Trophy hunting; some final thoughts

Today I had the pleasure of speaking to five people involved in some way or another with lion conservation and hunting. These five are the final contributors to the BBC Radio 4 documentary I am making that examines trophy hunting (specifically lion) in the wake of the killing of Cecil the Lion.

So far I’ve spoken to hunters, reserve managers, lion ecologists and lion conservationists and the picture that is emerging is complex, encompassing ecology and biology as well as land ownership, economics and geographical differences across Africa. The general argument, from both sides of the debate, is that lions face far greater threats than rich dentists. Human-wildlife conflict arising from threats to livestock and people, and from competition for land are far more significant threats than trophy hunting but are far less newsworthy. Many (but not all) people on both sides also agree that trophy hunting can, and sometimes does, directly lead to conservation but that this is far from the case across all of Africa. For every success story – where trophy hunting is central to that local economy – there are other stories of corruption, of limited trickle-down and so on. To some extent the interviews today brought clarity, but it also added a difficult topic into the mix – morality.

First off, I spoke to a wildlife conservation ecologist. She is interested in defining quotas for wildlife harvesting (including lions) and in developing the science that enables these quotas to be set at a sustainable level. It’s an interesting topic but what I found most interesting was what she had to say regarding putting those quotas and other conservation strategies into action. An important factor is engaging the local community and effective wildlife conservation doesn’t happen unless the people on the ground are on board. This same point was made, in different ways, by the other contributors today. We may be discussing wildlife and international issues, but it’s clear that any solution must work with the people that actually live with the wildlife we cherish.

I also spoke to a man who runs a successful reserve in Zimbabwe. To put “success” into context, his reserve used to be managed for cattle but in the early 1990s, following a drought, it was decided to manage it for wildlife and fund it entirely by hunting. Now the reserve has a huge population of black rhino (a top 10 globally significant population in fact), more than 400 lions and large numbers of “plains game” species. The local communities are supported by the revenue from this reserve, which funds schools, boreholes, building projects and so on. All of this is funded by hunting and would disappear without that income. So, at this site (and I stress that – at this site) banning trophy hunting would be disastrous.

There are other locations that are similarly successful with the “trophy hunting for conservation” model, but as I’ve heard from everyone I have spoken to, taken overall, the revenue from trophy hunting (perhaps 200 million USD annually) falls far short of what is required to keep African wildlife safe. What might work well in some locations, regions or countries does not work well in others. Equally, in some regions it may not be possible to replace hunting revenue, at least in the short-term, although there are places in Kenya where this has been achieved with ecotourism. Overall, the conclusion has to be that Africa is not a “one size fits all” problem and many argue that a “one size fits all” solution (such as a blanket ban on trophy hunting) is not the way forward.
Several people I spoke to today were ‘down the line’, using Skype or telephone lines, but Will Travers, the President of Born Free (a well-known international wildlife charity), was a studio guest. Will had some very interesting facts and figures on the extent of trophy lion hunting, where those trophies end up (Spain is Europe’s leading importer) and also the populations of lions across Africa. Will does not support trophy hunting, which is not perhaps surprising. He discussed economics and other pragmatic factors but he also posed two important questions – is it morally right to kill an animal for “sport” or for fun and do we want to live in a world where this acceptable, regardless of whether it is sustainable? Judging from the outcry over Cecil, many would answer “no” to both questions.

Many conservationists I have spoken to have backed the argument that we must be pragmatic to conserve wildlife, that trophy hunting can and does work in some cases, and that a global ban ignores the complexity of the situation on the ground. I agree with them about the need for pragmatic solutions, but we cannot easily separate this from our emotional response to wildlife. Meanwhile, the millions protesting against hunting aren’t donating thousands of pounds each to conservation efforts and the sums received by charities that have reported in the media are a drop in the ocean. Emotional responses must be channelled into meaningful action (i.e. cash).

If the outcry over Cecil makes us think in a more mature and effective way about wildlife conservation then the death of an old lion will have achieved far more than the dubious honour of “going viral” on social media. However, I fear that highly polarised arguments (trophy hunting is great vs. trophy hunting is evil) are too easy to buy into, that the complex middle ground between these extremes takes too much thought and time to consider and that, like so many other “viral” trends, the difficult issue of wildlife conservation will be forgotten when the next big thing hits social media.

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