Trophy Hunting – a way forward

After explaining why I believe current campaigns against trophy hunting are, on balance, ill-advised and badly-timed, I expected a bit of flak. Other conservationists who have voiced similar warnings have been subjected to ignorant and defamatory accusations of bias, but my blog provoked relatively little engagement from those who support a trophy hunting ban. One twitter user asked if I was taking “industry backhanders” before accusing me of presiding over a “human caused mass extinction”, while another blog reader commented: “Purge All Hunters from CONservation Organizations. Wildcru and the entire “conservation” system is corrupted. Funded by hunters. Pure evil.” But otherwise, my freshly prepared tin hat received barely a scratch.

Trophy hunting’s opponents have sometimes been labelled as unsophisticated, but freelance economist Ross Harvey put together a more rational argument in The Ecologist, where he 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 actually lose all the habitat currently used for hunting after a ban if some other means might be found to fund its protection), and partly because even if the consequences 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 okay to support “green militarisation” 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:

“Situating this practice in a Western cultural narrative of chauvinism, colonialism, and anthropocentrism, we argue trophy hunting is morally inappropriate. We 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.”

Regardless of what you make of their language, the argument that alternative strategies for conservation and community development should be ruled out before endorsing trophy hunting strikes me as poorly reasoned. Indeed, it seems more irresponsible to endorse a ban without first establishing viable alternatives. We surely have a responsibility to ensure that alternatives are in place, are sustainable and are reliably funded, before enacting any bans, so as to be confident that these alternatives stand ready to immediately replace the habitat protection, anti-poaching presence and community funding that hunting currently delivers. Otherwise, what will happen to wildlife and communities in the interim? Sadly, no such alternatives have yet been properly established, although work is being done to try and develop them.

It also strikes me that abstract discussion of the morality and ethics of trophy hunting rarely touches on the morality or ethics of a ban and its consequences, or the rights of people who may be negatively affected by hunting bans. In Botswana, the village of Sankuyo exists within a wildlife management area where cattle are not permitted. Trophy hunting was their main income source, but when the moratorium was introduced they were left in limbo, angry and impoverished.

In Namibia, marginalised San communities have been able to resist cattle invasions by neighbouring communities because of the legal defence offered by the hunting conservancy in which they live. Importantly, Namibian conservancies support more than 5000 jobs where other job options are almost non-existent, and have supported increases in wildlife populations at the same time as numbers have been dropping in many national parks. As discussed in my last blog, 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 can’t – at least not everywhere.

Mr Harvey continues his support for a trophy hunting import ban by touching on the ecological problems that trophy hunting can cause, citing research which shows that hunters’ oft-made claims that old bull elephants are post-breeding age – and can therefore be shot without any impact on elephant society – is based on a flawed understanding of elephant breeding ecology. Other elephant researchers have also highlighted the social value of old males as both repositories of knowledge and in curbing adolescent bad behaviour. 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. Of course, this is also true of the tourist camps which use pumped waterholes to attract wildlife.

However, elephants are likely to be closer to the exception than the rule. While trophy hunting has been be linked to evolutionary changes in selected traits for a handful of species, this is more likely when both sexes are selectively targeted, as is the case with ivory poaching more than trophy hunting. Other species, such as lions, may be hunted perfectly sustainably, without any negative impacts on their populations, behaviour or genetics. Hunting can also serve a useful purpose in reducing human-wildlife conflict and the perception of conflict with dangerous wild animals.

Overall, the allegation of “ecological harm” turns out to be an argument in favour of better regulation of hunting, rather than a persuasive reason to ban it.

Mr Harvey’s final argument against trophy hunting is that it does not represent such a significant economic contribution to either local communities or national GDP as hunters claim. There are many claims and counter claims around the economics of hunting, but even those who campaign against it recognise that it is “big business“. It is probably true that “non-consumptive” 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 non-consumptive tourism could fund conservation everywhere then the case for hunting would be significantly weakened, but the fact is that it can’t. As I outlined in my last blog, there is insufficient demand to fill the bed nights already available in protected areas. Mr Harvey’s rather glib assertion that “if hunting land were converted to non-consumptive tourism” many more jobs could be created neglects the fact that when hunting land has actually been offered for conservation it has sometimes led to a net loss of jobs and community income, and where bans have been enacted local communities have often been the ones to lose out.

Hunting may only support 17,000 jobs in South Africa compared to 90,000 in “non-consumptive” tourism, but the point is that those are 17000 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 is again an argument for reform, not a ban. Certainly, governments and communities should be seeking to earn the maximum possible revenue from each hunted animal’s death. Lions have been shot for less than $10,000 in South Africa, and yet trophy-hunting licenses in America have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. If Americans will pay that much money to shoot a sheep, how much might they pay to shoot a lion?

I agree that the hunting industry is in need of better regulation and in some places, substantive reform, but how best can this be achieved? The UK Government’s proposal to impose a trophy import ban is considering four options:

  1. A ban on hunting trophies from certain species entering or leaving the UK.
  2. Stricter requirements for clear benefits to conservation and local communities to be demonstrated before hunting trophies from 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.

UK hunters only represent a very small percentage of the safari hunting market and a blanket ban (option 3), or even a ban on selected species (option 1), is unlikely to have much material effect on the hunting industry, but it would entrench the African view that Western animal rights campaigners 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, and opts 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 which could actually help incentivise a better, more ethical and more sustainable hunting culture in Africa. Rather than making a largely symbolic and yet potentially damaging gesture, we could enact a policy which will actively help drive positive change in the hunting industry, benefiting both wildlife and people. Let us hope that for once, our politicians make the right choice.

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5 thoughts on “Trophy Hunting – a way forward

  1. Greta Pasteiner July 14, 2020 / 3:15 pm

    A very cogently argued case Hugh but I can’t agree that Trophy Hunting is part of the solution to conserving habitats and wild life. There needs to be a much more creative approach across the world to protect the little we have left. I know my generation has totally failed but I hope those to come will be able to turn things around.

    Liked by 1 person

    • hughwebsterauthor July 14, 2020 / 4:50 pm

      Hi Greta. There’s no real debate about whether Trophy Hunting is currently contributing to the conservation of habitats and wildlife – it is. It is also making a vital contribution to community development in many poor rural areas. We can debate whether those contributions justify the sport of trophy hunting, or whether ethical objections to trophy hunting mean that no amount of associated environmental and social benefits can offset its underlying moral wrongness, but personally when I weigh the relative evil of trophy hunting against the greater evils of habitat destruction and fragmentation, biodiversity declines and community impoverishment, I can live with the trophy hunters. Of course, we all (hunters aside) would prefer that other means could be found to replace the habitat protection and revenue that Trophy Hunting currently provides. Avenues are being explored (such as “lion carbon”), but my core point is quite simple: we should not ban trophy hunting until those replacements exist and have proven themselves viable in the long term, and at this moment in time that is not the case.


      • Mark Brackney December 13, 2021 / 3:55 am

        Also, Save The Elephants recommended green hunting as a viable alternative, too.


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