Skip to main content

Trophy hunters, you’re wrong. Dead wrong.

By February 3, 2021Anti-poaching, Hunting

African Lion. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Cyril Christo, Opinion Contributor to The Hill | January 25, 2021

Read the original story here.

“Trophy hunting and poaching are essentially the same, except that trophy hunters pay thousands of dollars for the pleasure.  Or the American taxpayer pays for it—Donald Trump’s sons have regularly hunted endangered species at tax-payer’s expense because security guards go with them.  And it’s hard to see where sport is involved—one of the president’s sons killed an elephant by shooting a high-powered rifle at him from a plane, and all trophy hunters hunt with guides or guards to protect them. In contrast, most of the poachers are from the local populations and are hunting because they’re far from rich and need the money. But the result is exactly the same—literally thousands of animals, especially endangered species, are killed by these people.”
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

“We live in a time of ‘consumer civilization’ and elephants and lions…for hunters on safari, are fundamentally, like cars and refrigerators: objects that are ‘consumed’, that is, destroyed, to give way to others which are better or cheaper…But whereas cars and refrigerators can be replaced with the greatest ease, lions and elephants, once they are’ consumed’ disappear forever.”  
    Alberto Moravia, “Which Tribe do You Belong To?,” 1972

“I do not want to live on a planet where there are no lions anymore.”
      Werner Herzog

How many times have we heard rangers say, why should I spend years, possibly sacrifice my life for a lion, or elephant or rhino, if someone is going to come to this park and kill these animals? “These animals are sacred,” a ranger told us in the Selous, one of the main centers of the elephant poaching crisis a decade ago, where 50,000 were killed in Tanzania alone, due to poaching. We had gone to Tanzania 20 years ago and there were more than 100,000 elephants then. What happened? They were shot and destroyed by the poaching crisis, in the same areas where trophy hunting was allowed to exist. Today there may be only about 40,000 in all of Tanzania. Over 60 percent loss. A supreme tragedy.

While some celebrities have been attacked recently for voicing their concern about trophy hunting, specifically in The Guardian article of January 15, they are not the voices we should be worried about. They are not working against conservation. They may not have the pedigrees and scientific know how some are invested in. But they are also not accepting donations from hunting lobbyists. They are not making baseless claims, they are simply concerned citizens who are very worried that their children may indeed only have the fictional “Lion King” to witness in the not very far-off future. Because the lion is trending towards extinction. They are not basing their stance on “myths” as Pieter Kat of Lion Aid exclaims and ignoring science.

Rather it is the other way around. As he underscores, “Trophy hunting proponents have never been able to clearly show that trophy hunting actually benefits the survival and conservation of targeted species, and instead rely on soundbites and slogans. The list of species supposedly benefiting from trophy hunting in the article is laughable – none of them have flourished because of trophy hunting. Sure, rhino numbers have increased in South Africa, but only because they were placed in private ownership on game farms where the owners could do what they wanted with them.

Trophy hunters were one source of income for these rhino farmers, but rhinos were removed from the wild to stock the farms, and no privately held rhino can in any way be seen to contribute to conservation of the wild population. It is dumbfounding to see that lions are also on the list of species “conserved” by trophy hunters as there is absolutely no evidence of this – to the contrary, there are multiple examples where significant damage has been caused to lion populations living at the borders of national parks that abut hunting concessions.”

If one needs any more proof … a case in point, just a few days ago, a guide in Ruaha, Tanzania, one of the last great strongholds of the lion on the entire continent, wrote me to say that lions are not doing as well as they used to in Ruaha. Why? Because only a few miles away are several hunting concessions targeting lions. He should know what he is talking about. He was born a few miles from the park and has been a guide for more than 15 years. Lions don’t stay put. They move around and once outside the park’s perimeters, if there are trophy hunters eager to blow their brains out, that’s what happens. Areas that have allowed trophy hunting as in the Selous have been ransacked, especially in the last decade. Elephants were massacred as they haven’t been in 30 years.

The children without degrees, without science backgrounds, without PhD’s, know that we are diminishing nature almost beyond repair. As the great philosopher Kant once said, we are not the “titular lords of nature.” But we continue to act as if we were. Africa’s native people did not knock out 10 million elephants in the last century. Foreigners did. From Europe, America and of late, Asia. Native people, pastoralists from the Simien mountains in Ethiopia, to the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Mara in Kenya, and all over Africa were kicked off their lands to make way for wildlife reserves and some of these were made into hunting concessions. All those like Roosevelt who triumphantly made Africa their playground.

