Bearding the Lion—Entering the Hunter’s Den

If your purpose is to foment instant warfare in conservation circles, there is a choice of two guaranteed bullseyes—hunting, more specifically trophy hunting, and trade in wild species and their body parts. But for a few rather mealy-mouthed fence-sitters, the divide is absolute. You are either for or against. So, before going any further, let me declare myself: I am firmly in the “no trophy hunting” and “no trade” camp. Although a lot of people would stand with me on this, just with the saying of it, I can feel the hackles of many friends and colleagues starting to assume an angry dog position.

Although many of the pro/anti arguments are similarly founded in notions of sustainable use, I am not so foolish as to try to tackle both hunting and wildlife trade issues within the scope of this single editorial. And so, I will focus on hunting.

The “instinct” for hunting, it is frequently argued, is hard-wired in us. “It is in our DNA.” After all, we are genetically hardly distinguishable from our family of forbears who lived tens of thousands of years ago. We could have mated with them—increasing evidence shows there was certainly interbreeding between Homo sapiens and our near cousins H. Neanderthal and H. Denisova

The early hominids were all hunters, no doubt about that. But is the hunting instinct hard-wired in our fabric? I’m not so sure about that. Unlike many other creatures, including most non-human mammals, we don’t seem to be hard-wired for very much at all. Our babies are pretty helpless and hopeless at most stuff. And almost every behavior and skill we have is learned from our parents and other nurturing elders. I am sure that this was true for Neanderthals and Denisovans, as it is for every child born today.

So, I would argue that we learn to hunt. And while in times past it was a necessary, critical even, skill to acquire, this is no longer the case. Hunting today, except perhaps for some indigenous communities, is an activity of choice. A recreation. A sport. So, to all who contend that the urge or instinct to hunt is in our blood, I ask this question: do we really need to hunt to express being human? I doubt it very much.

I would argue, that from the time we began to settle down on farms and villages, the need to hunt began, albeit slowly, to diminish. Perhaps hunting was still ritualistically important—a rite of passage for young men to prove their worth. But, today, in this world, is it really necessary to kill a living thing for no greater reason than fun? I suggest not.

Whether hunting it is in our DNA or learned, is perhaps irrelevant. We all do it, as much today as we did thousands of years ago. We do it to survive, to fuel our constant need for energy-providing calories. The big difference now is that most of us hunt and forage not in our gardens, in the woods or the wilderness. Instead, we do it in supermarkets where over-packaged vegetables and meat distance us from the hard labor of gathering them from nature. Increasingly, in our fearful Covid-19 world, we’re even removed from that, choosing our fare online and having it delivered.

Although practically impossible for most of us, perhaps it would be more honest for those wanting meat to take a gun or bow and hunt it down. It would certainly be more so than buying neatly-presented cuts of meat in a supermarket where we’re conveniently sheltered from the horrors of factory farming and slaughterhouses. True, there is a growing awareness of the unpalatable facts behind meat production. And this, along with a realization of the sheer unsustainability of mass-producing animals as human feed, fuels a gathering momentum behind plant-based alternatives. But that too is an exploration for another time.

So, although a case, albeit a very limited one, can be built around hunting for food, there is nothing to commend about hunting for fun. And in this respect, no one stands more accused than the trophy hunter. I state this with utter conviction.

If the hackles of my opponents were rising in my opening paragraph, they are now fully erect. And I know precisely the tenor of the comments that will be fired back at me. Principally these will be around not being in favor of sustainable use, and that trophy hunting provides an income for poor people in regions not suitable for other land uses (and therefore better disposes them towards the broader aims of conservation).

The first accusation is sheer nonsense. If I didn’t stand for sustainable use, I wouldn’t be sitting here championing the cause of conservation and the health of the planet as I have done for nigh on five decades. I would also throw the question straight back at them, suggesting that consistently taking the biggest and the best out of any gene pool is hardly a sustainable action.

The second accusation has more steel to it. Certainly, there is no quick-fix solution to rural poverty in Africa. But are we really so bereft of creative alternatives? Do we have to accept there are places where people can do no better than sell the rights to kill a magnificent animal to the highest bidder? There have to be endeavors that would offer better, long-term opportunities for rural upliftment. With wind and more sunshine than you could shake a stick at, renewal energy generation would be a start.

Finally, the arguments presented by trophy hunters suggest a higher, altruistic motive behind their actions, that somehow, by killing a magnificent beast for their gratification, they are doing a good thing for people and the planet. On the contrary, trophy hunters are nothing but a small band of men (and some women) who are wealthy enough to have an inflated sense of their importance and a fervent belief in their right to indulge in a very unpleasant pastime.

And the world is becoming less tolerant of them, as WWF-UK recently discovered when forced to abandon their support for trophy hunting in the face of a strong member backlash.