Hunting as a Force for Conservation: John Jackson, III
James Swan 11.30.12
Superheroes are big these days, perhaps because it seems like so many problems are on a world-wide scale and beyond man’s ability to solve them. If we were to hold an election for hunting’s version of Spider-Man, I would nominate Louisiana attorney John Jackson, III, because Jackson has spun an international network of connections with a tireless motivation to make things happen that benefit wildlife and preserve the hunting heritage.
John grew up in Louisiana, inheriting a strong law enforcement tradition. His grandfather, John Jackson Sr., was the police chief of New Orleans. John’s father, John Jackson Jr., was a New Orleans homicide detective, who taught his son about law and firearms.
“It was my uncle,” John Jackson III says, “who got me outdoors and introduced me to hunting and fishing. At an early age, I learned that nothing can be as fulfilling as being outdoors. My senses become awake. There is nothing quite like it. The powerful presence of nature and wildlife has been a driving force throughout my entire life.”
John attended Loyola and ultimately studied law. After graduation, his practice quickly grew and in his free time, he became a big game hunter. In the 1970s he began doing some minor pro bono work on wildlife conservation. By the mid-1980s, the focus of his firm’s activities had moved toward more and more work on wildlife advocacy. By this time, he had begun taking hunting trips to Africa, which led to a revelation.
“What I saw was that when hunting leaves an area, poachers enter, and the elephants and other wildlife were then in serious trouble. I realized that hunters pumped money into impoverished local communities through licenses, fees and hiring locals, and provided an important legal source of meat from animals harvested. When the hunting was removed, poaching took off and wildlife and the local communities really suffered.”
The firm’s work on wildlife law, importing trophies, and hunters’ rights began to escalate. In the early 1990s, they achieved an unprecedented number of victories for traditional conservation interests around the world. The Elephant Initiative, Mozambique Leopard Initiative, and importation of horns from darted black rhino are examples of cases almost totally performed by the firm. Other achievements like the reform of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to permit the importation of polar bear trophies, though led by the law firm, exemplified a collaborative effort of many individuals and organizations seldom found in the conservation community.
The law firm became an around-the-clock international communication headquarters and advocacy “war room” for governmental and sportsmen’s conservation organizations. The firm legally processed an unprecedented number of successful test trophy import permits at no charge to the public because they had become engines for conservation.
Faced with magnitude of the need for wildlife legal work, John finally created Conservation Force, a 501-C-3 non-profit public foundation whose primary purpose is the conservation of wildlife through hunting. Conservation Force today provides counsel for some 200 organizations and countries around the world. Among the projects that Conservation Force today takes on are pro bono, litigation, and trophy imports. This past year alone he has obtained the release of hundreds of hunting trophies that had been detained or seized for ever increasing reasons.
John saw that some of the animal rights groups are creating land trusts that seek to prevent hunting on that land. In response, recently Conservation Force has set up its own land trust. To date Conservation Force has set conservation easements on 20 properties in the US, where the right to hunt is preserved in perpetuity.
Jackson and Conservation Force don’t just walk in, appear in court, and then leave. They have become a leading NGO in Africa. He is especially proud of his supporting role with the Cullman-Hurt Foundation that empowers local communities in Africa to take an active role in wildlife conservation and anti-poaching, and in exchange, money is pumped into local communities from safaris and donations. Cullman-Hurt, and the CAMPFIRE program have inspired several other similar successful conservation programs including: LIFE Plus Project in Namibia and the nearly one million acre SAVE Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe, which is the largest privately owned lion reserve in Africa. Since 1995, the lion population in the SAVE Valley Conservancy has increased at 35% per year. Today it holds 10% of the lion population in the entire country of Zimbabwe and 25% of the rhinos in Zimbabwe. SVC has an extremely sophisticated anti-poaching patrol backed by 200 game scouts.
Jackson’s passion for his work and for hunting have kept him on the move constantly for decades. He is one of the founders of the American Wildlife Conservation Partners, a consortium of 42 organizations, representing over 6 million individual members. Other “trophies” he can be proud of include: serving as the 19th President of Safari Club International; past Chairman of both SCI’s Governmental Affairs and Renewable Wildlife Resources Committee who initiated and led most of Safari Club International’s Renewable Wildlife Resources Committee and Governmental Affairs programs and victories for nearly a decade.
Immersed in the legal and political wars about hunting all over the world on a daily basis for years, I asked John to consult his crystal ball about the future of hunting. He replied that he saw four challenges.
