Trophy hunting under fire

Cecil the Lion's legacy now extends to princes and politicians, but shouldn't the poor also have a say?

Dilys Roe's picture
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11 April 2016

Dilys Roe is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group

Elephants in front of Mount Kilimanjaro. The blurring of fact and fiction, such as claims trophy hunting is driving declines of endangered species such as elephants, is fuelling a debate that could do more harm than good for conservation and for poor people (Photo: Amoghavarsha, via Google licence)

Ever since the killing of Cecil the Lion trophy hunting has come under increasing scrutiny. Last month Prince William felt the force of the debate when he spoke about the value of trophy hunting for conservation and was immediately criticised by the conservation charity LionAid.  

While the prince is no doubt used to being criticised by somebody somewhere for whatever he does or does not say, LionAid is not alone in campaigning for an end to trophy hunting. A number of airlines have imposed bans on the carriage of hunting trophies and a draft European Union (EU) declaration to prohibit imports of trophies into EU member states is currently under consultation.

It is clear that there have been, and continue to be, cases of poorly conducted and poorly regulated hunting, which require urgent reform. However, legal, regulated trophy hunting programmes can, and do, play an important role in delivering benefits for both biodiversity conservation and for the livelihoods and wellbeing of poor rural communities.  

A blanket ban on trophy hunting would penalise good as well as bad practice and would undermine these conservation and livelihood benefits.

More science, less emotion

Much of the debate over trophy hunting has been driven by emotion rather than by science. Cecil the Lion "Beanie Babies" compete for social media space with photos of captive lions awaiting their fate in the "canned hunting" industry and hunters posing with dead animals. 

Fact and fiction have become blurred, with claims that:

  • Trophy hunting is illegal
  • Trophy hunting is poaching
  • Trophy hunting involves shooting captive animals in enclosures ("canned" hunting), and
  • Trophy hunting is driving declines of endangered species such as elephants, rhinos and lions.

In early March, for example, the opening speech at the Save Wildlife Conference in The Hague listed trophy hunting alongside poaching as elements of wildlife crime. An article headlined "How trophy hunters destroy conservation" was actually about the specific issue of canned hunting of lions in South Africa. 

This misinformation – sometimes a result of ignorance, sometimes deliberate – is fuelling a debate that could do more harm than good for conservation and for poor people. 

Isn't tourism better than trophies? 

Many campaigners against trophy hunting do recognise that local people need incentives to conserve wildlife and to tolerate it on their land – given it may destroy their crops and kill their livestock. 

Tourism can be an alternative source of revenue in some cases. But only a few places that are currently managed for trophy hunting are also suitable for camera-wielding tourists. They require access, infrastructure, guaranteed wildlife viewing opportunities, low health risks and political stability – conditions which are missing in many of the places where trophy hunting is working. 

Tourism and trophy hunting can complement each other at a larger landscape level, delivering different benefits to different people in different places, as research by WWF scientists in Namibia has demonstrated.

Who should decide?

The debate about trophy hunting has been dominated by European and American animal welfare groups, who have been effective in lobbying European and American politicians and private companies. But shouldn't it be those that live alongside wildlife that make the decisions about how best to manage it, rather than those of us who sit on another continent? 

How would we feel if African lobby groups started trying to dictate how North Sea fisheries should be managed? Or whether or not black bears should be hunted in the United States? 

The Namibian Minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, recently pleaded with lobby groups to cease their campaign to end trophy hunting because of the negative conservation impacts a ban would have. 

Similarly traditional chiefs have expressed their concerns to the EU ambassador to Zimbabwe, noting that a ban on trophy hunting would "result in the suffering of communities as the revenue generated was used to develop infrastructure and help vulnerable communities in Zimbabwe". 

To ban or not to ban? 

Time-limited, targeted conditional bans – accompanied by support for improved, on the ground, hunting management – can help drive improvements in places where hunting does not adhere to agreed international standards (PDF). But broad-based indiscriminate bans are a blunt instrument that affect both good and bad practices. 

Indiscriminate bans risk undermining important benefits for both conservation and local livelihoods, exacerbating rather than addressing the prevailing threats of habitat loss and poaching – the real drivers of wildlife loss. 

A new briefing paper compiled by conservation specialists and scientists at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) urges decision-makers to fully examine the potential implications of such actions from the perspective of both conservation and livelihoods. 

Where decisions to ban trophy hunting are taken, they should be accompanied by plans for fully funded, feasible alternatives. 

Rather than trying to ban trophy hunting, we need to support countries and communities to develop the governance arrangements that foster best practice and maximise the potential of trophy hunting as one tool, among many, that can help to protect a future for wildlife – in Africa and elsewhere.

Dilys Roe (dilys.roe@iied.org) is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group.

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