A Complicated Relationship: Trophy Hunting and Conservation

I began discussing the topic of trophy hunting in my last post, In Search of Trophies. The foundation of the post was that the social debates around trophy hunting are often structured around, and derailed by, two false distinctions. In the first post, I talked about a false distinction between two groups of hunters: trophy hunters and non-trophy hunters. 

The second false distinction supports a view of trophy hunting as antithetical to conservation. In the least, this is historically and economically factually incorrect; philosophically and ethically, this is problematic. In North America in particular, the idea that trophy hunting is somehow legally or practically separable from other forms of hunting is in itself another false distinction.

What is Trophy Hunting?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines trophy hunting as hunting that involves “the payment of a fee by a foreign or local hunter for a hunting experience, usually guided, for one or more individuals of a particular species with specific desired characteristics (such as large size or antlers)”. Even if it is difficult, as I’ve said, to draw a clear distinction between trophy hunters and non-trophy hunters, individual states do have policies concerning the import of hunting trophies and there are countries throughout the world that utilize trophy hunting in the more popular sense of the term as a conservation strategy. One distinction that might be useful concerns hunting in North America compared to hunting in other foreign jurisdictions associated with trophy hunting, most notably African countries. If we take trophy hunting to refer to a specific set of hunting policies, for the time being, it is worth noting that the practice has a long and successful history of conservation in both North America and abroad.

“In certain limited and rigorously controlled cases, including for threatened species, scientific evidence has shown that trophy hunting can be an effective conservation tool as part of a broad mix of strategies.”

World Wildlife Fund

It is a fact of our global economic system that wildlife conservation depends on assigning some value to wildlife. Further, the value of living wildlife needs to outweigh the value of killing it in order for conservation to be desirable and successful. Conservation depends on people and it does not work when those people live in poverty and do not benefit from the programs. I don’t like the idea that we need to assign a monetary value to wildlife in order for conservation programs to succeed; I would prefer that we pursue conservation priorities based on the moral imperative and the intrinsic value of healthy wildlife populations. I would also like people to realize how repulsive and despicable smoking is and give it up. But people need incentives. Now, the relative success of market-based solutions to conservation that we have used for the last 120 years or so should not preclude us from critically questioning this system, but we also need to continue to make progress while we make changes. In the meantime, there need to be incentives for local communities to keep wildlife alive and healthy. Trophy hunting provides this value for many communities around the world.

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Trophy Hunting in North America

In North America, the link between trophy hunting and conservation dates back to at least 1887, when Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell founded the Boone and Crockett Club, one of the oldest wildlife conservation organizations in North America. While the Boone and Crockett Club’s big game scoring system is likely regarded by some as primarily motivated by the accumulation of bragging rights and fame, the scoring system originally began to promote conservation and the principle of fair chase. The Boone and Crockett Club began collecting and scoring specimens of large mammals so that North America’s iconic species could be viewed by subsequent generations after they disappeared from the landscape, a fate that appeared sealed for much of the continent’s wildlife.

Conserving declining wildlife populations through harvest may seem counter-intuitive. By today’s standards, informed by over a century of retrospection and evolving conservation paradigms, there are numerous conservation tools available to address declining wildlife from multiple angles simultaneously, but ideas must be viewed in context. There is a reason that we now have over a century of conservation successes to look back on across this continent. Considered in the context of what people understood about wildlife in the 1800s, and measured by the current status of wildlife recovery on this continent, the relationship between trophy hunting and successful conservation is clear. Defined as it was by a focus on targeting individuals who were old – and thus wise and elusive and more difficult to kill – and beyond their peak reproductive capacity, the Boone and Crockett Club’s approach has been described as representing “the best of both conservation practice and hunting ethics”.

“Our review highlights the fact that financial incentives from trophy hunting effectively more than double the land area that is used for wildlife conservation, relative to what would be conserved relying on national parks alone.”

Lindsey et al., 2007

Today, North American hunting is governed by carefully designed sets of regulations that are informed by science. Hunters must have licenses and follow strict regulations on seasons, legal individuals, and permitted means (gun, bow, etc.).

In North America, it also becomes more difficult to draw distinctions between trophy hunting and other kinds of hunting. There are laws against meat wastage throughout North America, meaning that hunters can be fined if the meat is either left in the field when an animal is killed or not properly cared for once removed. In some cases, the meat must be packed out before a hunter is allowed to remove “trophies” from the field.

