The proponents of trophy hunting in Africa justify the sport by stating it brings much-needed money to conserving threatened species. Is the money really helping out as much as hunters claim?
The killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe outraged hunters and animal activists alike, and it shined a critical light on the sport of trophy hunting.
While many hunters have distanced themselves from Cecil’s killer, Walter Palmer, they’ve also found themselves scrambling to defend trophy hunting as a legitimate sport.
Beyond the merits of trophy hunting itself, sportsmen say it is a necessity. The money generated from costly permits is vital to funding conservation efforts in Africa.
The ethics and morality of trophy hunting will be endlessly debated, but taking a look at the supposed financial benefit to conservation makes things a little clearer.
The Cost of a Trophy
Big game hunting permits cost thousands of dollars, which hunters say generate revenue for parks and help reduce habitat loss and poaching.
They say taking a limited number of lions, giraffes, or elephants is a necessary sacrifice and helps ensure the survival of all the other animals.
Conservationists, meanwhile are divided on trophy hunting. A 2009 study by International Union for the Conservation of Nature found “mixed results” on whether regulated hunting is beneficial to wildlife.
However, big game hunting does have prominent supporters in the conservation community, including the World Wildlife Fund. The WWF’s former communications specialist Helge Denker is especially supportive of hunting.
Adding to the Equation
Undoubtedly, there are cases where trophy hunting has contributed to conservation, albeit in strictly controlled scenarios.
Activists were outraged over the auction of a permit to kill a black rhino in early 2015. However, the animal was already selected to be culled, and the hunt was a resourceful way for the country to eliminate the animal while simultaneously garnering thousands of dollars for conservation.
The southern white rhino was also almost assuredly saved by the involvement of trophy hunting. The Southern African hunting industry played a vital role in relocating the species to private lands and encouraging landowners to breed them and make a profit off sport hunting.
As a result, there are now 20,000 southern white rhinos, up from fewer than 100 in the early 1900s.
The King of Trophies?
As for lion hunting, Professor David MacDonald, head of an Oxford University team who studied Cecil, told NBC News limited hunting can benefit the animals.
“Properly regulated, highly controlled trophy hunting can be argued to be an important part of the conservation mix in terms of giving animals a financial value in some place,” said MacDonald.
According the the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, American hunters contribute $2.9 billion annually to conservation work through license fees, equipment, and tags. The money earned from hunting becomes more difficult to track when it moves overseas.
Some critics say the influx of cash from African hunting expeditions doesn’t always go to where its needed.
In the case of Cecil, animal activists like The South African NSPCA question if the money Palmer paid went to anyone other than his professional guide or the landowner, both of whom were arrested.
In nations like Zimbabwe, which are ruled by highly-corrupt governments, it’s fair to assume money from foreign hunters ends up in the pockets of bribed guides and government officials, as well as reputable conservation groups and wildlife agencies.
To better determine if the beneficiaries of trophy hunting are animals or humans, countries will need more transparency about where the funds from sportsmen go.
Hunting and Tourism
Trophy hunters say their sport provides revenue, but many activists and tourism operators adamantly disagree. They believe every game animal’s death actually means a loss of income.
Because of their ability to continually attract thousands of tourists rather than just a single hunter, they say animals are ultimately worth more alive than dead.
In an interview with National Geographic, wildlife guide Bryan Orford said Cecil brought in more tourism revenue in five days than the alleged $50,000 Palmer paid to hunt him.
Hunting proponents say Africa is a big and incredibly diverse continent, and not every country can support an ecotourism industry. Remote and impoverished locations are not suitable for tourists, so they rely on hunting fees to bring in funds.
Even some tourism operators have conceded hunting is generally the biggest financial contributor to wildlife preservation.
“If you look at the hard lifting that’s been done in Africa…who’s there doing the conservation work? The hunting operators,” said safari guide Russell Gammon in an interview with NBC News. “Most of them are dedicated conservationists and would like nothing more than to run photographic safaris in these areas. But they’ve got to have the demand for that product before they can make the change.”
Experts generally agree despite the public’s feelings towards trophy hunting, the sport as it’s currently managed represents no real threat to the survival of endangered species.
While they understand the outrage over Cecil’s killing, they say real change can only occur by focusing the public on larger issues, including habitat loss, poaching, and climate change.
Cecil’s death triggered a flurry of donations to various wildlife agencies, but it remains doubtful how long the public will invest their time and money to the cause.
Many media outlets have called for the ban of trophy hunting, but few have looked into whether Africa can continue to protect and propagate endangered species long term without the money from visiting sportsmen.
Countries like Kenya, Botswana, and Zambia are instituting total or partial trophy hunting bans, and Zimbabwe is trying out a suspension of big game hunting. It may soon be clearer if ecotourism alone is sufficient to support Africa’s conservation programs.
Hunters, animal activists, and conservationists unequivocally agree animals hold a value far beyond a dollar amount. Legal revenue from ecotourism and trophy hunting is the only thing standing between the destruction of the species from rampant development and poaching.
With trophy hunters in the crosshairs of the media and the public, they’ll have to provide hard numbers proving their sport gives more to the conservation of endangered species than it takes away.