Trophy Hunting – A Complex Picture


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Trophy hunting has become a divisive topic, but calls for an outright ban risk undermining the substantial contributions that well-managed hunting can make to conservation. So-called “smart bans”—which selectively target operators or even countries that fail to ensure hunting delivers meaningful conservation outcomes and benefits to rural communities—could help clean up an industry plagued by corruption and bad practices.

Like Professor David Macdonald with the lion known as Cecil, I once had a study animal shot by hunters. In my case, it was a leopard known to us as Wilbur. The first time I encountered Wilbur, he materialized out of a wall of apple-leaf scrub and walked right up to my open Land Rover, brushing the side of my vehicle while I held my breath. Leopards can be like that—either so shy that they disappear long before you see them, or so bold that they ignore you completely.

This was nearly 10 years ago, but I still remember the shock, pain and anger we all felt when word reached us at our research camp that Wilbur—by then fitted with a VHF tracking collar—had been shot by a hunter. Scientists are supposed to remain dispassionate observers, but when you spend hundreds of hours in the company of a wild animal, you get to know its character and inevitably a bond forms; you become invested in that animal’s fate. While a respectful distance remains, a study animal’s death is still mourned—especially when its death has only served to furnish someone with a pathetic trophy.

We learned that the client had been sitting in a hide with his professional hunting guide, staking out a bait. This is how leopards are shot—from a seat, in cover and at short range, with the big cat lured to its death. It seems not so different from shooting fish in a barrel. In the gloaming, the hunter and his guide claimed not to have seen the collar around Wilbur’s neck. I have always found that hard to believe. Collars are very obvious on leopards, contrasting strongly against the spotted fur and sitting proud of their short coats. I suspect that Wilbur was just too fine a specimen to pass up. Under time pressure, with a client having paid thousands of dollars for his trophy, I believe the guide chose not to see the collar and sanctioned the shot, but I can never know for sure.

Whatever the truth of Wilbur’s death, the client and his guide left the country shortly afterward, and not long after that hunting was suspended in Botswana. The hunter had been perfectly entitled to shoot a leopard in that area, but the established code of practice was and is to avoid shooting collared research animals, partly out of courtesy (a great deal of time and effort is invested in deploying collars) and partly because good hunters value the insights that collared study animals give everyone with an interest in managing and conserving wildlife.

Today, Botswana is slowly opening up its hunting industry again, but this is attracting vocal criticism from some Western animal-rights campaigners. This anti-hunting campaign strikes a chord with many for whom images of overweight, inanely grinning hunters posing proudly next to butchered animals are repugnant. Such seemingly indefensible “sport” is favored by Donald Trump, Jr. and the ex-King of Spain, but should it be simply banned?

The threat is not hunting

Perhaps surprisingly, few conservation scientists endorse these populist calls to ban hunting. Instead, many are alarmed by the potential unintended consequences of such a ban. Why is this? When so many conservation biologists are disgusted by trophy hunting, when some of us have even lost well-loved study animals to hunters’ bullets, why are we reluctant to support a total ban?

The truth is that trophy hunting is not the main threat facing wild animals in Africa. For most species, it is not a threat of any sort. In fact, the opposite is often true—trophy hunting provides a means of funding conservation work and protecting the habitats that sustain wild animal populations across large swathes of the continent where, without hunters’ dollars, wild bush would soon be taken over by agriculture or the wildlife decimated by poachers.

Across many of Africa’s safari countries, the area of land managed for hunting is actually equal to or larger than the area set aside for photo-tourism in national parks. This is why lions are in fact increasing in Southern Africa, where they are legally hunted, while their population has crashed in countries like Kenya, where trophy hunting has been banned since 1977. Ditto giraffes. Ditto rhinos. Ditto elephants . . . If we banned trophy hunting, the area of land protected for wildlife could shrink drastically, putting these populations at risk.

But wait! I hear you cry. Why do hunters have to kill things? Why can’t we turn all these hunting zones into more eco-tourism destinations? Why can’t photo-tourism fund the protection of these habitats? This idea sounds appealing, but the reality is that away from popular tourist destinations like the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara, tourist operators often struggle to attract guests. Animals may be too scarce, biting flies too abundant or the views too unremarkable. Do you know anyone who has been on a photo safari to Chad or the Central African Republic?

