Outright bans of trophy hunting could do more harm than good

5 01 2016

In July 2015 an American dentist shot and killed a male lion called ‘Cecil’ with a hunting bow and arrow, an act that sparked a storm of social media outrage. Cecil was a favourite of tourists visiting Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, and so the allegation that he was lured out of the Park to neighbouring farmland added considerable fuel to the flames of condemnation. Several other aspects of the hunt, such as baiting close to national park boundaries, were allegedly done illegally and against the spirit and ethical norms of a managed trophy hunt.

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. Together, these two incidents have triggered vociferous appeals to ban trophy hunting throughout Africa.

These highly politicized events are but a small component of a large industry in Africa worth > US$215 million per year that ‘sells’ iconic animals to (mainly foreign) hunters as a means of generating otherwise scarce funds. While to most people this might seem like an abhorrent way to generate money, we argue in a new paper that sustainable-use activities, such as trophy hunting, can be an important tool in the conservationist’s toolbox. Conserving biodiversity can be expensive, so generating money is a central preoccupation of many environmental NGOs, conservation-minded individuals, government agencies and scientists. Making money for conservation in Africa is even more challenging, and so we argue that trophy hunting should and could fill some of that gap.

Nonetheless, there are many concerns about trophy hunting beyond the ethical that currently limit its effectiveness as a conservation tool. One of the biggest problems is that the revenue it generates often goes to the private sector and rarely benefits protected-area management and local communities sharing habitats with biodiversity. It can also be difficult (but not impossible) to determine ‘sustainable’ offtake rates — measuring just how many and what kind of individuals can be removed from a population without exacerbating extinction risk. Some forms of trophy hunting have debatable value for conservation, such as ‘canned lion hunting’, where lions are bred and raised in captivity only to be shot eventually in specially made enclosures. In such cases, there are no incentives generated for the conservation of natural habitats and other biodiversity.

At the same time, opposing trophy hunting as a form of sustainable use could end up being worse for species conservation. Financial resources for conservation, particularly in developing countries, are limited. As such, consumptive and non-consumptive uses of biodiversity are both needed to generate funding. Without such benefits, many natural habitats would otherwise be converted to agricultural or pastoral uses that have a decidedly lower benefit for native biodiversity.

Likewise, trophy hunting can also have a smaller carbon and infrastructure footprint than ecotourism, and generate higher revenue from a lower volume of users. Hunting can also lead to larger wildlife populations that by proxy have a higher resilience to extinction, because hunter clients specifically desire them. This contrasts with ecotourism where the presence of a few individual animals can maximise profits.

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 prescriptions. To make these prescriptions more relevant to decision makers, we have summarized them according to the guiding principles on trophy hunting promoted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization.

  1. Mandatory levies should be imposed on safari operators by governments so that they can be invested directly into trust funds for conservation and management;
  2. Eco-labelling certification schemes could be adopted for trophies coming from areas that contribute to broader biodiversity conservation and respect animal welfare concerns;
  3. Mandatory population viability analyses should be done to ensure that harvests cause no net population declines;
  4. Post-hunt sales of any part of the animals should be banned to avoid illegal wildlife trade;
  5. Priority should be given to fund trophy hunting enterprises run (or leased) by local communities;
  6. Trusts to facilitate equitable benefit sharing within local communities and promote long-term economic sustainability should be created;
  7. Mandatory scientific sampling of hunted animals, including tissue for genetic analyses and teeth for age analysis, should be enforced;
  8. Mandatory 5-year (or more frequent) reviews of all individuals hunted and detailed population management plans should be submitted to government legislators to extend permits;
  9. There should be full disclosure to public of all data collected (including levied amounts);
  10. Independent government observers should be placed randomly and without forewarning on safari hunts as they happen
  11. Trophies must be confiscated and permits are revoked when illegal practices are disclosed
  12. Backup professional shooters and trackers should be present for all hunts to minimise welfare concerns.

Without greater oversight, better governance and evidence-based management, we fear that the trophy-hunting polemic will continue to the detriment of biodiversity, hunters and local communities. Adopting our prescriptions could help avoid this.

Enrico Di Minin & CJA Bradshaw


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11 responses

22 02 2016
rose ann

Absolutely, there must be a net benefit to biodiversity and we must do all that we can to ensure that we do not lose apex predators, I know these are difficult criteria to satisfy but if we do little or nothing then those all important apex predators will likely get squeezed out through habitat fragmentation, poaching etc.
I agree with you on the photo vs hunting point but don’t see why these have to be exclusive strategies. It seems that conservationists often get blinkered and can only see one point or another, I think we all need to see a bigger picture and be prepared to be co operative.

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18 01 2016
toyinasojo

This are laudable goals but need the input of local stakeholders. The idea that trophy hunting benefits local populations remains unproven. Do / will the funds eventually trickle down to the locals? BTW how do you justify to the local people that you maintain double standards where rich foreigners are allowed to kill animals but poor locals are not?

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6 01 2016
wildtrack

This is a hot topic, and the practical prescriptions are a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion.

I feel though, that trophy hunting will not move forward as an asset for biodiversity protection until the increasing gulf between hunters and those who abhor hunting is addressed.

Increasingly, public perception is that trophy hunting is ethically indefensible, and ethics are at the core of the escalating heat in this arena. Conservation organisations, particularly those NGO’s dependent on public support, are in a difficult position wrt satisfying their supporters and implementing effective conservation on the ground. Hunters have their backs to the wall and are defensive and often unwilling to engage in debate. Yet ironically both agree that biodiversity protection is paramount. Conservationists could position themselves as ‘neutral’ in this field to lead a more open debate on the ethics of our interaction with animals. For example, is the generally legitimized use of industrial farming much different ethically from ‘canned’ hunting? Can we draw up new guidelines to direct the ‘use’ of the animals we interact with?

