Death from above
TO A soundtrack of country music and a deafening roar of rotor blades, the video shows a Himalayan bull tahr being herded from the air, shot and wounded, and eventually taking refuge in a small cave in the South Island's mountain wilderness. The American hunter provides a breathless narrative to what he describes as "organised chaos" and "ultimate fun".
Filmed from the chopper, the video – posted on YouTube by heli-hunting opponents – shows the American being set down near the cave mouth, pointing his rifle into the darkened entrance and firing. "It's so dark in here, I pretty much pointed where I thought he was gonna be," says the hunter as he tentatively enters the cave, urged on by his New Zealand guide. He finds the dead tahr and says, "I tell you what, I've never seen something quite like that before."
The guide, Mike Wilks of Kaikoura-based South Pacific Safaris, is holding the camera and can be heard saying: "It's not generally how we do it but he's got exceptional horns this bull, so we took him." He adds: "It would be near impossible to hunt these tahr without the use of a helicopter."
This comment infuriates many recreational hunters, who believe helicopters should be used only to transport people to remote, rugged areas – not in the hunt itself.
The use of choppers to herd wild animals goes against internationally recognised standards of fair chase, they say – no other country in the developed world allows it – destroys our long established hunting heritage and projects a bad image of New Zealand to the world.
The practice has been going on for years below the radar, especially on private land, with DoC turning something of a blind eye in what is a legal grey area. But, for the first time, the department is declaring a heli-hunting season, setting conditions for 2010 for hunts on public land, including the Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park, while calling for submissions on the issue. Sixteen applications for heli-hunting permits have been received. Heli-hunters almost exclusively target tahr and chamois, as trophy deer are mostly contained on accessible private estates.
"This government is going to turn New Zealand's national parks into safari-themed aerial thrill parks," says Queenstown hunter Shaun Moloney, a member of the Southern Lakes branch of the Deerstalkers Association, which opposes heli-hunting. Moloney has started a Facebook group for opponents of the practice.
"We're running an informal guerrilla war on them through the internet. What happens in our parks and what they represent is a big deal. Let's just fly helicopters to the top of Mt Cook... and let people walk the last 20m – that's the message that DoC is sending with heli-hunting."
He says animals are driven to exhaustion by the helicopter, and guides have been known to use shotguns to "sting" animals and drive them towards waiting clients.
The American who starred in the video originally posted it online to encourage others to come to New Zealand to hunt tahr, but then removed it. But the footage was requisitioned by opponents of heli-hunting for their own propaganda purposes, and parts of it have been used in a short film in which images from heli-hunts are juxtaposed against images from the 100% Pure New Zealand tourism campaign.
This angers Wilks.
"That was put up without our permission," he said last week from the US, where he was attending a Safari Club International (SCI) hunting show, to drum up more business. "As you know with films, nothing is as it seems. It's all taken out of context, the whole thing was sensationalised."
Wilks says opponents of heli-hunting are "radicals", and claims some are hunting guides whose own businesses have been unsuccessful. Heli-hunting is estimated to bring $50 million to the economy.
"The guides who are causing all the trouble have secret agendas of their own. Make no mistake, these guys are trying to destroy the New Zealand hunting industry."
MIKE CUDDIHY, DoC's Canterbury conservator in charge of putting together a heli-hunting framework, has just returned from the US, where he also attended the SCI convention in Reno, Nevada, quizzing its ethics committee for its views on heli-hunting.
The SCI does not recognise trophy animals shot with the use of an aircraft for its record books, but is grappling with a general policy for its 50,000 members. In some parts of the US, such as Alaska, there is a "fly today, hunt tomorrow" policy, so hunters don't have an unfair advantage over animals exhausted by the chase.
Cuddihy is well aware of the controversy around heli-hunting – he has answered 350 emails from angry hunters – but says the main goal is to develop a sustainable, reputable industry.
"If it doesn't fit in with the image that New Zealand wants to project of a tourism industry that's 100% pure... then we've missed a great opportunity."
While he says some of the material posted by heli-hunting opponents has been "unhelpful", it has at least served to spark debate.
"When you look at some of the stuff that's on YouTube... some of that stuff doesn't make you feel good about professional guided hunting in New Zealand. I'm pleased some of that is out in the open and the past practices are being shown. That leads us to saying `what form should this industry take for the future?"'
The issue of whether heli-hunting has been legal or illegal in New Zealand is vexed. The practice has been going on for years, operators relying on permits issued under the Wild Animal Control Act for the recovery of game animals for food processing and live capture. While the permits have a clause prohibiting "fee-paying passengers", operators have legal advice that they are not being paid to carry a passenger, but for the animal they recover.
Cuddihy says it was while reviewing the five-year permits, which expired last November, that he discovered how widespread heli-hunting had become.
He says the legal opinion had been submitted to a coroner's hearing in 2008, investigating the death of an American man who fell to his death in the Mt Aspiring National Park two years earlier during a heli-hunt. DoC declared that the hunt had been "illegal" as the company involved did not have the right permits, but did not prosecute.
