Wildlife management practice in the Geneva canton is seen as a template by some, absurd by others; but it does differ in one notable respect: the absence of so-called “traditional” hunting. The reason for this is a popular initiative put forward by a physiotherapist and a lawyer in 1974, which saw a 75% vote in favour of a hunting ban in the canton (with a turnout of only 21% of Genevans).
The investigation into the consequences of the cessation of cynegetic activities in the Canton of Geneva
Faced with such an overwhelming, albeit very relative, majority, the authorities quickly had to devise and implement a special plan to manage certain species, undoubtedly to compensate for the lack of hunting activities and, consequently, of controls against potentially destructive wildlife.
Forty years later, the Geneva “model” – which, wherever possible, favours various crop protection measures and compensation rather than shooting – offers a highly interesting case study on the possible economic, social and environmental implications of a hunting ban in a given territory.
This is the vast field of research to which Manue Piachaud – herself a Genevan – has bravely devoted the past three years. Her rigorously scientific work provides such richer pickings for the fact that nobody has studied this issue in such depth before. In this interview, she presents some of her thoughts and findings.
Interview with Manue Piachaud
Can you tell us about your background and where you got the idea for this research?
I did a course in ethology, the study of animal behaviour, at the University of Neuchâtel, followed by further training in anthropology.
As part of my course, I stayed at a reserve in Uganda, in 2008, to study the behaviour of the red colobus monkey, a small primate. While I was there, I was struck by the simple way the villagers kept elephants away from their crops using a tomtom.
After returning to Switzerland, I spent part of my master’s in anthropology looking at a method that is commonly used to prevent crop damage in the Geneva canton: electric fencing. In order to protect vineyards, mainly, from boar in particular, government administrators have gradually had to set up some 70 kilometres of electric fences across the canton.
Based on this study, which looked at how farmers and wildlife live side by side in Geneva, I gradually began to ask what I believe is a vital question: what are the financial impacts of a programme that manages huntable wildlife without using hunters? As a non-hunter who loves “natural” areas, I had to devise an extensive working protocol and meet everyone involved in the “management” process, and residents of Geneva too, to try and get a feel for their view on hunting, or the lack of hunting as it happens. It seemed logical to me to investigate why hunting was abolished so that I could identify and gauge the effects of the ban. And I wanted to look at its effects on the three cornerstones of sustainable development in our society: the economy, ecology and society.
Especially as the territory in question is quite distinctive in certain ways …
Absolutely! First of all, the canton has undergone large-scale urban development, with a population of some 500,000 living in an area of 28,000 hectares (which includes 4,000 hectares of lakes), in other words 2,000 inhabitants per km². The “Nature” areas mainly consist of three 1,000-hectare massifs separated from one another by urban developments. Increasingly, links to their neighbouring areas are maintained through cross-border partnerships aimed at establishing corridors.
Two prominent factors emerge: firstly, the size of these “nature” areas is inconsequential, miniscule, even; secondly, as the majority of the canton’s population lives in urban areas, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that this had some influence on the 1974 decision to ban hunting.
The relatively confined layout of the territory – which had to be shared with other users – also helped make hunting more difficult to pursue, including safety-wise… Oral and written accounts report that hunters were slow to adapt to the rising number of people enjoying the countryside and to the shifting mentality that was already changing how we relate to animals…
Wasn’t there an immediate risk that, by removing the controls offered by hunting, some species would see an excessive population growth?
Although it was rare to see a boar before the ban, the years that followed saw swine populations begin to increase, as everywhere, with the crop damage that entails. Environmental wardens on the ground tried different ways to prevent the damage.
The shooting of 120 boar in 1997 was met with criticism. This led to various protective measures (fencing, etc) being set up, but it has gradually become the norm for boar to be shot at night by wardens, because needs must.
In 2001, 400 boar had to be culled to reduce the damage caused (by then totalling over 600,000 Swiss francs). So to keep the boar population at the desired level of 200 individuals, some 190 are currently shot at night each year. Camera traps and grain bait are used to help: when a boar is photographed, an MMS is immediately sent to the warden, who then tries to kill it. Although the size of the territory means these measures are effective here, they probably would not work elsewhere…
There is a similar problem with roe deer, and a few shoots are also carried out to cull animals that damage budding plants and seedlings – around 20 a year since 2016. Stags have also begun appearing in the north of the canton, where on average 70 can be seen during the autumn rut; they are also a threat to crops, so 2-metre electric fences have been set up around vulnerable areas of land. Remember, too, that they pose a risk to forest regeneration as well… In fact, it’s likely that one day a decision will be made to authorise shoots in order to control their numbers.
