The oft asked question is: are trophy hunters protectors of biodiversity or are they heartless killers of defenceless wild animals? To make any headway with this question, we need to consider the following :
Safari operations extend over at least 1.4 million square kilometres of land in sub-Saharan Africa. If this was for used farming, the incentives for conservation would undoubtedly decline. An argument exists that hunting has the lightest footprint – privately owned hunting areas are mostly empty of people, have small camps, limited staff and few overheads.
Tourism outfits, on the other hand, build extensive facilities, train staff in a variety of skills and maintain areas for photo safaris so their footprint is much heavier. So only in that it limits development, does hunting preserve the biodiversity.
Trophy hunting certainly accrues revenue, though it’s often difficult to follow the money. This is mostly due to abuse of rules. For example, the illegal shooting of Cecil the lion ($50 000 was paid to pull the trigger) meant none of this accrued to government, communities or conservation as the hunt was illegal and the money paid to the landowner and professional hunter.
In South Africa all hunting is worth R6.2-billion annually, although a scientific study by Economists at Large puts it at $112-million (R1.5-billion). Further to this, Economists at Large questions the value of trophy hunting to other than gun shops and hunting outfitters, citing a report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization which found that only 3% of hunting revenue went to surrounding communities .
In some areas, the limited trickle-down from trophy hunting could, in fact, be fuelling support for poachers, who pay shooters and bearers in cash.
While wild populations in Africa have been dropping steadily since firearms tilted the balance in favour of hunters 200 years ago, the last 20 years species decline has been catastrophic.
So how does trophy hunting feature? The stated ethic of hunter associations is that only animals past breeding prime should be bagged as this is deemed sustainable since it is thought to have little impact on the species as a whole. However, this ethic is often breached. One of the ways it is breached is in the form of “problem animal” permits i.e. permission to shoot animals because they’re in conflict with humans. These are being exploited by unethical operators across the continent as what can constitute a “problem animal” can be highly subjective.
In addition, the inability of hunters and trackers to age animals correctly means the injunction is generally in breach. In this way, younger breeding animals are being taken out of the gene pool.
Further to this, the idea that older individuals are no loss to their herds if killed is countered by a study published in the Journal of Wildlife. It found that the selective removal of a few large trophy or older males led to destabilization of social structures and loss of essential social knowledge. The consequences were infanticide, reproductive females using sub-optimal habitats and changes in offspring sex ratios.
Lions have always topped the list of desirable prizes. Foreign hunters are demanding shorter hunt times and an assured kill, for which they were prepared to pay top dollar. In South Africa, a solution is to farm lions like cattle.
There are no completely trusted sources on the numbers of lions in captivity in South Africa, however the head of SAPA (South Africa Predator Association), Pieter Potgieter, estimates the number of captive predators between 6 000 and 8 000.
There have also been disturbing leaks about the conditions under which the “canned lions” are bred. Preserving wild lands for hunting is a way to maintain higher levels of biodiversity and, in certain situations, the damage caused by trophy hunting is limited.
But, in pursuit of the Big One, hunters often cheat, crippling sustainability of prey species. Hunting for fun is increasingly problematic: from an African population of more than a million lions in the mid-19th century, there are maybe 20 000 left in the wild. Around 36 000 elephants are falling to rifle bullets each year and over 1 000 rhinos were poached in Kruger Park last year. In the face of such declines, can we really afford to kill, for personal pleasure, even one of this planet’s wild creatures?
This article was first published on Conservation Action Trust