The hearing heard that the way guides and pilots were paid potentially jeopardised clients' safety. Hunting parties paid a relatively low daily rate (typically $500) but thousands for a kill, (typically around $4000 for a trophy tahr), causing stress and pressure on guiding teams that could lead to safety issues being pushed. The American who died when he slipped and fell down a bluff had been waiting for three days for the weather to clear – the day of the accident was his last opportunity to hunt before leaving for Australia.
"Money is the absolute bottom line," says Chris McCarthy, of Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris, who has upset his colleagues in the NZ Professional Hunting Guides Association, many of whom – especially the big operators – use helicopters in the hunt. McCarthy doesn't, for ethical reasons, and has started an online petition to stop the practice, attracting more than 2700 signatures from around the world.
McCarthy says his colleagues are driven by profit. "The reason they want to do heli-hunts for tahr and chamois on public land is because they're cheap animals. To kill on private land for each species is going to cost around $2000 to kill it [in fees to the landowner], whereas to kill it on public land, all it costs is flying time.
"They can put three or four clients through in a day. Whereas for guys who want to go out there and compete genuinely, it takes us four or five days to earn the same amount of money.
"Why do [heli-hunters] have to go and muck up the average recreational hunter who's... walked two or three days, he gets in there and then a machine comes tearing in in front of him and hauls out a bull?"
This issue also concerns Associate Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson, who is overseeing the implementation of heli-hunting guidelines.
"There is a valid issue about territory, whereby heli-hunters can swoop in and kill an animal that foot hunters had spent hours tracking. I don't consider that to be fair at all," she says.
"Heli-hunting doesn't require anywhere near the skill of foot hunting, but that doesn't necessarily mean there isn't a place for it. DoC's view is that properly regulated and managed, heli-hunting can be part of the recreational hunting spectrum on public conservation land. Clearly, not every hunter is going to agree with that as they personally don't consider it a legitimate activity.
"But people should be allowed to hunt in a way that they choose, so long as they aren't compromising our environment or the safety and enjoyment of other hunters."
WILKS, WHOSE heli-hunt features in the YouTube video, says he has been hunting all his life and has always used helicopters. "It's part of New Zealand culture to be able to give our clients access to the mountains in helicopters."
He points out that DoC culls tahr every year anyway. "At least this way we're generating income and bringing high-end tourists over to New Zealand."
Wilks says most of his clients are elderly and no longer have the physical ability to climb mountains in pursuit of wild animals.
"Who is to say a person who is 65 or 70, an American or German or whatever, who has saved his money all his life and can finally come over to New Zealand, should be denied the chance [to shoot a tahr]. You've got a few lunatics who are trying to destroy a viable, exciting tourism industry."
Moloney says there are some areas hunters simply shouldn't go into. "If you can't hack it, don't go there, it's that simple."
McCarthy says there are plenty of tahr on private estates – it is the use of helicopters on public land that he objects to.
Adrian Moody, the president of the hunting guides association, says heli-hunting has divided the group's 80-odd members. The association is still formulating a policy, and will make a submission to DoC.
Moody is concerned heli-hunting may portray New Zealand in a bad light.
"Our history is one of pest control, rather than wild animal management, so the rules are different. In New Zealand we've done things that would be unethical in other parts of the world, but we certainly could risk damaging our image with extreme heli-hunting."
Moloney and other recreational hunters are upset that DoC is allowing a 2010 season before it has even gone through the public submissions process.
"Tahr and chamois are not a protected species, but our right to hunt them in peace and quiet is. It's those laws that DoC have ignored, at the expense of thousands of recreational hunters, for the benefit of a very few wealthy helicopter operators and their clients."
HELI-HUNTING – what's proposed
The Department of Conservation has defined heli-hunting as using a helicopter to search for and find a trophy animal, to position the hunter on the ground and, if necessary, prevent the animal from escaping. The helicopter then recovers the hunter and the trophy. The department is calling for public submissions on heli-hunting until next week, but is allowing operators to carry out their activities on public land in South Island high country areas, targeting tahr and chamois. Conditions include that they not fire from the air and that they avoid hunting parties on the ground. Applications for long-term permits close about now, and DoC plans to publicly notify them around the end of February. A panel will make a decision around June.
Tahr and chamois the facts
About a dozen Himalayan tahr, a kind of mountain goat, were introduced for hunting purposes in 1904, and today there are between 10,000 and 14,000 of them. (Chamois, a goat-antelope, were introduced from Europe three years later, but their current numbers are not known.) Tahr are considered a pest because of damage to native vegetation, but are managed under a wild animal control plan. Each year DoC culls about 3000 and hunters kill a similar number. The cost to the taxpayer of the aerial cull can be as much as $300,000 a year. DoC plans to charge a $500 trophy fee for clients of heli-hunt operators as a way of generating income to help cover costs of managing the animals.
Sunday Star Times