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Can Hunting be a Viable Conservation Tool? Is it Time to Bite not Ban the Bullet?

Whether in the United States, France or Southern Africa, one of the arguments for managed hunting is that it places a value on wildlife and actually contributes toward sustainable conservation. Others argue that, no, enjoying wildlife and wild places for recreational and tourism purposes is far more effective. Global Geneva contributing editor Keith Somerville explores this highly controversial issue.

By Keith Somerville

December 16, 2017

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It is easy to see why at first sight the idea that a rich trophy hunter paying tens of thousands of dollars to shoot an elephant, a lion or an endangered rhino seems in total contradiction to the conservation of species.  Many people with a deep interest in environment and a desire, however distant they may be from the objects of their desire and the habitats in which they live, to protect charismatic wildlife have a hatred for hunting and hunters that from their perspective is understandable.

But is it a viable approach to conservation or is it a case of emotion overcoming reality that in the process is paving the road to extinction with good intentions?

Can killing wildlife ever serve conservation goals?

For years there have been bitter arguments between those conservationists and academics supporting ideas of sustainable conservation (the regulated utilisation of wildlife to preserve habitats and species) and those in the conservation and animal rights fields who totally oppose utilisation whether through hunting or legal sales of trophies, ivory, skins or horn.

The Born Free Foundation, headed by Will Travers and named after the somewhat questionable story of George and Joy Adamson and their hand-reared lion, has a trenchantly expressed view on hunting. Referring to the legal hunting of a lion that had been named Xanda in Zimbabwe (believed to be the son of Cecil the lion, whose killing sparked a viral storm of social media protest in July and August 2015[i]), Will Travers wrote on the Born Free website that,

there are those with a warped, crazy logic that think they can have their cake and eat it too – that killing lions is conservation. That kind of logic is sheer madness. We must recognise that lions are not just a national treasure not even an international treasure, but a natural treasure that belongs to the world. We all need to step up and find ways to fund wildlife conservation – including lions – without taking lives… before it’s too late.

This view is shared by many other animals rights NGOs which have strong voices in international forums on wildlife and substantial funds to distribute for conservation projects.

The influential, American-based African Wildlife Foundation (AWF_ is against trophy or commercial hunting and has called for a moratorium on lion hunting.) Dr. Philip Muruthi, vice president for species protection with the AWF said in the wake of the furore over the shooting of Cecil by an American dentist that, “Given the dramatic decline of Africa’s lion population, we cannot support any human activities that contribute to lion mortalities, and that includes sport hunting”.

These NGOs and others holding the same views on conservation or wildlife issues also oppose any legal sales of ivory or rhino horn and sustainable-use policies as part of conservation programmes, arguing instead for reliance on proceeds from eco-tourism, what little money governments give and charitable donations through their NGOs as the way to protect wildlife and habitats.

Is a mix of tourism and hunting the answer? (Photo: Fox Camp, Ruaha National Park)

Counter-arguments: The need to develop community-based natural resource management

There are strong counter arguments based on the concept that only through developing sustainable streams of income that directly benefit the people living alongside charismatic but destructive and dangerous animals like lions ad elephants can you protect habitat and species in the long-term.  Proponents of game-cropping or trophy hunting as part of a range of conservation tools argue that eco-tourism brings in limited benefits, usually in the form of low-paid employment as cooks, waiters, cleaners, drivers and other jobs on the staff of lodges or safari companies, there is little trickle down of income,  and no sense of empowerment or ownership for local people in return for the loss of land to parks, reserves and private safari concessions, the damage caused to crops and livestock by wildlife and the periodic loss of human life.

The answer, for many who study human-wildlife coexistence and, the economics of conservation, is to develop community-based natural resource management programmes (CBNRM) empowering local communities and giving them choices over how they utilise the wildlife which inhabits the environments they share – and that may be a mix of regulated trophy hunting, game cropping, ecotourism or payment for environment service (PES – in which communities lease land at a substantial price to hunting or safari operators).

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN – the international body uniting government and civil society groups with the state mission of enabling a “just world that values and conserves nature”) has, to the anger of anti-hunting groups,  set out a strong case for trophy hunting and sustainable use as part of a cocktail of measures to ensure that conservation of wildlife and habitats succeeds alongside the empowerment and lifting out of poverty of rural communities.  (See Global Geneva article on IUCN’s Inger Andersen and the need to broader SDG approaches)

IUCN produced a briefing document last year setting out clearly that habitat loss is the major primary driver of declines in wildlife species, and human population increases demands for land for development in “bio-diversity rich parts of the globe, [are] exacerbating this pressure on wildlife and making the need for viable conservation incentives more urgent.”  The organisation recommended that, “Well managed trophy hunting, which takes place in many parts of the world, can and does generate critically needed incentives and revenue for government, private and community landowners to maintain and restore wildlife as a land use and to carry out conservation actions (including anti-poaching interventions). It can return much needed income, jobs, and other important economic and social benefits to indigenous and local communities in places where these benefits are often scarce.”

