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Conservation—a world of truth, opinion, and strange bedfellows.

By March 17, 2021Editorial

Caption: Magnificent bull elephant set against Mount Kilimanjaro, Kenya. © Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock


Dr. Chris Brown is a much-respected ecologist and environmental scientist working in Namibia. He is not a hunter and has never been one. He’s also a vegetarian—but a vegetarian who, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, strongly supports the hunting industry not only in his home country but throughout Africa. However, it is far from unqualified support. In a paper on the subject, he explains his endorsement of the “legal, ethical hunting of indigenous wildlife within sustainably managed populations, in large open landscapes. The reason” he continues “is simple. Well-managed hunting is extremely good for conservation. In many areas, it is essential for conservation.” He makes very persuasive arguments.

I, on the other hand, am not a vegetarian, yet I am an outspoken critic of hunting. I have been consistent in this view throughout my 40-odd years as a publisher, editor, and writer in the field of natural history and nature tourism, and will be so for however long I have left on this planet.

I am driven by my love of wild places and the creatures (including us) that inhabit them, and the intricate natural systems we are all part of. And I am deeply concerned about the impossible burden we humans have and continue to place on our environment. I have no doubt that Dr. Brown feels much the same. Yet, we sit across the divide from each other regarding hunting. The paradoxes, imagined or real, are those we all face, and dealing with them is what separates us from those who simply don’t care. Conservation, indeed, makes some strange bedfellows.

Many of my conservation colleagues (and friends), especially here in southern Africa, get frustrated and often angry with me for my stance against trophy hunting. A few regard me as some sort of traitor to the cause. I understand where they’re coming from, as there is a powerful and opinionated pro-hunting lobby in this part of the world. And it comprises not only hunters but many highly respected conservationists and animal scientists here and overseas. This community is generally of the opinion that the conservation strategies of countries that include hunting (principally South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe) have got it right, while those that don’t (primarily Kenya) have got it woefully wrong. This black-and-white conclusion is not so clear to me; I tussle with all the grey bits in-between.

There are corollaries to this. The one is an inference that those who speak against trophy hunting are at best misinformed or worse, liberal with the truth, or worse still, subversive agents in the pocket of the anti-Christ—neocolonialist, animal-rightist NGOs. The other is an inference that those who favor hunting are heartless beasts beyond redemption.

What prompted me to wander once more through this minefield with the almost certainty of blowing myself up were two recent articles, both published in The Hill, the largest independent political news site in the United States, and second only to CNN in online readership.

One of the opening statements made by conservation biologist Amy Dickman et al. in the one article states: “Trophy hunting is an emotive and polarizing issue ripe for misinformation.” [This is the authors’ link, not mine, to a page citing instances of ignorant reporting, mostly on medical matters.] The article continues: “Much of the discussion on both sides occurs in echo chambers, where falsehoods and half-truths are shared and perpetuated.” In support, they also quote conservation ecologist Kelvin Peh: “Truth not only continues to matter; it remains the biggest weapon and shield for all wildlife conservationists and environmental scientists in a world of increasingly wanton, politically-motivated myth-making.”

What prompted this was the anti-hunting stance taken by Cyril Christo, also published in The Hill. Dickman and her colleagues took exception to his “opinion piece” for perpetuating what they refer to as “misconceptions…commonly spread by anti-trophy hunting campaign groups. Such misinformation must be tackled so that policymakers can be better informed.”

I’ve never met Cyril Christo, but I hope one day I do because I think I would like him very much. For 25 years, he and his wife Mary have made films and books about Africa and the wonderful, majestic wild creatures that live here. They have appealed for tighter measures to protect whales and polar bears, and Cyril’s film, A Stitch for Time: The Boise Peace Quilt Project, was nominated for an Oscar. A National Peace Quilt was made for display in the U.S. Senate and now resides at the Smithsonian.

I also hope to meet Amy Dickman. I think I would like her, too. I certainly respect her work as a person who cares deeply about Africa. She is a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, the African Lion Working Group, and currently a James Marsh Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont. Her particular interest is in maintaining threatened wildlife populations on human-dominated land and how to resolve human-wildlife conflict. These are noble pursuits.

