Battle of the Bullets: lead-free in the lead

Danielle Du Toit, EWT’s Birds of Prey Programme Karoo Vulture Safe Zone and Sustainable Land Management Coordinator, danielled@ewt.org.za

Battle of the Bullets was an event conceptualised during a brainstorming session in Langebaan in early 2022. The event aimed to promote a lead-free environment within the Karoo Vulture Safe Zone. Lead poisoning occurs in many ways, but in this case, the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Birds of Prey Programme focused on poisoning from the ingestion of lead ammunition by vultures and other animals scavenging on carcasses and entrails. Vultures that ingest lead fragments from ammunition have been found to have higher levels of lead in their blood, which affects their health and can kill them. For more about how lead ammunition affects vultures, read this article.

Similarly, people who eat a lot of game meat are also at risk of lead poisoning when venison is hunted using lead ammunition. We saw Battle of the Bullets as an opportunity to engage with industry stakeholders and people on the ground who use ammunition to raise awareness of the impact of lead bullets and the available lead-free alternatives. Furthermore, we wanted to practically demonstrate how these alternatives can do the job just as well as lead bullets.

To unpack the impact of lead ammunition on the environment and vultures, we started the event with some presentations on the topic. Lizanne Nel, Conservation Manager of the SA Hunters and Game Conservation Organization, opened with a talk on the conservation impacts associated with lead ammunition and how their members can help by reducing its use.

Presentations on the impact of lead ammunition on vultures

The EWT’s Danielle du Toit, the EWT’s Karoo Vulture Safe Zone and Sustainable Land Management Coordinator, spoke about the importance of reducing the presence of lead bullets in the environment to create a vulture safe zone and benefit nature as a whole. Linda van den Heever of BirdLife South Africa dove deeper and enthralled the attendees with the science and research into lead poisoning in vultures across South Africa. Her talk was followed by an in-depth talk by Kobus du Plessis of Impala Bullets on the ballistic science behind lead- and lead-free ammunition.

Kobus du Plessis from Impala Bullets talking about ballistic science

After the presentations and a hearty lunch, we asked the bullet manufacturers to demonstrate their lead-free ammunition to show its suitability as an alternative to lead bullets. To do so, Chris Strydom of Balistix Bullets, Wessel Landman of GS Customs, and Kobus du Plessis from Impala Bullets all took turns shooting from 100 m into dummy targets made from gelatin. Gelatin targets slow and trap the energy dispersion of the bullet upon impact and along its trajectory. They are a useful educational tool to show how a bullet performs in practice. Ammunition, like many other things, is designed and manufactured according to its purpose. In a hunting bullet, one needs specific ballistic characteristics for the area in which the bullet is used and for the prey being hunted. A target shooting bullet must perform well through various challenges, including long-distance, gong shooting, and paper targets. Those present were shown how lead-free ammunition (also known as monolithic ammunition) is similarly designed, crafted, and tested for its end purpose in mind and witnessed how it performs in different scenarios.

After the demonstrations, attendees were invited to shoot at several other dummy targets themselves and join in for a few rounds of clay target shooting hosted by the Graaff-Reinet Gun Club. The afternoon was warm and calm, and those who didn’t take part in shooting sat and chatted about one thing: ammunition and what to do about it. Evening rolled around, but the day wasn’t over. Lucky draw prizes were kindly donated by Karoo Guns (two R250 gift vouchers and a hat), Boomsticks (R500 gift voucher), Nommerpas (R1,000 gift voucher), and Balistix Bullets (a bullet puller for all calibres, valued at R500). The fire was lit as the lucky draw happened, and meat began to sizzle on the grill.

The day ended with a delicious meal of classic Karoo Lamb chops, other meat, and salads, prepared to perfection by Andre and Annette Nagel and thoroughly enjoyed by all. The event achieved its objective of bringing together industry professionals and their clients, conservation officials, landowners, and local shooting enthusiasts, for an open and productive conversation about lead and lead-free ammunition and how to work together to create a lead-free environment to benefit animal and human health. Those who attended were given a well-rounded introduction to the risks to vultures and people of using lead ammunition and witnessed first-hand how lead-free ammunition performs in practice. Feedback from attendees was positive, and a shift in mindset was visible. All parties agreed that it’s time we start thinking about lead-free ammunition as a natural next step rather than an alternative.

A hearty thanks and congratulations to everyone who was part of the day. We hope to see you all again soon and continue this important conversation!