The Spellar Bill – bad for wildlife, bad for people

This Friday, the 14th January, Parliament will be asked to vote on a private members bill, the Spellar Bill, seeking to expedite a blanket ban on trophy hunting imports. I have written about this complex issue before (see here, here and here) but it seems that now is crunch time.

If you do nothing else for conservation this year, do this.

Write to your MP – as I have below – and highlight to them how potentially damaging this bill is. Feel free to copy or adapt the text I have used. Encourage them to read articles like these (The Hill, The Guardian), or point them to this Open Letter which will be published on the IUCN website. The premise that banning trophy hunting imports will be good for wildlife is instinctively appealing but the truth is very different. MPs must be informed about how complex this issue is or they are likely to vote this legislation into law. A better option exists. A ‘smart ban’ could outlaw the bad, reward the good and incentivise reform.

This might require more effort to design than a blanket ban, but it might also actually do some good.

Already, the UK’s example on this is being leveraged to create pressure on other countries and so, while some may feel that the immediate impacts of this ban are unlikely to be catastrophic, the longer term impacts could be.

So please, write to your MP now.

* * *

Dear Mr Wishart,


I am a conservationist living in Kirkmichael with many years experience working on carnivore conservation in South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. I am writing to you to draw your attention to a private members bill – the Spellar Bill – which will have its second reading this week, seeking to expedite a ban on trophy hunting imports. See: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-02/0089/210089.pdf


Unfortunately, this legislation – as currently proposed – is fundamentally misguided, however well intentioned, and so I, together with over fifty conservation scientists and development practitioners, have composed an Open Letter outlining the problems with such a poorly designed ban and the unintended consequence it risks – see attached.


The essence of our argument is this:

Trophy hunting may be distasteful to many, and is certainly a far from perfect industry. However, the alternatives available at present are worse. It is not credible to suggest that photographic tourism can replace this industry. Existing bed nights are rarely filled, especially in less popular areas which are more profitably used for hunting. It may not even be desirable (given the much larger carbon footprint of photographic tourism and its other negative effects. E.g. the increased risk of introducing alien species (see Antarctica); the increased use of water (due to higher visitor numbers) and even increased harassment of wildlife leading to increased mortality (e.g. cheetahs raise fewer cubs in the Masai Mara in tourist hotspots). This issue is nothing if not complicated!


Simply put, banning trophy hunting (or in the case of the Spellar Bill, undermining the industry by preventing the import of hunting trophies into the UK) at this time, when we have yet to develop viable alternatives, is likely to either have no effect – since relatively few trophy hunters originate in the UK – or a net negative effect on conservation, reducing the amount of land available to wildlife as hunting areas that can no longer attract clients will be converted to agriculture or ravaged by poachers. Such a transition also risks impoverishing communities that depend on sustainably managed hunting to generate income and offset the real costs of living with dangerous wildlife. Banning trophy hunting, however appealing that may seem, would not represent a win for wildlife or people, and will mean the world supports less wildlife, not more.


We believe the campaign agitating for this ban has been stoked by the reckless dissemination of a large amount of misinformation, including much presented to the APPG on banning trophy hunting, about which we are currently compiling a formal complaint.


To further illustrate our point, a recent study (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/oryx/article/threat-analysis-for-more-effective-lion-conservation/45236AADD7F142BC04FFC22E17AFA4A5#figures) identified the main threats to lions (in this order) as follows:


1. Human-lion conflict (often related to livestock killing). Threat score: 21%

2. Bushmeat poaching (eroding the lion’s prey base). Threat score: 21%

3. Small populations (allee effect). Threat score: 14%

4. Cropland expansion (habitat loss). Threat score: 13%

5. Livestock expansion (driving habitat loss, prey loss due to competition for grazing, and conflict): 11%

6. Trophy Hunting: 6%

7. Resource Extraction (e.g. firewood or charcoal collection drives habitat loss while mining operations often drive increases in poaching). Threat score: 5%

8. Other: (Including threats like cultural and political killings, the wildlife trade, infrastructure projects etc.). Threat score: 8%


You can see that trophy hunting is a relatively minor threat, with the threat – such as it is – linked to poor management and excessive harvesting in some (but by no means all) regions. Where some historical examples of such mismanagement have been documented – and continue to be cited by those opposed to any form of hunting – they have in fact now often been reformed.


However, crucially, trophy hunting is not only a threat but is also often a boon to wildlife with this duality rarely appreciated by those without experience on the ground. It is also the ONLY threat which mitigates all the other threats. Thus, where trophy hunting occurs there is less human-lion conflict, less bushmeat poaching, a larger population of lions (because they have more prey and habitat available than they would otherwise), less cropland and livestock expansion and less resource extraction – precisely because the land is being managed for hunting, protecting thousands of other species from habitat loss at the same time. This is why most conservationists consider trophy hunting to offer a net benefit for conservation.


Indeed, land used for hunting protects more habitat than all the national parks in southern Africa combined.


Banning all trophy imports also unfairly targets those communities managing hunting entirely sustainably as well as those mismanaging their wildlife. A blanket ban therefore provides no incentive for good practice.

Furthermore, this Bill’s exclusive focus on trophy imports looks more than a little hypocritical when the UK continues to permit trophy hunting (for deer, feral goats and even wild boar) within the UK, but will now proscribe against it abroad! What exactly is the difference between hunting a kudu in Namibia versus a red deer in Perthshire?!


We appear to be saying: we know how to manage our wildlife but you foreigners don’t know how to manage yours.


Our record, and the woefully impoverished state of British wildlife versus the rich biodiversity carefully protected in countries like Botswana and Namibia – where hunting has long helped to fund their world-leading and globally recognised conservation records – suggests the exact opposite, making this stance all the more absurd on the international stage. 


Rather than a blanket ban, the government could make a positive difference (and avoid accusations of hypocrisy, virtue signaling, and cultural imperialism) if it were to design a ‘smart ban’ specifically targeting bad practice, and banning imports specifically of those species or from those regions where there is evidence that mismanagement is creating a threat, or even where there is no evidence that it is not. The Spellar Bill therefore cannot be passed in its present form but MUST first be amended.


Frankly, it is irresponsible, unjust, and dangerous to say that this is too difficult, or to proceed otherwise.
You would do an enormous service to conservation if you could highlight these issues to the house when the Bill is read out on the 14th.

Let me know if you would like any more information concerning this issue.

Kind regards,

Dr Hugh Webster

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