Two decades on - Conservationists unite at conference for our wildlife’s future

From the social challenges of kangaroo harvesting to utilising feral camels in the Top End; managing wild deer populations to trophy hunting in South Africa and uniting farmers in the United Kingdom; the ethical use of wildlife for future generations was the focus of a recent landmark gathering.

With the original conference of the same name first held in 1994, the 2016 Conservation through Sustainable Use of Wildlife Conference brought together around 200 delegates from universities, government, industry and key stakeholders to reflect on past and present wildlife management practices. The occasion provided a platform for both budding and experienced presenters to put forward their ideas and research on the topic of conservation broadly, with the need for a ‘social licence to operate’ a recurring theme across the three-day event.

Hosted by The University of Queensland (UQ) at the Pullman Brisbane on the cusp of spring, SSAA National was a proud major supporter and committee organiser of the long overdue conference. One of the attendees from the first event presented the opening keynote address. UQ Emeritus Professor Gordon Griggs reflected on his time spent advocating for the commercial kangaroo harvesting industry and stressed the need for the right marketing of this emotive trade if it is to move forward.

Fellow original conference attendee Dr Dan Lunney, from the New South Wales Environment and Heritage Office, focused on the lessons learned from the 1994 event. He highlighted emerging environmental challenges to consider, including climate change, predicting that this will have an impact on wildlife populations. He called for proactive policies instead of reactive policy approaches and lamented the zoological and biological ignorance of animal liberation activists and political parties that seem to be playing favourites with species.

Renowned Professor Grahame Webb expanded on the rise of animal liberationists in an entertaining and almost mesmerising keynote speech at the conference dinner, based on his book, Wildlife Conservation: In the Belly of the Beast. He cautioned against ‘bio-politics’ and labelled animal activists as campaigners of animal rights. He also warned the captivated audience about the growing rural-urban divide and the imperative of effectively working with landowners and people in regional areas, instead of returning to knee-jerk political actions which have become all too common.

In a room full of pro-ethical hunting organisations and proud conservationists who use firearms as a tool to protect our native wildlife, the presentation from the RSPCA’s chief science and strategy officer Dr Bidda Jones was highly anticipated. In her address, Dr Jones reiterated that the RSPCA does not support recreational hunting as a wildlife management tool, saying any form of wildlife management, based on what the RSPCA deems ‘sentient animals’ needs to be “justified, effective and humane”.

Dr Jones went on to illustrate survey results indicating that 74 per cent of those approached viewed recreational hunting as ‘unacceptable’. In contrast, 79 per cent of survey respondents recorded recreational fishing as acceptable. She argued that not all involved in recreational hunting can maintain high standard operating procedures and questioned the benefits of recreational hunting on achieving conservation goals.

But with presentations from independent academics and ethical hunting organisations, including the SSAA’s National Wildlife Program Leader Matthew Godson, such concerns were quickly overshadowed by evidence. Conservation benefits recorded following pest control programs involving volunteer shooters spoke loud and clear. The SSAA Farmer Assist program was just one initiative that demonstrated the unreserved importance of utilising capable volunteer shooters, with Matthew outlining how the program has benefited landowners in terms of feral and pest animal control. At no cost and with tangible results so far, volunteer shooters had proved they played a crucial role in conservation and wildlife management.

Student presenter Ellen Freeman also showcased how recreational hunters are contributing to wildlife management. Ellen, a SSAA Academic Bursary Program recipient, outlined the known benefits, including relieving pressure on government departments and landowners to tackle the growing wild deer problem. She received a special commendation for her talk from a judging panel that were searching for the best student presentation out of six students. This was awarded to Stewart Pittard, from Charles Darwin University, for his research into buffaloes in Kakadu.

Along with a focus on future sustainable use practices, there was a notable push for those involved in wildlife management to positively portray activities in such a way that meets public expectations. This is commonly known as the ‘social licence to operate’. Organisations such as the SSAA play a key role in engaging with the community, government and industry to demonstrate our members’ roles as ethical hunters and ensure our activities cause no undue unrest among broader society. It goes without saying that our members must adhere to a strict code of conduct at all times. Animal welfare is paramount.

Professor and Head of the Nature Conservation Department, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, Brian Reilly, gave a first-hand account of the backlash against the trophy hunting industry and how this has had real effects in South Africa. While ecotourism in his home country is still thriving, Professor Reilly explored why Australia has been unable to achieve similar success with our indigenous animals.

The kangaroo industry in Australia outlined some of the challenges it faces, but also explored its true potential. The overwhelming message was that the key is to work with landowners and win over the public. If we are able to create a viable kangaroo industry it would be a big win for conservation, landowners and the general public.

Macro Meats managing director and founder Ray Borda provided insight into why the company is now only harvesting male kangaroos. Much of this discussion focused on social licensing and how the kangaroo industry is still solidifying its place in the Australian and world psyche. On that note, Ray told the conference to keep an eye out for ‘Paroo’ at your supermarket, the finest wild game kangaroo selected from specific regions.

The experience from Teresa Dent, of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, UK, where farmers were recruited to conduct native wildlife surveys and work together to tackle environmental issues, was well received by the international audience. New Zealand was also represented and put forward its experience with fish and game bird management.

Closing remarks from the host organisation and committee chair, Dr Peter Murray, were poignant. He reflected on the growing amount of young people and students entering the industry, including the high numbers attending and presenting at the conference, before reiterating an earlier point: conservation and wildlife management is “not an area of science that is male, pale or stale.”

While it has been 22 years since the first gathering focused on how we, as ethical humans, should best utilise wildlife in a way that benefits future generations, today’s wildlife managers need to adapt to changing societal and political challenges. Whether the next conference is held in another two decades or three years, it is it clear that the role of hunters as conservationists is one that should never be underestimated.

Student Stewart takes out top honour

Along with reuniting original delegates 22 years on from the original event, the 2016 gathering provided a fantastic opportunity for future ecoscientists to present their research to an international audience. With 20 students in attendance and six students presenting across the three days, promoting the importance of up-and-coming wildlife managers, academics and scientists was a key aim of the conference.

There was also an award on offer for best student presentation, with Stewart Pittard, from Charles Darwin University, taking out the honour after receiving high marks from the judging panel. The judging criteria included relevance of topic; clarity and quality of spoken presentation; clarity and quality of visual presentation; time management and quality of message and ideas.

Stewart’s presentation, titled ‘Spatiotemporal population dynamics and management of the feral ungulate assemblage of Kakadu National Park’, focused specifically on buffaloes as a key land management issue in the Northern Territory, with his studies looking at threats to native ecosystems and the importance of this resource for local communities.

Stewart told the Australian Shooter that he had researched potential upcoming events to present his PhD research and found the conference provided a perfect opportunity, along with the chance to present to an international audience. “It just fit,” he said. “It was hard to look past as my topic matched perfectly with the aims and ideas of the conference."

SSAA National President Geoff Jones said the organisation was proud to support the conference as a platform for information and idea-sharing. “We congratulate Stewart on his award-winning presentation, along with SSAA Bursary recipient Ellen Freeman, from the Central Queensland University, who received a special commendation for her presentation on wild deer management,” he said.

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