What you’ve heard about trophy hunting is probably wrong. If you care about protecting endangered species, then you need to learn the truth about trophy hunting.
I think most people would probably agree that protecting the environment and preventing threatened species from going extinct are both important goals. Wildlife faces many threats these days ranging from poaching and climate change to loss of irreplaceable habitat. Due in part to widespread outrage on social media to incidents like the Cecil the Lion scandal, many people include trophy hunting in this list of threats to wildlife as well.
While hunting organizations claim that killing individual animals can actually benefit overall animal populations, that can’t really be true, can it? At first glance, it seems obvious that trophy hunting is bad for the environment.
What would you say if I told you that trophy hunting actually has real, scientifically proven benefits for wildlife? Would you believe that well regulated, sustainable trophy hunting can be beneficial for protecting vulnerable animal populations from poaching and for preventing habitat loss?
In this article, I’m going to provide a detailed description of what trophy hunting is and why it it is so important for the future of wildlife on Earth.
What Is Trophy Hunting?
Trophy hunting is the selective hunting of a particular wild game animal, usually older males, because that particular animal has a desirable characteristic, such as large antlers/horns. Most hunters then eat the animal and keep the trophy (the hide and/or the antlers/horns) and preserve them as some sort of memento of the hunt.
This helps memorialize the memory of the hunt (and all of the experiences that went along with it) for the hunter. However, it also preserves the beauty and majesty of the animal, which lasts much longer and can be enjoyed by many more people in a trophy room or museum than it would in the wild.
Normally, trophy hunters target older animals that may be past breeding age. Especially in the case of the very old animals that are often pursued by trophy hunters, they may be so old that they would not have survived the next winter or dry season, dying of exposure or starvation instead.
Elgin Gates said it best in his description of trophy hunters:
The true trophy hunter is a self-disciplined perfectionist seeking a single animal, the ancient patriarch well past his prime that is often an outcast from his own kind… If successful, he will enshrine the trophy in a place of honor. This is a more noble and fitting end than dying on some lost and lonely ledge where the scavengers will pick his bones, and his magnificent horns will weather away and be lost forever.
The pronghorn buck in the photo below is a prime example: he was extremely old and his teeth were worn nearly completely down. He obviously had lived a long and interesting life and it’s unlikely he would have made it through that winter.
Why Trophy Hunting Is Actually A Good Thing
As you may have heard, there is big money involved in trophy hunting. That’s true: wealthy people pay tremendous sums of money to go hunting.
Fortunately, this money is essential for fighting the two primary threats to wildlife these days: poaching and loss of habitat.
Of these two threats, habitat loss is the most serious and that’s what we’ll discuss first.
The unfortunate reality in many areas is that virtually all of the places left that can sustain populations of large and dangerous animals like African elephants, lions, and rhino are already at, or exceeding their carrying capacity. Human encroachment has slowly but steadily reduced the amount of land left that is suitable for those animals to live on.
This has brought these animals into conflict with people.
Seeing animals in their natural habitat while on vacation is a truly amazing experience. However, safely living side by side with grizzly bears, wolves, elephants, or lions can be very challenging.
How would you feel if a coyote, mountain lion, or a wolf made off with your pet dog or cat?
What you do if lions were eating the livestock you depend on to survive?
What about if an elephant killed your child?
Looking at it this way, it’s not surprising that people sometimes take matters into their own hands and illegally kill wild animals that are causing trouble.
Luckily, properly managed hunting programs give local people tangible benefits from preserving wildlife populations. After all, they are the ones who must live with these animals.
There’s a saying about wildlife: “if it pays, it stays.”
It’s a whole lot easier to tolerate crop and livestock raiding animals if you’re given a job assisting with the hunt, the hunters give you some of the meat from animals that are killed, and when money from the hunt is invested back in the community.
Yes, trophy hunting does invariably result in a few animals being killed.
Regardless of what you may have been told, trophy hunters don’t go out in kill large numbers of animals at once though. On the contrary, they practice scientifically based wildlife management and therefore kill very small numbers of animals (often less than 1% of the entire population) in a given year.
Additionally, that harvest consists almost entirely of older males past breeding age.
This does not result in any negative impacts on healthy wildlife populations and can even help populations grow.
The story of the village of Sankuyo in Botswana illustrates both the benefits of hunting to the local people and wildlife populations as well as the pitfalls of hunting bans. That village is located in a part of Botswana that at one point was a premier destination for trophy hunters until the country shut down hunting in 2013.