Then there are pigeons and crows, which are scared away by various methods, including… culling by third parties. The general rule is to adapt and make the best use of protective measures so that guns are only employed as a last resort.
Exactly, don’t you find it strange that while public opinion in Geneva is overwhelmingly against hunting, it also accepts night-time shooting? Because in the end, if you weigh up the ethics implied in any hunting activity against the administrative culling (with the added help of camera traps) that the authorities are forced into, you might wonder where respect for the animal and the animal’s nature actually comes into it…
Many Genevans aren’t really aware of how many boar are killed or the methods used. The night-time shoots were recommended by animal protection associations, which say that culling this way is less stressful for the animals.
So, with swine control being a vital necessity, they have encouraged the use of these techniques because they feel they are more respectful to the animals. They don’t mention the natural cycle in their argument.
So what are the main conclusions from your study regarding the financial aspect?
First, we find that wildlife management in Geneva without the use of hunters costs the authorities about a million Swiss francs a year (876,000 €); these figures come from the nature management department and cover the range of expenditures: compensation, protection, state-managed population control, hunting sessions, monitoring, etc. What you have to understand is that this is just a drop in the ocean (0.01%) compared to the State of Geneva’s overall budget of around eight billion francs a year.
Even so, our studies have made us realise that wildlife management in Geneva would definitely be less expensive if hunters were involved, but their presence would not be enough to cover the full range of costs involved in the management.
Consequently, in a canton like Geneva, which has a high level of urban development, and where the cost of managing wildlife is no more than 2.60 francs per person per year, the financial argument obviously isn’t going to weigh against a system and a “philosophy” that have been in use for four decades…
Having said that, and this is a vital point, it would be hard to apply the Geneva model to another, larger territory because the costs would be huge and beyond the scope of most regions. Speaking of which, I should point out that, as part of this study, we developed a calculator for estimating the annual costs of wildlife management in a given territory, with and without hunters. It is available on our website (www.teutates.org), has been proven to be effective by a number of specialists, and should work for any territory, simply by entering 70 relevant data points.
And what about your conclusions regarding the environmental and social aspects?
The management policy that is in place has helped many species to grow: in addition to ungulates, around 12 hares have been counted per km² (in 2016, the authorities were forced to act to bring the density down from 50 hares per km²!) and waterfowl obviously appreciated it when shooting came to an end in 1975.
The conundrum is that with no pressure from hunting, certain species have to be controlled by being shot (boar for the last forty years and roe deer just recently – in the last two years)…
On the other hand, it should be noted that the widespread use of electric fences across the Geneva region is tending to reduce and/or break up the habitats of some wild mammals, and has killed deer that became “caught” in the fencing. The state authorities are constantly having to adapt the measures to prevent damage while safeguarding a fluctuating wildlife population.
Finally, from a “social” point of view, I think efforts are needed to gain a better understanding of how hunters operate. In Geneva, where hunting is no longer allowed, there is a stubbornly hackneyed and cliché-ridden view of hunters, mainly through the media.
I personally came to realise that hunters have a keen understanding of nature and animals, and play a vital role in various places. For me, it’s essential we communicate more effectively with other nature enthusiasts and that they be taken into consideration in management decisions in order to calm the situation. I remain convinced that the various parties can be made to work together for the benefit of the nature-society equilibrium.
In Geneva, stakeholders who appear opposed, hostile even, at first glance, have been brought together to find solutions, and in so doing conflict has been avoided. To put it in a nutshell: I believe that the importance of huntable wildlife management, and therefore of hunting everywhere else besides Geneva, urgently needs to be brought into the public forum.
Having worked in a territory where hunting is no longer permitted has given me a better understanding of hunting, who hunters are, and how they can benefit current society! That, to me, is an invaluable lesson…
If you are interested in this issue or want to share your view, you can leave a comment below or write to Manue Piachaud at firstname.lastname@example.org