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The true value of trophy hunting

The Critic (UK)

When big game doesn’t pay, it is replaced by cow and plough

The Africa I was confronted with, though, was absolutely nothing like the Africa I had imagined. My view, I quickly realised, was a heavily romanticised notion of Africa, a pastiche constructed from the accounts of early explorers I had avidly read and from countless nature documentaries. I had expected to see iconic African animals everywhere and exotic birds flitting between flower-heavy vines hanging from huge trees. In fact, the largest wild mammal I saw in Malawi was a sorry-looking vervet monkey. The second-largest mammal was a dead rat, cooked and held on a split stick, for sale by the side of the road. It was not wildlife but the sights and sounds of people — and especially the smell of burning charcoal — which are my enduring memories of that leg of the trip.

Driving into Zambia over potholed roads surrounded with scrubland was certainly more like the Africa I had in mind. But despite hours of staring out of the vehicle window, wildlife was still not materialising: I saw plenty of goats, but no gazelles. After ten hours of hard driving we reached our final destination — the family property of my travelling companion which I had been told was full of wildlife.

The Africa I had learnt about from television bore no resemblance to reality

As soon as we got through the heavy gate and electrified fence, we found impala, wildebeest, hartebeest, lechwe, eland, kudu and birds too diverse and numerous to keep up with. A huge and grumpy python greeted me in my accommodation and we spotted a black mamba on the way to dinner. The insect life was exactly how I liked it too — loud, numerous and wondrously diverse. This was more like it!

Impala dead

Impala dead
Headed for a trophy hunter’s wall: An impala, shot in Zambia under the supervision of professional hunters from South Africa and Namibia

I asked the owners why their place was full of wildlife and everywhere else we’d been wasn’t. As I tucked into my roast dinner, the answer to my simple question came as a very big shock. The reason wildlife was thriving was that the property hosted hunters who were after their skins and horns. In other words, trophy hunters.

I quickly learned that people, largely Americans but also Europeans, would pay big money to hunt a wealth of species including various antelopes, zebra and giraffe as well as smaller species such as porcupines. On top of board and lodging, hunters paid hunting, trophy, taxidermy and shipping fees for each animal they went after. The money generated paid the salaries of a large number of employees, many of whom lived onsite with their families. Hunting income also paid for boreholes and a number of other initiatives (including dams and grassland management schemes) that allowed animals who would normally move long distances for water and food to remain healthy inside the property.

With such incentives to keep the animals alive, they thrived. The knock-on effect of providing good habitat for the “cash” species was that I could spend happy hours watching dragonflies, hunting cicadas, prodding spiders and identifying birds. Outside the fence was exactly the sort of low-end, wildlife-deficient, depressing habitat that I saw throughout my drive from Malawi and have seen many times since on road trips around southern Africa: mile upon mile of sparse scrub being grazed by goats and cattle.

Back at my roast dinner (the meat had been free-ranging just a few days before), I was still struggling to get my head around the notion of “trophy hunting”. That these hunters wanted to ship home bits of the animals they shot, at great expense, to put on their wall didn’t sit easily with me, to say the least. The idea of paying a large sum of money to shoot an animal simply to display its head seemed at best weird and at worst abhorrent. Many of these hunters, I learned, also desired to “get in the book” — to shoot an animal with a large enough set of horns (or whatever other measurement was appropriate) to get listed in the annual books produced by Safari Club International or an organisation called Rowland Ward (a former London taxidermy company).

I leafed through these publications and saw a bewildering list of species and horn measurements, skull measurements, teeth, tusk and body measurements that would make a hunted animal count as a “trophy”. I learnt about the butchery (not a shred of meat from the hunts was wasted), the taxidermy, the paperwork and permits required for overseas hunters to export, and then import, their trophies. It was, to say the least, a steep learning curve.

The arguments in support of trophy hunting initially made no sense to me, despite seeing the obvious benefits it seemed to bring to the property at which I was staying. I know that the argument also makes no sense to the great many people who publicly and often volubly oppose trophy hunting today. After all, how can killing animals lead to conservation? I have come to realise, however, that the reason the argument made no sense to me was actually very simple: despite having a first-class degree in zoology from Cambridge and watching every Attenborough documentary going, I had absolutely no concept of the realities of real-world wildlife conservation and management.

