Trophy hunting in Africa: Are we killing conservation?

By Beth Hanlon

We all remember Cecil the Lion, and the debate that erupted about trophy hunting upon his death. In July 2015 Walter Palmer shot and killed Cecil with a bow and arrow, after paying $54,000 for a hunting permit in Zimbabwe. There was worldwide anger over his death, with celebrities and wildlife organisations protesting his death and the practice of trophy hunting. The controversy caused some countries to change their hunting laws, and some airlines to ban the transportation of hunting trophies.

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Walter Palmer (left) shot Cecil with a bow and arrow. Photograph: Rex Shutterstock, via the Guardian.

Trophy hunting is the practice of hunting wild animals for recreation, and keeping a part of the animal as a sign of the success of the hunt. Regardless of the moral aspect of trophy hunting, there is fierce debate around the conservation benefits hunting provides.

The benefits and consequences of trophy hunting for conservation were recently evaluated by Justin Rogers during the midterm conservation science conference. Justin weighed the pros and cons of trophy hunting in Africa and its impact on conservation.

Trophy hunting is practiced in many African countries and in sub-Saharan Africa there are positive and negative examples of the effect of trophy hunting on conservation.

Trophy hunting provides benefits for communities in areas such as education, employment, income, and meat provisioning. A 2006 paper estimated gross revenues of $201 million from hunting in sub-Saharan Africa.  This financial incentive can increase wildlife conservation, as long as hunting quotas are set correctly and adhered to. One study found that rigorous management of trophy hunting areas can make them valuable conservation zones for large herbivores.

Trophy hunting generates higher revenues and has a lower environmental impact than photo-tourism. If this money makes it into the community then locals will not have to supplement their income through illegal poaching, thus helping conserve the wildlife. Hunting can be the only viable land-use in vast areas, and can preserve the ecosystem when other forms of tourism, such as photo-tourism, cannot.

Other than the obvious ethical issues of killing large animals for fun, there are other arguments against trophy hunting. The benefits from hunting for local communities do not always materialise, or are not always shared equitably among the community. In areas with poor management, and quotas that are not set properly, hunting can be unsustainable and damaging to the animal populations. Under current hunting rates in southern Africa trophy bull elephants will be removed from the population in less than 10 years.

Hunting selective individuals of a population (usually the largest) can result in undesirable evolutionary consequences, and changing population demographics. Trophy hunting has been shown to change the entire evolutionary path of bighorn sheep, which are hunted in North America for their large horns. Over time, ram body weight and horn size has declined significantly. There is a lack of research and data about the impact of trophy hunting, on which assessments can be made to inform management strategies.

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Photo-tourism can generate high revenues and promote wildlife conservation. Photograph: Ralph Lee Hopkins, National Geographic Stock

Justin states that trophy hunting should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and that the management should be guided by the total benefit for conservation. In an African context this conservation benefit is the net benefit of trophy hunting on wildlife populations, ecosystems, biodiversity, and local communities. If trophy hunting has a larger net benefit than photo-tourism, then a management plan should be devised to maximise this benefit. If photo-tourism has a higher net benefit, then trophy hunting can be avoided.

Hopefully, with proper management of trophy hunting areas, wild animal populations can be conserved for future generations to enjoy, and for the Earth to remain a little bit wilder.

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