Scores of conservationists have written an open letter arguing that imposing trophy hunting bans without viable alternatives will imperil biodiversity and harm local communities. With the U.K and U.S considering bans and restrictions on imports of threatened or endangered species, the conservationists said there is “compelling evidence” that trophy hunting can reduce the overall number of animals killed.
In the face of “biased” and “emotive” social media campaigns, policymakers should draft regulations “based on the evidence and not just a knee-jerk reaction based on emotions because that is often unreliable in terms of the real impact”, said lead author Dr Amy Dickman, an Oxford University conservationist.
The high-profile killing of Cecil the Lion in 2017 thrust the issue into the spotlight, while hunters posing on social media over the carcasses of endangered animals spark regular fury. But, writing in the Science journal, the 133 conservationists and community representatives urged that hunting reforms be sought, instead of outright bans.
In African trophy hunting countries, more land has been conserved under trophy hunting than under national parks, the authors said. When hunting is banned without a viable alternative in place, this encourages land conversion towards non-wildlife based use and the indiscriminate destruction of habitats.
”So you’re going to see more agriculture, more pastoralism, more settlement and so you are going to have these other deaths,” said Dr Dickman, who has two decades of experience in the field. “In my opinion, you’re likely to have much more wildlife killing, but it won’t be on social media, it won’t be a grinning hunter there, people won’t be aware of it, but that doesn’t mean it is not happening.
“It is very dangerous to view this through the lens of social media because it is such a biased one, and this is why we need to listen to the conservation scientists and we need to listen to the community representatives rather than just advocacy groups.” The open letter argued the focus on trophy hunting “distracts attention from the major threats to wildlife”.
“We need to reduce the overall amount of wildlife killing by people, and we shouldn’t fixate on one type of wildlife killing, because the huge risk is that if you focus just on reducing trophy hunting it could actually contribute to increased poisoning, spearing and snaring, Dr Dickman explained. “There are actually worse deaths in terms of welfare, and they’re indiscriminate.”
The conservationists referred to guidance issued in 2016 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which said: “Legal, well-regulated trophy hunting programmes can, and do, play an important role in delivering benefits for both wildlife conservation and for the livelihoods and well-being of indigenous and local communities living with wildlife.”
Opponents of trophy hunting bans often cite Kenya‘s decision to outlaw the practice in 1977. By 2016, some estimated that wildlife populations had declined by around 68 per cent. Human activities and population increases were the leading cause of the sharp decrease, researchers concluded. But Professor Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s former Cabinet Secretary of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, has denied the claim that the ban on trophy hunting is harming Kenya’s wildlife.
“In Kenya we believe a live animal is worth more over its lifetime than a one off killing,” she said in March. “Elephant hunting was made illegal in 1973, followed by a ban on all animal hunting in 1977. Since then our elephant population has been growing steadily and our rhino breeding programme has been successful.”
Studies of other countries that have banned hunting for sport showed improvements to the fortunes of the species in question. In Zambia‘s South Luangwa National Park, scientists studied the effect of a moratorium placed on hunting lions from 2013-2015.
They observed that more cubs were born each year during the moratorium than any year with trophy hunting, and the adult male population grew significantly. As a result, they recorded an increase of 116 lions in 2012 to 209 by the end of the moratorium.
“Lions are one of the species most affected by trophy hunting. There were almost half a million wild lions in the 1950s. Today there are just 20,000,” said Eduardo Goncalves, founder of the Campaign To Ban Trophy Hunting. “It’s not just the numbers that are the issue though. Trophy hunters select the lions with the biggest manes because they make the most impressive trophies. These are also the strongest and fittest animals.
“Studies have shown that hunting has led to a 15 per cent fall in the genetic diversity of African lions. This means they will be less able to adapt and survive threats such as climate change. It has been estimated that hunting just 5 per cent of the remaining adult males could push lions past the point of no return.”
The conservationists also argued that trophy hunting can provide incomes for marginalised and rural communities, where viable alternatives are often lacking. “Opponents of hunting promote the substitution of photo-tourism,” they wrote. ”But many hunting areas are too remote or unappealing to attract sufficient visitors.” Bertrand Chardonnet, a researcher who has previously written for IUCN, questioned in March whether trophy hunting still pays its way.
Mr Chardonnet argued that in light of vastly diminished numbers of trophy hunters, a reduction in populations of “big game” animals, and vastly reduced land space reserved for hunting, the industry was no longer generating an income comparable with tourism. This lessened the ability of trophy hunting to financially deter activities like illegal poaching and habitat destruction for agricultural purposes, he reasoned.
One of the signatories, Rosie Cooney, is chair of IUCN’s sustainable use and livelihoods group. In 2017, she wrote in the Washington Post. “Some of the money — both from hunting and tourism — will never make it to the right people, and instead will go to elites. It’s far from perfect, but at least this business — at least some of the time — keeps these animals in their habitats.
“The first step is to recognise that outrage from afar never solved a local problem. We need to hear the voices of local people. Well-meaning people in the West need to stop shouting and start listening.” But Mr Gonzalez of the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting argued it’s people in the West that often fuel the industry.
“Britain is among the worst offenders,” he said. ”We are one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to hunting ‘canned lions’ that are bred and shot in captivity for ‘sport’. “We are also one of the worst when it comes to hunting elephants. British trophy hunters have imported hundreds of trophies of elephant tusks, trunks, ears, feet, tails and skins in recent years.
“Trophy hunting is a barbaric hang-over from the colonial era. It has no place in a civilised society. People in Britain are overwhelmingly opposed to it and want the government to stop hunters bringing their gruesome trophies into the country.”
Despite this, conservationists warned the international community should not undermine local communities’ role in ownership, management and conservation of natural resources, as the community representatives of 12 African countries urged in June.
“Some people find trophy hunting repugnant (including many of us), but conservation policy that is not based on science threatens habitat and biodiversity and risks disempowering and impoverishing rural communities,” the letter concluded.