New York Times

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service last month moved to allow hunters to bring home trophies from elephants killed in Zimbabwe and Zambia. Safe to say, few conservationists saw it coming.

In a 39-page report, the agency cited Zimbabwe’s progress in creating a sound management plan for its 82,000 elephants and evidence that hunting revenue is in fact reinvested into conservation. Well-managed trophy hunting “would not have an adverse effect on the species, but can further efforts to conserve the species in the wild,” the agency concluded.

The announcement, which would have turned back an elephant-trophy prohibition instituted during the Obama administration, was met with praise from pro-hunting groups, like the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International, and criticism from animal-rights advocates on all sides of the political spectrum.

Unexpectedly, President Trump intervened on Twitter, saying that the trophy decision would be delayed “until such time as I review all conservation facts.” Two days later, the president referred to trophy hunting as a “horror show” and cast doubts on its effectiveness for helping conservation of elephants and other species. An updated decision, the president added, was still pending.

Whether the proceeds from big-game hunting should be used to protect threatened and endangered species is a difficult question to answer. In some areas, including in Namibia and Zimbabwe, the strategy has helped revive wildlife populations. In others, including Tanzania, hunting has fed corruption and decimated species.

Among conservation biologists and advocacy groups, trophy hunting is the third rail: Their supporters largely are repulsed by the sanctioned shooting and butchering of elephants, lions and other big game. The killing of Cecil, a Zimbabwean lion, by an American hunter triggered a global social media storm.

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The killing of Cecil, a Zimbabwean lion, in 2015 by an American hunter triggered a global social media storm. Credit Andy Loveridge/Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, via Associated Press

Many conservationists “have been bullied into silence” on the subject of hunting, said Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a research fellow at Oxford University who studies wildlife trade.

Yet many experts also believe that the proceeds from hunting are all that prevents many poor communities from turning against local wildlife.

“While the noise in the press is all about morals and entitled white men killing innocent animals to hang obnoxiously on their wall — all of which I agree with — this actually has very little to do with pragmatic conservation,” said Brian Child, an ecologist at the University of Florida.

“Like everything else in life, it’s all about the money — money to combat illegal wildlife trade, and money to prevent the much more serious problem of wildlife’s replacement by the cow or the plow.”

Critics of big-game hunting seldom offer viable alternatives for the communities that rely on these funds to protect wildlife, Dr. Child said. Nor do the countries that issue trophy bans typically provide financial assistance sufficient to make up for the shortfall when hunting income goes away.

Hunters pay $65,000 to $140,000 to hunt lions in Zimbabwe, for example; an elephant hunt can run $36,000 to $70,000. (The price would be higher were it not for the American trophy ban.)

“Zimbabwe is on its knees because of economic downturn, yet the international community expects our poor country to look after elephants and lions when we can’t even feed our nation,” said Victor Muposhi, a zoologist at Chinhoyi University of Technology in Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe.

“No one is coming to the table to say, ‘Yes, we want you to stop this hunting, but here is a budget and an alternative plan you can follow instead.’”

Calls for blanket bans, Dr. Muposhi continued, overlook the benefits that well-managed hunting programs can bring and gloss over the complexities of the industry and of conservation itself.

“I think one of the real problems in this whole debate is that people are looking for generalizations about trophy hunting, and there just are none,” said Rosie Cooney, chair of the sustainable use and livelihoods specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“There’s great examples and terrible examples and ones we don’t have a clue about — and everything in between.”

Those looking for the terrible examples will find no shortage of them.

A study by Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, found that sport hunting directly contributed to the decline of lions in most of Tanzania’s hunting areas. Over the past dozen years, he also reported, 40 percent of these areas were abandoned because of declines in trophy species.

Benefits from those hunts usually did not reach those on the ground. The Maasai people in Tanzania’s Serengeti region have repeatedly reported eviction from their lands by a luxury hunting and safari company operating with a special “Presidential permit,” Dr. Packer noted.

The precise impacts of sport hunting in Tanzania have been almost impossible to measure, he pointed out, because independent scientists are frequently prevented from conducting research.

In 2015, after 37 years of work, Dr. Packer himself was banned from Tanzania after he warned authorities in the United States about pervasive corruption in the hunting industry.

“The African safari hunting industry is a business, and businesses don’t want people interfering with their bottom line,” Dr. Packer said. “The lack of transparency is a key problem.”

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Park wardens drive through the Mikumi National Park, which borders the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. The precise impacts of trophy hunting in Tanzania are difficult to measure; independent scientists often have been prevented from conducting research in hunting preserves. Credit Daniel Hayduk/Agence France-Press — Getty Images

In other countries, including Zimbabwe, authorities have simply seized hunting preserves and reaped the profits without reinvesting in conservation, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Extinction Market.”

The trophy hunting business “becomes very commercialized, and the profits are captured by elites,” she said. “You can also end up with trophy hunting serving as a cover for trafficking.”

 

including Zimbabwe, authorities have simply seized hunting preserves and reaped the profits without reinvesting in conservation, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Extinction Market.”

The trophy hunting business “becomes very commercialized, and the profits are captured by elites,” she said. “You can also end up with trophy hunting serving as a cover for trafficking.”

Success at a High Price

But in places where hunting is strictly regulated and corruption is minimal, it can be an integral tool for conservation, Dr. Felbab-Brown added. Ideally, science-based quotas and age and gender limits ensure that wildlife populations are not decimated, while funds are channeled back to communities acting as custodians.

Namibia’s communal conservancies, for example, cover some 63,000 square miles and are often hailed for success in rebuilding and sustaining the country’s wildlife. Hunting is integral to the conservancies’ survival; without it, the majority of conservancies would not be able to cover operational costs, researchers at the World Wildlife Fund reported last year in the journal Conservation Biology.

