The Conservation Imperative

By Brendan Moyle.

Following a wave of popular outrage, the US government appears to be backtracking on the decision to allow the import elephant hunting trophies.

Nonetheless, despite the support of celebrities and Animal Rights groups like the HSUS, it is not obvious this will help conserve elephants. Sadly, I don’t host popular talk shows or star in movies.

I do research ivory black-markets though. And not by sitting in my office using Google. I do it by going to the places these black-markets operate. It’s not the safest way to do research (albeit in contrast to my colleagues’ perceptions, I don’t get shot at every time I go overseas).

And it’s not the easiest. But it gets results. I’m informed enough to provide expert advice to organisations as varied as the World Bank, the Chinese SFA and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. I don’t have a popular chat show though. So let’s try another take on the whole trophy-hunting ban issue.

1. It’s a misnomer to describe it as a ban on trophy-hunting.

The US regulations allow for the imports of hunting trophies of endangered animals, if they meet an enhancement condition. That is, the hunting operation leads to net conservation benefits in the hunting area.

The EU operates similar regulations. The US decided that in 2014 that Zimbabwe and Zambia did not meet the enhancement test. Trophy imports from other compliant range state continued. For instance, Namibia is a significant user of trophy-hunting and CITES import data, shows the US continuing to import elephant trophies from Namibia in this period.

Note that in 2015 the EU had already determined that Zambia and Zimbabwe did meet their version of the enhancement regulations. Since 2014, both Zambia and Zimbabwe have been working to become compliant again.

2. It wasn’t a decision by Trump.

The US FWS were looking for these states to provide more population data, evidence of anti-poaching efforts and evidence that enough money from the trophy-hunts was being used for conservation. This was a process started during the Obama-administration and by 2017, the US FWS was in the same position as the EU. Elephant trophy-hunting was in the affected areas, a net conservation benefit.

Note that the decision is not made on what the elephant population is, in the entire country. Nor is it made on what the historical elephant population was. It is about the areas that elephant trophy-hunting occurs.

The cleverest PR move by the Animal Rights groups opposed to trophy-hunting, was linking this decision to Trump. Trump is a deeply unpopular president and by associating it with him, opposition to the FWS decision quickly grew. What this does is completely discount the work done by the affected African governments to meet the US conditions. It ignores the historical context.

3. Why we shouldn’t worry about Trophy Hunting.

From a conservation perspective, trophy-hunting removes a very small number of elephants from the total population. The biggest losses of elephants are caused by habitat-loss, competition with live-stock, and poaching.

Poaching removes 25-30,000 elephants a year. It’s harder to estimate losses from habitat-loss and live-stock competition, but the fact that elephants (like other wildlife) have disappeared much faster in East, Central and West African regions to the South, is significant.

Elephants need the same pasture, the same grazing, the same water as cattle. And they need a lot of it. These northern regions have much higher population densities and human growth rates.

Most elephants in Africa are now located in the Southern Range states. Zimbabwe, with 83,000 elephants, has the second highest population in the Continent. Kenya in comparison has 23,000. Namibia has now overtaken Kenya in terms of elephants. It’s gone from 16,000 in the 2007 census to 25,000 in the 2016. In 2007 60% of Africa’s elephants were found in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. (Heavy poaching in Tanzania has since affected that).
Human-Animal-Conflict (HAC) has a mortality rate of about 0.5%.

That removes 2000 to 2500 elephants a year. HAC is basically what happens when aggressive elephants move into populated areas, damaging property, consuming crops and sometimes killing people.

Trophy hunting removes very little elephants. With elephants listed as endangered, most range states have set quotas for CITES purposes. Zimbabwe is 500, Zambia is 30. Note that this is an upper limit and is often not reached. Trophy-hunting isn’t a carte blanche operation involving thousands of elephants. It’s the least-consequential form of elephant loss there is.

So the things that keep me in a cold sweat about elephants and their conservation are poaching, and habitat loss/competition. Poaching is definitely getting a lot of attention, but its hard to be confident that habitat-loss is under control.

4. What are the risks of trophy hunting?

I’ve seen suggestions that trophy hunting could be used to smuggle poached ivory. This is ridiculous. The nature of ivory smuggling is that it is dominated by large shipments of raw tusks, hidden in containers, sent to East Asia. Asian criminal organisations aren’t going to be sending them in small shipments under permits cross-checked at either end, to the US, in the hope they can then be shipped to East Asia. Somehow.

Because nobody in the US will be smart enough to compare the number of hunting trophies to the tiny quotas permitted. The link to poaching is inventive and unrealistic.

5. How does trophy hunting help conservation?

Well, it doesn’t always. It can be mismanaged. But it can help sometimes. I’ve already alluded to the increase in elephant populations in Namibia.

So how does hunting help?

The key is where hunting occurs. Many reserves are bordered by buffer areas where wildlife and humans mix. In some regions there are no reserves and the area is managed by the community. The basic model is that hunters do not go into the reserves, but these community areas where wildlife spills over into. It’s not easy getting elephants to stop moving at the edge of a nature reserve.

In these community areas, elephants suffer mortality for several reasons. They could get poached. They could be prevented from grazing or feeding in some areas (habitat loss). They could starve because the human livestock eats the pasture instead (competition). They could get shot by a trophy hunter.

The population could also go up by elephants reproducing and migration. (One of the dilemmas for Zimbabwe is they’re too successful and while their reserves can sustain 40,000 elephants, they’ve overshot to 80,000+).

Anyway, trophy hunters pay the local community a lot of money (by their aspirations), even after leakage to corrupt officials. So this gives the locals a strong incentive to reduce mortality from the other sources. So if mortality from poaching and competition drops a lot after trophy hunting, elephant populations rise.

This more than offsets the loss from trophies. For example, in the early days of the community-based conservation programme CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe, it was reported farmers were removing cattle from the landscapes to have more elephants. It works the other way as well. If there is no trophy hunting, then mortality form these other source scan surge. In short, it’s complicated.

A lot of meat also goes to local communities also. About 340,000 kg of meat was returned to communal conservancies in 2016 Namibia alone.

6. Trophy Hunting is Icky.

Well, I’m a vegetarian and I prefer taking photos to shooting stuff. But the goal is to have more elephants. And that seems to be something trophy hunting is helping with in some places. It’s not about making Westerners feel good, but conserving elephants on the ground.

7. Why not use Eco-tourism instead?

Because ecotourists stick to nature reserves. Reserves have high densities of wildlife and few humans, goats and cattle. Tourists want to see wildlife in their natural state. They don’t go to communal conservancies and buffer-areas as a rule. Wild animal populations are lower and there’s too many goats and cattle.

In the big picture, 30% of Africa’s elephants live in reserves. 70% range over landscapes shared by people. Elephant conservation cannot ignore that 70%. And if elephants are going to survive in that 70%, the decisions made by local communities matter.

Because if they don’t want to share those landscapes with elephants, there’s very little we can do to stop them. Elephants will disappear incrementally, steadily and permanently. Having tools that persuade them that elephants are good to have around, and with revenue being an effective tool, then hunting is something to consider.


Sadly in the end, this looks like an animal rights decision masquerading as a conservation, and a charade that a scientific decision was really a political decision by an unpopular President. It is getting hard to be optimistic about elephant conservation.

Human population growth is on track to reduce elephant numbers in almost all range states, bar the south. Poaching is still not under control. The very high numbers in the Southern Region are likely due for a correction because of the sheer density.

Zimbabwe estimated their reserves could cope with about 40,000 elephants back in the early 1990s. They have 80,000+. We look to have a serious ecological overshoot problem.

Published with permission. This article was first published on the website