Like Professor David Macdonald with Cecil, I once had a study animal shot by hunters. The leopard – known to us as Wilbur – was a remarkably relaxed cat. The first time I encountered him, he materialised out of a wall of apple leaf scrub and walked right up to my open Land Rover without a care in the world, brushing along the side of my parked vehicle while I held my breath. Leopards can be like that – either so shy that they disappear long before you get close, or so bold that they appear fearless.
This was nearly ten years ago now, but I still remember the shock, pain and anger we all felt when word filtered through to us at our research camp that Wilbur – by then fitted with an orange VHF tracking collar – had been shot by a hunter. Losing a study animal can feel a bit like losing a much-loved pet. Scientists are supposed to remain dispassionate observers, but when you spend hundreds of hours alone in the company of a wild animal you get to know its individual character and inevitably a bond forms; you become invested in that animal’s fate. While a respectful distance distinguishes this relationship from the sort one might enjoy with a domestic animal, the wild animal’s death is still mourned – especially when its death has only served to furnish some sad individual with a pathetic trophy.
We soon learned that the hunter had been sitting in a hide with his professional guide, staking out a bait they were using to attract leopards. This is how leopards are shot, from a stable position, in cover, and at short range, with the big cat lured to its death. It is like shooting fish in a barrel. In the gloaming, the hunter and his guide claimed not to have seen the orange collar around Wilbur’s neck. I have always found that hard to believe. Collars are very obvious on leopards, contrasting noticeably with the surrounding 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 professional 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 hunter and his professional guide left the country shortly after this incident, and not long after that hunting was suspended in Botswana. The hunter had been entitled to shoot a leopard in that area, but the established code of practice was and is for hunters to avoid shooting collared research animals, partly out of courtesy and partly because the good hunters genuinely value conservation and the insights these collars give everyone with an interest in managing and conserving wildlife.
Today, Botswana is slowly opening up its hunting industry again, attracting vocal criticism from animal rights campaigners and celebrities. Their campaign strikes a chord with many for whom the images of overweight and inanely grinning hunters posing proudly next to recently butchered wild animals in their physical prime are repugnant. The “sport” favoured by Donald Trump Junior and the King of Spain is seemingly indefensible, but should it be banned?
Perhaps surprisingly, there are few conservation scientists endorsing these popular calls for a ban. Instead, many are alarmed at what a ban might mean for the threatened species they have dedicated their lives to protecting. Why is this? When so many conservation biologists are disgusted by trophy hunting, and when some of us have lost well-loved study animals to hunters’ bullets, why are we reluctant to support a 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 true – trophy hunting provides a means of funding and therefore protecting the habitats that sustain populations of wild animals across large swathes of the continent where, without hunters’ dollars, wild bush country would soon be taken over by agriculture. Across many of Africa’s prime safari destination countries, the area of land managed for hunting is equal to or larger than the area set aside for photo tourism in national parks. This is why lions are actually increasing in Southern Africa where they are legally hunted, while their population has crashed in countries like Kenya where trophy hunting is already banned. Ditto giraffes. Ditto Rhinos. Ditto elephants… But if we banned hunting, the area of land protected for wildlife could shrink drastically.
Fig.1 Map of Zambia showing the land area protected within national parks and the area designated as Game Management Areas, hunting zones which buffer the core national park network and provide local communities with invaluable income (Subakanya et al 2018).
Fig.2 Map of Zimbabwe showing the far greater extent of areas designated for hunting versus non-hunting areas (Njerekai 2016).
Fig.3 Map of Namibia showing conservancies (hunting areas) linking the national park network and which are contiguous with the KAZA landscape to the East.(Ahlenius 2008).
But wait! I hear you cry. Why do the hunters have to kill things? Why can’t we turn all these hunting zones into ecotourism destinations? Why can’t phototourism pay to protect these habitats? That might sound appealing but the reality is that there is not enough tourism demand to fill the bed nights in the protected area network that currently exists. Away from the most popular destinations like the Serengeti or the Masai Mara, tourist operators struggle to attract guests. Animals are too scarce, biting flies too abundant, or the views are too unremarkable. Who do you know that has been on safari to Chad or the Central African Republic? Botswana tried to auction its hunting areas to photographic tourism companies after the hunting moratorium in 2012, but only a few of the most desirable ex-hunting wildlife management areas were leased and most have remained unoccupied since the ban. Hunters were happy to visit these areas of dry bushveldt without the picturesque appeal of the verdant Okavango; other tourists are not.
