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Trophy hunting—the elephant in the room.

By January 27, 2021Editorial


Remaining implicated in the practice of trophy hunting does not befit us as moral, rational beings, and it is time for the conservation
community to wake up and face up to the chauvinistic, colonialist, and utilitarian anthropocentric undertones of the practice.


I dislike trophy hunting, and for my entire life, I have consistently held that position. 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. We are the most advanced creatures we know. We are unsurpassed in our ability to reason and solve problems and in our ability to feel and to experience the cosmos around us subjectively. Our sentience, in other words. As such, it is inappropriate to pursue and then kill another creature in the name of “sport.”

I don’t think anyone would argue with me regarding our prime position on the intelligence scale, but my stance on trophy hunting? That, of course, is an entirely different matter. For, determined as I am to see it eliminated from the long list of recreational pastimes open to us, so I accept that others want the right to pursue it in perpetuity.

When it comes to defending our positions, the protagonists of trophy hunting generally regard those who speak out against them as emotional, irrational snowflakes with a less than firm grip on the realities of life. But to contrast themselves as unemotional and living “in the real world” is ridiculous. I have seen many hunters go puce and wild-eyed with rage in the presence of anti-hunting lobbyists. And if that isn’t emotional and irrational, I don’t know what is. So perhaps it is high time for all of us to climb down a rung or two. It is unlikely, nor even desirable, we’ll eliminate emotion or passion in our arguments, but we should at least be adult enough to stop the name-calling. With that accepted, I am confident that we can have a far more sensible debate around hunting, particularly trophy hunting.

That said, I feel that I and others of a similar mindset are on firm ground in stating that hunting is a declining, indeed dying, pastime. Unquestionably, there is a demonstrable fall off in most forms of hunting if you eliminate angling and bird shooting from the equation.

The size of the hunting market in America remains significant —that is a fact. And hunters are still a potent lobby group. But that position is measurably declining. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the current annual spend in the tourism/recreation-related industry is US$156.9 billion, almost one percent of the nation’s GDP. In anyone’s book, that is a massive pile of dollars. Furthermore, these activities involve no fewer than 103 million Americans, also a massive figure.

However, we should bear two things in mind. These statistics include other wildlife associated activities such as wildlife watching or outdoor photography. And when you compare the 2016 figures with those from 2011, wildlife watching grew from 72 million participants to 86 million—an increase of 19 percent. By contrast, those who went fishing and hunting only grew by about three percent from 37 million to 40 million people. Interestingly, this modest growth was entirely due to a 21 percent fall-off in hunters from around 14 million to 11.5 million.

Of these 11.5 million hunters, by far the greatest number were big game enthusiasts—9.2 million hunters targeted animals such as deer and elk and spent $14.9 billion on their trips and equipment. Granted, this is still significant, both in terms of participants and the money spent, but it places hunting within a more realistic frame of reference.

The above picture of hunting as a dying pastime is certainly not just me cherry-picking statistics that conveniently support my contention. It is evident that Baby Boomers, now in the 60s and 70s, are “aging out” of hunting, while the millennial generation is not adopting hunting and angling into their outdoor recreation repertoire. Supporting this view is a late-2019 feature in Outdoor Life that also laments the fall off in hunters attributed to differing generational priorities. “Hunting participation peaked in 1982,” it states, “when nearly 17 million hunters purchased 28.3 million licenses. Hunter numbers have steadily declined since. We lost 2.2 million hunters between 2011 and 2016 alone.” Those charged with managing America’s protected places are justifiably worried as historically, hunting licenses have been a major source of revenue.

From the beginning of 2020, extending well into this year and probably beyond, it is impossible to discuss tourism trends, including hunting, in any meaningful way, given the nigh on total crash in tourism due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the events of 2020 prompted a massive rise in gun sales in every U.S. state. But as Fox News pointed out, “the buying spree wasn’t only ignited in a desire for extra personal defense and security. The year also saw a surge in those trekking into the woods for purposes of hunting—and 2020 may very well be remembered as the year that saved the fast-falling, once-iconic American pastime.” I just see it as one of the many anomalies of this Covid time, and little more than a temporary reprieve for the hunting cause.

So how does all this affect Africa? In short, significantly, for no other reason than Americans are by far the biggest community of trophy hunters globally. The U.S. accounts for 71 percent of the worldwide import of hunting trophies. That’s about 15 times more than the next highest nations, Germany and Spain, each at about five percent. Therefore, if America’s big game hunters stop coming to Africa, it spells big problems for the continent’s trophy hunting industry. And looking at the statistics, it is already happening.

Bertrand Chardonnet, in his study Reconfiguring the Protected Areas in Africapoints to a 60.5 percent decline of overseas hunters visiting South Africa from 16,594 in 2008 to 6,539 in 2016. In Namibia, the figure fell from 7,599 to 5,333 in the five years up to 2013. While, at the start of 2018, the former President of the Tanzanian Hunting Operators Association bemoaned the fact that “the number of lion and elephant [hunting] safaris had been reduced to a handful.”

Chardonnet attributes the decline to “poaching and agropastoral encroachment since hunting associations did not invest the necessary amount of money to counter these phenomena.” This pricks the hunting industry’s bubble well and truly, as they perennially claim that areas, where hunting is permitted, owe their very existence to revenue streams from hunting. I do not doubt that Chardonnet’s 2019 report is under a mighty microscope. But I believe he is spot on and, with a declining enthusiasm for hunting in America, an ever-darkening cloud is rapidly mantling the industry.

In my previous editorial, I refer to a letter signed by Amy Dickman and 132 fellow scientists in response to what they identified as misleading content in the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting’s, appeal to the British parliament. They called for caution regarding extreme action against the hunting industry as it could well have unintended consequences, particularly for lions. And they cited “compelling evidence that banning trophy hunting would negatively affect conservation.”

Among several well-made points, Dickman et al. worry that an end to trophy hunting would see conservation areas giving way to other land uses, which, in turn, would result in a risk to biodiversity. They refer to how well-regulated hunting has had positive population impacts on many species. And they claim that trophy hunting can also provide income for marginalized and impoverished rural communities. This pertains particularly to areas unsuitable for photo tourism, where there are few if any other opportunities to eke out an existence. These are valid concerns, but with great respect, the remedy does not lie in trying to perpetuate trophy hunting. As Ian Michler points out, trophy hunting is anachronistic, and, like the fossil fuel industry, it is ultimately unsustainable.

No reasonable person would challenge the call for a new deal for Africa’s rural communities, but I really don’t see how hunting could be part of the foundation for such a thing. Just as we search for an agreement to phase out fossil fuels and replace them with sustainable alternatives, so should we look to a time when trophy hunting is no longer a part of Africa’s conservation landscape. It is incumbent on us to develop those sustainable alternatives that will deliver the promise of serving nature and people equally well and far into the future.