How Hunting Saved the Bontebok

The bontebok is one of the most extraordinary examples of species population recovery and habitat protection brought about by the efforts of hunters. At the brink of extinction in the early 1900s with approximately 120 individuals, the bontebok population today has rebounded to around 9,150 animals. This fantastic recovery is a testament to the work of hunters and demonstrates the imperative to protect hunting around the world.

To address the near-extinct population, approximately 20 individuals were moved in 1931 to the new Bontebok National Park in South Africa. This grew to around 700 by 1978, and in order to maintain sustainable population levels bontebok were transferred to other preserves and game ranches. Hunting on these private lands has been highly successful, creating financial incentives to conserve bontebok and increasing both the overall population and species health.

The specific habitat requirements for bontebok of coastal grass plains with fynbos vegetation leave bontebok highly susceptible to habitat degradation and fragmentation. Habitat conversion to agriculture, grazing land, and other uses was an original threat to bontebok and continues to threaten their existence today; conserved hunting areas are in many cases the most or only viable method of habitat protection outside of the National Park. 

Bontebok is a subspecies closely related to the blesbok, which traditionally did not share range territory. As natural habitat and range decreased, the two subspecies began to hybridize, contributing to the many factors pushing pure bontebok to the brink of extinction. Today, all hunted bontebok populations undergo strict regulation and vetting to ensure no hybridization and the overall the growth of the bontebok metapopulation. Additionally, as all bontebok today are descended from the original 120, populations spread across different hunting concessions help preserve and increase genetic diversity. Often, individuals or groups of bontebok are transferred to other areas to breed and boost genetic diversity and ensure the long term health of the species.

South African game ranches undergo rigorous scrutiny to ensure best practices for the species. The increased numbers and incentivized conservation of bontebok make protection of the species viable in South Africa and a sought-after quarry for hunters. It is undeniable that hunting has positively contributed to the conservation, protection, health, and overall sustainability of the species.

In 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), determined that hunting of bontebok enhances survival of the species and began issuing bontebok trophy import permits. They determined that all Endangered Species Act requirements were met to assure that South African bontebok hunts have a significant positive impact on population sustainability. In 2017, the FWS decided the 1997 enhancement finding was outdated and ceased reviewing bontebok import permit applications, despite a positive change or no change in hunting practices, species status, or other relevant factors since the 1997 finding. Unfortunately, despite receiving updated information, including a 2017 Biodiversity Management Plan for the species, and meetings with government representatives from South Africa, the FWS has yet to resume bontebok imports. More than 130 permit applications remain pending with the FWS. Further delays in import decisions will have extensive impacts on the survival of bontebok, as hunting operators have already seen a decreased extrinsic value for the species and are losing incentives to continue important, but costly conservation efforts. 

Similarly, the FWS has put a hold on elephant import permit application processing since 2017. A lawsuit was filed in 2019 challenging the FWS’s delay in processing elephant import permit applications. Recently, the FWS finally reached an agreement to settle the lawsuit and resume processing elephant import applications. Although the agreement specifically commits the FWS to process applications for elephants from Namibia, the FWS also intends to process other pending applications in a reasonable timeframe. This is a win not only for hunters and conservation efforts, but more broadly should lead to speedier permit processing of elephants and other hunted species. SCI is working to ensure that permits processed means permits granted and encourages the FWS to resume the processing of Bontebok applications as soon as possible.

Without international hunting of bontebok and other African species, the benefits derived from wildlife for conservation efforts significantly decreases and habitat available for wildlife can quickly be replaced with other land uses. This is not limited to bontebok – visit our international hunting page for more information on the benefits of hunting to conservation – but is especially vital for species, like bontebok, which have had seriously low population numbers. SCI is working to hold the FWS accountable to international conservation practices and will continue to stand for species conservation and the rights of hunters around the world. 

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