Safari operators in the Sankuyo area offered limited amounts of plains game, elephant, buffalo, and lion hunting for visiting foreign hunters. This resulted in a substantial annual windfall for the village. As an example, the village received approximately $600,000 as a direct result of hunting in the surrounding area in 2010 (while hunting was still legal).
In addition to that money, the village received meat from animals killed by trophy hunters as well as jobs created in order to support the local hunting industry. Among other things, the village built toilets for 20 households and connected another 40 households to running water with this money.
Remember: the people in these areas are extremely poor and the simple act of providing easy to access to clean drinking water or a toilet is an incredible improvement to their quality of live as well as a tremendous public health benefit.
Unfortunately, leopards, hyenas, and lions have taken an incredible toll on the livestock in the village after hunting ceased in 2013. Understandably, the locals are starting to take matters into their own hands.
After the ban was enacted, it was no longer in their best interest to protect animals, so poaching skyrocketed.
The people in that area were certainly worse off after the hunting ban was enacted and the rampant poaching that replaced well regulated trophy hunting had a devastating impact on wildlife in that area as well.
While that particular example illustrates the importance of placing an actual monetary value on wildlife, that’s only part of the equation. Land is also vital for healthy wildlife populations.
Land is a very important commodity though. As the saying goes, they’re not making any more of it.
As the population of the world grows, there is more and more pressure to develop land and clear space for houses, farmland, or energy development.
However, wildlife depends on the preservation of large, undeveloped tracts of land to survive. The loss of habitat, regardless of whether that’s for a coal mine or a soy farm, usually means death for the animals that used to live there.
The good news is that trophy hunting provides incentives for people to refrain from developing their land and landowners can earn a substantial income from protecting wildlife habitat. Basically, hunting is conservation because it provides a monetary incentive to preserve wildlife habitat instead of developing it.
This is one of the most important (and overlooked) environmental benefits of hunting.
For example, the Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe is a great example of how trophy hunting is beneficial for wildlife populations.
In 1994, the 1,400 square miles (3,740 square kilometers) of land that is now the Bubye Valley Conservancy contained thousands of cattle, but absolutely no wildlife. All the native animals had been killed off by farmers to make room for their cattle.
Today, the cattle are gone and the conservancy is home to all members of the Big Five (elephant, African lion, rhino, leopard, and cape buffalo. Indeed, the world’s third largest black rhino population, Zimbabwe’s largest lion population, a thriving elephant population, and abundant plains game inhabit the conservancy.
Building and maintaining the conservancy was not free though.
There are several outfitters that practice sustainable hunting in the conservancy. They pay for anti-poaching patrols, funnel a great deal of money back into the conservancy and the local communities, and have replaced the income landowners used to receive from cattle.
This is obviously an incredible wildlife conservation success and a wonderful example of how trophy hunting benefits wildlife populations.
Another important side effect of these conservation efforts is better habitat for ALL wild animals in the area, not just for animals that hunters are pursuing.
Nobody hunts rhinoceros in the Bubye Valley Conservancy, yet those animals are now thriving in thousands square miles of prime wildlife habitat that simply didn’t exist back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Likewise, in addition to the many buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, giraffe, and antelope that live in these areas, countless other species of birds, fish, and reptiles as well some other, more unusual creatures like pangolin are now enjoying the benefits of trophy hunting.
This is a critical example of how hunting benefits all wildlife, not just big game species.
Let’s be clear here: trophy hunting is the reason why wild animals have replaced livestock on the 1,400 square miles of land that makes up the Bubye Valley Conservancy. There are similar stories for many other countries in Africa as well as all over the rest of the world.
Trophy hunting is the primary reason why African countries like Namibia, South Africa, and Tanzania have large, robust populations of wild game, while Kenya (which has banned hunting since 1977 and attempted to replace that revenue with ecotourism like photo safaris) has virtually no game outside of national parks.
In that same vein, trophy hunting is how the populations of animals such as the Scimitar Horned Oryx, Addax, and Dama Gazelle, which are hunted on game ranches in the United States, have flourished to the degree that animals captive bred on game ranches are being reintroduced into their wild habitat in Africa, where they are critically endangered.
If trophy hunting did not exist, then it’s very unlikely any American exotic game ranches would have stocked those game species in the first place. In that case, those animals would have probably gone extinct in the wild and disappeared forever.
With those examples in mind, one of the other important benefits of trophy hunting is that sustainable hunting funds anti-poaching programs.