The local people were evicted, yes, even for reserves, and National Parks, all in the name of “green” colonialism as Guillaume Blanc makes abundantly clear in his book “L’Invention du Colonialisme Vert” (Flammarion 2020). As European countries and America have hugely benefited from the gifts of Africa’s lands over the last century, it will be time for greater investments to be made to the oldest continent or else the movie the “Lion King” will indeed be all that the children have to look forward to. The practice of trophy hunting for the sheer sake of killing is entirely a foreign construct.

Make no mistake. Where trophy hunting is allowed, poaching often follows. While the 200 million dollar trophy business – industry is doing well, it is not sustainable for the long term survival of species involved. Safari clubs pay researchers and scientists to vindicate their claims. In corrupt countries “poor governance and weak regulation” thrive according to Kat of Lion Aid, which leads to “unsustainable trophy hunting.”

When is the wildlife of the world ever going to be able to breathe? Hopefully before they breathe their last because with climate change creating a fury in the gestation of animals worldwide, one day any kind of trophy hunting will be considered a barbarity. As animals have shorter gestation periods they end up having earlier than expected births, which affects feeding patterns and many other cycles humans have altered over the last few decades.

The best reason to be much more circumspect about whether to even want to kill any animals for trophies is that their very life support system is being undermined. A few cases in point. Gray whales have been washing up on shore in the dozens the last few years. An endangered species having a hell of a time holding on, hunting or no hunting. The mass mortality of saiga antelope in central Asia where 200,000 just keeled over back in 2015, the year of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The culprit? High temperature and humidity helped bacterium pasteurella multocida type B to run rampant. In the blood the bacteria create toxins that breaks down the immune system. The mortality rate was 100 percent. The same kind of event happened with 300 elephants in Botswana in the summer of 2020, that fateful year due to cyanobacteria poisoning in waterholes. Do we need any more proof that we need to cool our jets, particularly the bullets that come flying out of our guns, aimed at the innocent, not for food but for vanity?

It is not just our immune systems that are breaking down, it is Nature’s as well. And frogs and fish and birds. It is our very place in the world that is unravelling. That is one very good and enormous reason why trophy hunting will have to be replaced with a greater humane, moral and philanthropic consideration from the elite. If the moral argument isn’t enough for making trophy hunting a thing of the past, then perhaps the climate chaos, the irrevocably altered temperature gradient of existence that will force us to change our ways. Once and for all.

Hunting to survive belonged to the first peoples of the world long before colonialism started to bag lions and tigers and bears. Of course, the bounty Europeans put on wolves could fill entire ledgers over the last 2,000 years. And what the Roman Emperors did with gladiators mutilating innocent predators from Africa and the Middle East to entertain their guests was shameful. We have not changed much. But in Africa, you would be hard put to find any African needing meat, who would hunt for fun. Now that we have lost 70 percent of the world’s animal population, we need a new act in our social behavior towards other species. The bacteria and microbes are unto us. And bagging large game won’t mean much when we’re the one’s being decimated by the soldiers of plague.

Long ago, a remarkable writer called Elspeth Huxley who knew Kenya like the back of her hand, wrote, “It isn’t sport; it isn’t even exciting. True sport involves equality between the rivals, you see. They give handicaps in everything from horse racing to ping pong, in order to achieve a rough equality; but they never give a handicap to the beast. It isn’t sport its murder. There’s only one sporting way to hunt big game, and that’s the old way, the way these natives follow- to hunt on foot with spears and bows and arrow, weapons a man can make himself out of materials ready to his hand. That’s fair and that’s fun.

It’s a battle of wits between one man and one beast: a test of which can command the greatest cunning, the keenest senses, the highest skill. Man, if he uses his wits, can usually win; but it’s a victory worth having, because it doesn’t go to the coward or the dolt. So you have the brains and resources of every one from geniuses like Priestley and Pasteur to modern big business combines like ICI and du Pong, pitted against the wits of one poor African lion.” And as for the element of danger. Huxley explains, “There’s no danger at all in going after some wretched animal, whose only idea is to escape, armed with a battery of expensive high velocity rifles and flanked by a couple of professional sharpshooters. If any one wants to hunt, let him use a bow and arrow and match his wits against those of a lion or an elephant, as some of these natives do.”

