Do Hunting-Trophy Import Bans Have the Intended Effect?

Will legislation such as Belgium’s new ban on hunting trophies help conserve threatened species? The impact of hunting-trophy bans is not necessarily what was intended.

In late January 2024, Belgium’s Parliament voted unanimously to prohibit the importation of hunting trophies from endangered species. On the following day, The Brussels Times reported:

Before the ban, Belgium allowed the import of trophy species vulnerable to extinction such as hippopotamus, cheetahs and polar bears. The new law will stop the import of hunting trophies from many species currently at risk of extinction or that could be threatened unless trade is limited.

The bill will protect all species listed in the European Regulation on the protection of species of wild fauna and flora—such as jaguars, cheetahs, leopards, some brown bears, Cape mountain zebra and chimpanzees, and African elephants. Also included are African lions, Southern white rhinos, hippos and argali sheep.

The protection of wildlife, particularly endangered species, is a goal that virtually no one, and no government, can fault. However, the consequences of Belgium’s trophy-import ban go beyond reducing the killing of these species and could work against the stated objectives of its proponents.

The Humane Society International/Europe said, “With this decision, Belgium positions itself as a leader in protecting biodiversity and endangered species.” The head of the Humane Society of the US called it a “triumph for wild animals and the people who advocate for their protection.” Belgium’s Climate Minister spoke to the matter too, adding, “It was urgent and necessary to protect these threatened and endangered species.”

Compared to the US or the European Union overall, Belgium has relatively few world-traveling hunters; however, supporters of the new law have said that they hope other, larger countries will follow suit, beginning with France, which is considering extending its ban on the import of African lion parts to apply to other species also. (The French ban was in response to the worldwide reaction over the hunting and killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015, an act that was ultimately deemed legal.)

If hunters are unable to bring their quarry home, the thinking goes, they will be much less likely to hunt at all, which should reduce the pressure on animals that may already be endangered by loss of habitat, climate change, pollution, poaching (illegal hunting), subsistence hunting and other factors.

However, according to many wildlife scientists and conservation organizations, this is an oversimplification of a complicated issue; and well-managed, fee-paid hunting has been shown to provide conservation benefits.

Conservation can be costly
The cost of conservation relates directly to the value of wildlife and its habitat. As a source of food and materials (leather, fur, ivory, horn and more), wildlife has substantial cash value, and while many people will leave wildlife undisturbed, others will take advantage of this by harvesting wildlife illegally.

To put this in perspective: In 2019, Singapore police seized a single shipment of 12 tons of pangolin scales (from about 20,000 animals) worth an estimated $38.1 million. The Wildlife Justice Commission has calculated the wholesale value of raw rhino horn trafficked in the past decade to be between $874 million and $1.13 billion. Such huge incentives for poachers require anti-poaching agencies to ramp up their efforts proportionately.

Since the wholesale value of rhino horn is typically more than $30,000 per pound, in some areas of Africa rhinos have their own full-time guards, such as this former South African soldier. This small reserve has just a dozen rhinos, yet its annual anti-poaching budget is more than $100,000, a portion of which comes from hunting fees. (Rasthunya photo)

Wildlife habitat also has commercial value and must be protected from large-scale logging or agriculture, mining, drilling or other development; regulation and enforcement are needed here as well. The soil, water, air and vegetation on those lands must also be healthy, and this too requires investment and protection.

Virtually every society would probably acknowledge the need to safeguard wildlife and wild lands; however, the reality is that both must be self-sustaining not only biologically but also financially; and in many regions hunting has proven to be an important and effective way to support conservation by helping to pay for it. A downturn in hunting revenue generally brings with it a downturn in conservation funding.

As well, lands that are not specifically set aside for tourism, including hunting, are more vulnerable to commercial development or exploitation.

Wildlife has economic value
The mantra of people who earn a living from hunting is, “If it pays, it stays.” If elk in the American West or markhor in Central Asia or lions in Africa did not provide significant benefits—such as revenue from hunting fees and employment—they might be reduced to remnant populations in parks and reserves. Elk can be viewed as competitors and possible disease vectors for domestic livestock, markhor as meat for mountain villages, and lions as predators of domestic livestock and occasionally humans.

Hunting, in particular hunting that requires travel, can generate large user fees. In Alaska non-residents pay $1,000 for a grizzly bear permit and $900 for a moose tag. In Africa, hunters pay up to $100,000 for an elephant; a lion may cost $50,000 and a Cape buffalo $25,000. In March 2023, in Pakistan, three markhor permits brought $544,000. These fees are in addition to the costs of hunting licenses, travel, guiding and outfitting services (often legally mandated), meals, accommodations, gear and gratuities.

Not only rural communities and the producers of hunting services and gear share in this revenue; as noted, conservation agencies get much of their operating funds from fees generated by hunting. In the US alone, according to the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, in 2018 hunting generated $5.3 billion at the federal level and $3.4 billion in state and local taxes. It also supported an estimated 525,000 jobs and $21.5 billion in salaries and wages.

‘Trophies’ are problematic
The notion of killing an animal in the prime of life in part to display its antlers, horns, tusks or taxidermied body as a trophy, a symbol, has become questionable, and is one of the drivers of trophy-importation bans. To some extent, however, this concept is being addressed by modern wildlife-management regulations and increasingly disavowed by hunters themselves.

A modern hunting trophy—an old male Cape buffalo with horns that have been worn down by a lifetime (approximately 15 years) of use. An animal such as this one is likely well past breeding age. (Author’s photo)

Today, nearly all animal species everywhere are protected by law. Hunting is limited by quotas and seasons that are established by science-based assessment and study to ensure the sustainability of those species. Furthermore, recognizing that “trophy” animals—the largest ones or those with the longest horns, antlers or (in the case of lions) manes—are generally males of high genetic value, wildlife agencies are beginning to set age limits to ensure that only animals that are no longer breeding may be killed.

