The big debate: Is it time to kill off trophy hunting?


Duncan Craig & Chris Haslam, Comment --The Sunday Times

Date Published

See link for photos & graphic. 

Yes, this repugnant practice needs to end, says Duncan Craig

Advocates of trophy hunting like to argue that the funds raised are vital for conservation. Yet an image of a gurning businessman with his foot on a prostrate elephant sends a message so anti-conservation it could practically serve as the logo. Optics matter, as those posting their trophy shots understand; it’s not important whether they’re a great hunter, just that they look like one. And the exploitative, neocolonialist overtones in this objectionable practice, like the carcass of an inexpertly killed creature lying in the African sun, positively reek.

Trophy hunting is justified as a revenue-raiser, but it can also be economically destructive, snuffing out its more palatable, sustainable alternative: photo tourism. There were renewed calls for boycotts of Botswana last week by those sickened by the sight of the slaughtered tusker. The same happened in Zimbabwe in 2015 when 15-year-old Cecil, a totem of tourism, was shot by a dentist with a glorified bow and arrow, to be finished off 12 agonising hours later. As one Times commenter put it last week: “I’m now considering cancelling a £12,000 holiday to Botswana. Maybe the government can put that in their business case.” 

We hear that trophy hunting isn’t driving any species to extinction, like that’s a benchmark to aspire to. Or, from the hunters themselves — soppy altruists that they are — that their funds are doing good for local communities. So why not pay that community $50,000, shoot the beast with a camera and let it continue on its way luring and enthralling countless others?

Dr Keith Lindsay, a 69-year-old conservation biologist who has studied wild elephants in Africa since the late 1970s, says the argument that trophy hunting funds local communities is flawed. “A relatively small amount gets down to the level of the community — who are just passive recipients,” he said. “Whereas eco-tourism employs a lot more people and has a trickle-down effect.”

Trophy hunting, in which the client gets to return home with a prized part of the animal, helps the fight against poaching, we’re told — the magnificently warped logic that killing at-risk creatures for their tusks helps stop the practice of killing at-risk creatures for their tusks. Far better, surely, to fund antipoaching from genuine conservation — to tempt to Africa those with a burning desire to protect rather than destroy.

And what of the animals themselves? Elephants are the most sentient of creatures, with their complex familial structures and social patterns. They show empathy, they grieve. They also trample and destroy and sometimes kill. I get that. But the answer is surely to manage human-elephant conflict, not take out individuals that are often miles from pinch points in a form of random vigilantism.

Trophy hunting treats animals like commodities to be disposed of; cars being scrapped rather than repaired. But contrary to one argument for trophy hunting, the plight isn’t reserved for ageing creatures: toothless geriatrics doddering around the plains waiting for oblivion. Permits rarely relate to specific animals, giving those who facilitate the hunt freedom to select. They go for the biggest beasts, with the biggest trophies — even though males go on growing, competing, siring throughout their lives, well into their fifties. “There is no such thing as an over-the-hill male elephant,” said Lindsay. “They’re pushing right to the end.”

This highly selective culling is robbing the gene pool of its prime specimens, he says. And the culling is not ordered or consistent. The result, in Darwinian terms, is a sort of regressive evolution. Call it unnatural selection.

Those who criticise trophy hunting are accused of not understanding the nuance, of proselytising from afar. I’m sensitive to that, so let me end with the words of my expert guide — 25 years in the bush — in the western Kruger this month, where we spent an enthralling half-hour sitting among a family of more than a dozen elephants as they slurped, munched and mud-bathed around us, before peacefully moving on.

“Trophy hunting is simply wrong. An animal is always worth more alive than hanging on someone’s wall.”

No, trophy hunting is essential for conservation, says Chris Haslam

Our Sunday-night diet of Attenborough documentaries and anthropomorphic personality pieces such as Cheetah Family & Me feeds a binary vision of a world in which wildlife is always good and men with guns are always bad. 

But for so-called charismatic megafauna such as buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhinoceros, there is no wild life. In most of Africa’s 7,800 terrestrial protected areas (PAs), such species exist only because humanity allows them to do so. The law of this jungle is simple: if it pays, it stays.

If you’re watching wildebeest in the Mara, buffalo in the Selinda, or one of the 202 remaining black rhinos in the Kruger, you’re looking at a managed inventory of living assets — just like a Cotswold beef herd. Trophy hunting, while repugnant to many, has a microscopic effect on populations: the 83 elephant permits issued by Botswana in 2021 represent, at the most generous estimate, 0.06 per cent of the national herd, but the benefits to communities too distant and too underdeveloped to benefit from tourism are immense.

Their share of the $50,000 paid by the tourist who shot that old bull elephant will fund schools, water, clinics, social services and skills training.

As for allegations that trophy hunting drives species to extinction, a continuing study led by Professor Amy Dickman at the University of Oxford shows it does not. “So far we haven’t found one species where current trophy hunting is a threat to its persistence,” she said.

It’s true that trophy hunting can weaken species by removing the dominant genes, but research shows it’s mainly in species such as lions and leopards when age-based regulations have not been followed. In most cases trophy hunters target older males that have already been through multiple breeding cycles.

It’s habitat loss that poses the greatest danger. Researchers estimate that by 2050 the world will need 26 per cent more cropland to feed a population of 9.7 billion. With the greatest population increase in Africa, encroachment from humanity on those 7,800 PAs is inevitable. The pressure to degazette national parks and reserves where the wildlife can’t pay its way will be compounded by shrinking tax and philanthropic funding — now exacerbated by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Love them or hate them, private hunting concessions are a critical component in habitat conservation. In South Africa they comprise nearly 17 per cent of the entire land area. In Zimbabwe it’s 14 per cent and in Namibia 20 per cent. It is, therefore, a somewhat colonialist assumption that wildlife exists for the exclusive benefit of camera-toting tourists.

Years ago in Eritrea a French photojournalist I was travelling with asked a village kid to remove his NGO-donated Guns N’ Roses T-shirt because “it didn’t fit the picture”. Expecting Africans to ban hunting for the sake of our expectations is exactly the same, and our western outrage is irrelevant to the family watching an ageing, toothless bull elephant destroy the annual crop in one night, as I’ve seen in Zambia; tear out irrigation, as I’ve seen in Zimbabwe; and even kill their granny, as I’ve seen in Botswana.

Now, though, encouraged by ill-informed media and campaigning celebs, governments in the UK and EU are planning outright bans on the import of hunting trophies. This would effectively kill the business, and Dr Rodgers Lubilo, chairman of the Zambia Community Based Natural Resources Management Forum, says that would be a mistake. “In my home area alone we have 1,200 community scouts working to monitor wildlife populations,” he said. “Each salary feeds six mouths, and without hunting revenues poverty will increase. People will be forced to start poaching or return to agriculture, destroying habitats and wildlife.”

If you’re still upset by the death of that elephant, console yourself that your anguish is nothing compared to that coming the way of that tourist who pulled the trigger. When his name is leaked on social media, he’s going to find it’s a jungle out there.