From Neolithic Age to Days Yet to Come

This is our mission and life’s work on Earth

City Sergey Yastrzhembsky

Many scientists agree with Yuval Noah Harari that 10,000 years ago the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution changed life on Earth completely, not for the better, though. Despite its global consequences, the hunting culture has survived as well as the hunter’s instinctive thrill of winning a trophy. Sergey Yastrzhembsky, our columnist, Russian statesman, diplomat and founder of Yastrebfilm Documentary Film Studio, considers hunting to be a special art which is quite capable of compassion and has a philosophy of its own.

I took up hunting 23 years ago. While serving as Ambassador to Slovakia, I first tried it and learnt by experience I could take both the trophy and the view of blood quite easy. Everything worked out just fine. Easy did it. At first hunting was a mere entertainment letting me “recharge my batteries.” I tried to escape from the political and administrative stresses of the day and catch my breath in the quiet of the countryside. These days it is a philosophy since I no longer need a getaway as I used to back then.

Now everything is quite different. In the last few years my film studio has been doing a number of big environment-oriented projects. The first one is a film titled “Bloody Tusks,” aimed against commercial poaching, namely, exterminating elephants for their tusks to be used by the Chinese jewelry industry. Another film, “Tigers & Humans,” is focused on saving the Amur tiger population. Both have received a wide critical acclaim. At the moment we are making “Shot of Hope,” a film about environment-friendly hunting. It is about how hunters could protect nature and wildlife variety. What seems to be an antithesis, in fact, is not. There is a world of difference between poaching and hunting. The latter’s mission is taking good care of nature to leave the whole specie variety of today for future generations to enjoy. Game animal breeding and setting full-grown animals free to live in the wild is another useful measure to this end.

A while ago we did some camerawork in Mozambique, one of the world’s five poorest countries. The sporadic warfare of Mozambican War of Independence against Portuguese rule (1964 -1974) was followed by a full-scale civil war killing a million people between 1977 and 1992. In those wars not only humans were brutally slaughtered all across the country but wild animals too, to feed soldiers for free. In 1994 some professional hunters from South African Republic, intending to make environment-friendly trophy hunting possible, approached the Mozambican government for concessions. Mark Holden got 200,000 ha of land in the Zambezi River delta where Mozambique borders on Zambia and Zimbabwe. At the time the area was home only to 3 zebras, 40 beautiful black antelopes, a few scores of buffalos and just a few elephants. Naturally, any hunting was out of the question until the animal populations were restored. 25 years later, hunting tourism is possible on 1000,000 hectares already.

Back then, the first and foremost thing to do was doing away with wide-spread poaching. With a hand of steel order was restored by catching and handing over to the police 200 poachers annually. Now the number of those trying to make a living this way has dropped to 40. Flying over the acreage in a helicopter 1.5 months ago, I was pleased to see hundreds of animals roaming around down on the ground. Just a handful of individuals has been replaced by thousands of animals. Moreover, the acreage proprietor has banned elephant hunting until their population becomes large enough for tuskers, individuals with big tusks, to appear. After more than 30 African safaris I can say that nowhere else had I seen wild animals in such numbers as in the marshy Zambezi delta.

Another important environment-oriented step is showing the local population that hunting tourism can improve their living standards, thus, making them interested in increasing the numbers of wild animals. 20% of the relevant government revenues goes to the locals’ pockets. The Mozambicans’ mindset is changing radically as they realize the interest of not killing wild animals for food. The $ 80,000 received by 1200 local people last year is an economic “carrot” good enough to stop poaching. Thanks to trophy hunters, the government has already earned about $ 500,000 and used the money to build a school, buy children’s school uniforms, open a first-aid post, hire a doctor for it and provide the locals with seed potatoes and corn before the sowing campaigns. On top of that, about 30 tons of trophy meat is given away annually. Such are benefits hunting tourism gives the country in which most people have to survive on $ 1 a day.

The latest ambitious project worth mentioning, “Twenty-Four Lions,” aiming at restoring a predator population in Africa, was launched last year by Cabela Family Foundation of the USA. They caught several lions in South Africa, had them quarantined and transported the animals by helicopter to Mozambique. Now there are already 31 lions living in the area.

My most unbelievable, exciting and illuminative hunt took place in the Pacific. While making “Rule of Survival,” a film about seaboard Chukchis’ whale hunting, I had a chance to assist them in the endeavour. The Chukchi, the Eskimo and the Canada nations get international annual quotas for hunting walrus, sea-calf and whale. Teams of hunters stock up walrus and sea-calf meat & hide rolls. This work is of vital importance for these aboriginal people. On the one hand, it’s a way to preserve their cultures, on the other hand, it’s a matter of their mere survival. The rolls are stored in permafrost freezers dug in the nearest hills providing food for the local settlements during the long winter.

Our team leader, Atoy by name, gave me a chance to see a totally new aspect of the Chukchi nation, victim of so many a joke in Russia. The Chukchis are just wonderful! Once you get to know these people, you cannot help falling in love with them. They are skilful hunters and talented bone-carvers. They hold on to their cultural traditions and can survive under the severest conditions imaginable. The Cossacks, Russian pioneers going East, tried to subdue them for 150 years but all to no avail. This nation was the only one in the Far East & North to withstand the Russian Empire’s pressure. Could mocking the Chukchis in modern Russian folklore be a kind of revenge? After all, only by trickery and diplomacy did Catherine-The-Great manage to make them imperial subjects peacefully. Later, “fire-water,” as the aborigines called alcohol, as well as other “wonders of civilization” completed the mission.

Our hunting team vividly reminded me of a Swiss watch in which every element is in place facilitating the excellently-coordinated work of the others. A whale was noticed from the shore and in 60 minutes’ time its carcass was already on the shore. They said it was a “small” 14-ton one. The hunt was unbelievably fast and dramatic, the whale fluking to smash our boats and us maneuvering in the rough ocean waters to hit the target most effectively by harpoons equipped with floats lest the carcass be lost in the depths. My African rifle and the Chukchis’ Kalashnikovs came in very handy too. Lots of locals, knife & bucket in hand, awaited our huge trophy on the beach. During the wheal spading everybody is welcome to take away free of charge as much of whale flesh as they can carry. Of a hundred or so hunts I’ve had so far, that chase was the most impressive one from beginning to end.

Truth is, hunting as a hobby must be environment-friendly and harmless for the natural ecological balance. In this case, it’s figures that really matter. Japan hunts whales on an industrial scale, thus, violating international bans. In the meantime, the Canadian Eskimos and the Chukchis kill only about 150 whale as well as 1000 walrus and sea-calf annually. The latter case, like that of Mozambique, is really about the local populations’ mere survival and keeping their cultures alive.

I am absolutely sure it’s in mankind’s best interests to avoid causing problems both for ourselves and the world’s wildlife. We must always keep it in mind and aim at handing our planet over to future generations in the best condition possible with as much specie variety as we observe nowadays. This is our mission and life’s work on Earth.