Anthropologists study difference: We go to other places to examine how, and why, people do things differently. However, the insights of these studies do not only teach us about other places and peoples - they can also shine a light upon our own society
About a month ago, a scene from a Dutch television show called ‘De Social Club’ caused some commotion. The show, always in search of remarkable storylines, dealt with the Vakantiebeurs (Holidays Fair) – a rather well-known annual event in the Netherlands, where tour operators from all over the world come together and tout their services. The Vakantiebeurs, so to speak, is an exhibition of the most diverse, exotic, and extraordinary holiday destinations.
De Social Club: Slaughter trips in Zambia
In one of the stalls a tour operator from Zambia advertised hunting safaris. Offering big game hunting packages, the travel organization provided holidays entirely revolving around shooting wildlife. This to the overt dismay of De Social Club’s reporter. Driven by a desire to bring such, what he thought to be outrageous, practices out in the open the reporter armed himself with a hidden camera, visited the stall, and filmed its host selling his wares.
What followed was a press statement released by De Social Club’s broadcast BNN on January 16th, claiming that Hofman, the reporter in question, had proof that one could easily arrange an elephant slaughter trip at the Vakantiebeurs. In that evening’s episode, the footage shot at the stall was followed by a harsh interrogation of the organizer of the Vakantiebeurs. The interview was staged in such a way that the managing director was bound to appear in an unfavorable light – either he had not known about the advertising of hunting safaris and was shown to be a completely uninformed and unfit director, or he had known, and so had given his approval to the marketing of such appalling forms of recreation. Visibly taken off-guard and seized by the unexpected uproar, the organizer stammered his way through the reporter’s grilling.
Hunting policy in Kenya: wildlife as an economic commodity
The commotion reminded me of a debate that had permeated my fieldwork in Kenya. Living near the south-eastern border of the Laikipia Plateau, one of the country’s most booming wildlife-spotting destinations of late, where tourist lodges and camps pop up like daisies, I was often drawn into discussions on Kenya’s wildlife policy. Roughly (but simplified for the sake of clarity), such discussions accommodated two incompatible perspectives.
On the one hand, there were those who agreed with the country’s total ban on hunting, which had been effective since the late 1970s. Here, the preservation of wildlife was commonly perceived as a moral duty. This position was largely occupied by animal rights organizations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) or the Born Free Foundation. On the other hand, there were those who regarded wildlife as a commodity, and who understood conservation in terms of entrepreneurship that could only succeed through economic imperatives. Here, the hunting ban was criticized for pre-empting the potential of wildlife to generate financial rewards. Most of the private ranch and conservancy owners, who fought to make ends meet in hosting wildlife on their properties, clung to this rationale.
In December 2013, more than a year after I had left Kenya, a long-anticipated legislative twist reinvigorated the polemics – after decades of prolonged and often unproductive debate, a new Wildlife Act was announced. This Act raised much international attention because of the severe punishments it set for with regard to poaching. But, more importantly in relation to the discussion introduced above, the Act allows for cropping and culling (i.e., thinning out wildlife populations on ecological grounds). Similar activities had been allowed in the 1990s, but they were soon banned after experts had decided that legal culling was prone to corruption and abuse. The new legislation, one can imagine, inspired older arguments – it once again laid bare the antagonistic points of view on whether or not wildlife as an economic commodity would benefit conservation.
Alienating journalism: controversy in Dutch perspective
How can a susceptibility to Kenya’s wildlife policy struggle add to a reflection on the tumult caused by a Dutch television show? When putting De Social Club’s attack on the Zambian tour operator into perspective, one realizes that controversy looms. But it is of a different nature than De Social Club wants us to believe. The shots filmed with the hidden camera (shaky and out-of-focus frames, which we have come to associate with unsavory practices) created the impression that the stand owner was releasing clandestine information – information that he would have kept to himself had the reporter brought a cameraman. This is where the controversy lies.
In Zambia, as in other southern African countries like Namibia, Mozambique, or South Africa, hunting is perfectly legal. Hence, the tour operator was operating within the legislative boundaries set by his country. De Social Club’s staged rumpus, then, first and foremost reveals the show’s own moral prejudices. De Social Club chose to sensationalize and incite, whereas it could also have made a sincere effort to research and contextualize what it did not understand. This, I strongly believe, is the kind of journalistic venture that alienates people from each other. It frustrates the potential to value and respect differences across places and peoples – and, if you ask me, it’s the kind of journalistic venture that we can easily do without.