IN THE FIELD of conservation, things don’t get much more controversial than trophy hunting.
Last month the Internet lit up with articles condemning the death of Cecil, a popular lion with a distinctive black mane who was beloved by the local ecotourism industry because of his comfort around humans. That comfort proved to be Cecil’s undoing when an American trophy hunter, who paid $55,000 for the privilege of hunting lions in Zimbabwe, lured Cecil out of the confines of Hwange National Park and shot him with an arrow. Cecil was mortally wounded and survived for 40 hours before being found and killed by the hunter.
Since he was lured out of a protected area, Cecil the lion’s death constituted an illegal hunt. Last year, the Internet erupted into outrage over photos of legally hunted elephants, leopards, rhinos, and lions posted by 19 year old cheerleader and trophy hunter Kendall Jones. A petition to the American embassy calling for Jones to be banned from travel to Africa received 177,000 signatures.
Legal or illegal, people react viscerally to stories of endangered animals killed by trophy hunters. People love iconic species such as elephants, rhinos, and lions. Pictures of such majestic creatures gunned down next to smiling millionaires, who can pay over $100,000 per kill, inspire feelings of disgust and outrage from a large swath of the public. Unsurprisingly, 95% of Americans oppose hunting endangered or threatened species.
Despite the public consensus, trophy hunting remains legal for United States citizens seeking to hunt a variety of threatened or endangered African species, albeit under certain conditions. Avid trophy hunters and some conservationists promote trophy hunting as good conservation, mainly due to the money it raises. Proponents argue that well regulated trophy hunting deters poaching by offering a legal, regulated outlet for hunting, and that it combats poverty by funding local communities.
In theory, such claims make a reasonable case for trophy hunting as conservation, but in practice they often amount to little more than a smokescreen for an ecologically destructive practice. Here are the seven major drawbacks to trophy hunting as a conservation tool.
- CORRUPTION: Game hunters are heavily sought by cash strapped governments in southern Africa, many of which struggle with corruption. Corruption takes on many forms, and can range from outright bribery to bending rules to encourage customer satisfaction. In the case of Cecil the lion, the American hunter Walter Palmer claims to have had no knowledge that his hunt was illegal and maintains that his guide lured Cecil out of the national park. Even if he is telling the truth and his guides took the initiative to lure Cecil from the park, his money encouraged such illegal activity. To make matters worse, quotas to limit the number of animals hunted are often inflated or manipulated, and population estimates are often based on guesswork rather than scientific studies. As a result, wildlife managers have little recourse for ensuring that hunts are sustainable. That’s a dangerous situation for threatened and endangered species.
POVERTY: Only 3% of the revenue generated by trophy hunting goes towards local communities, with most being concentrated among a few individuals. This creates resentment among locals, distrust of conservation initiatives, and little economic improvement in impoverished communities.
- GENETICS: Genetic diversity is very important for the viability of a species, and for those with declining populations, the genetic uniqueness of each animal holds special importance. Hunting endangered species removes valuable genetic diversity, making populations more susceptible to disease and genetic drift. More generally, hunting endangered species can have unpredictable ripple effects on the species’ ecology. For example, hunting male lions has been shown to increase the death rates of lion cubs when new males stake their claims to leaderless prides, killing cubs to make room for their own.
- EVOLUTION: By targeting the biggest and most impressive specimens for their trophies, hunters can act as a force similar to natural selection on small populations. If all the elephants with big tusks, the antelope with long horns, and the lions with the largest manes are preferentially killed, individuals with less favorable traits will be selected to pass on their genes, to the detriment of the species in the long run.
ILLEGAL WILDLIFE TRADE: What good is a trophy hunt without the trophy? Hunters pay big bucks to take their trophies home with them, and this necessitates loopholes in ivory bans and other restrictions on wildlife products in the United States and other countries. Legal imports of endangered wildlife products can serve as a front for wildlife smugglers to spirit their goods across international borders.
- ETHICAL CONCERNS: Some forms of trophy hunting raise more ethical issues than others. In particular, the common practices of shooting from vehicles, using dogs to aid in hunts, luring animals from the confines of protected areas (as was done with Cecil), and releasing animals immediately prior to hunts are causes for concern. A particularly cruel and controversial form of trophy hunting is canned hunting, where the hunted animal is pursued in an enclosed pen with little chance of escape. Favored by some hunters because of its relatively low price tag, canned hunting has caused considerable controversy, and the practice has been banned in 20 states.
- MONEY: On average, trophy hunting generates around 1.8% of total tourist revenue in African countries that allow the practice. Despite the huge fees paid by trophy hunters, ecotourism has been shown to generate 15 times the revenue of trophy hunting, much of which goes to conservation efforts. It’s a simple numbers game: while 70% of Americans would pay to see a lion, less than 7% would pay to kill one, making lions more valuable alive than dead.
The IUCN maintains that lion populations cannot sustainably withstand current levels of trophy hunting, which total 600 lions killed annually. By treating lions and other endangered African species as a resource to be passively watched and enjoyed rather than actively consumed, endangered species as well as the ecotourism industry can enjoy a positive, sustainable future.
What YOU can do
Trophy hunting on another continent may seem like a distant or irrelevant issue, but as with many conservation challenges, just doing a few little things can make a big difference.
Two out of every three trophy hunters are American. That means getting the word out at home can make a big difference on the African plains. Contrary to their personification during the recent public outcry, most trophy hunters care about conservation and believe they are doing the right thing by hunting in Africa. If you have any friends or relatives that hunt animals for trophies (I personally do), inform them of the drawbacks of trophy hunting as a practice. Your stance on the issue may change their mind.
Aside from spreading the word, the biggest way you can contribute is by participating in ecotourism. To be accredited as ecotourism, an activity must be sustainable, have an environmental education component, and dedicate a portion of earnings towards local conservation efforts. Ecotourism is prevalent worldwide, and depending on the tour operator a diverse array of activities qualify as ecotourism including wildlife watching, agrotourism, hiking, camping, and event some adventure sports.
Most tour operators advertise their eco-friendliness, so stay on the lookout for accredited ecotourism options when booking your next vacation. Go make the world a better place by travelling to see it.
- If you got mad over Cecil the lion, here are 5 ways you can bring about change
- The Economics of Trophy Hunting
- Congress acts to extend protections of Endangered Species Act to lions
- Cecil’s death causes tourism drop in Zimbabwe