Written by: Don Pinnock for Conservation Action Trust
It is often asked whether trophy hunters are protectors of biodiversity or heartless hunters of defenceless wild animals? And to make any headway with this question, we need to consider the following questions first:
1. Does hunting protect the wilderness?
Hunting safari operations extend over at least 1.4 million km² of land in sub-Saharan Africa. If this was for used farming, the incentives for conservation would undoubtedly decline. An argument exists that hunting has the lightest footprint for land use as privately owned hunting areas are mostly empty of people, have small camps, limited staff and few overheads. Tourism outfits, on the other hand, build extensive facilities, train staff in a variety of skills and maintain areas for photo safaris, and their footprint is consequently much heavier. Therefore, only in terms of limiting development, does hunting preserve biodiversity.
2. Who gets the money?
Trophy hunting certainly accrues revenue, though it’s often difficult to follow the money. This is mostly due to abuse of rules. For example, none of the sum of US$50,000 that was paid for the illegal shooting of Cecil the lion was received by government, communities or conservation efforts as the hunt was illegal and the money was paid to the landowner and professional hunter.
In South Africa the total revenue for hunting is ZAR6.2 billion annually, although a scientific study by Economists at Large proves this total to be more like US$112 million (approx. ZAR1.5 billion at today’s exchange rate). Furthermore, Economists at Large questions the value of trophy hunting to any source other than gun shops and hunting outfitters, citing a report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, which found that only 3% of hunting revenue went to surrounding communities. In some areas, the limited trickle-down from trophy hunting could rather be fuelling support for poachers, who pay shooters and bearers in cash.
3. Is trophy hunting sustainable?
While wild populations in Africa have been dropping steadily since firearms tilted the balance in favour of hunters 200 years ago, the species decline over the last 20 years has been particularly catastrophic. So what role does trophy hunting play? The stated ethic of hunter associations is that only animals past breeding prime should be bagged as this is deemed sustainable since it is thought to have little impact on the species as a whole. However, this ethic is often breached. One of the ways in which it is breached is in the form of “problem animal” permits i.e. permission to shoot animals because they’re in conflict with humans. These are being exploited by unethical operators across the continent because the constitution of a “problem animal” can be highly subjective.
In addition, the inability of hunters and trackers to age animals correctly means that the injunction is generally in breach. In this way, younger breeding animals are being taken out of the gene pool. Further to this, the idea that older individuals are no loss to their herds if killed is countered by a study published in the Journal of Wildlife. It found that the selective removal of a few large trophy or older males led to destabilisation of social structures and loss of essential social knowledge. The consequences were infanticide, reproductive females using sub-optimal habitats and changes in offspring sex ratios.
4. Is canned hunting the answer?
Lions have always topped the list of desirable prizes. Foreign hunters are demanding shorter hunt times and an assured kill, for which they were prepared to pay top dollar. In South Africa, a solution is to farm lions like cattle. There are no completely trusted sources on the numbers of lions in captivity in South Africa, however, the head of SAPA (South Africa Predator Association), Pieter Potgieter, estimates that the number of captive predators is between 6,000 and 8,000. There have also been disturbing leaks about the conditions under which the “canned lions” are bred. Preserving wild lands for hunting is a way to maintain higher levels of biodiversity and, in certain situations, the damage caused by trophy hunting is limited. However, in pursuit of the Big One, hunters often cheat, which cripples the sustainability of prey species. Hunting for fun is increasingly problematic: from an African population of more than a million lions in the mid-19th century, there are maybe now only 20,000 left in the wild. Around 36,000 elephants are falling to rifle bullets each year and over 1,000 rhinos were poached in Kruger National Park in 2014. In the face of such declines, can we really afford to kill even one of this planet’s wild creatures just for our own personal pleasure?