Botswana’s attempt

Botswana did try to auction its hunting areas to photographic tourism companies after its 2012 hunting moratorium, but only a few of the most desirable ex-hunting wildlife-management areas were leased successfully and most have remained unoccupied since the ban. Hunters were happy to visit these areas; other tourists are not.

But these miles and miles of flat, thorny scrubland, where animals are rarely seen and the view may be limited to a few metres, remain vital for wildlife. They link protected areas together, securing gene flow between otherwise isolated populations, and they provide refuges for so-called fugitive species like cheetahs and African wild dogs, species that can struggle to compete with larger predators in the more popular tourist areas where lions and hyenas dominate.

In the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area (half a million square kilometres—200,000 square miles—of wild land reaching across Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to form the largest contiguous protected area outside of Antarctica), hunting areas play a vital role in maintaining landscape scale integrity. If hunting were banned, what would happen to this connectivity?

Since hunting was banned in Botswana, the boreholes that hunters paid for have dried up and poaching has reportedly increased. Poaching takes a far greater toll on wildlife populations than trophy hunting, with a far greater impact on females and overall population numbers. Meanwhile, since the hunting ban, rural communities in Botswana have reported increasing conflict with and resentment towards wildlife, now that they do not receive any income from hunting to help compensate for the crop losses, stock depredation and (thankfully rarer) human mortality caused by lions, elephants and other wild animals.

The situation was unsustainable, and so Botswana’s government re-opened trophy hunting, offering the promise of income, employment and meat to communities living with wildlife. In a country that supports more elephants than any other, Botswana is surely entitled to manage its wildlife as it sees fit, but this hasn’t stopped distant celebrities and animal-rights campaigners from criticizing this move, causing some of the affected communities to feel understandably aggrieved.

Elephant group in the “shade” of a baobab tree in mopane scrub, northern Botswana. Elephant overpopulation there is becoming a critical issue. Ron Crous photo

In response to an anti-trophy hunting campaign supported by animal-rights activists and celebrities, more than 50 African community leaders recently signed an open letter defending their “basic human right to sustainably use the natural resources on which our communities’ livelihoods depend” and urging Ricky Gervais, Ed Sheeran and others, to “stop undermining our globally recognized conservation efforts.”

Conservationists who caution against banning hunting do not pretend that hunting is an ideal solution. We simply recognize that it serves a valuable purpose in places where no other mechanism for the protection of habitat currently exists. For most conservationists, a hunter’s desire to kill an animal like an elephant remains baffling and repugnant. But a utilitarian acceptance of trophy hunting is based on an understanding of the community benefits that can derive from well-managed hunting and the belief that even if such hunting might be objectionable, it represents a lesser evil than the catastrophic wildlife losses that would likely stem from a premature ban.

Indeed, some conservationists argue that a trophy-hunting ban directly imperils biodiversity, while others have asked for a broadening of the debate. Shameful attempts have been made to impugn the motives of those voicing such concerns, with accusing fingers pointed at those who have accepted funding from hunters, however small and however long ago. The same critics who claim hunting doesn’t fund conservation then attack any conservation projects partly funded by hunters.

Ethics, values & consequences 

In truth, the ethical debate between those who favor a ban on trophy hunting and those who caution against a ban boils down to a debate between deontological and consequentialist values. The deontological argument holds that if an act (e.g., trophy hunting) is wrong, then it is bad, regardless of any associated consequences. By this standard, shooting someone would be considered wrong even if that person were a suicide bomber and killing him saved innocent victims. The consequentialist argument holds that while an act may be bad in isolation, it may be the right thing to do if its consequences achieve a greater good.

 

“Hunting” captive-bred lions in enclosures, not uncommon in South Africa, helps to paint all hunters with the same tarred brush. Courtesy Peter Flack

 

The hunting industry today is far from perfect. It does not always support proper habitat protection, and it is often linked to financial corruption and other unethical behavior. Short leases and the incentive to shoot as many animals as possible within poorly managed quota systems can lead to the targeting of animals whose deaths may have negative impacts on local populations or genetic diversity. And hunting does not always funnel significant revenue back to the local communities it so often boasts of supporting. It also remains an almost exclusively White industry, at least in terms of the professional hunters. Where hunting can be replaced by other revenue-generating models that equally support wildlife, ecosystem integrity and community development, those industries may be preferable.

