Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Trophy hunting: blood lust or the key to conservation?

By Veronica DicksonPublished November 9, 2015

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The jury is still out in whether trophy hunting is a conservationist tool to control poaching and cull herd population, or an inhumane application of human greed and injustice.
By Veronica Dickson, 11/9/15

The world cried out in outrage when Minnesotan dentist Dr. Walter Palmer admitted to having killed the beloved Cecil; a collared lion living in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Palmer has since then been harassed, threatened and protested against, both online and in the media. Vandals spray painting Ã¢â‚¬ËœLion Killer' onto his garage door, his wife and daughter facing online threats, and a decrease in clientele are only some of the few consequences of being a globally recognized game hunter. However, as morally questionable as the hunt may have been, the legality of his actions remains in high dispute.

Trophy hunting is the very legal practice of tracking down and hunting certain "big game" animals such as lions, rhinoceros and crocodiles. In order to be able to hunt these sometimes endangered species, one must acquire a very costly permit and wade through several legal channels to ensure the animal in question is not at high risk of extinction and will be hunted humanely. From the outlook, this might seem like an archaic, almost colonial form of entertainment, however hunting is a primeval activity that remains a crucial part of cultures and traditions in every country. The United States has regulated the hunting of overpopulated species, namely deer, in order to control population and promote native flora and fauna growth. Yet, somehow targeting big game is a harsh reminder of a bygone era, one without environmental regulation or animal protection agencies. We may find ourselves asking: why is trophy hunting legal in the first place?

In 2008, the revenue generated from hunting tourism in seven SADC countries (South African Development Community) was roughly 190 million USD. According to several conservationist groups, this is money that not only benefits local communities but also bolsters wildlife resource agencies. By legalizing trophy hunting and thus controlling the amount of permits distributed each year, illegal poaching will become less frequent. The theory is, regulated hunters serve as "eyes and ears on the ground" and can deter poachers in the area from hunting endangered species, and selling their profits illegally. Hunters are also encouraged to hunt exclusively in game parks on private land. These are often reserves controlled by the government and offer more population regulation of species.

Another benefit to regulated hunting is the culling of herds i.e., removing dangerous or undesirable animals from the equation. In the famous case of the Namibian Black Rhino hunt, the seasoned Texan conservationist hunter, Corey Knowlton, bid $350,000 for a permit to hunt an old bull who no longer contributed to the gene pool and in fact posed a threat to other fecund male rhinos in the area. As critically endangered as the species is, black rhinoceros can be very aggressive and have been known to attack their own kind in order to defend their territory. By killing the bull, Knowlton contended he was benefiting the species as a whole. The Dallas Safari Club, which hosted the action where Knowlton bid on his hunting permit, is an official member of the United Nations' International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The DSC strongly believes that "lawful ethical vigilant hunters play an important role in public acceptance of sustainable hunting as a vital tool for modern wildlife conservation and management".
Predictably, the idea that slaughtering animals can induce species-wide growth has received much criticism from the global community. Many conservationist groups do not believe that the funds generated from trophy hunting actually benefit local populations. More often than not, the money ends up in the corrupt hands of a government official or outfitter, and does nothing to incentivize conservation initiatives. Studies have shown that only an estimated 3-5% of hunting revenues actually reach the fringe communities in countries like Namibia, South Africa or Zimbabwe. In fact, Botswana has put in place a nation-wide ban on all big game sport, after noting significant declines in species growth. Approximately 600 male lions are killed yearly on trophy hunts, which destabilize lion prides and fosters aggression between other lions that now need to compete in order to take control. The shockwave effect of these hunts further expands the yearly death toll of reproductive lions. 

The rise of eco-tourism and increased habitat protection policy has mitigated some of the negative effects of trophy hunting, and the fact is, only the very wealthy can afford to hunt big game. Only time will tell how regulated hunting will effect population in the long term. However, strict government oversight and an informed global audience may be all we need in order to coexist with all inhabitants of our earth.