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Irish is 64, and to ask if he is an avid hunter begs a rhetorical question about the Pope’s religion. He has hunted game for his entire life, in many remote corners of the world. And the javelina and nyala are not alone in Irish’s home: Among other stuffed beasts, there is a red stag, an Arapara ram, an impala, a hartebeest, and a baboon that sits posed at a table, clutching a beer can.
If you were to visit Irish’s apartment, the first thought to cross your mind would probably not be, “That’s nice, but where are the elephants?” But the keen observer would notice that the African “big five” (elephants, lions, water buffalo, leopards, and rhinos) do not roam the otherwise teeming plains of Irish’s living room.
“I don’t have any interest in killing the big five,” he explains. “They’re too pretty.”
But a few years ago, Irish met research ecologists Steve and Michelle Henley, who run a branch of Save the Elephants, an unusual conservation nonprofit. The Henleys’ work is focused in the Timbavati nature reserve, deep in the bush of the northeast corner of South Africa. The Henleys invited Irish on a “green hunt”: He would have a chance to hunt an elephant—without killing it.
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As a concept, green hunting, sometimes called eco-hunting, takes some getting used to. The basic principle: Accompanied by vets, game wardens, and researchers, the hunter stalks his prey. Once the animal is in range, the hunter takes aim and shoots it with a tranquilizer dart. During the 10 to 15 minutes that the animal is unconscious, the researchers and vets change its tracking collar, draw its blood, examine its teeth, and perform other research and veterinary procedures. The hunter usually has a chance to have a picture taken with the animal before giving it a shot to reverse the effects of the tranquilizer, then the team leaves, and (this is where it gets really surreal) the animal wakes up and walks away.
The privilege of darting an animal does not come cheap. At Save the Elephants, the hunt alone, not including the price of travel and accommodations, costs $12,500. But that money goes to fund the research projects and maintain the private reserve. The Henleys, who are married and met at a research workshop about savannah ecology in the late ’90s, study elephants’ movements.
“There is an opportunity for this [practice] to be abused,” says Steve Henley. “Someone could have a property of five acres and one elephant, and dart that ele-phant every other weekend, and the ele-phant would be traumatized. We believe green hunting must be driven by the research and not by the economics.”
Mac Hunter, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine, agrees. While he likes the fact that eco-hunting generates interest in wildlife—and income to support it—he worries about the potential for it to go wrong. “This is a practice that has impacts,” he says. “It is probably not totally benign.” He also wonders whether the money generated by green hunting is best spent on research and veterinary procedures. The big five have already been the subject of countless studies. The greatest threat to wildlife in Africa right now, Hunter says, is habitat encroachment. “If there’s any money for philanthropy here, it’s preferable that it would go toward habitat protection,” he says.
“We’re called ‘Save the Elephants,’ and maybe that puts hunters on the defensive,” he says. “All the hunters we’ve had have been completely enthused about it. But some hunters think it would lack a sense of completion. To them, actually killing the animal is important.”
For those who are not so excited about shooting an animal (even knowing it will get up and walk away a few minutes later), there are also vet safaris, on which a trained professional tranquilizes the animal, and then allows participants assist with research tasks while the animal is unconscious.
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Dr. Peter Brothers, the veterinarian who runs Brothers Safaris in Pretoria, South Africa, hosts such safaris for both veterinary students and tourists. Brothers works with researchers all over South Africa. “We screen the projects very carefully,” he says. “We assess why it’s being done and how it’s being done, and if I consider it a good ethical reason, we might get involved.” For tourists, a Brothers custom-made vet safari can cost between $2,000 and $4,000, accommodations included. Like the Henleys, Brothers puts part of the income toward the research.
This is not everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who dream of getting up close and personal with leonine molars, a vet safari is about as good as it gets. One Brothers vet-safari alumna, 30-year-old Saskia Murray, gushed, “Ordinarily you’d never get the opportunity to touch a lion, let alone look in its mouth!” She rapturously recalls luring a lioness and waiting for her to approach as darkness fell in the bush. “There were all these noises: squealing wildebeests, frogs, and birds, and eventually, we heard crunching noises. Very carefully, Peter shined the light down and darted the lion.” The group then helped change the animal’s tracking collar and looked at its teeth and claws. Then they watched from afar as the lioness woke up. “It was absolutely incredible,” she says.
Unlike Murray, Irish was not particularly interested in the research—for him, the draw was the excitement of the hunt, and the knowledge that “from an ecology standpoint, you’re pretty much helping the elephant.” Still, he has often found himself wondering what Classic Charlie, the elephant he stalked and darted three years ago on his eco-hunt, is up to. “I talk to Michelle from time to time to see how he is,” says Irish. “I heard he’s doing fine.”
Story by Kiera Butler. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.