Photo-tourism can have significant negative impacts. These vehicles are crowded around a wildebeest river crossing in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Xavier Surinyach photo/ConservationAction.co.za

 

However, so-called non-consumptive tourism has its own negative impacts. In the Maasai Mara, poorly behaved guides have caused mass drownings of wildebeest at river crossings and the crowding of cheetahs in tourist hotspots is linked to significantly increased cub mortality. Photo-tourism also has a much larger carbon footprint than hunting, requires more water extraction and often leads to the unregulated spread of networks of vehicle tracks. In many areas, a mixture of hunting and photo-tourism can generate more revenue and support more jobs. In the post-COVID era, Africa needs every paying visitor it can attract.

We live in an imperfect world. Does hunting need reform? Absolutely. Could it be better regulated? Undoubtedly. Should hunters take more responsibility for demanding ethical practices across the industry? Again, yes. But will a trophy-hunting ban at this time be good for wildlife? On balance, right now, I believe the answer is no.

A way forward?

Writing in The Ecologist, economist Ross Harvey made the case that “ethical, economic and ecological problems with trophy hunting warrant a trophy import ban.” Mr. Harvey argues that justifying trophy hunting on consequentialist grounds is inadequate, partly because he believes that the true consequences of a ban are unclear (i.e., we might not lose all the habitat currently used for hunting after a ban if some other means can be found to fund its protection) and partly because even if the results are as dire as feared, the consequentialist argument opens a Pandora’s box of consequences in turn.

For example, if it is acceptable to support trophy hunting to protect endangered species and habitat, is it also acceptable to support “green militarization” and the displacement of human communities to further conservation aims? In short, does conservation trump ethics?

Other North American and Australian scientists have argued that trophy hunting sits within a “cultural narrative of chauvinism, colonialism, and anthropocentrism” and is “morally inappropriate.” They “suggest alternative strategies for conservation and community development should be explored and decisively ruled out as viable sources of support before the conservation community endorses trophy hunting. If wildlife conservation is broadly and inescapably dependent on the institution of trophy hunting, conservationists should accept the practice only with a due appreciation of tragedy, and proper remorse.”

While the tone of such statements neatly captures the zeitgeist, it remains dangerously irresponsible to endorse a ban without first establishing viable alternatives. We have a responsibility to ensure that alternatives are in place, are sustainable and are reliably funded, before enacting any bans. We also must be confident that these alternatives stand ready to immediately replace and match the habitat protection, anti-poaching presence and level of community funding that hunting currently delivers. Otherwise, what will happen to wildlife and communities in the interim? As yet, few such alternatives have been properly established, although work is being done to try to develop them.

Abstract discussion of the morality and ethics of trophy hunting still rarely touches on the morality or ethics of a ban and its consequences, or the rights of people who may be hurt by hunting bans. In Botswana, the village of Sankuyo exists within a wildlife management area where cattle are not permitted. Trophy hunting was the residents’ main income source, and the hunting moratorium left them in limbo, angry and impoverished.

In Namibia, marginalized San communities have been able to resist cattle invasions by neighboring communities because of the legal defense offered by the hunting conservancy in which they live. Importantly, Namibian conservancies support more than 5,000 jobs in areas where other options are almost non-existent, and these hunting areas have supported increases in wildlife populations at a time when animal numbers have been dropping in many national parks.

Regardless of whether you believe it may be desirable or not, it is naive to imagine that “non-consumptive” tourism can simply replace these jobs and continue to support these vital wildlife refuges. Experience tells us it cannot—at least not everywhere.

Mr. Harvey continues his support for a hunting-trophy import ban in the UK by touching on the ecological problems that trophy hunting can cause, citing research which shows that hunters’ claims that old bull elephants are post-breeding age—and may therefore be shot without any impact on elephant society—are based on a flawed understanding of elephant ecology. Other elephant researchers have also highlighted the social value of old males as both repositories of ecological knowledge and in curbing adolescent bad behavior.

