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Regulating wildlife hunting with legal interventions is both complicated and dynamic, according to researcher Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes of the University of Oxford, UK.
“Hunting is a hot topic right now, with opinions sharply divided over whether the Trump administration’s recent proposals to roll back some restrictions on trophy imports from certain countries in Africa would be a good or bad thing for wildlife conservation,” ‘t Sas-Rolfes told environmentalresearchweb. “To make sense of these debates, careful analysis of the impact of different types of hunting in Africa is much needed.”
The Trump administration has delayed a decision on its plans to reverse the ban on the import of elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe. The ban was imposed by the Obama administration.
‘t Sas-Rolfes has examined how the links between economic incentives, conservation outcomes and “institutions” – the formal rules and informal social norms that guide human behaviour – evolve over time, with a focus on rhino and lion hunting. These animals are icons for trophy hunters and eco-tourists alike but are potentially dangerous and so incompatible with human settlement outside more remote rural areas.
“People who are motivated by economic incentives sometimes adapt and respond to changing laws in ways that are counterintuitive and counterproductive to conservation goals,” said ‘t Sas-Rolfes. “For example, bans or restrictions on trophy hunting might stimulate other forms of hunting and associated illegal trade to make up for lost sources of income.”
Lion hunting attracted huge amounts of international attention in July 2015 when Cecil the lion, who was wearing a tracking collar as part of a study by the University of Oxford, UK, was shot and eventually killed in Zimbabwe by a dentist from the US.
The auction in the US of a permit to hunt a black rhino in Namibia in 2015 also proved controversial. Since 2012, Namibia has sold five such licences each year to fund conservation and anti-poaching measures.
As ‘t Sas-Rolfes writes in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), researchers have defined different types of hunters: those hunting for subsistence (food and other products for themselves and their families); commercial hunters seeking to sell animal products for profit; recreational hunters who hunt for enjoyment but may also harvest meat or trophies; people hunting for sociocultural reasons; and managers culling to control animal numbers or problem animals. Hunting may take place legally, or illegally as poaching.
Traditionally, many indigenous African communities kept their hunting sustainable by social norms such as designating areas as sacred and using totems. But the colonial era saw these institutions largely displaced by state protected areas and regulated recreational hunting on land sometimes only accessible to paying visitors.
According to ‘t Sas-Rolfes, many of today’s institutional arrangements for African wildlife conservation and commercial hunting may be socially unstable because of their history of dispossession, with local communities that have lost their rights to wildlife use and land keen to re-appropriate them from government agencies, national elites, foreign investors and foreign consumers.
In the case of rhinos, ‘t Sas-Rolfes explains, European colonial settlers, who arrived in Africa in the 19th century, hunted these animals for meat and to trade their horns. The rapid decline in rhino numbers led, in the early 20th century, to an international conservation movement and the creation of protected areas and game laws. Hunting of rhinos for sport and meat largely stopped but rhino horn was still valuable in Asia, resulting in illegal market hunting. In 1977 legislation banned international trade in rhino horn under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which “finally appeared to contain poaching levels by 1995”.
The nation of South Africa took a relatively unique approach, allowing state and private land-owners property rights over individual animals, as well as regulated commercial trophy hunting and market trade in live animals and their products. “This arrangement enabled both private and public operations to gain additional conservation finance, generated widespread economic benefits, and facilitated significant expansion of rhino range,” writes ‘t Sas-Rolfes in ERL. “This contrasted sharply with most other African countries, which maintained strict regulations and hunting bans, but mostly lost their wild populations during this time.”
However, with demand for rhino horn – and prices – rising, in 2003 Asian nationals began masquerading as trophy hunters so that they could export horns out of South Africa legally. The South African government imposed tighter restrictions on hunting and a moratorium on domestic trade in rhino horn. But some wildlife industry participants responded by engaging in illegal activity, and between 2007 and 2014 there was a dramatic increase in rhino poaching. “This period is remarkable for the adaptability and ingenuity displayed by illegal market actors in response to evolving formal attempts to thwart their activities,” writes the researcher. “The illegal market drew in many people, from impoverished rural locals to transnational organized crime syndicates, and involved numerous cases of corruption.”
Since 2015 and a large investment in military-style security, levels of rhino poaching seem to have stabilized. Some believe that this approach has alienated local communities and isn’t financially or socially sustainable, potentially leading to conservation damage in the long-term. Private owners, who now harbour more than a third of the country’s rhinos, mostly support legalizing the trade in rhino horn and fought the government moratorium on domestic trade until they succeeded in getting it rescinded. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), on the other hand, largely oppose legalizing the trade and object to the emergence of rhino farming, whilst many also oppose continued trophy hunting. Some argue that trophy hunting can support conservation and rural development, but there are concerns about monitoring and, increasingly, ethical issues relating to animal welfare and wildlife commodification.
The lion take
As with rhinos, lions in South Africa are also bred commercially and hunted, often under a “put and take” system, with a captive-bred lion hunted inside a fenced area. This industry has also begun supplying lion skeletons to Asia; lion bones now replace tiger bones in some traditional Asian medicines and there are concerns that this could stimulate commercial poaching of wild lions. Following the death of Cecil, several Western governments banned the import of lion hunting trophies, including the US, which effectively banned trophy imports from captive-bred South African lions in 2016. At the time more than 95% of lions hunted in South Africa were captive bred. NGO-led attempts to ban all international commercial lion trade under CITES failed; the South African government negotiated to maintain an annual quota for legal lion skeleton export, supplied from captive bred lions. No other international trade in the body parts of wild lions was permitted, apart from some hunter trophies.
“The two case studies…show that decisions to regulate activities such as recreational trophy hunting and trade in wildlife products are not independent from each other,” ‘t Sas-Rolfes told environmentalresearchweb. “The international ban on rhino horn trade started being undermined by the use of legal trophy hunts as an indirect mechanism for export from South Africa; this in turn led to negative impacts on recreational hunting and, ultimately, South African rhino conservation. The case studies also reveal evolving complex links between different types of hunting and the commercial captive breeding of endangered species.”
‘t Sas-Rolfes makes the link between secure property rights that provide revenue-earning potential and conservation success, “whereas insecure or heavily restricted rights appear to discourage conservation: contrast the fate of rhinos on private conservation land in South Africa with those on state land in most other African countries”. But he also says that if property rights for valuable animals are not easily secured in the wild, private owners may attempt husbandry under more intensive and less humane conditions, so moving away from desirable conservation and social objectives.
As a result of his analysis, ‘t Sas-Rolfes has two suggestions. Firstly, law-makers and proponents of policy change should think more carefully about the potential secondary effects and unintended consequences of regulatory change, by considering broader institutional contexts in space and time. “This is especially true when proposed regulations (‘formal institutions’) are in potential conflict with local values and cultures (‘informal institutions’),” he said. “More often than not, the latter will prevail, potentially undermining the intent of the regulations and adversely affecting wildlife conservation.”
The second suggestion follows from the first. “To ensure effective conservation outcomes, hunting regulations should be formulated with full consultation and participation of all relevant stakeholders, especially local people with close links to wildlife and affected consumers of wildlife goods and services,” the researcher added.
‘t Sas-Rolfes reported his analysis in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) .
- African wildlife conservation and the evolution of hunting institutions Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes 2017 Environ. Res. Lett. 12 115007
- ERL Focus on Conservation in Africa: Exploring the Impact of Social, Economic, and Political Drivers on Conservation Outcomes
- Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb.