s dentist practice in Minneapolis isn’t going to stop hunting. It probably won’t even stop Walter Palmer hunting.
The only thing that’s going to make any real difference is for people in hunting communities to stand up for what they believe in. From the 18-year-old girl who loves animals but works as a waitress in a hunting lodge because it’s the only job she can find, to the 60-year-old taxi driver who hates hunters but bites his lip every day as he picks them up from the airport. And me too, who hates hunters but sat in a car with a colleague last year while he talked about his latest hunting trip, and I didn’t say a damn thing because I didn’t want to create any tension at work.
Each of us, every timid, meek, diplomatic one of us, needs to stop condoning hunting through silence. We need to stop supporting the hunting industry by working within it. As long as a hunting industry exists that welcomes Walter Palmer as a customer, Walter Palmer and his kind will be willing to spend their money to kill captive animals. Realistically, if you want that to end, the person who needs to do something about it is you.