Hunting also stresses elephants, potentially making them more dangerous, with detectable increases in stress hormones recorded across hunted populations for up to a month after a hunt. Finally, the provision of artificial waterholes by hunters seeking to attract quarry species can disrupt the delicate balance of arid environments, to the detriment of other rare species, although this is also true of the tourist camps that use pumped waterholes to attract wildlife.

These are valid criticisms, but elephants are likely to be closer to the exception than the rule and the arguments for bans on elephant hunting should be differentiated from the arguments for more general bans. While trophy hunting has been linked to evolutionary changes in selected traits for a handful of species, this is more likely when both sexes are selectively targeted, and thus is more likely with ivory poaching than with trophy hunting. Most species, such as lions, may be hunted perfectly sustainably, without any negative impacts on their populations, behavior or genetics—provided strict quotas are scientifically established and then enforced. In truth, the allegation of “ecological harm” turns out to be an argument in favor of better regulation of hunting, rather than a persuasive reason to ban it.

Venerable and solitary bull elephant, Nhoma, Namibia. Stephan Jacobs photo

Mr. Harvey’s final argument against trophy hunting is that it does not represent as significant an economic contribution to either local communities or national GDP as hunters would have us believe. There are many claims and counter-claims around the economics of hunting, but even those who campaign against it recognize that it is “big business.” It is probably true that eco-tourism supports more jobs than hunting, and it may be a better employer of women, who can find more jobs in housekeeping and hospitality in a tourist lodge than in a hunting camp, but that is not the point.

If so-called “non-consumptive” tourism could fund conservation everywhere, then the case for hunting would be significantly weakened, but the fact is that it can’t. Mr. Harvey’s rather glib assertion that “if hunting land were converted to non-consumptive tourism” many more jobs could be created neglects to account for the fact that when the leases for hunting lands have been offered to non-hunters, as in Botswana, this has sometimes led to a net loss of jobs and community income. Indeed, where hunting bans have actually been enacted, local communities are often the ones to lose out. Hunting can also serve a useful sociological purpose in reducing human-wildlife conflict and the perception of conflict with wild animals.

Hunting may support only 17,000 jobs in South Africa compared to 90,000 in “non-consumptive” tourism, but the point is that those are 17,000 jobs that cannot be easily replaced by alternative forms of tourism. We need both. If trophy-hunting operators sometimes fail to share enough revenue with local communities, this again is an argument for reform, not for a ban. Certainly, governments and communities should be seeking to earn the maximum possible revenue from each hunted animal. Lions have been shot for less than $10,000 in South Africa, while in America some trophy-hunting licenses have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. If hunters will pay that much money to shoot a sheep, how much might they be prepared to pay to shoot a lion?

Britain’s options

The hunting industry needs better regulation and, in some places, substantive reform, but the question that should be asked is: How best can this be achieved? Concerning the proposal to ban trophy imports, the UK Government is considering four options:

  1. A ban on hunting trophies of certain species entering or leaving the UK.
  2. Stricter requirements to show clear benefits to conservation and local communities before trophies of certain species are permitted to enter or leave the UK.
  3. A ban on all hunting trophies entering or leaving the UK.
  4. Do nothing—continue to apply current controls based on internationally agreed rules.

British hunters represent only a very small percentage of the safari market and a blanket ban (option 3) or even a ban on select species (option 1) is unlikely to have much effect on the hunting industry—but it would entrench the widely held view that Western animal-rights activists care nothing about the welfare of poor rural Africans or their right to sustainably manage the wildlife they coexist with, often at great cost.

If instead the UK chooses option 2, to support a “smart” ban on trophy imports from areas where hunting offers no demonstrable benefit for conservation or communities, that could form the basis of a progressive policy that could actually help incentivize a better, more ethical and more sustainable hunting culture in Africa. Rather than making a largely symbolic and yet potentially damaging gesture, the UK could enact a policy that will help drive positive change in the hunting industry, benefiting both wildlife and people. Let us hope that, for once, the politicians make the right choice.

Hugh Webster has studied carnivores in South Africa, Zambia and Botswana, and completed his PhD conducting research on African wild dogs. He continues to work with Botswana Predator Conservation and its associated environmental education program, Coaching Conservation. His first book, The Blue Hare, was published in 2019.

Banner image: Wilbur, the author’s study leopard, wearing his tracking collar. Author’s photo