In addition, hunting quotas and tags are designed and issued in an integrated way, meaning that there is no distinction between, for example, a white-tailed deer tag held by someone motivated by meat and someone motivated by antlers – they are one and the same tag and the same laws apply to both people. Now, there are jurisdictions and species that have separate hunting permits for subsistence and sport tags, such as polar bears in the Canadian Arctic, but again, they are both parts of the same science-based management system. Generally speaking, however, “trophy hunting” in North America is not distinct from “non-trophy hunting”.

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International Trophy Hunting

Internationally, trophy hunting is a well-established conservation tool. Regardless of what we each may think of the notion that someone’s desire to hunt is driven by the collection of a head, none of us can deny the fact that hunting has contributed to conservation successes in particular cases. This fact is acknowledged by scientists and international conservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the IUCN. WWF outlines five conditions that must be in place for effective trophy hunting conservation programs, among them that the programs must contribute economically to local communities and operate within functioning legal frameworks. It is also true that in some cases, trophy hunting and the revenue it generates have been abused and mismanaged to the detriment of wildlife. In these cases, reform is needed to the particular policies. However, the minority of cases that fit this description have done more to undermine public support for hunting than they have undermined hunting’s overall efficacy as a conservation tool. And while we may not like the sense of ego that drives some individual hunters, their money goes into the same funds as everyone else’s.

The IUCN, the leading global conservation organization, is careful to distinguish legal, managed, conservation-driven trophy hunting from other hunting, including “canned” or high fence hunting and illegal hunting, and they also point out that trophy hunting as a source of revenue generation cannot be easily replaced or matched by non-consumptive wildlife uses such as photographic tourism. The IUCN points out that well-managed trophy hunting “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”. A review of trophy hunting published in the journal Biological Conservation found that trophy hunting operations can generate up to US$100 million a year and create up to 6 000 jobs in South Africa.

There are those who wish to do away with all hunting, and particularly international trophy hunting. I myself am exceptionally uneasy about the notion that someone has a desire to travel to a place with which he or she has no personal connection, to hunt an animal with which he or she has little experience or connection, in a legal setting where he or she cannot personally retain the meat, which because of import laws is most often the case in international trophy hunting situations. We should also be aware of the privilege in being able to disagree with trophy hunting and having the opportunity to argue against it. Opposition to trophy hunting as a conservation and management tool typically comes from animal rights organizations based in European and North American countries.

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Adam Ford, Assistant Professor of biology at the University of British Columbia, points out that a strict opposition to hunting is placing “greater value on an individual animal rather than a population” but that wildlife management is designed to focus on population-level health. More broadly, there are dangerous colonial undertones in assuming a moral superiority and the right to tell other cultures and countries how they should make decisions and organizations that put their own political agendas above conservation should be called out for this. Personally, I hope I’m not arrogant enough to assume that my own ethical preferences should take priority over conservation. My preferences certainly shouldn’t take priority over the decision-making processes of other countries that are bound up in global economic structures that were specifically created to benefit the West.

Nevertheless, if we set aside the fact that legal, well-managed trophy hunting has contributed to important conservation successes, there is still one inescapable question to which I have yet to hear a compelling answer: if we close all trophy hunting and eliminate it as a conservation tool, where will the much-needed revenue provided by trophy hunting come from? What will replace it?

Conclusion: Rethinking Terminology and Approach

Words matter. If we are going to continue to use the term “trophy hunting”, we need to decide whether we want it to be pejorative or whether we are going to use it to refer to what has in many cases been a legitimate conservation tool. As it stands, the term is so loaded that it is too easily co-opted by those with a political axe to grind and used to mobilize non-hunters against harvest-based conservation programs. For hunters, I suspect the term rarely encapsulates the meaning and full range of why we hunt, meaning that it is insufficient, anyway. Finally, as hunters who care deeply about ethics and the image we portray, if we wish to disassociate ourselves from unethical hunters, we need to select a different term. In any case, if we care about wildlife and our priority is conservation, that should be our focus and we should support the programs that work and reform those that do not, setting aside our own personal egos. There will be times that we need to take different paths, but we do need to remember that when it comes to the responsibility to maintain healthy wildlife and habitat, we are all, always, in it together.

2 Comments on “A Complicated Relationship: Trophy Hunting and Conservation

  1. Pingback: A Complicated Relationship: In Search of Trophies – Paul McCarney

  2. Pingback: January Fur News: Fake Fur vs Real Fur

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