Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Ban on Trophy Hunting? Be Careful What You Wish For!

By now you have undoubtedly noticed all of the righteous outrage over an American dentist killing an lion in Zimbabwe, which turned out to have been part of an ongoing study, and was allegedly taken in an illegal manner. In the past few days another woman who is a big game hunter has also come under attack for trophy hunting in Africa. As a result, there has been a huge amount of posturing, airlines are banning international transportation of trophies, politicians are grand standing, the hunter’s house has been vandalized, etc… and of course PETA is calling for the dentist to be hanged. 


A 1909 image of Theodore Roosevelt, pioneer and leader in wildlife conservation, on a hunt in Africa.

Of course, we all know that this will last about another week and then everyone will forget about it all together. Do you remember the big outrage over rhino hunting a year or so back? No? Well, neither do most other people. Let’s be honest here, virtually every person who is currently “outraged” and is calling for the death of hunters on their favorite social media outlet has zero interest in wildlife conservation. Your average person who is now signing petitions to outlaw big game hunting has not donated a single dollar to wildlife conservation, has not spent a single minute doing any wildlife conservation, and other than in the past week has not had a single thought pass through their head regarding wildlife conservation, not to mention that they know nothing about what that would entail. 

And we all accept that. It’s part of the news cycle these days. People like to feel important, and there is no better way to do that than to join a pseudo social cause and then preach from the top of a soap box. It will last until one of the Kardashians does something “more deserving” of our attention. 

There is however an unfortunate consequence of all this silliness. Ordinarily this flavor of the week activism is only a mild nuisance and a source of entertainment, but in situations like this one it can actually cause a lot of harm. This is the consequence of people who know nothing about a subject, trying to force “change”.

I can certainly go though all of the factual issues regarding hunting and show why the outrage is misguided, but there would be no point. For those interested the information is readily available. For those not interested the data will make no difference at all. However, let me ask this: if you are one of the people calling for a ban on trophy hunting, what if you actually get what you want?

What if you actually manage to ban trophy hunting or big game hunting? On a more personal level, what if though your individual efforts you manage to stop that next big game hunter from going to Africa and shooting that animal which now all of a sudden you have great interest in? Sure, you will be happy, but have you considered the consequences?

Are you going to replace the money that this big game hunter was about to bring to that particular region of Africa? A lion hunter pays about $50,000 just for the right to hunt, in addition to the money spent on the ground to actually make the hunt happen. A rhino hunter can spend upwards of $350,000 for the hunt. So, you won! You prevented that hunter from going to Africa on his hunt. Did you raise the equivalent amount of money to donate to that region of the country instead? No!? Well, then what overall impact do your actions have on wildlife conservation in that area of the world? Okay then, instead of donating the money, are you going to move to the area and volunteer your time as a game warden? A few years of working for free in the area should offset the money lost due to the hunt being canceled. No? Hmmm… 

Sure, you saved the life of that one particular animal, but your action have likely caused the death of dozens. While everyone is being melodramatic over Cecil the Lion, dozens of lions, rhinos, and elephants have been killed by poachers during that exact period of time. According to the World Wildlife Fund, in 2014, 1215 rhinos were killed by poachers, and in 2012, 22,000 elephants were killed by poachers. Who is outraged about that? The answer is no one because that is not the current flavor of the week.

There is no way around it. Wildlife conservation costs money. Game management cost money, protection from poachers costs money, getting landowners to open up their lands to big game costs money. Without the money, conservation can not exist. See for example Trophy Hunting of Black Rhino: Proposals to Ensure Its Future Sustainability,Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 8 (1) 1-11, (2005); Potential of Trophy Hunting to Create Incentives For Wildlife Conservation in Africa Where Alternative Wildlife-Based Land Uses May Not Be Viable, Animal Conservation, 9 (3) 283-291, (2006); Economic and Conservation Significance Of The Trophy Hunting Industry in Sub-Saharan Africa, Biological Conservation, 134 455-469 (2007) (P.A. Lindseya, P.A. Rouletb, S.S. Romanach)

So, now that you have won, and prevented a dozen hunters from going to Africa for their big game hunt, what are you going to do to make sure that those dozen animals along with two hundred others are not killed the following week by poachers and by landowners who now no longer see an incentive to allow those animals on their land? Nothing?! Because your job is done, and now you have found a more fashionable things to be outraged over with your friends?

Like it or not, hunters are one of the largest driving forces behind wildlife conservation. They have a vested interest in making sure wildlife is flourishing and are willing to spend money to make it happen, in addition to the time they are willing to invest to learn about the wildlife in question and its habitat. Have you done that? Are you willing to do the same? If the answer is “No”, then you may want to reconsider exactly what outcome you would like to see. Even the most uncaring hunter, through the Pittman–Robertson Act (Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937) pays 11% tax on hunting equipment (rifles, ammunition, etc) which goes directly to state wildlife conservation. That averages over $300,000 annually in wildlife conservation funding that comes directly from hunters just from equipment purchases.