The Save Valley and Bubye Valley conservancies in Zimbabwe, which are primarily supported by hunting, are managed well enough that lion populations are growing. And in South Africa and Zimbabwe, Dr. Cooney said, hunting has pushed landowners into converting agricultural land into private wildlife reserves.

Even where this conservation strategy seems to work, however, some critics question the contradiction inherent in hunting threatened and endangered species.

“Any trophy hunting of an endangered species is by definition unsustainable, as it cannot sufficiently contribute to the survival of the species to justify removing individuals from the population,” said Elly Pepper, a deputy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Indeed, savanna elephant populations across Africa declined by 30 percent from 2007 to 2014, primarily as a result of poaching. But the numbers were not evenly distributed.

Most legal trophy hunting for elephants occurs in southern Africa, in countries like Namibia and South Africa. The region accounts for nearly 40 percent of the continent’s 415,000 elephants, according to data presented last week at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Geneva.

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Armed guides watch as an elephant passes in front of a tourist safari vehicle at the Sabi Sands private game reserve in the province of Mpumalanga, South Africa. Credit David Silverman/Getty Images

Relatively speaking, legal elephant hunting casualties in those five countries is minuscule, ranging from 0.01 to 0.23 percent of their respective populations in 2015.

Casualties from hunting “are really low, but they provide crucial benefits for rural communities and conservation,” said Marco Pani, a wildlife management consultant who has studied Zimbabwe’s elephant population.

In a recent survey of elephants in Zimbabwe’s hunting-dependent areas, Mr. Pani found that the country could lose a quarter of its elephant population should hunting be completely halted.

If managed well, Dr. Cooney said, hunting finances landholders and communities, providing a crucial incentive for people not only to tolerate potentially dangerous wildlife but to protect it.

In Zimbabwe’s Campfire communities — which are equivalent in size to the country’s strictly protected national parks, but reliant on trophy hunting — elephants destroyed over 17,000 acres of crops from 2010 to 2015. Along with other animals, elephants have killed 139 community members since 2010.

Lions, likewise, killed four people in Mozambique in 2016, not to mention 220 cows. Tolerance for wildlife quickly wanes if animals cease to bring benefits — a growing threat in Zimbabwe, Dr. Muposhi said.

Elephant hunts are still legal there, but leaving behind the animal’s tusks is a deal-breaker for most big-game enthusiasts. After the 2014 trophy ban, 108 of 189 American hunters canceled their trips.

The Campfire program’s annual income dropped to $1.7 million from $2.2 million; private landowners reported similar losses. Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority derives about 20 percent of its funding from hunting fees, over half of which traditionally comes from American hunters.

“All of Zimbabwe’s hunting areas are surrounded by communities who are hungry for agricultural land,” Dr. Muposhi said. “If people see that elephants and lions no longer have value, they’ll kill all the animals and let their cattle use the land currently set aside for wildlife.”

Some argue that photographic tourism can make up for these losses, but Dr. Muposhi disagrees.

Before the trophy suspension, hunters were undeterred by Zimbabwe’s political turmoil. But tourism over all suffered a decade-long decline.

Hunters also tend to relish the chance to spend three weeks or more in rugged wilderness lacking in roads, cellphone service and treated water. Tourists on photographic safaris, on the other hand, “are soft people,” Dr. Muposhi said.

“They expect to sleep in a nice bed in a nice lodge where there’s no mosquitoes and there’s electricity and pure water.”

That’s why transforming hunting areas into destinations that appeal to conventional tourists often requires prohibitively expensive investment in infrastructure and marketing.

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Jao Luxury Safari Camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Transforming hunting preserves into destinations that appeal to wildlife watchers often requires expensive investment in infrastructure and marketing. Credit Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Communities in Botswana are now struggling with such a transition. In 2013, President Ian Khama issued a national hunting moratorium, accompanied by an order to convert hunting operations — many located in featureless, remote areas — into photographic safaris.

But the government did not provide assistance to help with those efforts or to make up for lost income. As a result, affected communities are increasingly negative about wildlife and poaching has increased, according to research published this year.

Hunting operators also stopped maintaining artificial water holes for wildlife, so elephants, lions, leopards and other species moved into riverbank areas where crops are grown, leading to an uptick in killings.

“We don’t know the number of predators now being indiscriminately killed by farmers and villagers, but we do know it’s much higher than the hunting quota ever allocated,” said Debbie Peake, a longtime advocate of hunting and conservation in Botswana.

Although no credible figures exist for how much trophy hunting brings to the continent overall, critics often write off hunting’s contribution in comparison to traditional tourism.

“There is an enormous wildlife watching industry in Africa, while trophy hunters are in the low thousands,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States.

“Trophy hunting generates money, yes, but the number of dollars is so small compared with wildlife watching that it just doesn’t compare.”

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The Okavango Delta, as seen from the Jao Luxury Safari Camp in Botswana. The delta is home to an abundance of wildlife. Credit Chris Jackson/Getty Images

But in parts of Botswana and elsewhere, big-game hunting can make or break conservation efforts.

“The macro argument about however many millions hunting brings into the country misses the point,” Mr. ’t Sas-Rolfes said. “What is relevant is what would happen at the micro level if you removed hunting.”

“My sense is the damage would be quite significant,” he added.

For Mr. ’t Sas-Rolfes and other experts, the trophy hunting debate remains a tiring distraction from the pivotal question of how to sustainably finance conservation in Africa, and how to deal with poaching and growing human populations.

In a 2015 survey of 133 experts in 11 African countries, trophy hunting came in next to last in a ranking of 11 threats to wildlife. Poaching was at the top.

“We’re talking about the wrong thing right now,” said Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Trophy hunting is not the issue. We should be focused on wildlife trafficking and the broader plight of elephants.”