Fortunately we have met with these early elephant hunters, the best on earth and they used bows and arrows exactly to Huxley’s recommendations except that they had been on the land tens of thousands of years before the European powers ransacked and desecrated the bush. The question today remains, how much are we willing to spend on conservation to make sure the wild holds on to even a glimmer of itself? The facts speak for themselves. While millions of dollars are spent on animals being bagged, the local communities do not pocket the money…It goes to the hunting factions. It goes to the government. It goes to private industry. And animals and the local people do not benefit. It is the last great gasp of colonialism in the most mercenary sense.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who knew a thing or two about the old ways and who actually wrote “The Old Way: A Story of the First People” (2007) and who authored the classic on the oldest people on earth, the Bushmen, in “The Harmless People” (1959), exclaimed that “trophy hunting and poaching are essentially the same.”  She should know. She spent serious time in Botswana in the 1950s before most of us were even born. And she knew the greatest hunters on earth intimately. For people to survive on the ground for 80,000 years straight is no mean feat. For 1,500 centuries humans roamed as hunting clans and survived and killed in order to eat and clothe themselves. Our civilization will have claimed maybe 3,000 years, industrial society, maybe 200 years. And in that short period we have brought the earth to its knees.

Areas that have allowed trophy hunting as in the Selous have been ransacked, especially in the last decade. Elephants were massacred as they haven’t been in 30 years because of a wayward morality spent on the lapels of vanity.

Save African Animals’s report “The Myth of Trophy Hunting as Conservation” underscores the same argument, that limited “legal” hunting is indeed a “smokescreen” for poaching. Considering mammals all over the world are experiencing the effects of viral infections and climate change due to changes in the marine or land environment, it would behoove all of us, to rethink our love affair with carcasses and animal body parts. It seems obscene and insane to be taking part in these grim and gruesome rituals when Nature is facing upheaval.

Behold the financial argument. Money is involved. It helps the local communities. Actually, hardly any money goes to the indigenous people.

Kat adds as for “community support” – schools, clinics, fees paid, durable employment – there is precious little evidence as the trophy hunting industry has always worked under veils of opacity, tax avoidance, bribery, false financial reporting and similar murkiness. Claims of “sustainable” hunting are largely unsatisfactory as the hunting operators do not allow independent assessments of trophy species’ population numbers in their areas – quotas are largely assigned on the basis of the operators’ own population counts and negotiations with wildlife authorities. With regard to “saving millions of acres for wildlife” – the facts again are not there.

This is most clearly evidenced by the lack of interest in current tenders for hunting areas, as 40 percent of former hunting areas in Zambia and up to 70 percent in Tanzania are so devoid of wildlife that hunting operators have lost all interest. And finally, claims that hunting operators effectively control poaching in their concessions — there is no worse example of this myth than the Selous Game Reserve made up of 80 percent hunting blocks — where elephant carcasses were piled up high and deep during the recent poaching epidemic in Tanzania.

Much of the money goes to the middlemen, the commercial outfitters who make the operations possible. The amount of financial support local communities could use now is staggering. It will not be alleviated by killing off the best of Africa’s mammals. They have enough to deal with.

Between 2004 and 2014 about 1.7 million trophy animals were shot, eliminated from the gene pool of their ecosystems, forever. And 200,000 from threatened species. In ten or certainly 20 years’ time, this will be impossible either biologically or legally. To kill a lion for 50,000 dollars, a guaranteed kill for the sake of killing begs the question, what is in the mind or heart of these men, mostly men, that necessitates massacre? When I was in Africa as a teenager there may have been over 250,000 lions. Today, the “king” of beasts is edging towards extinction. There may be only 15,000 left. About the same population as polar bears. All the other beings are being mutilated for “fun” for gladiatorial hubris. Something is wrong deep down in the matrix of our being, if we continue to think this is fun. If it is not fun, it is F U N, Fundamentally Undermining Nature.

One day trophy hunters will be forced to go to jail for 20 years for taking out such stupendous life forms. It will be considered illegal, and this activity, like poaching, will be considered criminal. Maybe by that that time there will hardly be any tigers or lions or polar bears left in the wild. Some guide or herdsmen will tell a hunter from Europe or the Midwest, I know where there are still some leopards left. I saw a polar bear a few weeks ago, let’s go shoot him! And the poor leopard sensing the smell of a killer will run for its life.