And if your answer is that somebody else will do something about it, then you are perpetuating the problem. Guess what, no one else is going to do anything. Even with all of the outrage these past few weeks, and with every celebrity getting on the band wagon, the Oxford’s Conservation Research Unit, the people who were studying Cecil the Lion have received donations in the sum of $150,000. For comparison purposes, a recent rhino hunt in Namibia went for $350,000; that’s just for the right to hunt that one rhino. The “evil” dentist of recent fame spent about $55,000 for that single hunt. According to the WWF, in 2000, Namibia alone received $11,000,000 (that’s eleven million dollars) in fees from trophy hunters.

The only alternative that ever gets mentioned as a revenue source is “photo tourism”. It is usually mentioned by people who have never contributed a single dollar to wildlife conservation through photo tourism, and have never even fully worked out the theory of how it would actually replace hunting in terms of revenue. And let’s be honest here, your average family of four from Paris or Ohio is not going to go to the backwoods of Zimbabwe or Chad, sleep in bunk beds in a local’s farm house, just so they can spend two weeks in the dirt trying to get a photograph of an apex predator. Legalized hunting is not what’s keeping them from spending tens of thousands of dollars in those areas of Africa. Those tourists are in a resort somewhere where they can see animals from a guided tour bus in the easily accessible parts of a local park. When in 2013 Zambia outlawed lion hunting, photo tourism did virtually nothing to offset the loss of revenue from trophy hunting. Exact same story played out in Botswana. Photo tourism already exists. It works well in the area where large numbers of tourists want to go on vacation. With or without hunting, photo tourism will continue to stay in the areas where it currently is, and bring in the revenue that it already brings. It will not miraculously expand to compensate for the revenue loss from a ban on trophy hunting. Not only does the plan make no sense in theory, but all the empirical evidence we have in places where there have been bans on hunting, show that photo tourism, while viable in its own right, will not replace revenue generated by trophy hunting, and it will certainly not bring that revenue to the areas of the country where the hunting is taking place. 

Let’s face it, money talks. If people are willing to spend huge amounts of money to legally hunt an animal, both the hunters and other interested parties will find a way to make sure that animal flourishes and that it’s protected. And that is exactly what is happening. Since legalizing rhino hunting, the white rhino population in South Africa has increased from less that 100 animals to over 11,000. Same is true across the board in Africa, not to mention local examples like deer, turkey, buffalo, and elk populations in the US.

Eliminating that funding and those conservation efforts and incentives, patting yourself on the back, and then doing nothing to replace those resources because you have somehow done your “very important” job and now it’s somebody else’s problem, does nothing but hurt wildlife conservation.

I completely understand if someone does not like trophy hunting. We are all entitled to our feeling about the subject. The question is, if you want to stop that trophy hunting, what are you going to do to replace the resources that were being contributed by those big game hunters? If the answer is “Nothing”, then be careful what you wish for. Preventing one animal from being killed during a legal hunt can easily lead to a dozen others being killed by poachers due to loss of funding, and restricted habitat. Yes, activism can be fun, but be careful what you wish for. While next week you are going to move on to the next cause, the animals that will be impacted by your actions can not do the same.

There is no question that trophy hunting is a viable and useful wildlife conservation tool. Virtually all of the available research confirms that, and courtiers that have embraced the approach like South Africa have seen significant gains in the wildlife populations, while countries like Zambia and Botswana that have banned such hunting have seen devastating results. There is also no question that we currently do not have a viable alternative to replace the contribution that hunting makes to wildlife conservation. Ecotourism already occupies its own niche, and while it is great, it can not replace hunting when it comes to wildlife conservation as the two are not mutually exclusive. So, if hunting is beneficial to wildlife conservation, and we have no alternative at the moment to replace it, then what effect does trying to ban said hunting have on the wildlife we are trying to protect? What “good” are we actually doing?

Personally, I am a hunter. While I am not skilled enough to worry about trophies, I have absolutely nothing against trophy hunting when it is done in a lawful manner. While emotions can easily get out of control in such situations, I try to keep my outrage away from people who are willing to spend their life savings to lawfully hunt an animal under government supervision, and instead focus it on poachers who kill thousands of animals without making any contribution to wildlife conservation.  

For a more personal perspective on the subject of lions in Zimbabwe and on absurd American media trends, check out Goodwell Nzou’s “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions”, New York Times, Aug 4, 2015.

Also worth a serous look is the TEDx Copenhagen presentation by Mikkel Legarth from Denmark, co-founder of Modisa Wildlife Project, working on wildlife conservation in Botswana. You can watch the presentation here. He explains in a very accessible way the actual consequences of hunting restrictions on the lion population in Botswana. 

A recent article by The New York Times also offers a balanced, non-reactionary perspective on the issue: “Outcry for Cecil the Lion Could Undercut Conservation Efforts by Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, Aug 10, 2015.

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