Trophy hunting is a topic that sparks discussion, often debated in the comment section of a trophy picture shared on one of many social media platforms. A middle-aged man with a wide grin on his face, posing proudly with the corpse of a dead animal. Many find such images disturbing. I mean, who wouldn’t, right? What’s even worse, conservation scientists claim that trophy hunting can serve conservation purposes. What? Killing animals to protect animals? That sounds like nonsense. Well, it turns out that it’s not as simple as that.
While trophy hunting is often associated with African wildlife, it occurs in many other countries. For example, polar bears Ursus maritimus are hunted in Canada, argali sheep Ovis ammon in Central Asia and Roe deer Capreolus capreolus in Europe. Contrary to subsistence hunting, where wild animals are hunted for their meat, trophy hunting is recreational and often targets animals with a desired characteristic such as large antlers, tusks, horns or teeth. Trophy hunting is often conflated by the media with “canned hunting”, where animals are kept in small enclosures, and poaching, which is illegal killing of wildlife.
Trophy hunting as a tool for conservation
So how can trophy hunting be conservation? It all boils down to the somewhat cynical saying “if it pays, it stays”. The basic gist is that trophy hunting creates an incentive to protect a species or habitat by making it an economically more viable option than other alternatives. For example, farmers rely on a good harvest of crops to sustain themselves and their families. A good harvest is conditional on an adequate amount of rain, sunshine, soil nutrition and the fact that the crops haven’t been eaten prior to the actual harvest. Instances were crops have been raided by wildlife can lead to human-wildlife conflicts. Now, if the farmer relies on the crop to feed the family, the obvious choice would be to get rid of the wildlife raiding the crops. However, if someone is willing to pay more for the wildlife than the value of the crops, then keeping the wildlife alive is the better option. Putting a monetary value on wildlife can make the financial incentive of trophy hunting better than other land-use alternatives, such as agriculture or housing development, thereby protecting not only the trophy species but also the other species within the habitat. Similarly, the revenue from hunting fees can then be redirected into measures such as anti-poaching efforts or development in local communities. But is it right to sell the lives of animals as if it was nothing else than a pair of trousers? It depends on the ethical standpoint. Acceptance of trophy hunting largely relies on a utilitarian rationale, where the sacrifice of a few individual animals benefits the remaining wildlife and communities, leading to a net utility benefit relative to other land-use options. Therefore, trophy hunting is the better option if the marginal benefit exceeds that of alternative land-use types. For example, if trophy hunting secures a higher abundance of wildlife and benefits local communities more than alternative options such as farming, then trophy hunting is the better option. It should be noted that the topic can be discussed in the light of other ethical theories, but we won’t dive into that in this post (see Ghasemi 2020 instead)
The theory explains how trophy hunting can serve as a conservation tool, but what about in practice? Again, it depends on how the specific trophy hunting programme is managed and the settings it operates within. Evidence suggests that when properly managed, trophy hunting delivers conservation benefits. For example, rhino hunting programmes in South Africa and Namibia are good examples of such. Since 1968, the number of white rhinos has increased from around 1800 individuals to more than 18400 in 2017 (Emslie et al 2016; Cooney et al 2017). Evidence also supports the contrary, with poorly managed hunting quotas leading to lion and leopard declines in Tanzania (Packer et al 2011).
What about alternatives?
Photo-tourism is often promoted as a substitute by opponents of trophy hunting. The revenue generated from photo tourism easily exceeds that of trophy hunting. However, photo-tourism depends on factors such as diverse and high wildlife densities and developed infrastructure which makes it an unviable option for some areas.
Trophy hunting does not only divide the public opinion, it also divides the scientific community. In 2019, a group of scientists published the short letter “trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity” in the scientific journal Science (Dickman et al 2019). This letter was signed by 128 conservationists and warned governments about legislating against the import of trophies. The authors argued that such bans could lead to land conversion (e.g from biodiverse habitats to farmland) and thus wildlife declines (by affecting the demand for African trophies and thus the incentive to protect wildlife for those involved). Albeit the authors found the act of trophy hunting repugnant and recognized that poorly managed programmes can cause local population declines, in the absence of effective alternative measures banning well-managed trophy hunting could have unintended negative consequences. The letter emphasized the importance of relying on science when making difficult policy decisions such as trophy hunting bans but also the complexity of the topic. Other scientists argue that a trophy ban could be an opportunity to rethink how we protect wildlife in non-exhaustive ways using new solutions such as conservation-compatible-agriculture and by reforming tourism beyond photography (Nowak et al 2019).
There is no definitive or right answer in the trophy hunting debate. If operated properly, trophy hunting can be beneficial to wildlife and surrounding communities and if mismanaged the contrary is true. The complexity at which conservation operates in makes it impossible to select a widely applicable “one option suits all” solution. Furthermore, the topic of trophy hunting extends beyond choosing the “optimal” solution regarding wildlife alone. The perceived problems with trophy hunting are not necessarily the same across continents. For example, ethical considerations related to killing wildlife for recreational purposes is often at the heart of westerners opposing trophy hunting whereas Africans oppose trophy hunting because it is perceived as being a neo-colonial privilege for the western elite. An African study using data from three primarily African social media platforms found that Africans perceived westerner’s criticism of animal violence as overblown and illustrated how westerners held wildlife in higher regard than the African people (Mkono 2019). This sparks the question of whether western interference with African Wildlife can be justified, both in relation to supporting trophy hunt but also opposing it, as it is the African people that must live with the immediate consequences. The topic is complex and deserves to be discussed on a case by case basis, accounting for both wildlife and people while also considering the ethical consequences of different choices. Hopefully, the increased attention and discussion surrounding trophy hunting will result in new and innovative ways of protecting local biodiversity.
Cooney R et al. 2017. The baby and the bathwater: Trophy hunting, conservation and rural livelihoods. Unasylva 68:3–16.
Dickman A, Johnson PJ, Louis MP, Roe D, Al E. 2019. Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity. Science 365:873–875.
Emslie, R.E., Milliken, T., Talukdar, B., Ellis, S., Adcock, K. & Knight, M.H., compilers. 2016. African and Asian rhinoceroses: status, conservation and trade. A report from the IUCN Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC) African and Asian Rhino specialist groups and TRAFFIC to the CITES Secretariat pursu- ant to Resolution Conf. 9.14 (Rev. CoP15). CITES
Ghasemi B. 2020. Trophy hunting and conservation: Do the major ethical theories converge in opposition to trophy hunting? People and Nature:1–11.
Mkono M. 2019. Neo-colonialism and greed: Africans’ views on trophy hunting in social media. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 27:689–704. Routledge. Available from https://doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2019.1604719.
Nowak K, Lee PC, Marino J, Mkono M, Mumby H, Dobson A, Harvey R, Lindsay K, Lusseau D, Sillero-Zubiri C. 2019. Trophy hunting: Bans create opening for change. Science 366:434–435.
Packer C, Brink H, Kissui BM, Maliti H, Kushnir H, Caro T. 2011. Effects of Trophy Hunting on Lion and Leopard Populations in Tanzania. Conservation Biology 25:142–153. Available from http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01576.x.