The Africa I had learnt about from TV documentaries, and the notion of what I thought conservation meant from living and studying in the UK, bore no resemblance whatsoever to the complex situation I now saw first-hand. The conversation I had that first night in Zambia is one that has continued for 18 years, and the learning curve is just as steep now as it was then.

The clear differences I saw between the regions I travelled through and the wildlife-rich environment I was now seeing was summed up that evening with a phrase I have heard many times when discussing hunting and conservation: “It pays, it stays.” The reality is that in many places “wildlife” (a shorthand for all fauna and flora) and the habitats that support it is often more or less valueless to those people that live with it. If it can’t “pay” as much as charcoal, goats, cattle or crops then it doesn’t “stay”.

Bluntly utilitarian though it may be, if you doubt the truth of “it pays, it stays” then you don’t need to book a flight to Africa to test it. Look around anywhere in the world and you will see wildlife and natural land use pushed aside in favour of land uses with more economic value. In the UK, housing, roads and shopping centres all clearly have greater immediate economic value than the wildlife habitat they replace. It is this destruction of habitat that is the biggest threat to wildlife globally.

The essence of hunting for conservation is that it gives wildlife, and more importantly habitat, a real economic value. This is what underpins the game ranching industry of South Africa, the community conservancies of Namibia, the hunting areas of Mozambique, the concessions of Tanzania, the Campfire programme of Zimbabwe and more besides. It is hugely complex when you consider the details, and many different models operate in different areas, but the basic principle is always the same: hunting makes wildlife more valuable in an area than alternative land uses such as agriculture.

Of course, hunting doesn’t always work smoothly and there are some issues, for example with the level of community benefit in some regions, but it can and often does work very well. It is one of the primary reasons why South Africa and Namibia are such conservation success stories.

You may find “it pays, it stays” a disgusting notion because you intrinsically value wildlife and the natural world and find hunting repellent, but such attitudes are largely products of your position and relative privilege. You can buy everything you need to eat, including meat from animals that you never have to kill yourself. You do not live with the fear of having a child killed by a leopard on their way to school or your crops being destroyed by an elephant. You are happy to sit and watch a muntjac deer destroying your vegetable patch and see it as an Instagram opportunity rather than as protein or a competitor. Many people living with wildlife that we “intrinsically value” have a rather different and very understandable outlook.

Since my trip to Zambia in 2001, I have been lucky enough to return to southern Africa a great many times as a tourist, scientist, lecturer and broadcaster. Many of these trips have been to South Africa, which is the dominant player in modern-day African trophy hunting. The hunting industry there has driven a remarkable transformation of land and wildlife. In just a few decades, the ability of landowners to own and profit from wild species living on their land has led to the conversion of more than 9,000 cattle farms and other properties to “wildlife ranching”. The period has seen a close to 40-fold increase in large mammals within the country, as well as a spectacular resurgence in white rhino numbers.

Privately-owned properties, operating very much under the banner of “it pays, it stays”, now occupy a land area more than three times that of all South African national parks combined. Hunting is the financial driver of much of this “rewilding”. Over the same period, Kenya banned hunting and wildlife has declined by close to 70 per cent. There are many factors contributing to this disastrous decline but the inability of local people to get value from wildlife through any means other than tourism has played a part. Tourism is a wonderful thing when it works, but it is certainly not the answer for many of the more remote places in Africa currently managed through hunting. It certainly hasn’t proved to be a success in Kenya. The stark fact is that when wildlife doesn’t pay it is replaced by something that does: very often “cow and plough” but also road, rail, industry and housing.

Trophy hunting is a complex issue. It involves different populations of different species in different regions of different countries on different continents. We most often talk about Africa, but “sustainable utilisation” of wildlife through regulated hunting is the mainstay of North American conservation. It is also an important component of Inuit economies through musk ox, polar bear and other hunted species, and is the reason why the markhor (a preposterously spectacular spiral-horned antelope native to Pakistan and Afghanistan) is thriving in remote mountain regions. There are many other examples of successful species and habitat conservation achieved through sustainable hunting throughout the world.