1) Nonsensical laws and increasing regulations. He said, and I concur, there are way too many hunting regs, and more and more seem to be added every year, both domestically and internationally. He sees this on an almost daily basis is in the importation of trophies taken abroad. A hunter can now go abroad and legally bag a trophy animal, but bringing the head and cape back may take years. He does add though that he is happy that finally the US Fish and Wildlife Service has publically acknowledged that “there is a reasonable argument for the proposition that controlled sports may provide economic incentives that contribute to the conservation of certain wildlife populations.” One milestone of which John is delighted about is that on August 7, 2012, the USFWS proposed the downlisting of trophies of the Torghar Markhor goat from the Balochistan Province in Pakistan, which would permit the US import of these trophies.
2) Issues with the world-wide transportation of firearms. John does a lot of international traveling. He reports that some European countries are starting to require a special permit to transport a firearm through that country, even if it is on an airplane and the hunter does not plan to claim the firearm from baggage, for they plan to hunt in another country. John says that if such a bind occurs, such as when a plane stops to refuel, guns confiscated, and the airlines may receive steep fines.
3) John does not deny that climate change may exist, but he sees it being used as a rationale for listing species as threatened or endangered that are nowhere near in need of such protections. The polar bear is an example. (Ironically, climate change is expected to improve the status of the wood bison, a species that Jackson recently spearheaded downlisting to threatened, making it importable.) John has been working with Canadian Eskimo hunters from Nunavut for years trying to get a realistic census of polar bear numbers. The bears are a major source of income for the Eskimos, who guide hunters to bag bears. They also take some for food and hides. The Eskimos, who live with the bears on a daily basis, insist there are many more bears than some scientists are saying – as many as twice as many. They also add that polar bears do feed on land in summer months, such as indulging in breeding flocks of geese along the Arctic Ocean shoreline. This would indicate that even if Arctic summer ice recedes for a longer period, it does not mean that the bear will starve. They can and do adapt to changing conditions.
John suggests that today some “experts” are using polar bears and receding ice as an argument to curtail hunting. If this sets a precedent, he could see how some might argue that global warming will result in less rainfall in northern areas, which would mean decreasing wetlands, and therefore waterfowl hunting would have to be restricted or curtailed.
4) The need to educate the public about hunting. To mainstream America, the hunter is a mysterious person, all too often the target of undeserved negative media. The fact that hunting is a critical wildlife management toll, a major supporter of conservation and economic benefits to many people, and a powerful recreational experience that teaches people to care for nature, is not well-understood by the vast majority of people, especially in America. He’s happy to see the growing popularity of big game hunting in the US and abroad. However, he added, hunters are still a minority and vulnerable on many fronts.
A Special Hunt
John Jackson, III, has hunted all over the world. He has been to Africa more than 150 times. Most trips were wildlife conservation meetings and 44 were hunting safaris. I asked him about any especially memorable hunts. He replied with a real beaut.
Several animal rights groups had filed an injunction against the Secretary of Interior and Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to stop importation of argali sheep trophies into the US. Their suit would also invalidate 100 importation permits already issued.
Jackson, who is one of the leading authorities on animal importation law, was asked on behalf of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, the Gland Slam-Ovis Foundation , and Conservation Force, the organization he directs, to handle the case Pro Bono. John had never before hunted for Marco Polo sheep and so he wanted first-hand experience.
In September 2001, following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, John decided to hunt Marco Polo sheep in the high mountains bordering Afghanistan. He had booked the trip before the 9/11 attack. His friends tried to discourage him, but he saw hunting for those sheep with huge horns, as way to pump money into the Tajikistan wildlife infrastructure, which is essential to support efforts to conserve these rare animals.
Aside from his dislike for animal rights activists, John said that he felt “a duty” to go on this hunt, because the September 11 attacks had made not one, but now two groups of terrorists opposing hunting argali sheep. This suit was very important, as if the animal rights groups prevailed, it would establish a precedent that a foreign country can determine if a species in another country is “endangered.” He said if the antis won this case they could try to stop all importation of trophies into the US, which essentially would throw a monkey wrench into trophy hunting worldwide.