Maybe it will survive for a few more days or months only to be hounded again by the remorseless monster of man. Until man’s spirit is finally crucified on the altar of final loss. Until there is nothing left to crucify. And the last lions will be fenced behind barricades pacing with the inexorable loneliness of loss for a horizon its forefathers once knew, that now lies corralled behind steel, and cement and barbed wire. What will that reality do for the human spirit? We will be aiming gun barrels at ourselves. We will have reached the point of the untenable, for us and what remains of the four-footed ones. And we will “lose our minds” as an elder told me in Kenya at the heyday of the elephant massacre. “The only thing left will be to kill ourselves.”

What vanguard of unruliness and wantonness and blood letting is necessary to prove one’s manhood today? Control, discretion, grace and true power comes from restraint. The power lies in wanting to see beings thrive rather than having an arrow go through their nose and come out the back of their head, like a poor deer once had to endure. What will convince the children of the future that their parents are not insane?

Robots will take over much of the world in the future. Flying cars. Many machines we haven’t dreamed of. But what still resides in the woods, the lakes or on the savannas of Africa or the forests of Asia and the Amazon, will determine if we will still be able to call ourselves human.

As the next generation of children inherits an immensely fragile globe, we have to ask ourselves, what indeed will there be left living or alive for them to experience?

In terms of extermination, we are on the road to a day when in 30 years, in could be very, very hard to find anything moving that is not caged or behind bars. To find a black maned lion gazing back at us with the deep eyes of immensity its species embodies may become a miracle. There is enough monetary wherewithal and elite savvy to allow, encourage and ensure that life thrives as opposed to the tremendous energy we have used to undermine, mine and drain the world of life. If we have any regard for the children we keep putting on this planet then the heart will have to start to take charge and start to love life, as opposed to shooting a bullet through the brain of the world as we have done all too formidably in the last 200 years.

Bill Clark has worked with Interpol and has had two generations of experience with rangers in Kenya, which has one of the best tract records of any country in Africa. He writes, “One concern is that The Guardian article criticises Kenya for having a consistent policy prohibiting trophy hunting for 44 years.  There is suggestion that the ban on trophy hunting is responsible for the decline of certain wildlife populations in Kenya.  But the fundamental journalistic responsibility to check putative facts has not been met.  Why didn’t The Guardian ask Kenya Wildlife Service to respond to this allegation?”

I am aware of the decline of certain populations in Kenya — elephants for example. But the catastrophe there was due to ivory poaching decades ago. Elephants have now doubled their nadir, and continue to expand. Trophy hunting had nothing to do with this matter.

There are many problems with trophy hunting that are not even mentioned in the article — perhaps because they are inconvenient to the author’s biases? Why is there no reference to the impact of poaching on the morale of park rangers in Africa? I have worked with many who expressed blatant pessimism over being assigned to risk their lives (about 100 African park rangers are killed in the line of duty annually) protecting elephants from poachers when those same rangers know for certain that some of those very same elephants will be shot legally by foreign trophy hunters in the near future. That dispirits many African rangers.

It should not take a rocket scientist, or a scientist paid by hunting groups, to speak out for the very reckless, inhumane, seditious practice of trophy hunting, to know that we have our priorities completely upside down as a species. One day when the last tiger is shot in India, or the last lion dismembered for body parts in Africa, or the last polar bear has drowned after her final 30 miles swim because she couldn’t find ice or seals to feed her cubs, will we hear from a small girl, so very intent on seeing the eyes of the wild gaze back at her, look up to her hunter dad and simply say, “How could you. How dare you! Who are you? What have you done?”

She will know just how much the arc of injustice and mutilation and vanity has broken the back of life and existence on what used to be a miraculous planet.

“Lions are going extinct—this is well known—but because Palmer evidently paid $50,000 for the privilege of murdering one of them, his act was welcome. A local poacher who needed money might kill a lion because he could sell the skin, and his act would be considered criminal. Literally hundreds of dollars for the privilege of doing so.  It’s said that trophy hunting is “managed” by the authorities, they say, but the animals killed by trophy hunters and poachers were managing themselves perfectly well before we came along.  We don’t own the natural world although we think we do—we just contribute to its destruction.”