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Tahr Wars: Episode 1

Earlier this summer, startling news broke out of New Zealand as the Department of Conservation (DOC) was on the verge of decimating the country’s Himalayan Tahr herd, which attracts tourists from around the world and supports robust commercial and recreational hunting industries. The now imminent implementation of the DOC’s controversial plan to greatly reduce the number of tahr on the landscape through aerial gunning threatens to annihilate the population, which would crush guide and outfitter operations, destroy the livelihoods of those in the professional/commercial hunting sector, and ruin some of the very best alpine hunting opportunities in the world.

The NZ hunting community was already facing unprecedented challenges stemming from the global Covid-19 pandemic, which restricted hunting opportunities for both recreational and professional hunters and dried up revenue streams for hunting operations. Hunting guides from across the country are still grappling with the devastating fallout from hunt cancellations and travel restrictions associated with the pandemic, and now despite knowing the gravity of the situation, the DOC still plans to deliver a knockout punch to NZ’s proud hunting culture.

As a global organization, Safari Club International fights for the freedom to hunt and promotes science-based wildlife conservation and management worldwide. In keeping with our mission, SCI generally champions the expertise and management practices implemented by government entities entrusted to manage wildlife as a public resource, as evident by SCI’s staunch support of state, federal, and provincial fish and wildlife agencies in the United States and Canada and through SCI’s unwavering commitment to ensuring various wildlife, tourism, and natural resource ministries throughout Africa have a voice in the management of species within their respective borders. Thanks to longstanding credibility and a commitment to science-based objective-driven decision-making processes, these agencies have proven to be world leaders in sustainably managing wildlife populations. However, the NZ DOC seems to have become an outlier in that sense, recently straying from acceptable operating practices under the guidance of Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage, who has been directing the department’s operations since 2017.

“The fact that a government agency that serves the public can set out to kill thousands of wild animals in such an aggressive and targeted manner based on outdated objectives and non-existent scientific evidence is an absolute travesty,” said SCI CEO W. Laird Hamberlin. “Conducting an operation of this magnitude without incorporating public input and defining clear objectives and scientific goals betrays public trust. New Zealand’s tahr are a global resource. Due to current circumstances in their native range, the South Pacific has become a vital component of the long-term global conservation of the species whether Minister Sage likes it or not. It’s deeply unsettling that a selfishly motivated ideologue can ignore the voices of their constituents and abuse their power with such devastating impacts on an entire industry, cultural way of life, and the ecological sustainability of such a revered species of wildlife.” 

Mike Knowles, president of the SCI NZ Chapter, shared his displeasure with the direction the process is headed, saying, “such a drastic reduction in tahr numbers is likely to greatly alter tahr hunting in New Zealand as we know it for the foreseeable future, for both the recreational and professional sectors. Minister Sage has a well-documented belief that all tahr in New Zealand should be exterminated, and she has direct control over the direction that the DOC shall take on any issue.  It is well known that much of the DOC’s staff are not necessarily in favor of her perceived decisions, but as employees of the Department, unfortunately, they have no power to push back against their boss. The upcoming General Election will afford the NZ hunting fraternity a chance to help steer the future direction of new leadership within the DOC.  The policies that have been promoted by DOC in recent years have further highlighted the need for proper science-based management of the game animals living on public land, and we all look forward to the election and, hopefully, a positive change for the better.”

The hunting community raised doubts during the consultation period as to the validity of the process. Those concerns recently came to fruition, though, as the DOC’s newly released tahr control plan has brought forth legitimate questions regarding the integrity and motives behind the DOC’s decision-making processes. Despite the majority of public stakeholder input supporting a more balanced approach to tahr management and conservation, the DOC instead chose the path advocated for by an extreme minority intent on eliminating all tahr from public land. It has become evident that the Department willfully ignored the vast majority of public comments submitted in good faith during the consultation process, negating to meaningfully update the management plan for the species – instead favoring to selectively apply elements from outdated and previously unenforced management strategies that comply with Minister Sage’s desired outcomes. It is now apparent that the DOC has breached the public’s trust and violated internationally accepted norms and principles for managing wildlife as a public and sustainable resource.

“At the very least DOC has risked accusation of prejudging the outcome, and they’ve shown a certain contempt for the consultation process and all those who participated in the process in good faith,” said Willie Duley, a spokesman for the New Zealand Tahr Foundation. “Again, this reflects poorly on DOC and only works to further sour their relationship with the tahr hunting sector. After being largely ignored by DOC throughout this consultation process, we will have to take a long hard look at the hunting sector’s relationship with the Department going forward.”

These developments provide sobering foresight into the tough times likely ahead for all sectors of New Zealand’s hunting community. As both professional and recreational hunting operations are struggling to survive the global pandemic’s impact on their way of life, the future of the nation’s most valuable game species is currently under attack. The animals themselves being indiscriminately gunned down by government-commissioned helicopters, the meat and horns left to rot somewhere high in the Southern Alps – all just to simply satisfy the ego-centric whims of a power-hungry politician hell-bent on hijacking a public agency to advance unrealistic personal ideals that most people in her country disagree with.

(Photo Credit: Kaleb White/GRITMEDIA)

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