The report also emphases the need for regulation and strict enforcement of quota, but concludes that, “ In many parts of the world indigenous and local communities have chosen to use trophy hunting as a strategy for conservation of their wildlife and to improve sustainable livelihoods”.  This reinforces the view that some areas which are marginal for pastoralism, cultivation and even eco-tourism could support sustainable-use hunting that would preserve habitats and wildlife while providing income for local people.

Cecil the Lion, a study subject of the WildCRU. (Photo: WildCRU)

Dr David Macdonald heads the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at the University of Oxford. It was his team of researchers that put the radio tracking device of the now famous Cecil the lion in Hwange National park in Zimbabwe.  He is no lover of trophy hunting or the killing of animals for sport.  But in the wake of the killing of Cecil, he carried out a detailed survey of the effects of trophy hunting at the request of the then British Minister for the Environment. (See video link on Cecil the Lion)

Macdonald concluded that with strong regulation, scientifically-based quotes and distribution of income to communities to encourage conservation of “the lion estate”, trophy hunting and other forms of sustainable use hunting could have a role in the absence of other totally reliable sources of funding. He wrote that, “The most fundamental benefit of trophy hunting to lion conservation is that it provides a financial incentive to maintain lion habitat that might otherwise be converted to non-wildlife land uses. It has been estimated that trophy hunting areas cover 1.4 million km2 – 22 percent more land than National Parks – in Africa. How much of that area could viably be converted to phototourism is unknown, but this certainly could not be accomplished everywhere.”

This report did not make Dr Macdonald popular among NGOs that are totally opposed to hunting, such as Lion Aid which tried  rather lamely to deny the scientific basis of his study without supplying any tangible counter-evidence.  But the paper represented a powerful argument in favour of regulated, income-generating hunting, where environmental and social circumstances permit, as a means of ensuring local communities will tolerate wildlife, including predators like lions.  His conclusions were strongly supported by a separate study of lions in the huge Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania by Drs Bob Smith and Henry Brink of the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology which concluded that hunting could play an “important role” in lion conservation.

The Marmite Test:  Kant v Bentham

In Britain the yeast-based spread known as Marmite is loved and loathed in almost equal proportions. Its name has become a symbol for issues where people will have strongly divided and seemingly unbridgeable views.  The Marmite test for hunting as a tool for conservation comes down to a subjective view of whether or not you view hunting as in any way acceptable or even a necessary evil.  It is effectively a choice between Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Benthamite Utilitarianism.  If you view hunting as something barbaric or evil, no amount of scientifically or economically-based argument will sway you.

But, in the view of this author, that closes off realistic methods of approaching conservation. Sustainable utilisation is a utilitarian but in my view no less ethical approach.  People and wildlife live together in many parts of the world. Both suffer from the activities of the other – crop damage/livestock loss/human fatalities v habitat and species loss.  Taking a Kantian view replete with high principles and a holier than thou attitude may assuage the gentle feelings of many who love wildlife, but they may end up watching from their lofty heights as the blood runs out of  the last surviving rhinos and lions because principles got in the way of workable solutions.

For me, the need for a utilitarian solution has been reinforced by watching the rise in poaching and human-wildlife conflict in northern Botswana poaching since a hunting ban was introduced in January 2014.  Elephant poaching, lion poisoning and bushmeat poaching are all up.  As Professor Joseph Mbaiwa of the University of Botswana has concluded in well-researched study of the ban’s effect, “The safari hunting ban contradicts the goals of conservation and rural development which the CBNRM programme was established to achieve.

The ban is reducing huge benefits generated by communities from safari hunting…The ban on safari hunting and reduction of economic benefits derived from CBNRM has resulted in the negative attitudes towards conservation and tourism development by communities. Restricting safari hunting represents a retrogressive step and a top-down imposition that would reduce the probability of wildlife-based land uses in many rural areas, and reduce community earnings and buy-in to wildlife conservation”. I cannot but agree – the ban and the sort of narrow approach to conservation its represents harms local communities and the wildlife it is supposed to protect.

Professor Keith Somerville, Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, Member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent. He is also a Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London as well as Research Associate, Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere. Department of War Studies King’s College, London. Plus Editor of Africa –  Africa Sustainable Conservation –  news:

[i] Keith Somerville, Cecil the Lion in the British media – the pride and prejudice of the press,  Kindle Version, 2017,