Of course, unregulated and poorly-managed hunting has the potential to be exceptionally harmful. Recreational hunting excesses have in the past led to a huge depletion of game species in southern Africa, and the extinction of some. But we cannot conflate the past with the present; in most cases now, regulation is remarkably strict and regulated trophy hunting is a recognised part of the conservation strategy for a large number of species. Quotas are set, tags must be applied for and so on. It is not the Wild West that many lurid media commentaries would have you believe.

The flip-side is that hunting is not always a wonderfully well-regulated and spotlessly clean endeavour. Sharp practices exist and there are problem operators out for the money with little regard for conservation. Regulation undoubtedly needs to be tightened for some species in some regions and the setting of quotas is not always ideal. But overall, “sustainable utilisation”, trophy hunting and hunting for meat, is a land use that is protecting wildlife on more than a million square miles of land in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania and Mozambique, as well as the large amount of private land put aside for wildlife in South Africa.

I am writing this article overlooking a magnificent property in Namibia, a country that like much of southern Africa is suffering a terrible drought; animals are dying of thirst and hunger. However, this property is thriving. I can see a herd of waterbuck around a water hole and a large group of black wildebeest are moving in. The wildlife here is doing well for one reason alone: trophy hunting.

The money generated by hunting has paid for the boreholes that supply water to the animals and the supplementary feed keeping them alive. Hunting also pays for the 22 families that live onsite. Without hunting, this land would be parched, the animals would die and those families would be without an income. That this seems to be the desired outcome for many calling for a ban on hunting is something I find deeply disturbing.

Most of those calling for blanket bans on trophy hunting do so ultimately because they believe hunting to be immoral. In some cases I agree with their sentiment; the captive bred lion hunting sector, where hunters shoot lions “bred for the bullet”, is very hard to defend from either an animal welfare or a conservation perspective.

Regulated trophy hunting is part of the conservation strategy for many species

But to let wildlife decline when a working solution is in place to protect it simply because your privilege and perspective have led you to a particular personal moral position seems to me to be more than a little arrogant. Another popular argument is that trophy hunting is leading to extinctions, usually illustrated by lions. This is simply not the case. Lions are threatened by habitat loss and by retaliatory and pre-emptive killing by cattle herders, not by trophy hunting. Indeed, lions are tending to do well in regions that allow trophy hunting, as are giraffes, another species commonly cited as being at risk from trophy hunting.

The Conservative election manifesto called for a ban on the import of “endangered animals”, and Boris Johnson’s girlfriend Carrie Symonds is a leading campaigner against trophy hunting. “A trophy is meant to be a prize, something you’re awarded if you’ve achieved something of merit that requires great skill and talent,” she told one interviewer.

“Trophy hunting is not that, it is the opposite of that. It is cruel, it is sick, it is cowardly and I will never, ever understand the motivation to do it.”

But calls to ban hunting, or to outlaw trophy import and export, are based largely on emotion and a sense that it is immoral. Remembering my feelings in Zambia 18 years ago, I completely understand this position. But complex situations require deeper understanding than social media posts and petitions provide. Those calling for bans must provide feasible alternatives before they are enacted. Tourism is not the solution, at least in many places.

If we want hunting to stop, we will need to pay, perhaps to lease land and have people to look after it in ways that we, often non-specialists living in countries far away, see fit. This approach, usually involving “fortress conservation” where local people are excluded from their lands and from the financial benefits that well-managed wildlife can provide, has been termed neocolonialism by some. I tend to agree.

Despite what I’ve written, I am not an advocate for trophy hunting. But unless we can find ways to replace the revenue it provides, then bans (especially those based on sentiment rather than science) or partial bans, through import and export control, will tie the hands of the very people that are working to conserve the wildlife we consider to be our international heritage.

Bans will, in short, do more harm than good. Conservation is complex and the issues surrounding the utilisation of wildlife in different countries is not one to be dipped into lightly. In a world of celebrity influence on the issue, and a political environment loaded for quick wins, we should be very careful about what we wish for. As I have seen first-hand in so many places around the world, when habitat goes, it is gone for good.

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