But these miles and miles of flat thorny scrubland, where the animals are rarely seen and the view is limited to a few metres, are vital for wildlife. They link protected areas together, securing gene flow between otherwise isolated populations, and they provide spatial refuges for so-called fugitive species like cheetahs and African wild dogs that often do not compete so well in the more popular tourist areas where lions dominate. In the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area (half a million square kilometres of wild land spanning the catchments of the Kavango and Zambezi rivers and encompassing protected areas across Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe), hunting areas play a vital role in maintaining landscape scale integrity across this vast system – the largest contiguous protected area outside of Antarctica. But if hunting was banned, what would happen to these areas? What would happen to this connectivity?
Fig.4 Map of the KAZA TFCA showing the variety of land use designations and the integral role of hunting areas, including WMAs in Botswana (light green), GMAs in Zambia (straw yellow) and Communal Conservancies in Namibia (sandy orange), as well as other safari hunting areas in Zimbabwe, which all contribute to overall landscape connectivity (Karidozo et al. 2016).
Since the hunting ban in Botswana, the boreholes that the hunters paid for have dried up and with the deterrent of hunting activity gone, illegal poaching is rumoured to have increased. Such poaching takes a far greater toll on wildlife populations and critically is unselective, with a far greater impact on females and overall population numbers. Meanwhile local communities have reported increasing conflict with and increasing resentment towards wildlife, now that they do not receive any financial recompense for the crop losses, stock depredation and human mortality caused by lions, elephants and other wild animals. The situation was unsustainable, and so the Botswana government has opted to re-open trophy hunting in Botswana, offering employment and meat to those communities living with wildlife. In a country that supports more elephants than any other, Botswana is surely entitled to manage its wildlife how it sees fit, but that hasn’t stopped distant celebrities and Western animal rights campaigners from criticising this move, causing some local communities to feel understandably aggrieved.
Conservationists who expediently caution against banning trophy hunting do not pretend that hunting is an ideal solution. We simply recognise that it serves a valuable purpose in areas where no other viable 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 hunting is based on the belief that while hunting is objectionable, it represents the lesser evil compared to the greater losses that would stem from banning it. Indeed, some conservationists have argued that a trophy hunting ban directly imperils biodiversity, while others have simply appealed for a broadening of the debate. Shameful attempts have been made to impugn the motives of those conservationists raising the alarm, with accusing fingers pointed at those who have accepted funding from hunters, however small and however long ago. These allegations betray an ignorance of the integrity of the individuals concerned and debase the whole debate.
In reality, the ethical debate between those who favour a ban on trophy hunting and those who caution against it can be characterised as a debate between deontological and consequentialist values. The deontological argument holds that if an act (in this case trophy hunting) is wrong, then it is bad (regardless of associated consequences). Similarly, shooting someone would be considered wrong, even if that person was a suicide bomber and killing them saved innocent bystanders. The consequentialist argument holds that while an act may be bad in isolation, it may be the right thing if the consequences of that act achieve a greater good.
The hunting industry is far from perfect. It does not always support proper habitat protection, and it is often linked with corruption, or the improper targeting of individual animals whose premature death may have negative impacts on local populations or wider genetic diversity. And hunting does not always funnel enough revenue back to the local communities it boasts of supporting. Where hunting can be replaced by other income-generating industries that equally support wildlife, ecosystem integrity and community development, those industries may be preferable, although so-called non-consumptive tourism has its own impacts. In the Masai Mara, poorly behaved guides have caused mass drownings of wildebeest at river crossings and the crowding of cheetahs in tourism hotspots is linked to significantly increased cub mortality. Phototourism has a much larger carbon footprint than hunting, requires more water extraction and often leads to the unregulated development of scarring networks of vehicle tracks, while a mixture of hunting and phototourism 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 are standardised 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.