Dear EarthTalk: How is it that trophy hunting can actually be good for wildlife?
|—Ronnie Wilson, Ft. Myers, FL|
When Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil, a much-loved wild 13-year-old black-maned lion, with his bow and arrow in July 2015 outside a protected section of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, animal advocates were outraged. The University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit team had been studying Cecil and his family—protected as long as they stayed within the invisible borders of the park—at the time. In response to the extensive media coverage and public fury following the incident, Delta, American and United airlines announced in August that they would no longer allow hunters to transport big game trophies, including buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion or rhino, on their flights.
Cecil’s death also helped draw attention to big game hunting and its effects on wildlife populations and their ecosystems. Globe-trotting big game hunters imported more than 1.26 million “trophies”—the part of the animal they keep for display—to the U.S. between 2005 and 2014, according to a new report by Humane Society International (HSI). That’s an average of 126,000 trophy imports a year, or 345 a day.
But hunting proponents found the sudden backlash over Cecil’s death unsubstantiated. Dr. Alan Maki, conservation chair at the prominent hunting group, Safari Club International (SCI), argued that, considering that Africa’s human population is projected to double to two billion in the next 25 years, more and more land will be needed to support this growth, resulting in lots of lost wildlife habitat. Safari hunting, a $200 million annual industry, provides substantial value to wildlife, he said, by paying for anti-poaching patrols, national park operations and conservation programs that support local communities.
“We’re too busy showing everyone what great hunters we are, and we’re not doing enough to show what kind of conservationists we are,” says Ivan Carter, an African hunting guide and host of Carter’s W.A.R. on the Outdoor Channel. “We have to change the perception that we are just trophy killers and we’ve got to focus on the fact that we’re conservationists, and we do that by having and sharing the right information and research, and taking the time to post properly on social media.”
Of course, not everyone agrees that trophy hunting is benign, let alone beneficial. HSI maintains that widespread corruption in some of Africa’s most sought after big game destinations means that money raised from trophy hunting in places like Tanzania and Zimbabwe is more likely used to line officials’ pockets than to help ailing wildlife populations. (This unavoidable corruption was part of the reason Kenya banned trophy hunting altogether within its borders some four decades ago.) HSI also points out that trophy hunting may be more about ego-stroking than conservation, with wealthy American hunters willing to pay top dollar to compete in contests to kill the most wildlife for awards (such as the “Africa Big Five” that includes lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and Cape buffalo).
HSI, which has published several reports detailing the negative effects of trophy hunting on wildlife populations, is working to get additional airlines to refuse passage to hunting trophies, and has helped introduce legislation to Congress calling for a ban on the importation of large animal trophies altogether.
While it appears that the debate is not going to be settled anytime soon, animal advocates maintain that upholding laws protecting species does much more to protect animals than killing them ever can.