John flew from New Orleans to Kyrgyzstan. That was as close as he could get to the Hindu Kush Mountains of southern Tajikistan along the Afghanistan border, where the hunt was to be held. Going there in the fall is tied to the annual migrations of argali sheep, especially the Marco Polo variety, that come into Tajikistan from Afghanistan and China as winter arrives. The next step of the trip involved two 16-hour days traveling by car across Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. The roads are not exactly superhighways, but what made the trip so long were the six planned checkpoints they had to pass through in each country, plus several other unplanned searches.
He said that the outfitter had brought along “gifts” for the soldiers at each checkpoint to help expedite their passage. Some people had advised John, as an American, to “keep a low profile,” but he said that the Russian border guards were quite friendly to Americans, and openly expressed their dislike for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
They finally arrived at a base camp at the 17,000 feet level in southern Tajikistan. They were above the tree line, surrounded by tall snow-capped mountains rising out of expansive valleys. While the country looks desolate with no trees or bushes, there is a good deal of grass and other low green vegetation; enough to support not only sheep, goats and ibex but many rabbits, as well as foxes, eagles and wolves.
The Marco Polo sheep is one of the argali species, distinguished by its extremely long curving horns. John reported that while they were hunting he saw 400-500 wild sheep every day, most at a considerable distance.
They camped at 17,000 feet and hunted at 19,000 or higher. To accommodate to the altitude, John had to take Diomax to sleep at night, which helps your oxygen absorption to compensate for the thin air at that altitude. If you don’t, respiration slows at night when you sleep and you tend to wake up feeling anxious, like you can’t breathe. He didn’t take the pill one day and said that it he woke out feeling very anxious.
They hiked daily to 19,000 feet or more, walking slowly, taking 6-8 steps, and then pausing to catch their breath. John said the temperature was about -20’F, but to appreciate the experience, factor in a brisk wind, making the wind-chill astronomical low. A gust of wind or blast of snow, as well as being swept away in a rockslide, was an ever-present danger. The one unexpected comfort was thermal springs, which enabled him to have a hot bath every day.
On the third day, with the threat of a big snowstorm coming in, the guide spotted four good-sized rams. They made a stalk, which was painstakingly slow at that altitude and with so little cover. The guide advised John that he had better shoot. The rams looked very tiny. Jackson pulled out his range finder. It said the distance was 585 yards. The guide insisted that this might be their only chance. Jackson was reluctant, but the guide told it that it might be now or never. So, John sighted in and shot three times, bringing down the biggest ram in the group. It died almost immediately as he hit him with all three shots.
The Marco Polo rams are known for their immense curling horns. The world record is 67″ long, on each side. John’s ram measured 50″ on a side, with a 17″ base. It’s estimated live weight was close to 400 pounds. As always happens, the storm did not materialize and so the next day he went out for a walk and saw several rams that would go 60″ or more.
John found many argali sheep streaming into Tajikistan, which is in keeping with reports of biologists of that country, who believe controlled hunting is no threat to the argali populations. The Tajikistan government surveys indicate there are 12-14,000 Marco Polo sheep in Tajikistan annually in the hunting areas. They are more numerous than any longhorn sheep in North America. Jackson says, “It was nothing to see 60-80 rams in one herd.”
Hunters bring in several million dollars a year to the region. Tajikistan receives $13,000 in license fees alone for each sheep hunter, and there are about 80 hunters a year, about half of which come from the US. This money is the primary support for research and conservation of sheep populations. The local clans are stakeholders in the sheep management program. Thus to stop the hunting of argali sheep would essentially cut off all money for sheep conservation in that part of the world, which might very well result in the species becoming endangered as a result of increased poaching.
Having been there on the ground, unlike almost all the animal rights types who never get their feet dirty, Jackson now knows for sure that the argali sheep populations and their habitat are secure. (John ultimately won the “Argali Suit,” and the winning argument came to him while on this trip, so you could say this was “research.”)
He admits that one day they were buzzed by some US jet fighters. His guide then explained that the area they were hunting was once supposedly the site of one of Osama Bin Laden’s tent training camps. John said they saw no sign of the camp, and the jets did not come back. That was his only contact with the war.
Jackson’s sheep hunt brings up an interesting possibility for that troubled part of the world. If Afghanistan could reclaim its place as a place to hunt trophy sheep and ibex, this would inject several million dollars a year into their conservation infrastructure and provide incentives to local stewardship – an act of diplomacy as well as wildlife conservation.
In January 2013, John and his wife Chrissie will receive the prestigious 2012 Peter Capstick Award from Dallas Safari Club for their many years of service to wildlife conservation and preserving the hunting tradition.
Clearly, they deserve it.