NAPHA, the Namibia Professional Hunting Association, says, “the terms ‘trophy hunting’ and ‘hunting trophy’ [now] seem outdated and incorrect” and prefers “selective hunting,” which it defines as “the form of hunting which . . . has the lowest impact on the hunted species and delivers the highest financial outcome.” NAPHA calls hunting breeding males in their prime a “genetically unsustainable trend” that is supported by the trophy-scoring systems of the various record books for African game. Instead, NAPHA has developed its ART—Age-Related Trophy—Measurement system to incentivize hunting “truly old animals past their prime and to discourage the hunting of immature animals altogether.”

Food value & waste
People who do not support trophy hunting often support hunting for meat instead. Traditionally, a hunter is entitled to the skull, hide and meat, but if the hunter doesn’t bring the meat home, it is usually donated for local consumption. In Africa, visiting hunters provide a large share of the meat eaten locally. (This is unquantified overall, but researchers have calculated that one mature elephant can feed 350 people for a week or 100 people for a month.) In Alaska, a hunter who does not thoroughly harvest the meat of their kill may have it confiscated by game wardens and will likely be fined and may lose hunting privileges.

A hunter beginning to butcher a moose, a process that takes hours. A self-guided non-resident Alaska moose hunter may spend $5,000 – $10,000 in travel and permits; guiding services, gear and supplies add thousands more. Alaska law sets a penalty for leaving behind even “a small portion of edible meat”: confiscation of the animal and the possible loss of hunting privileges. (Author’s photo)

Regardless of why an animal is hunted, whether for recreation, subsistence or because it has become troublesome (by spreading disease or destroying crops or property), few are discarded. Animals such as livestock predators, which are generally not regarded as food sources, that are killed by conservation officers typically provide information for biologists or are sometimes taxidermied for educational purposes in national-park visitor centers, museums, universities and elsewhere.

Human-wildlife conflict
Historically, large predators such as wolves, bears and lions, and foraging species such as buffaloes, elephants, hippos, antelope and deer, were systematically removed from areas that were being settled. However, by the late 20th Century, conservationists began to recognize the need to conserve or reintroduce these species in order to restore biodiversity and ecological stability.

Human-wildlife conflict is a growing concern in regions where conservation is succeeding. In Africa and India, such conflicts often involve elephants foraging in farmers’ fields and, increasingly, turning on the people who try to drive them away. (Saha Avijan/iStock)

As these species recovered, a new factor in conservation appeared: human-wildlife conflict. Examples of HWC include elephants raiding crops, destroying water systems and killing people in India and Africa; wolves killing domestic livestock in northern Europe; and grizzly bears attacking recreationists in western North America.

However, many of these “threat” species have high value to people who travel to see, photograph and sometimes hunt them. Rural communities that now tolerate and protect these species (which may be of great cultural value also) often do so because of the direct benefits they realize from them, which invariably come from tourism; and per participant, hunting tourism generates far more revenue than photo tourism.

Much more common, if less sensationalistic, examples of HWC occur across North America and Europe, where exploding populations of deer and wild boar cause traffic accidents and property damage. Well-managed hunting can sometimes help control the proliferation of overabundant species—an overabundance that can be linked to changes in land use and decreases in hunting.

According to some wildlife biologists, another benefit of hunting is that it can reduce human-wildlife conflict by establishing (or re-establishing) the “freedom of the woods,”—that is, teaching potentially dangerous animals to avoid humans because they may pose a danger to them, too.

Import bans
Legislation to ban the import of hunting trophies has come before the British Parliament three times in recent years. In March 2024, this prompted an angry response from the government of Botswana, a nation that is, according to some scientists, under increasing pressure from an overabundance of elephants.

Botswana was one of six elephant-range countries that sent delegations to London to protest the proposed ban on the grounds that any resultant downturn in hunting would reduce funding for wildlife conservation (including anti-poaching patrols to protect ivory-bearing elephants) and severely impact people that rely on hunting for jobs, revenue and meat.

Botswana’s Assistant Minister for State President offered to send 10,000 elephants to London’s Hyde Park so that Britons could “have a taste of living alongside elephants, which are overwhelming my country. In some areas, there are more of these beasts than people. They are killing children who get in their path. They trample and eat farmers’ crops, leaving Africans hungry. They steal the water from pipes that is flowing to the people. They have lost their fear of humans.

“Elephant numbers, just like those of Scottish stags, have to be controlled. Hunters in the Highlands pay to shoot deer and put their antlers on their walls. So why is Britain trying to stop Africa doing the same?”

Personal values vs. science
Wildlife conservation requires rigorously thought-out and often highly site-specific approaches; one-size-fits-all solutions such as large-scale, blanket bans of hunting trophies are often counterproductive because they rarely consider science-based wildlife management. Instead, they are driven by values—everyone wants to “save” animals, and what better way to start than by no longer allowing them to be killed?

Even if personally they do not like hunting, many wildlife scientists recognize its potential benefits. Rather than discourage legal hunting, some have spoken out instead in support of more and stricter regulation of the bushmeat trade—the vast, usually informal and underground mass market for the meat of wild animals that is widespread across Africa, Asia and South America.

A bushmeat market in Ivory Coast. The bushmeat trade is the commercial hunting and selling of wild animals for food. Although generally unregulated, and illegal if the animals are poached, it is widespread in Central and West Africa and parts of Asia and South America. (Sia Kambou/Getty Images)

Silvio Calabi is Conservation Frontlines’ Editor-at-Large.