And yes, Amy, truth does matter; of course, it does. In a world where we are bombarded with information, much of it misleading either unwittingly or maliciously, the truth matters more than ever. Deliberate untruths should never have a place at the table. But I defend a place for nuance and opinion. Who to trust in the mix is the dilemma. Social media, where so much is transacted, is like grabbing is a tiger by the tail. It is at once a brilliantly convenient tool for disseminating information quickly and a frightening monster of efficiency for spreading lies. Untruths can spread like wildfire and cause as much damage and destruction.

Such is the nature of social media that even when a genuine hat is tossed into the ring of debate, my experience is that within three or four contributions, we are either amongst the nodding heads of the echo chamber or dodging the projectile vomiting of hate and vitriol. This applies to conservation as it does to any other field you care to mention.

However, at its best, free-speaking media is the bastion of any democracy, and honest challenge investigation should be welcomed by all thinking individuals. That doesn’t mean that it is or has to be without bias. We all demonstrate bias. I write with bias; that is why this is an “opinion piece.” I try to reinforce the arguments of those on “my side” while at the same time persuading those who aren’t to cross the floor. Bias, of course, is the enemy of science and researchers who rightly do all in their power to avoid it in their data, both in its collection and the conclusions drawn from it.

Yes, bad writing needs to be called, as does bad science or bad anything for that matter. Serious journalism, even if inconveniently antagonistic, is the friend of science, not the enemy. I reckon that science and journalism in that regard make a pretty powerful force for good.

One of the things that tests us is the question of whether the means justify the end. I suggest it is simple for hunters; they see the killing of animals as a legitimate means of reaching their desired end—their selfish gratification. I make no apology for wanting to see an end to a practice I believe is unwarranted and an affront to our standing as a species in this day and age. Even the likes of Chris Brown, Amy Dickman, and many other scientists have their reservations, admitting that trophy hunting is not something they would themselves want to do.

Unlike the hunters, they see the practice as an unfortunate means that justifies a noble end. It provides some income and employment in desperately poor communities with no other opportunities, communities that might otherwise become antagonistic towards wildlife and turn to it as a food source. “Controlled trophy hunting is still better than unregulated killing [poaching], which they say can have ‘serious repercussions’ for conservation and animal welfare because it’s more prevalent in areas without tourism operations.

This is the nub of it. This is why many scientists do argue the case for trophy hunting, not that they like it but that they see no alternative. As I said earlier, conservation sometimes makes strange bedfellows.

Rural poverty is a challenge for which I admit I don’t yet have the answers. We face this collectively, but particularly in the tourism industry as a whole, of which hunting is a tiny part. And yes, we do need to find a “new deal” for poor, rural communities. No disputing that. And I do accept that hunting is bringing some income to areas that seem to have no economic potential at all.

Tourism as a whole has to do better, as there is ultimately no place for it unless it ups its game hugely. Like the agricultural industry, it is founded on a plentiful supply of very cheap labor—and that’s not good enough. I’m not poking at anyone in particular, and I acknowledge that there are extraordinary efforts by individuals and organizations that I salute and stand behind every step of the way.

What we desperately need, though, is a model with a conservation ethic at its core. One that doesn’t just manage to make poor people slightly less poor. Instead, it must be truly transformational and help people to a level of dignity and prosperity where they can participate as the legitimate and empowered drivers of a conservation-based economy and not just as the recipients of charitable handouts.

Hunting’s current financial contribution to poor communities is not to be dismissed lightly. But it is a fading and failing industry. The world is losing its appetite for blood sports, and trophy hunting is the chosen pursuit of a dwindling group of mostly white, mostly very well-heeled, rapidly aging Americans and a smattering of Europeans.

Surely then, just as with fossil fuels and so many other examples in our changing world, it would be better to recognize the demise of hunting as an ongoing solution and to get stuck into identifying and inventing truly sustainable options, whatever they might be.