The last time I went hunting I was 15 years old, living in Pennsylvania, where I had perfected the art of spitting tobacco juice. I had a Marlin .22 and went with my buddies Steve, Scott and John to the hunting preserve to kill squirrels, which I was told we would eat. Walking in the woods with a gun is pretty cool. It is a well established fact that there is a heightened sense of self worth when you become a lethal being.
Steve and Scott, who were older, went off in one direction while John and I went off in another to look for victims. We would meet later at our campsite, a place forbidden to set up in a hunting preserve for obvious reasons.
After a few hours of walking around without sighting a single animal, John and I decided to give it a rest and wait for the squirrels to come to us. We sat above a little meadow and chewed tobacco. It seemed a waste to be hunting without firing a single shot, so we picked a target – a leaf on a limb – and went for it. If there were any varmits in the area when we arrived, there weren’t by the time we popped in the next plug of tobacco, for we had made a pretty strong impression of our presence by then. At one point we heard somebody shout a “Hey!” Thinking it was Steve or Scott, we shouted “hey” back. A dude dressed in camouflage, with green grease painted all over his face, came out of the trees into the meadow. “Hey!” he said. He was packing a bow and arrow.
“You guys hear a bunch of gunfire?” he asked.
“Gunfire? No,” we replied, .22 shells littering the ground around us.
“Some assholes are shooting the place up. They don’t realize that they’re scaring the animals and that these woods are full of hunters too.”
Ï offered him some chewing tobacco, but he wasn’t a chewer I guess. He turned around and disappeared back into the woods.
When I moved back to California a year later, I brought my rifle with me, where it ended up rusting out in the garage. The next time I touched a gun I ended up blasting a hole though a pair of my brother’s windows and decided that maybe I should stay away from firearms all together.
30 years later, I decided to do a story about a new law in Georgia that allows hunters to kill animals that are threatened species. I called up a guy named Temur, who is the head of the Georgian chapter of Safari International, a world-wide hunter’s association, and he invited me to come on a hunting trip. Two surgeons, Mamuka and Sandro picked me up at 3 AM.
“Where’s your gun?” They asked.
“I’m not going to shoot, just record.”
They shrugged their shoulders and we sped eastwards across the country to some marshlands in Laghodekhi. It was duck season.
“I love hunt. I am big killer!” Mamuka quipped.
“I like to fish,” I said, hoping the revelation would score me a couple outdoorsman points.
Ducks are not endangered species and I don’t have a problem with the sport, if you can call it that. After all, cooked well, duck tastes good. Watching guys get off on killing them is a different matter though, especially after introducing old Disney animated films like Bambi to my daughter. I stuck around with Temur and a young cop named Dima while the other guys disappeared into the marsh. Decoys were set, including a live quacking duck, and the guys stuck kazoos in their mouths and started quacking too. A pair of geese flew by and got whacked. I thought of their orphans, for they must have been mates, I reckoned. One slayer, Dima, a young cop, picked it up and gave it to me to check how heavy it was. Picking up the big beautiful dead bird, I had forgotten about its Disneyesque offspring. I suddenly remembered how much I love Foie Gras and set it back down gently.
A couple hours later the clouds began to lift from the foot of the Caucasus. Laghodekhi is one of the most majestic places in a county abounding in majesty. I was happy I could stare at the range without having to be on the lookout for birds to kill. My daydreams were interrupted with the sound of Mamuka and Sandro slushing up through the marsh. Mamuka had a half dozen ducks around his neck and the other goose over his shoulder. Sandro was dragging a full grown muskrat. I didn’t ask if it was muskrat season too.
By 9 o`clock, it was time to pose for pictures with the kill. I used to do this with my catch of fish as a kid, but somehow this was different; maybe because fish are cold-blooded and I don’t like “The Little Mermaid,” I don’t know, but the dead mammals changed from dinner items to war trophies (only ducks can’t shoot back). I couldn’t see the picture value in posing with what had suddenly become Bambi’s friends again, but then I’m not a hunter.
I asked my companions what they thought of the new hunting law. They said it’s good that the government is finally doing something to regulate hunting, but were noncommittal to an answer about red-listed species.
“I love to hunt,” Mamuka said. “Red list, I don’t know. Today I kill ducks.”
Endangered Species Are Poached, Not Protected
The Georgian Tourism Department and Caucasian Safari, a private hunting outfitter, was in Las Vegas in February, trolling for sportsmen at the Safari Club International hunters’ convention. Standing in front of wildlife images “borrowed” from a local environmental group, they presented a booklet advertising animals to kill in Georgia. Three of the six featured — the Brown Bear, Caucasian Tur, Caucasian Grouse — are on Georgia’s list of most endangered species.
Environmentalists fail to see the logic in inviting people to come to kill threatened species when nobody knows exactly how many there are. Counts have only been done on two species — the Caucasian Tur and Red Deer, of which there are believed to be less than 100. There is neither a monitoring system nor a conservation program nor an efficient enforcement mechanism in place.
Irakli Matcharashvili, biodiversity program coordinator at Green Alternative, a local environmental group, says environmental crime is rarely punished in Georgia. He points to the prevalence of poaching videos of threatened species on YouTube and how pet bears are kept in cages in gas stations and restaurants around the country. “Somebody killed their mother,” he reasons.
While some poachers have been fined and jailed, most are never pursued. Even the Environmental Protection Ministry admits that their hands are tied, as they have very little resources to combat poaching. With a budget of $10.5 million, it is one of the least-funded ministries in the government.
Last year, most of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s responsibilities were handed over to the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry, whose business is to sell, not protect. It will soon announce the recipient of a tender to count 19 mammals and seven birds for the equivalent of $110,000. It’s a tall order for such a sum and reflects the improvisational character of the ministry.
In January, it issued hunting quotas for particular species without identifying specific hunting areas. For example, 168 badgers, 96 raccoons and 77 wildcats may be “extracted.” Nobody knows where these numbers came from or how they will be monitored.
The problem is that the government has never showed its willingness to protect its No. 1 tourism asset — the environment. Private interests, whether they be new hydropower plants in Svaneti, oil terminals in protected wetlands or hunting outfitters for a few foreign game hunters, reflect a belief that the best way to protect the environment is to privatize it.