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Opinion: The trouble with trophy hunting

Elephant in the bush
Opinion post: The trouble with trophy hunting, written by Frank Pope – CEO Save the Elephants

The news around the import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe has put elephants into the spotlight over the last few days. Many of you, our supporters and partners of Save the Elephants, got in touch about the issue and we felt it important to let you know how we see it.

The later news that Trump blocked the decision is a positive sign that the conservation of elephants remains a concern regardless of politics. But it’s important to recognise why the US Fish & Wildlife Service lifted the ban on importing these hunting trophies in the first place.

Last week’s announcement reversed a decision the agency had made back in 2014. Before that for many decades American hunters were allowed to legally bring tusks back home from Zimbabwe. When the country could not provide data enough to prove that it was looking after its elephants adequately, the ban was put into place.

So what changed between now and then? Crucially, last year’s publication of the African Elephant Status Report by IUCN and the Great Elephant Count funded by Paul Allen showed that Zimbabwe’s elephants were being relatively well looked after. There were an estimated 2,000 elephants for the whole country in 1900 compared with up to around 80,000 today, the second-largest elephant population in Africa. Over the last 18 months the country has done serious planning work for the conservation of its elephants, as US Fish & Wildlife set out in a thorough 40-page report. And part of Zimbabwe’s strategy for elephants involves trophy hunting.

While we don’t think that the existence of elephants in Zimbabwe would be endangered by trophy hunting, shooting elephants for pleasure is in our view morally indefensible. One should no more shoot an elephant for pleasure than a dolphin, a great ape, or a dog – a view that is shared widely in the civilized world. But it is trade in ivory, not trophy hunting, that is driving the catastrophic declines which continue in most elephant populations in Africa.

The timing of US Fish & Wildlife’s initial announcement was unfortunate. China is in the process of banning her domestic ivory trade, and glimmers of hope in the fight against poaching are starting to be seen in some key elephant populations across Africa. Against this backdrop, encouraging American hunters to kill elephants is very difficult to justify to the world. While trophies do not constitute trade, a policy that encourages hunting risks misinterpretation.

Trump’s intervention on the issue is welcome, but we believe that the poaching, trafficking and trading in ivory that we are fighting through the Elephant Crisis Fund are far more significant issues. In the past the US has done strong, science-based and non-partisan work to solve them, and we hope they will continue to do so in the future.

Thank you so much for your support both to the Elephant Crisis Fund and to Save the Elephants’ work to forge science-based solutions for the long-term fortunes of elephants.

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  • Gail Potgieter

    The main problem with trophy hunting, as alluded to here, is that it detracts from real conservation issues. There are many major threats to species conservation out there, as the author points out. These issues pop up in the news all the time, but not much is done about them. When trophy hunting pops up, the whole world is up in arms, ready to donate and sign petitions. If we keep focusing on the wrong things, species like elephants will head to extinction, even as public outcries kill the hunting industry.

  • Brian

    “There were an estimated 2,000 elephants for the whole country in 1900 compared with up to around 80,000 today.” I don’t understand what the problem is. If trophy hunting isn’t contributing to population decline, then why petition for the ban?

    It seems the article is more concerned with stopping trophy hunting rather than saving species.

    • Nicole

      Because trophy hunting is morally wrong. And the whole group of elephants gets traumatized and will be disturbed in their behaviour and development.
      Trophy hunting is a high stressful act not only for the elephant being killed.
      Do you have family? Imagine one of your members will be brutally killed by someone who just does it for fun and you are the witness.

      • Mark Jones

        Trophy hunting is mostly (not always) adult bulls, that are never with the herds unless they are there to mate. They won’t shoot a male within a cow herd as they will know he is mating and it’s just dumb.

    • Nicole

      I would like to add something: Trophy hunting is an invention of modern civilization and has nothing to do with hunting of ancient times. People in ancient times were killing for meat and anything else they could use from the animal, a “trophy” was not important. From a psycological view trophy hunting is a strategy to push up the ego or low self-esteem and it is no surprise that it is practised mostly by “upper class” men who strive for status symbols. However, it is so easy to kill an animal with a bullet, even a child could do that. It is somehow ridiculous.

      • Mark Jones

        Well, the trophy hunter might not take much from the animal (except photos), but generally speaking the local communities and/or property the hunt took place on will benefit from all the meat and other aspects of the animal. It most certainly doesn’t get wasted.

        And of course it is mostly the upper class doing the hunts; these things are hugely expensive and they are the only ones that can afford it. Would you prefer it were cheaper so that everyone could have a go?

        You should try getting close to the Big 5 on foot, close enough for a shot. We’re talking within 30 to 50 feet here. I’ve done it many times as a guide, it is scary stuff and you better know what you are doing or you and/or your guests are dead! There is nothing easy and simple about a genuine hunt done ethically.


      The reality, not mentioned in this article, is that trophy hunting generates massive income for conservation. In countries like Zimbabwe every cent is sorely needed.

  • Deputydog

    2000 elephant in 1900. Could someone verify that – doesn’t sound right to me?

  • Lynley

    When elephant populations get too big, then the authorities resort to culling anyway, which is a waste of those elephants lives (even Kruger Park is mentioning this as a possibility in their elephant population management strategy). Surely its better to allow trophy hunting that benefits the local communities in jobs, and supply of meat from each animal hunted, as well as bringing much needed forex revenue to the country and its wildlife areas.

  • Mark Jones

    Going from 2000 ellies to 80000 ellies in a hundred years is considered ‘being relatively well looked after’, really? I think it might be better than that, surely. 2nd highest population in Africa, all, mostly, while under the control of one of Africa’s worst dictators. I think they have done marvelously!

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