Human Impact: Dying for a souvenir; Can trophy hunting ever be justified?

In the final part of this week’s theme of Human Impacts, Frontier takes a look at the contentious world of trophy hunting. Does it deserve its reputation as cruel and needless killing? Or are there hidden benefits to this gruesome hobby?

The controversial practice of trophy hunting divides opinion; those supporting the activity talk of its minimal impact and benefits to conservation. Whilst those opposing it criticise the killing of healthy and often endangered animals, rejecting its environmental justification as flawed and wrongly informed. With both arguments put forward so passionately, it is sometimes a difficult case to judge.

Search for trophy hunting in Google and you will be faced by two distinct types of result; those offering or championing the service, and those condemning it. Exploring these results often takes you to a very persuasive and fervent explanation of why it should or shouldn’t be banned. So what are the arguments that these opposing enthusiasts use? And more importantly, who’s right?

Advocates of the activity cite several beneficial reasons for their involvement or support of trophy hunting. Their primary justification, other than the inherent desire to see a pair of horns on their office wall, seems to revolve around its environmental and economic advantages.

A significant amount of trophy hunting occurs in Africa, where the iconic big game animals roam. With the continent’s human population growing rapidly, there is a constant need for more space. This results in the advance of human settlements towards, and over, the boundaries of National Parks and wildlife reserves. Unfortunately the animals inhabiting these areas are unable to identify where a park begins and ends, meaning that there is significant movement across borders. This inevitably brings about contact between the ever-encroaching human population and the animals.

Trophy hunting has been suggested and indeed used as the solution to this conundrum; if the big-game wildlife coming onto agricultural land in search of food is in fact more valuable than the crops and livestock itself, then an economic incentive to protect this wildlife is instantly created. Many countries in Africa permit trophy hunting in these circumstances, where supposedly only older males are available for the sport. With the high price of the service eclipsing profits from farming, as well as receiving the meat from the kill, individuals within a local community benefit significantly. Additionally,  animals that don’t fit the bill are also driven back into the park or reserve.

Despite the merits of this theory, it seems unthinkable that there is no alternative to the killing of big-game animals, many of which are endangered species. It is also hard to imagine that this system would be sufficiently policed and therefore remain unaffected by corruption and manipulation. Imagine, for example a hunting company setting-up on the edge of a reserve. With the promise of huge financial rewards, it would be incredibly tempting to lure rare and endangered animals over park boundaries and within range of the hunters.

Trophy hunting has traditionally been seen in a negative light by conservationists.  Indeed the uncontrolled manner in which early European settlers went about indiscriminately killing animals has gone a long way to gaining trophy hunting a bad reputation. This practice has been attributed to the extinction of species such as the quagga (Equus quagga quagga), and the sever depletion of others such as the elephant and black rhino. However, it has also been reported that the modern day manifestation of trophy hunting has been largely responsible for the repopulation of several important species, such as the southern white rhinoceros, which at one point fell to numbers as low as 50. The financial incentive of repopulating wild numbers for big money trophy hunts is seen as key to conservation efforts, something agreed upon by many biologists such as Peter Lindsey at the University of Zimbabwe:

“To justify the continued existence of [protected] areas in the context of increasing demand for land, wildlife has to pay for itself and contribute to the economy, and hunting provides an important means of achieving this,” Lindsey said.

So what about the other side of the argument? Well, apart from the vast number of people who reject trophy hunting on the grounds that any kind of animal killing is wrong, others believe that the benefits to conservation that trophy hunting supposedly creates are insignificant and exaggerated. Much of the opposition claims that the economic incentives do not work as they should, with little of the money supposedly reaching those rural communities it is meant for due to corruption. This, I imagine, results in these rural communities reverting back to farming as their main income, which in turn results in the killing of wild animals that threaten this livelihood.

A recent study has also suggested that current levels of trophy hunting for big cats in many African countries are unsustainable. The study was carried out in Tanzania, a country which is very open about how many big cats are killed due to trophy hunting. The country has a high percentage of the remaining large populations of African lions and leopards. The country sets strict quotas for the number of big cats allowed to be killed, but the report, based on data collected between 1996 and 2008 by Professor Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota, suggests that either quotas are far too high, or that quotas are being ignored. As well as calling for a significant reduction to these quotas, the report also urges companies to stop shooting immature and youthful lions, which has a drastic effect on the population, according to Prof Packer, who suggests that “It would be best to limit off-takes to male [lions] that are at least 6 years old,”.

It seems that in a perfect world, trophy hunting could be beneficial to conservation efforts. However, the impossible task of controlling such a lucrative business would appear to threaten its plausibility and cancel-out any advantages. Scientific studies will always pack a more believable punch than the propaganda put-out by hunting companies, so perhaps the best way to gauge the issue is to keep up to date with research and statistics.

Despite the potential advantages of trophy hunting helping to conserve land for wildlife, the difficulty in its successful and effective implementation mean that it is a deeply flawed option. Additionally, the justifications for killing to conserve are neither strong nor successful enough to warrant its use in an ethical form of conservation.

Alex Prior


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