Trophy Hunting Is Macabre, But It May Also Be Endangered Species' Best Hope For Survival


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Nov 30, 2013
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Trophy hunting has been making the news lately. On Monday, British Columbia announced that it is banning grizzly bear hunting in the province (excepting certain First Nations). And in the United States, President Donald Trump is considering whether to reverse a Nov. 17 decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to end a ban on the import of African elephant trophy parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia.

In an example of the mixed messaging that has often plagued the Trump administration, Trump’s appointed acting director of the FWS, Greg Sheehan, stated in a news release (since scrubbed from the FWS website) that sport hunting revenues could support conservation programs. But Trump soon after Tweeted to the contrary, calling the practice a “horror show,” and promising to review all the facts before making a final decision on the ban.

The disconnect between Trump’s opinion and the agency’s position reflects a common tension in the charged matter of trophy hunting. Environmentalists (and the city-dwelling general public) often view trophy hunting as a barbaric blood sport that victimizes at-risk species and therefore should be banned. Conservationists, on the other hand, will—rightly—point to evidence that trophy hunting can be an effective way to preserve populations of animals that would otherwise be killed because they are nuisances, dangerous or lucrative.

Imagine, for instance, that you’re a farmer in Tanzania, growing bananas and maize for your family when a herd of elephants walks in and raids your crops, threatening to devour literal tons of food that would have fed your children. The understandable response would be to ward off the elephants with potentially deadly force. As a bonus, you could earn some money on the side for doing so, thanks to the lucrative international criminal industry that has developed around ivory sales.

Imagine, for instance, that you're a farmer in Tanzania

Thanks to these kind of human-wildlife conflicts, as well as poaching and the loss of elephants’ natural habitats, the population of African elephants has declined from an estimated 3 to 5 million in the early 20th century to fewer than 400,000 today. Although this decline has not been universal (some elephant populations in southern Africa are stable or have even increased in recent years), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified African elephants as “vulnerable” on the Red List of Threatened Species.

Elephant range governments and NGOs have taken steps to combat the overall decline in African elephants, including erecting electric fences to keep elephants off farmland; tasking law enforcement officers and rangers with targeting the Mafia-like ivory syndicates and poachers (in 2015, Tanzania busted a major ivory trafficking ring that was smuggling thousands of tusks to China); reforming laws to establish lengthy jail terms for poaching (up to 20 years in the case of Uganda); setting aside lands for game preserves to protect natural habitats from development; and educating farmers on nonlethal elephant deterrence practices, such as beehives and chilli crops.

Governments can cover some of the costs of these initiatives by generating revenues from hunting license fees and taxing the attendant luxury tourism industry. In fact, the Convention on International Trafficking in Endangered Species (the international agreement that regulates trade in elephant parts) recommends that countries that permit sport hunting earmark the revenues from hunting licenses to conservation programs. License fees cost more than US$10,000 per elephant in some countries. Admittedly, in corrupt countries, these funds may never reach the necessary programs, but even then, simply banning sport hunting would reduce the incentive for governments to protect the herds and their habitats. And whereas a sport hunter will be permitted to shoot a single elephant, a professional poacher will gun down an entire herd if given the chance.

Governments can cover some of the costs of these initiatives by generating revenues from license fees

For this reason, some of the most reputable conservation organizations in the world, including the World Wildlife Fund and the IUCN, have endorsed the use of sport hunting to assist in wildlife population management. As the WWF has stated: “When strict criteria are met, multi-pronged conservation strategies including trophy hunting enable communities to prioritize habitat and wildlife conservation over alternatives such as cattle raising and converting habitats for farming.”

Canadians don’t need to look far to see how hunting regimes can actually serve to protect a threatened species. Under Canada’s polar bear sport hunting regime — the only of its kind in the world — local hunters and trappers organizations (HTOs) are permitted to sell “tags” of their annual quota for hunting polar bears for aboriginal subsistence. Sport hunters buy these tags for thousands of dollars apiece (which does not include what they will also spend on local equipment rentals and the mandatory hiring of Inuit guides). All told, Canada’s polar bear sport hunting industry was estimated in 2009 to generate CDN$2.2 million in revenue per year, most of which is injected directly into the economies of some of the most remote and impoverished communities in the country.

This system of economic incentives has encouraged Inuit to avoid killing bears unnecessarily despite the danger they occasionally present as potential man-eaters. If some of the HTO’s allotted polar bear tags go unsold, Inuit can then use them to hunt bears for skins and meat (the latter of which sport hunters usually turn over to the community anyway). Thus, sport hunting has no impact on the number of bears killed each year. This Canadian example shows how a properly implemented sport hunting regime can give local communities a financial stake in the well being of the wildlife with which they share space. And like African elephants, the primary threat to Canada’s polar bears is not hunting but habitat loss, due to the sea ice melting on account of global climate change.

Big game trophy hunting may indeed be a brutal, macabre “horror show” victimizing some of the most beautiful and iconic animals in the natural world. But it may also be their best hope for survival.

Gabriel Zarate is a Toronto-based freelancer covering politics, international affairs and Canada’s North.
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