Furious debate around the role of trophy hunting in conservation raged in 2015, after the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, and a critically endangered black rhino in Namibia. Together, these two incidents triggered vocal appeals to ban trophy hunting throughout Africa.
While to most people (including us) this might seem like an abhorrent way to generate money, we argue in a new paper that trophy hunting, if done sustainably, can be an important tool in the conservationist’s toolbox.
In July 2015 American dentist Walter James Palmer shot and killed a male lion called Cecil with a hunting bow and arrow, sparking a storm of outrage. Cecil was a favourite of tourists visiting Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
Likewise in May 2015, a Texan legally shot a critically endangered black rhino in Namibia, which also generated considerable online ire. The backlash ensued even though the male rhino was considered “surplus” to Namibia’s black rhino populations, and the US$350,000 generated from the managed hunt was to be re-invested in conservation. The US government has endorsed hunting of black rhinos by allowing a limited import of rhino trophies.
These highly politicised events are but a small component of a large industry in Africa worth more than US$215 million per year, “selling” iconic animals to (mainly foreign) hunters as a means of generating otherwise scarce funds.
Conserving biodiversity can be expensive. Generating money has become a central preoccupation of many environmental charities, conservation-minded individuals, government agencies and scientists. Making money for conservation in Africa is even more challenging, so we argue that trophy hunting should and could fill some of that gap.
The question of whether trophy hunting is ethically justifiable is a separate issue. While animal suffering can be minimised with good practice, the moral case for or against trophy hunting is a choice we must make as a society.
Beyond the ethical or moral issues, there are still many concerns about trophy hunting that currently limit its use as a conservation tool. One of the biggest problems is that the revenue it generates often goes to the private sector rather than distributing benefits to conservation and local communities.
It can also be difficult (but not impossible) to determine just how many animals can be sustainably killed. Some forms of trophy hunting have debatable value for conservation. For instance, “canned lion hunting”, where lions are bred and raised in captivity only to be shot in specially made enclosures, provides no incentive for conserving lions in the wild.
At the same time, opposing sustainable trophy hunting could end up being worse for species conservation. While revenue from wildlife sightseeing is good, in most cases effective conservation requires much more. Without more funding creating incentives to conserve wildlife, many natural habitats will be converted to farmland, which is generally much worse for native wildlife and the entire ecosystem.
Trophy hunting can also have a smaller carbon and infrastructure footprint than ecotourism because it requires fewer paying customers for the same amount of revenue. Trophy hunting can even generate higher revenue than the most successful ecotourism enterprises.
Hunting can lead to larger wildlife populations because they are specifically managed to keep numbers higher. Larger animal populations are more resilient to extinction, and hunters have an interest in their protection. This contrasts with ecotourism where the presence of only a few individual animals is sufficient to ensure that the expectations of many paying tourists are met.
To address some of the concerns about trophy hunting and to enhance its contribution to biodiversity conservation and the benefit to local people, we propose twelve minimum standards:
Mandatory levies should be imposed on trophy hunting operators by governments. These can be invested directly into trust funds for conservation and management.
Trophies from areas that help conservation and respect animal welfare should be certified and labelled.
Populations must be analysed to ensure that killing wildlife does not cause their numbers to fall.
Post-hunt sales of any part of the animals should be banned to minimise illegal wildlife trade.
Priority should be given to trophy hunting enterprises run (or leased) by local communities.
Trusts should be created to share benefits with local communities and promote long-term economic sustainability.
Mandatory scientific sampling of animals killed, including tissue for genetic analyses and teeth for age analysis, should be enforced.
Mandatory five-year (or more frequent) reviews of all animals hunted and detailed conservation plans should be submitted to government legislators before permits are extended.
There should be full public disclosure of all data collected.
Independent government observers should be placed randomly and without forewarning on trophy hunts as they happen.
Trophies must be confiscated and permits revoked when illegal practices are discovered.
Backup professional shooters and trackers should be present for all hunts to minimise welfare concerns.
Can developing nations implement these strategies?
Yes, they can, but only if the funding model is transparent and includes direct support from national governments, as well as mechanisms for oversight and regulation as we have outlined. Some form of regional and international cooperation might also be necessary to minimise the chance of corruption.
Without greater oversight, better governance, and management based on scientific evidence, we fear that the furore over trophy hunting will continue – to the detriment of biodiversity, hunters and local communities. Adopting our ideas could help avoid this.