I would also like to have seen a little more on the potential advantages to local communities of employment by trophy hunters. Traditional ecological knowledge, including tracking skills, is vital for this industry. A resurgence of interest in tracking, as exemplified by emerging tracking schools and certification standards, could lead the way to more benefits for local communities as well as wildlife.

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5 01 2016
mte485

Having read the paper I agree that it is couched much more conservatively than its title suggests. However my agreement with the apparent sentiments of Neil and Falko end there.

For sure the use of trophy hunting as a vehicle to raise funding for conservation is a thorny issue, fraught with difficult, perhaps controversial issues, but surely we cannot continue to sit on the fence and wring our hands while the human population increases and biodiversity decreases.

Even if there were a ban on trophy hunting I suspect that it would just be driven underground and unscrupulous practitioners would continue to profit while conservation would lose all benefits. To discard hunting as a conservation measure because we think developing countries can, or will, not effectively regulate it or because current practitioners have failed to self regulate is, frankly, weak.

In my opinion, an imperfect system that brings some benefit is better than a failure to act. With the proviso that such a system should be closely monitored, regulated and subject to continual improvement.

We need to have difficult conversations now, while there is still biodiversity to save! The conservation movement needs individuals who have the foresight to consider innovative methods and the courage to put their head above the precipice and suggest them. I think the authors deserve full credit for going there.
Mark Edwards

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6 01 2016
Neil Midlane

Mark, I agree with you, but the key is that there is a net benefit to biodiversity, and that needs to be measured. We know for certain, for example, that poorly regulated hunting of lion and leopard lead to population declines of these species. A loss of these apex predators in a system could lead to net loss of overall biodiversity. Perhaps its a case of being more selective about which species can be hunted as trophies? But then the financial viability of the hunting operations is likely to decrease if they can’t hunt the “big-ticket” species.

One further comment, in the photographic tourism vs hunting debate, the reduced footprint of the latter is always brought up. However, something that this debate seems to miss is the greater number of local community members employed by photo operators. More employment = more income for communities not subject to elite-capture = less reliance on natural resources for survival. I think this needs to be considered when comparing the two land use types.

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6 01 2016
mte485

Absolutely, there must be a net benefit to biodiversity and we must do all that we can to ensure that we do not lose apex predators, I know these are difficult criteria to satisfy but if we do little or nothing then those all important apex predators will likely get squeezed out through habitat fragmentation, poaching etc.
I agree with you on the photo vs hunting point but don’t see why these have to be exclusive strategies. It seems that conservationists often get blinkered and can only see one point or another, I think we all need to see a bigger picture and be prepared to be co operative.

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6 01 2016
Margi Prideaux

I absolutely agree with you Neil, and would add that too often this debate happens in Europe and America … rarely with the people on the ground living with the wildlife. The economics of where the money flows are simplified, and while it look as if the community benefits, most often the money flow to the west.

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5 01 2016
Mario Quevedo

I understand that the paper (can´t access full text now) is focused, like the post, in Africa and the loss of species. Those scenarios may call for pragmatic approaches where the detailed meaning of biodiversity (well, if any) have to be overlooked. Thus my comment is probably a side thought, considering that trophy hunting takes place elsewhere, in areas where the local economy is way more privileged.

Trophy hunting may alter aspects other than those usually included in PVAs of local populations. So my question is if you have considered effects of trophy hunting on the behavior of the hunted species, and those that interact with it (see for instance that “Saving large carnivores, but losing the apex predator”, DOI 10.1016/j.biocon.2013.09.024).

Thanks for stirring up thoughts again.

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21 02 2016
Ericka Rebadajo

There is a net benefit to biodiversity. The economics of where the money flows are look as the community benefits. Imperfect system that brings some benefit is better than a failure to act. With the proviso that such a system should be closely monitored, regulated and subject to continual improvement. The reality on the ground is that they will not be enforced effectively. There are plenty of regulations already in place that are either ignored or poorly implemented in many hunting areas.

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5 01 2016
Falko Buschke

I agree with Neil’s previous comment.

Trophy hunting can, as you say, have significant benefits for conservation assuming that the regulations (if they exist) are implemented effectively. But I have doubts that most developing countries have the capacity to implement these regulation in an effective way.

Moreover,the economics of trophy hunting creates incentives for game farmers to stock non-endemic species and/or breed rare phenotypes (albinos or melanistic individuals) because they are worth more as trophies.

I agree with your thesis that trophy hunting can benefit conservation if properly regulated (although I haven’t yet read the paper in full) . I don’t think anyone other than animal rights activists will disagree with you on that point. However, the more important question remains unanswered: in an imperfect world with inadequate regulations, does trophy hunting have a positive or negative effect on overall biodiversity?

But, overall, I agree that these thorny issues should not be managed as knee-jerk emotional reactions, but should rather be based on hard number-crunching science.

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5 01 2016
Neil Midlane

Unfortunately, as good as the your proposed prescriptions are in practice, the reality on the ground is that they will not be enforced effectively. There are plenty of regulations already in place that are either ignored or poorly implemented in many hunting areas – the 6-year age limit on lion trophies in Tanzania is a case in point. The hunting industry itself has had many opportunities to clean up its act through internal pressure but again, in most areas, has failed to do so.

It’s a pity, because I agree with your overall argument that well-regulated, scientifically-informed trophy hunting could be beneficial to overall biodiversity conservation.

One further comment, I think the title of your paper is too strong – I don’t think the paper makes a strong enough case to support the statement that banning trophy hunting will exacerbate biodiversity loss. It may, but I don’t think you can say it will.

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