Trophy Hunting—The Writing is on the Wall.

By December 15, 2021Editorial

African elephants are amongst the most sought after hunting trophies. © Roger Brown Photography/Shutterstock

Last Friday, the British Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published its intention to set into law one of the toughest bans in the world on the import of hunting trophies.

Clearly, a lot has been happening behind the scenes since May 2019, when a parliamentary debate on trophy hunting took place in Westminster Hall. Although several countries had banned the import of hunting trophies at that time, the U.K. government announced that it was “not considering a ban” but that it would “keep the rules constantly under review.” This meant that trophy hunting would remain legal as long as it complied with a country’s existing hunting legislation, including ensuring all proper permits had been obtained. Furthermore, exports and imports of hunting trophies from endangered species would have to be licensed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). However, the U.K. government consulted widely regarding a ban and received over 44,000 responses. These showed clear public and conservation group support for tighter restrictions, with 86 percent of the responses supporting further action.

Now, just two years later and against the background of a 60 percent decline in global wildlife populations in the past 50 years, new measures have come about. This means that the importation of hunting trophies into Great Britain from thousands of endangered and threatened species, including lions, rhinos, elephants, and polar bears, is set to be banned. Nearly 6,000 species currently threatened, such as elephants, rhinos, lions, and polar bears, will be included. And more than 1,000 additional species considered near-threatened or worse, such as African buffalo, zebra, and reindeer, will also be covered under the ban.

“More animal species are now threatened with extinction than ever before in human history,” said Environment Secretary George Eustace, “and we are appalled at the thought of hunters bringing back trophies and placing more pressure on some of our most iconic and endangered animals. This would be one of the toughest bans in the world, and goes beyond our manifesto commitment, meaning we will be leading the way in protecting endangered animals and helping to strengthen and support long-term conservation.”

Eduardo Gonçalves, founder of the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting, agrees: “This is the leadership that we have been calling for to save endangered species and help bring this terrible trade to an end. Wildlife needs this ban. Endangered animals are cruelly and needlessly killed every day, and many of them are brought back to Britain as trophies.”

Of course, the proposed legislation is far from done and dusted as it still has to be processed and voted on in both parliamentary houses. Ian Michler, a conservationist, investigative journalist, and long-time campaigner against trophy hunting, notes the parallel here in South Africa where canned hunting and predator breeding are set to be banned provided the necessary legislation is passed. He is confident that the U.K. ban will prevail. “Given that 86 percent of the submissions supported actions of this nature, this is an overwhelming call for a new way of thinking in anyone’s terms. But, as it still has to be voted on, there could still well be amendments. Our minister has to go through that process as well and faces similar challenges to her proposed legislation.”

In the case of the proposed British legislation, there are certainly some heavy hitters on the anti-trophy hunting bench, including Lords Michael Ashcroft, (a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party), Zac Goldsmith (Minister of State for Pacific and the Environment), and Peter Hain. Even Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has called trophy hunting a “disgusting trade,” and his father has also campaigned for a ban.

“I think the important point here,” says Michler, “is that momentum is building. We’re no longer stuck in the dark days of the 1980s through to the early 2000s when anyone who opposed trophy hunting or even raised the issue was intimidated and bullied. Now it is very clear that there is a widespread and robust call for an end to trophy hunting as a management tool or conservation option. Trophy hunting basically suggests that the best way of managing threatened species is to kill the gene pool. I reject this and find it hard to believe that the global scientific and conservation community cannot develop a better alternative for securing the future of these species.

“So even if this bill gets watered down and some aspects are taken out, I still believe that it’s a significant step in the right direction. It’s going to raise awareness, it’s going to push the agenda much further, and other countries will start getting increasingly involved.”

Trophy hunting is nothing if not controversial, and it divides conservation opinion like few other topics. A core issue is an ongoing debate as to whether or not well-managed trophy hunting is beneficial to conservation efforts. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains that “with effective governance and management, trophy hunting can and does have positive impacts.” This view is supported by CITES and the European Union, but the latter did strengthen control on imports of hunting trophies in 2015 to address concerns about links to wildlife trafficking. Organizations such as Born Free and the Campaign for the Ban of Trophy Hunting disagree, saying we should explore other options for generating income from wildlife.

