Proponents of trophy hunting like to claim that the funds raised are vital for conservation. Yet the image of a growling businessman with his foot on a prostrate elephant sends such an anti-conservation message that it could practically double as a logo. Optics matter, as those who publish their trophies understand; it doesn’t matter that he is a great hunter, just that he looks like one. And the connotations of exploitation and neocolonialism in this reprehensible practice, like the carcass of a clumsily killed creature lying under the African sun, positively stink.
Trophy hunting is justified as a source of income, but it can also be economically destructive, stifling its more acceptable and sustainable alternative: photo tourism. There have been new calls for the Botswana boycotts last week by those sickened by the sight of the downed tusker. The same happened in Zimbabwe in 2015 when 15-year-old Cecil, a tourism totem, was shot by a dentist with a glorified bow and arrow, only to be finished off 12 agonizing hours later. Like a Time commentator said it last week: ‘I am now considering canceling a £12,000 holiday to Botswana. Maybe the government can put that in their business case.
We hear that trophy hunting is not driving any species to extinction, as if it were a benchmark to aspire to. Or, hunters themselves – cutesy altruists that they are – that their funds do good for local communities. So why not pay this community $50,000, film the beast with a camera, and let it go on its way attracting and captivating countless others?
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
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 reaches the community level – who are just passive recipients,” he said. “Whereas ecotourism employs many more people and has a ripple effect.”
Trophy hunting, in which the customer can return home with a valuable part of the animal, helps fight poaching, we are told – the beautifully twisted logic that killing creatures at risk for their tusks helps to stop the practice of killing at -risk creatures for their defenses. Much better, surely, to fund anti-poaching from genuine conservation – to tempt those in Africa who have a burning desire to protect rather than destroy.
And what about the animals themselves? Elephants are the most sensitive creatures, with their complex family structures and social patterns. They empathize, they cry. They trample and destroy and sometimes kill. I understand. But surely the answer is to manage human-elephant conflict, not to cull individuals who are often miles away from pinch points in a form of random vigilance.
Trophy hunting treats animals as commodities to be disposed of; cars to be scrapped rather than repaired. But contrary to an argument for trophy hunting, the fate is not reserved for aging creatures: toothless geriatricians who roam the plains awaiting oblivion. Permits are rarely for specific animals, giving those facilitating the hunt the freedom to choose. They go for the biggest beasts, with the biggest trophies – even though the males continue to grow, compete, sire throughout their lives, well into their 50s. “There is no bull elephant over the hill,” Lindsay said. “They go all the way”
This highly selective culling deprives the gene pool of its prime specimens, he says. And the slaughter is neither orderly nor coherent. The result, in Darwinian terms, is a kind of backward evolution. Call it unnatural selection.
Those who criticize trophy hunting are accused of not understanding the nuance, of proselytizing from a distance. I am sensitive to this, so let me end with the words of my expert guide – 25 year old in the bush – in West Kruger this month, where we spent an exciting half hour sitting amongst a family of more than a dozen elephants as they drank, nibbled and bathed in mud around us, before continuing peacefully.
“Trophy hunting is just plain wrong. An animal is always worth more alive than hanging on someone’s wall.
The elephant that was killed in Botswana earlier this month
No, trophy hunting is essential for conservation, says Chris Haslam
Our Sunday night diet of Attenborough documentaries and plays by anthropomorphic figures such as Cheetah family and me nurtures a binary view of a world in which wildlife is always good and gunmen are always bad.
But for so-called charismatic megafauna like buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhinoceros, there is no wild life. In most of Africa’s 7,800 terrestrial protected areas (PAs), these species only exist because humanity allows them to. The law of this jungle is simple: if it pays, it stays.
If you see wildebeest in the Mara, buffalo in the Selinda, or one of the remaining 202 black rhinos in the Kruger, you’re looking at a managed inventory of living assets, much like a herd of Cotswold cattle. 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% of the national herd, but the benefits for communities too remote 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 job training.
As for claims that trophy hunting is driving species to extinction, ongoing study by Professor Amy Dickman at the University of Oxford shows that this is not the case. “So far, we have not found any species for which current trophy hunting threatens its persistence,” she said.
It is true that trophy hunting can weaken species by suppressing dominant genes, but research shows that it is mainly in species such as lions and leopards where age-based regulations have not been enforced. followed. In most cases, trophy hunters target older males that have already gone through several breeding cycles.
It is the loss of habitat that poses the greatest danger. Researchers estimate that by 2050 the world will need 26% more cropland to feed a population of 9.7 billion. With the highest population growth in Africa, human encroachment on these 7,800 PAs is inevitable. Pressure to downgrade national parks and reserves where wildlife cannot pay their way will be compounded by cuts in taxes and philanthropic funding – now exacerbated by the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Love them or hate them, private hunting concessions are an essential part of habitat conservation. In South Africa, they represent nearly 17% of the entire territory. In Zimbabwe it is 14% and in Namibia 20%. So this is a somewhat colonialist assumption that wildlife exists for the exclusive benefit of tourists with cameras.
Years ago, in Eritrea, a French photojournalist I was traveling with asked a village child to take off his Guns N’ Roses t-shirt donated by an NGO because “it didn’t match the photo” . Expecting Africans to ban hunting in the name of our expectations is exactly the same, and our western outrage has nothing to do with the family watching an aging, toothless bull elephant destroy the annual crop overnight, as I saw in Zambia; uproot irrigation, as I have seen in Zimbabwe; and even kill their grandmother, as I saw in Botswana.
Now, however, spurred on by misinformed media and campaigning celebrities, the UK and EU governments are planning to ban the import of hunting trophies altogether. It would effectively kill the company, and Dr Rodgers Lubilo, chairman of the Zambia Community Natural Resource 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 income, poverty will increase. People will be forced to start poaching or go back to farming, destroying habitats and wildlife.
If you’re still upset over the death of that elephant, take comfort that your anguish is nothing compared to that befalling that tourist who pulled the trigger. When his name gets leaked on social media, he’ll find out it’s a jungle out there.