Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Have rifle, will shoot

Visiting Konopiste Castle — situated about 40km outside Prague — is historically informative and interesting on one level and nauseating on another. Bought by Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1887 — yes, the same one whose assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 triggered World War I — the castle became far more than an occasional retreat for Franz Ferdinand and his wife, given that she was unpopular in aristocratic circles.

The archduke stocked the castle’s many rooms with fine furniture, Meissen porcelain, arms and armour, as well as many beautiful (and some not so beautiful) works of art. But these were not the only things Ferdinand collected. Lining the walls of what is called the great hunting hall are hundreds of hunting trophies, all bagged personally by Ferdinand. He was a taxidermist’s dream.

Before becoming hunting trophies, these stuffed and mounted heads — and in some cases animals stuffed in their entirety after being shot — were all magnificent animals and birds roaming the forests of Bohemia, which is today a province of the Czech Republic. His evidently obsessive hunting was not restricted to Bohemia, however. It took him as far afield as India, judging by the tiger among the supposed trophies.

Although it boggles the mind, Franz Ferdinand is credited with having personally accounted for approximately 300 000 animals in the course of his hunting career. The pride on his part, for having asserted the technological superiority of human beings over other animals, is evident in the fact that all the trophies displayed at the castle are punctuated by inscriptions denoting, “number 3000”, “number 5000”, “9000”, and so on, ad nauseam.

To be sure, around the turn of the 19th century, people evidently had no reason for suspecting that the decimation of animals in the wild through unrestrained hunting could possibly have an impact on the future of the species concerned. There seems to have been an implicit belief in the endless, inexhaustible bounty of nature, which was believed to be there especially for human “use” and entertainment. There are accounts of hunters killing thousands of animals in one day in Africa and just letting the carcasses lie there to rot.

In hunter-gatherer times, 150 000 years ago, hunting was probably justified for survival because humans got essential iron from red meat (given that plant iron is far less easily chelated by the human digestive system). In the present era iron is easily ingested in the form of supplements, if necessary. There are precious few communities left in the world who are dependent on hunting for survival.

Besides, we should know better — there are many animal species whose continued existence is endangered by their being hunted for various reasons. In some cases it is simply the supposed “thrill” of the kill that motivates hunters to aim their high-powered hunting rifles at animals with hardly any means of defence (academic colleagues of mine have testified to possessing this atavistic urge) in other cases it is the profit motive that lies behind hunting certain animals.

The most invidious of these are well-known: rhino poaching for the sake of dehorning them and selling their horns at huge amounts to superstitious people for supposedly medicinal purposes; tiger hunting for similar reasons, and, of course, as has come to light, the killing of lions for using their bones and other organs for a variety of purposes, spurred by the belief that these body parts possess curative properties not attainable elsewhere.

It has to be added that, in the latter case, the hunting involved is not of the traditional kind, where the animal presumably has a remote chance of getting away — in the wilderness, that is. The profit motive has changed all that. Franz Ferdinand may still have been motivated by the pride of showing off his “trophies” (which in the new context of an endangered nature are viewed as reason for shame) but most of the so-called “hunters” who make their way to African shores in search of lion as “trophies” are no more than rich murderers who pay large amounts for the opportunity to shoot lion safely “contained” in camps.

This is the phenomenon known as “canned hunting”, of course, which is a huge source of income for “predator breeders”. An ironic name considering that humans are the most “successful” predators on the planet, at the cost of other species. A few years ago the minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk proposed (or passed, I’m not sure) legislation, which has since been successfully challenged by predator breeders, that prevented animals from being sent into an encampment virtually immediately after being bred in captivity. The animals would need to be released into the open for at least two years before they could be hunted.

How the minister could condone canned hunting under ANY circumstances boggles the mind, of course, until one remembers that huge amounts of money are involved. Money paid by the pseudo-hunters who come here to shoot these magnificent animals under conditions that pose no threat to themselves. I wonder what the chances are to level the playing fields a bit, by, for instance, making such trophy collection conditional upon the so-called “hunters” entering the camp where the lions are, and having to stalk them among plenty of bushes. Even better: arm them with bows and arrows, just to test their resolve.

This mindset that impels grown men — probably “pillars” of patriarchal society, too — to end the lives of some of nature’s most beautiful creatures has a lot to do with the “boys-and-their-toys” syndrome, of course. I am talking specifically of the “have-gun, must-shoot” mentality, so well captured in the best film ever directed by Kevin Costner, to wit, Dances with Wolves. Remember the scene-sequence where Costner’s character, the eponymous “Dances with Wolves”, has just been arrested for desertion by American soldiers. They are in the process of taking him back with them when the wolf he had befriended, and to which he owes his name among Native Americans, follows them at a distance. What the soldiers do when they notice the wolf is predictable: “have rifle, will shoot”. And they do.

I remember reading an article on the first Gulf War — the one presided over by US president Bush senior — which argued that one of the main reasons for starting the war was the fact that the generals in the US military needed a “real-world” arena to test the latest armaments such as smart bombs and “surgical” strikes. This is essentially the same kind of mentality you find on the part of those who participate in canned hunting. And such people think of themselves as civilised. If this is what civilisation means, I tend to agree with all those critics of civilisation who see in its fruits signs of deterioration masquerading as progress.

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