Difference Between Trophy Hunting And Poaching
A common tactic of the anti-hunting lobby is to lump poaching and ethical hunting in together. This is a completely false assertion.
Poachers are NOT trophy hunters.
Unlike hunting, poaching is incredibly harmful to wildlife populations. No species has ever gone extinct due to well regulated, ethical trophy hunting.
The same cannot be said about poaching.
Unlike trophy hunters, who primarily target older males and kill very small numbers of animals, poachers indiscriminately kill large numbers of animals. Poachers make no distinction between killing old males, young males, females, and babies.
This is particularly damaging to animal populations.
Killing a small number of mature males that have already had an opportunity to breed and pass on their genetics has no negative impact on an animal population. In fact, it can actually improve the overall health of the herd. At the same time, shooting the same number of females can be absolutely devastating to the population, especially with animals that have low reproduction rates like elephants and rhinos.
The plight of the white rhino and the African elephant are both prime examples of the devastation that poaching can wreck on wildlife. Elephant tusks and rhino horn can both fetch incredible sums of money on the black market and this has in turn fueled a number of well organized criminal syndicates that have poached thousands of elephants and rhino in recent years.
In response, many African countries have stepped up their anti-poaching efforts.
The men and women actually fighting on the front line against poachers are incredibly dedicated, but they don’t work for free. They also need training, weapons, vehicles, radios, and other equipment to adequately protect wildlife.
These things all cost money, and hunters gladly pick up the tab for them. The anti-poaching units for the aforementioned Bubye Valley Conservancy and in Mozambique’s Zambezi Delta are both examples of highly successful anti-poaching programs that are funded primarily by hunters.
I’m not sure what organizations like PETA and the Humane Society of The United States do with their money, but I can tell you for certain they aren’t funding any anti-poaching programs with all that cash.
Why Trophy Hunting Is Humane
It’s an undeniable fact: every single living creature eventually dies. For wild animals, death is usually not clean, fast, or painless.
Remember that photo of a very old pronghorn at the beginning of the article?
His teeth were so worn down that he was likely starting to have trouble chewing and digesting his food. That lack of nourishment translates into poor overall body condition and a lack of fat reserves going into winter.
He was probably doomed to a cold, slow, starvation over the course of several weeks once cold weather and snow arrived.
President Theodore Roosevelt described that situation well in his book African Game Trails:
Death by violence, death by cold, death by starvation, – these are the normal endings of the stately and beautiful creatures of the wilderness. The sentimentalists who prattle about the peaceful life of nature do not realize its utter mercilessness;…Life is hard and cruel for all the lower creatures, and for man also in what the sentimentalists call a “state of nature.”
During my hunt, that pronghorn never knew I was there and died very quickly from a single gunshot. Afterwards, I took his meat home and fed my family for months with it.
Looking at things from that angle, does a hunter’s bullet really seem cruel or inhumane?
Other Misconceptions About Trophy Hunting
On the surface, it would appear that a trophy hunter is only interested in the actual “trophy” of the animal.
This is a common misconception.
In fact, to hear some people talk, you would think that trophy hunters will shoot a big animal for its trophy, take some photographs, then cut the head off the animal and set the carcass on fire.
This could not be further from the truth.
Hunting for meat and hunting for a trophy are not mutually exclusive: a hunter can shoot a buck with an impressive rack of antlers and still use the meat. In fact, failing to utilize as much of the edible meat of an animal possible is illegal in most jurisdictions of the United States, not to mention unethical as well.
All true trophy hunters fully utilize the meat, as well as the trophy, from all animals they hunt.
Even the meat obtained from a buffalo or elephant trophy hunted in Africa is not wasted: the meat that is not consumed by the hunters in camp is given to the people in nearby villages.
If you’ve made it to this point in the article, it should be pretty clear that there are several important benefits of well regulated, sustainable trophy hunting.
Trophy hunting gives wildlife tangible value, it provides landowners with a monetary incentive to protect valuable natural habitat, and it funds anti-poaching efforts. Indeed, for these reasons, it’s an incredibly effective way to protect endangered animals from both poaching and habitat loss.
There is nothing wrong with not wanting to partake in trophy hunting and I don’t have any beef with people who prefer to hunt for other reasons (or not hunt at all). You also don’t have to go out and join Safari Club International.
All I’m trying to do here is provide information to correct some of the most common misconceptions about trophy hunting and explain some of the benefits of it. So the next time you hear someone start to bash trophy hunting, keep those points in mind.
To see what some pretty eloquent writers and conservationists have to say about this sort of stuff, check out these two other articles: