Written by: Malini Pittet
If the Cecil the lion matter had occurred ten years ago, the story would not have reached as many people and there would have been little reaction. The legality of this particular case will hopefully be dealt with by the courts, but this example offers an occasion to reflect on trophy hunting in more general terms – as a concept and as a reality.
Over the last few months, wildlife biologists and conservationists have found themselves taking sides – for or against the trophy hunting industry. Many conservationists, such as myself, are against the trophy hunting of endangered and vulnerable species, not because of animal welfare reasons but because of the failure of this activity to fulfil its role in conservation. In the majority of the arguments put forth by conservationists in its favour, the term “trophy hunting” has often been found alongside the words “potential tool” and “if well done”. However, the reality shows that in practice in some countries, it is just an activity to fuel corruption, encourage the unfair redistribution of the wealth generated, inadequate involvement of communities and the loss of healthy individuals that are still key for reproduction.
We are often brainwashed about the role of trophy hunting as a conservation tool. It is presented to us as a magic bullet for conservation efforts in African countries where hunting is allowed.
It is true that in some areas, conservationists work alongside hunters and some hunting clubs donate large amounts of money to NGOs. However, these initiatives that started off with good intentions are often, over time, diluted by corruption and loss of interest. “Campfire” in Zimbabwe is a prime example – what started off with good intentions and was successful in its goals for a few years, collapsed in its purpose and today is heavily subsidised by the government.
It is very difficult to determine exactly what percentage of the revenue generated by ecotourism and trophy hunting separately goes into conservation. However, with the high degree of corruption in countries like Zimbabwe (corruption index on Transparency International= 156/175), I highly doubt that dedicated and well-managed conservation is a priority.
The rapid gain of large sums of money which, in theory should be used for conservation, is an attractive source of income for countries with struggling economies. In 2005, I travelled to Burkina Faso with my university class – a group of students studying natural resource management. During this field trip, we had the opportunity to spend time in a hunting lodge which, by definition, was luxurious. The skins of two lion cubs lined the walls of the dining area – a stark contrast to the huts constituting the local villages around. There was a marked neo-colonialist spirit about it and we were forbidden to photograph the cub skins.
The biased relation between the wealthy hunter and the whole team supporting him has been amply demonstrated by the case of Cecil, where some of the team members have been arrested while the wealthy hunter is allowed to fly out of the scene. We are lucky that the fast growing number of Asian millionaires are not (yet) fascinated by the thrill of hunting African wildlife.
Why encourage the pilferage of vulnerable natural resources of a country by wealthy individuals of another? Today, money is the only criteria to obtain the right to kill. Most ‘normal’ tourists cannot afford the kind of luxurious tours that are offered to trophy hunters. But shouldn’t the living heritage be accessible to as many people as feasible? Photo safaris are much more affordable, are an option for many more individuals, are of educational value for all sections of society and multiple nationalities, and they allow for a better distribution of the income generated.
The auctioning of prime individuals to be destroyed for saving a species is comparable to auctioning the Mona Lisa portrait to be destroyed to save art.
Perhaps it is time for conservationists to realise that, with the prevalence of corruption, trophy hunting is not a viable conservation tool in many countries at the moment. A failure of the strict monitoring of age, sex and a lack of penalties for disrespecting these represent a serious threat to the species, especially in the case of large felines. There are many scientific publications giving ideas on how to make trophy hunting sustainable. However, there is little link between what is being published and what is happening in real life on the ground.
It takes a shift in public opinion to have politicians and legislators acknowledge the problem. It is public opinion that forced politicians to make legislation changes in the past, such as eliminating CFCs in our refrigerators and the banning of coats made from the fur of endangered species.
In the case of a species where there are only a few thousand left in the wild, there comes a point where every single individual counts. I believe that lion and leopard trophy hunting will ultimately stop. The question is, will it stop while there are still lions and leopards left or once they are all dead?