Hunting for solutions: on trophy hunting

In July 2015, when Cecil, a 13-year-old black-maned male lion, strolled out of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe (some say he was baited and lured out), and fell prey to an American trophy hunter, a furore ensued. The unfortunate lion happened to be a study animal collared and tracked by Oxford University, and beloved of tourists on account of his readiness to provide easy photo-ops. Cecil’s death soon catalysed an international slanging match where animal rights activists and celebrities traded insults with hunters and their supporters. While the conservation community was divided in its support, local African voices were hardly heard.

Accidental mascot

Following this incident, trophy hunting has received much press and action. Thanks to this accidental mascot, financial support for Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) poured in. Among the key actions, subspecies of lions at risk from different population pressures were placed on the U.S. Endangered Species Act, making it difficult for American citizens to trophy hunt. However, the lifting of import bans for elephants, as recently proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Trump administration, is expected to ease the entry of trophy imports from countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Critics fear that lions may once again be a target. Given that populations of both elephants and lions and many other species remain of conservation concern, it is widely believed that actions to ‘protect’ such species must continue. But several questions remain unanswered: Is trophy hunting good for conservation or does it contribute to population declines? Is hunting ethical, and by whose standards? Should hunting be banned, and who decides?

The equation is not simple; generic hunting bans do not automatically lead to increases in wildlife. For example, in countries such as Kenya and India, where hunting bans came into force in the 1970s, wildlife populations do not seem to fare better than in countries where hunting is ongoing. On the contrary, in both South Africa and Namibia where wildlife has been commoditised (trophy hunting, wildlife tourism, commercial meat production as well as local consumption) and managed for the benefit of local communities, populations seem to be doing better.

Trophy hunting has also been favourably implicated in the recovery of individual species such as the black rhino and the straight-horned markhor, a species of wild goat found in Pakistan. In the specific case of lions, WildCRU’s own report identifies habitat loss and degradation, as well as the loss of prey-base and conflict with local communities over livestock losses as primary threats. Trophy hunting, it concludes, could be problematic only for some populations but reiterates that there is limited evidence to show that it has substantial negative implications at national or regional levels. In fact, the report states that “the most fundamental benefit of trophy hunting to lion conservation is that it provides a financial incentive to maintain lion habitat that might otherwise be converted to non-wildlife land uses.”

Impact on conservation

Given these data, it would seem that much of the opposition to trophy hunting derives from an animal rights perspective rather than an objective evaluation of conservation impact. Hunting is carried out in about 1.4 million sq km in Africa, more than 22% of area covered by national parks in Africa. To increase the scope of ecotourism (the most frequently proposed revenue generation alternative) to this level seems unviable given that many of these landscapes are not conducive to tourism. Moreover, some experts claim that compared to ecotourism, high-value trophy hunting has a lower ecological footprint. The caution, however, is that like other market-based mechanisms such as payments for ecosystem services or ecotourism, trophy hunting is also riddled by problems such as lack of local regulation, rent-seeking and corruption, which can derail such projects. Trophy hunting therefore has mixed results, with a variety of factors determining its success or failure.

At the same time, this pragmatic approach to conservation clashes frequently with the animal rights philosophies embedded within the wildlife conservation debate. To further complicate matters, critics conflate subsistence with sport hunting; these are embedded in different cultural contexts, and need to be evaluated through separate socio-political and economic frames.

One must not forget that the vociferous support of urban Western animal enthusiasts and conservationists has real consequences far away (from their homes) in rural Africa where animals and people live in close proximity with each other. An undue focus on issues such as trophy hunting can take away from real problems such as conflict as well as widespread habitat loss and degradation. The latter are enabled by the massive land grabs perpetrated by multinational companies on the continent. The ongoing trophy hunting and animal rights debates as well as the conservation politics surrounding large charismatic species have been elements of a long-term, white-dominated game that is also indicative of a distinct colonial hangover reminiscent of the ‘Scramble for Africa’, that once again ignores African voices and ground realities.

Meera Anna Oommen is Associate Director at Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore and Kartik Shanker is Director, ATREE, Bangalore. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 8:04:19 PM |

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