The hunting fraternity here in Africa, where South Africa and Namibia, followed some way behind by Zimbabwe and Tanzania, is understandably vociferous in defense of its industry. One of the often-heard gripes is that the anti-hunting lobby is driven by overseas NGOs with animal welfare and rights agendas rather than notions of sustainable use. Some say this is tantamount to neo-colonialism, further demanding that such organizations have no part in determining what is good and what is not for conservation in Africa.

“Hogwash,” says Ian Michler. “So much of what we practice in conservation today is a hangover from our colonial past introduced by European and American thinking. Trophy hunting, killing the gene pool for fun is not an African concept. So to use that example or argument is entirely self-serving. Furthermore, the most sought-after trophy animals are global species—lions, elephants, leopards, for example—they might occur in Africa, but like polar bears, grizzlies, humpback whales, and orcas, they are species of global concern and should be acknowledged as such. So for pro-hunters to say or argue that we don’t need the input and the financial contributions of offending NGOs in the global conservation community is complete and utter rubbish.

“What’s more, it’s an awful irony that the pro-hunting lobby relies on European and North American funding themselves to conduct their enterprises in Africa. Who but the Americans, Europeans, Russians, and Chinese, make up the vast amount of the trophy hunting market? It’s not African hunters. So the hunting industry is quite happy to have the millions of dollars that flow into their pockets to drive their arguments, but as soon as a world-renowned or European or American conservation agency has a different view regarding species that are globally recognized, then they say they must keep their noses out. Again, it is a self-serving argument that, fortunately, anyone who is fairly sensible in this whole landscape sees for the hollow comment it is.”

One of the arguments for trophy hunting is that it provides jobs for African people in areas where few if any alternative means exist to earn a living. So, if you balk at hunting activities, the oft-heard shout-back line is “so what are you going to do instead.” It’s an argument of convenience, of course, for I sincerely doubt that trophy hunters really care at all about rural people in Africa and their quality of life. Nevertheless, it is a solid point, especially in Africa, where unemployment figures are so desperately high. For example, South Africa’s unemployment rate hit a new record high of 34.4 percent this year. And if you expand the definition of unemployment to include those discouraged from seeking work, the figure jumps to an alarming 44.4 percent of the labor force without work. Understandably, the job creation and job preservation claims resonate with many politicians who support this argument for the continuance of trophy hunting as it boosts their own agendas. Indeed, without doubt, the search for alternative incomes is a challenge that has to be met.

The employment argument is also just one aspect of the suggested contribution that hunting makes to conservation in Africa. Michael Angelides, President of the African Professional Hunters Association, pointed this out in a social media exchange. “I would like to ask,” he said, “who will fund conservation in the conservation areas if hunting is stopped? Will TANAPA give half its money to TAWA?” Currently, 80 percent of conservation in Game Reserves and Game Controlled areas are funded by hunting, who will replace that loss of income?”

To give context to Angelides’ challenge, TANAPA refers to Tanzania National parks, while TAWA is the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority. TAWA is responsible for the administration and sustainable management of wildlife resources and biodiversity conservation outside the National Parks and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. TAWA represents 79 percent of the total size of protected areas in the country.

Paolo Strampelli, a non-hunting research scientist who works in Tanzania believes that “an abrupt end to all trophy hunting in Africa, as advocated by many animal-rights groups, could pose a grave threat to many populations of African wildlife. The issue of trophy hunting is not as black and white as it might seem,” he says. He proposes that people who are “staunchly taking a stand” against stopping all trophy hunting in Africa are possibly misguided.

“Let’s assume that tomorrow all hunting within Tanzania is stopped,” says Strampelli. “Whether this be due to pressure from Western donors or because import bans elsewhere make the industry no longer financially viable, or even through a magical snap of the fingers, doesn’t matter. Tomorrow, we all wake up to the sound of celebratory trumpets: Trophy hunting in Tanzania is no more!

