Last year, on a trip to Botswana, I got my first taste of what it feels like to be on the wrong side of an elephant. “You have to see this,” my guide had told me, as we approached a herd of 15 individuals. We were almost 100 meters away when the animals raised their trunks, spread their ears and began to charge towards us. Only at the last minute did my guide walk away. “Now you understand what it’s like to live next to wild animals,” she said.
That day, I realized an inconvenient truth from the comfort of my safari vehicle: As a tourist, it’s very easy to ignore what goes on behind the scenes.
Controversially, trophy hunting has been justified as a solution to reduce the pressures of human/wildlife conflict in areas of species overpopulation. Personally, I cannot understand how anyone would want to photograph an animal with anything other than a camera. But digging deeper, the situation becomes much more complex.
“Totally against British values”
On March 17, MPs are due to vote on the Hunting Trophies (Import Ban) Act, which would ban the introduction of wildlife hunting trophies into the UK, following countries such as France, Australia and the Netherlands. Joanna Lumley, Judi Dench, Liam Gallagher, Ranulph Fiennes – and most recently Gary Lineker – are among the many celebrities who have passionately spoken out in favor of its approval as part of The Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting lobby group.
“Killing animals for fun is totally against British values,” says Dench. “There’s nothing noble about posing for a smiling selfie next to a helpless animal. There’s nothing honorable about decorating your home with the heads of sentient creatures.
There are compelling arguments to support the ban.
“Most hunting operations in Africa employ very few local people,” points out Chris McIntyre, managing director of tour operator Expert Africa. “Large trophy fees will often end up going largely to a professional hunter or hunting company – only in a few cases do we see significant hunting income used to benefit entire communities.
“Furthermore, while I believe there are hunting operations in Africa that play by the rules, I am also very aware that the trophy hunting system and the large amounts of money that are often involved often seem to be linked to behavior that many would consider not ethical.
Safari operator and author Ian Michler tackles the topic in his new book Living In Two Worlds – Facing Humanity’s Greatest Challenge, co-written with Ian McCallum.
“Whether from the perspective of intent or consequence, there are profound operational and conservation concerns, along with moral and ethical ones, related to trophy hunting on this continent,” he writes. “It results in far more harm than its supposed benefits.”
The case for allowing trophy hunting
Representatives from community-managed conservation areas in Angola, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia, however, would disagree. In a recent open letter to Andrew Mitchell, UK’s Secretary of State for Development and Africa, they highlight the potential harms of the bill to conservation, including reduced revenues for the protection of wilderness areas and an increased risk of human/wildlife conflict.
Conservationist and Oxford University professor Amy Dickman, who works extensively in Africa to protect carnivores and communities, makes their case. “I think this bill is terrible, for several reasons,” she says. “It is driven by widespread disinformation, from constituencies who falsely claim that trophy hunting is driving species to extinction. That’s not true: Trophy hunting may be good or bad for conservation, but it’s not driving any species to extinction. The real threats to wildlife are habitat loss, poaching and conflict with people, all of which, ironically, trophy hunting can help reduce, as it provides income to maintain habitat and finance the fight against poaching”.
Sue Snyman, research director for the School of Wildlife Conservation at African Leadership University, agrees, citing the example of Tanzania, where 60 percent of the Tanzania Wildlife Authority’s revenue goes to operations including anti-poaching comes from hunting.
“I am a vegetarian and would never hunt, but as an economist, I see the role hunting plays in terms of conservation and development in Africa. Until alternative options are found in many areas, it should not be compromised, as it will lead to an increase in illegal or unsustainable use if there is no tangible benefit from wildlife in these areas. This has been the case in Kenya, which has lost more than 60% of its wildlife since the hunting ban and over the last 30 years, as there is no incentive for local communities to conserve wildlife.
Hypocrisy and toxic Twitter
Some African groups have gone so far as to describe the bill as a form of neocolonialism, proposed without consulting any of the communities that will be directly affected. Given that hunting is still legitimized as a ‘sport’ in the UK, Dickman believes the ban would be ‘deeply hypocritical’.
“So the UK is saying that trophy hunting is good for wealthy Scottish landowners, for example, but not good for rural communities in Africa and elsewhere?” she asks. “The UK has a terrible conservation record. Rather than focusing on hunting and conservation overseas, it would be far better to use Parliament’s time and energy to address the real threats to conservation and ensure this is done in a way that helps hold local stakeholders accountable, rather than undermine their rights”.
On both sides of the debate, emotions are running high, which is also part of the problem. Next week, a new book, Saving Sally: Trophy Hunters, Secrets & Lies by Eduardo Goncalves, founder of the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting, will name and shame a British businessman as the world’s number two trophy hunter and social media media are already full of posts that disgrace people who kill animals for fun.
But toxic Twitter posts could be doing more harm than good.
“It shuts down thoughtful debate and makes people afraid to talk,” warns Dickman, who is one of many environmentalists working on alternative models, though he admits there’s nothing feasible yet. “There is a perception that it is about being ‘for’ or ‘against’ hunting, with no middle ground, rather than acknowledging that most people are pro-wildlife and would like to discuss and understand more of the nuances and the complexities”.
The fact that a number of tour operators I have contacted on the matter have declined to comment speaks volumes. This is a thorny subject that few want to tackle.
“The trophy hunting debate is a complex one,” admits Chris McIntyre, who believes the bill points the right direction for the safari industry over the long term, but acknowledges the need to investigate other solutions for communities with choices limited. “Even if the reasons for the change are strong, these changes must be accompanied by sensitivity and support for the African communities that will be affected,” he says.
Like so much in the field of conservation, there’s no easy answer. But more than ever, perhaps now is the time to put emotion aside, open the forum for fair debate, and finally confront the real elephant in the room.