Trophy hunting is a controversial topic in the conservation world. Die-hard animal huggers oppose it because it promotes unnecessary killing of animals. Hunting enthusiasts tout the values of conservation and preservation – values held by people like Teddy Roosevelt – that are part of the culture that surrounds sport hunting. This blog is intended to break down some of the less obvious aspects of trophy hunting that make it such a gray area.
Many of America’s natural spaces owe their existence to hunter-led conservation efforts, especially the Boone and Crockett Club founded by Teddy Roosevelt in 1887. As environmentalism became more mainstream in the 1960’s and 70’s, it also began to acquire an awareness of the ability for humans to seriously damage natural resources. Now, trophy hunting may seem like a relic of the past to some, even while it is still a significant activity in many parts of the world, including the US.
In most places today, trophy hunting works on the basis of “if it pays, it stays”, referencing the ability for hunting revenues to be used to bolster conservation efforts. An American hunter recently gained international attention for hunting the national animal of Pakistan, the markhor. Approximately 12 people per year pay six figures for a permit to hunt these impressive creatures, and 80% of the revenue goes back to local communities. This last part is key because it enables the community to buy into the conservation efforts and really understand the value of preserving this species. Community buy-in means better adherence to the laws, better enforcement at a local level, and the creation of a shared identity around conservation of local resources. In Pakistan, the goat hunt is better managed than before because the villagers have a clear understanding of how conservation benefits them.
Programs like Pakistan’s goat hunting might actually just be a different sort of ecosystem-based management and social development. If you include humans in the ecosystem as top predators, then this is a remarkable way to make sure that villages who are the stewards for these animals are able to receive the most benefit from each kill. Before, a hunter might just use the meat to feed their family, but now the animal is able to provide clean water, sanitation services, education opportunities, and improved conservation programs and adherence.
In the Nyae Nyae community-run Kalahari Desert reserve in Namibia, trophy hunting of elephants is used to fund anti-poaching efforts and local communities. Each trip costs approximately $80,000, and the majority for the money goes to community improvement and conservation funds. The hunter takes the trophies, and the meat feeds the local San villages.
Putting economic value to animals – if it pays it stays – is similar to other conservation movements happening around the world, like carbon offset shares. It might be a different way of looking at conservation, and far from more mainstream protection schemes, but there are many ways to reach the shared goal of maintaining biodiversity on every scale.
While trophy hunting might make logical sense as the paying part of larger conservation strategies, it is still extremely hard to stomach for many people. Some of the people who participate in trophy hunting aren’t concerned with conservation, and sometimes it might seem as though animal welfare is unfamiliar territory for them. Reconciling blood and gore with species salvation isn’t a natural reaction, and many people feel forced to take a stance. This was illustrated in the aftermath of Cecil the lion’s death. People were upset and disgusted that anyone would kill a lion that we knew so much about, and it brought to light the very different mindsets on either side of this debate. For people who hunt, conservation is a way to ensure that the sport, and the wildlife that support it, is able to exist into the future. For people who are against hunting, conservation usually means eliminating hunting altogether. For anti-hunters, Cecil’s death brought to light the ugly parts of hunting and generated all the right kinds of attention for their vision of conservation.
Some biologists and activists are standing ready to tear the pro-hunting argument apart. Some point out the loss of habitat as a growing concern, and one that can’t be remedied by hunting efforts. In British Columbia, trophy hunting of grizzly bears was recently banned in response to missed conservation goals. While trophy hunting may have been contributing to local economies, it was also leaving conservation efforts understaffed and underfunded because managing the hunt required so much time and energy. In some places, even the financial benefit of hunting fees is called into question because they can’t always be traced to effective conservation efforts and instead might be taken up by inefficient bureaucracy or corrupt officials. In some places, there just aren’t enough animals left to sustain a hunt.
The right answer isn’t obvious, but it also might not be our debate to have. Some people criticize the hunting-antihunting debate as a form of neocolonism, where Western countries try to dictate wildlife management to their benefit in other, often African, countries. Still others point out that while antihunting activists have been busy shouting, hunters have been contributing millions to African economies and conservation actions. This isn’t an easy issue to talk about, and it won’t be an easy agreement to reach. The important thing to remember is that most people who engage with this issue, no matter which side of the debate they stand on, care about protecting these species and the habitats they rely on. As long as we keep that goal in mind, work with local communities to incorporate their needs and strategies, and use solid, evidence-based decision-making, together we can enjoy thriving wildlife around the globe.
Conservation Made Simple
Cover image: Brent Stapelkamp, National Geographic
Karin Larsen, CBC News. B.C.’s grizzly bear conservation strategy failing, according to new report
Michael Paterniti, National Geographic. Trophy Hunting: Should We Kill Animals to Save Them?
Marc Silver, NPR. A U.S. Hunter Paid $110,000 To Shoot A Pakistani Goat.