“So, what now? My first guess is that many of you will be thinking: ‘Easy! Let’s turn these now-ex-hunting areas into national parks, for people pointing cameras rather than guns!’ And you wouldn’t be wrong; for wildlife, this would without a doubt be the ideal solution. And, in fact, there is some good news: Driven in part by a drop in the demand for trophy hunting, the parliament of Tanzania recently passed a bill stating that up to seven protected areas previously dedicated to trophy hunting will be transformed into national parks, with only photographic tourism allowed. This is indeed a fantastic development, which I and all others supporting conservation have rightly celebrated.”

But Strampelli also points out that many of Tanzania’s hunting areas cannot and will not become photo-tourism destinations because many such places are simply unsuited for photographic tourism. The vast majority are inundated with blood-sucking tsetse flies that pack a nasty, painful bite. What’s more, they are heavily wooded, and animal densities are low, so not ideal landscapes for a very expensive African safari. Such drawbacks are not limited to Tanzania as the broad description would fit many areas of Southern Africa as well.

So, Strampelli asks: “How can we ask the Tanzanian government to put aside hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of land for wildlife if this is not creating any financial value to its people—who have the basic human right to improve their lives through economic and social development? We would not, and have not, done this in Europe and cannot ask the same of others. The opportunity cost of conserving large tracts of land solely for wildlife with no financial benefits in a developing country is simply too great.” In fact, previously protected areas in Tanzania have already been de-gazetted and passed on to villages for agriculture and development.

For space limitations, I have only given a light overview of some of the points Strampelli makes in leading to his conclusion that “hunting is one possible tool to assign immediate, tangible value to wildlife, and one which we unfortunately do not currently have the luxury of demonizing in principle. Hunting should therefore be treated as such, with the caveat of being less desirable than other alternatives—when these are available.”

Michler acknowledges much of what Strampelli says, especially concerning the threat of losing conservation altogether. “There are researchers and scientists who stay away from the debate as such, but they do warn that in a vacuum, things could be worse. And that is a very valid observation. They don’t take a pro or anti side. Still, they do warn that without any alternatives, that stopping trophy hunting immediately without putting anything in its place would be even more harmful. And I buy that completely. I don’t stand on an animal rights platform when I oppose trophy hunting. I look at trophy hunting as a management tool or conservation option and its efficacy and sustainability in the long run.”

This then is the rub. What is the future of trophy hunting “in the long run?” Stampelli predicates much of his argument on what would happen if all hunting within Tanzania (or anywhere in Africa) were to cease tomorrow. But this is certainly not what I and many others who argue for an end to trophy hunting are saying.

Our view is that trophy hunting is a dying activity. Even in America, which still provides by far the biggest market for trophy hunting, the numbers are down. Wildlife authorities in the U.S. are dependent on revenue from hunting licenses. The loss of this income means they are already facing the same funding issues as conservation areas in Africa.

Writing for North Carolina State University’s College of Natural Resources News, conservation writer Andrew Moore notes that “Fewer Americans are taking up hunting every year, a trend that has wildlife agencies across the country looking for new ways to fund conservation.

“Many states have experienced a significant decline in hunter participation over the last two decades,” he continues. “Yet, the money generated from hunting license sales and federal excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and angling equipment still provides 60-80% of the funding for state wildlife agencies.”

The writing is on the wall for trophy hunting everywhere. The world is simply losing its appetite for killing magnificent animals simply for the pleasure of doing so. We (and by we, I mean everyone, hunters included) should forget unrealistic notions of shutting down trophy hunting overnight. Instead, we need to accept a phasing out of trophy hunting over, say, the next ten years. Without delay, we need to use that time to develop a raft of alternative activities that will ensure the continued funding of vital conservation areas in perpetuity, not only in Africa but the world at large. I cannot believe that collectively and with a common purpose, we would not be able to come up with the right solutions, whether based on technology or nature, or both.