Hunting: Vile outdated ‘sport’ or a viable method of conservation?

Despite claims from the RSPCA that 80% of the public are against fox hunting, a quarter of a million people attended boxing day hunts across the country yesterday. Environmentalists and conservationists that I follow on twitter met this with outrage. Similarly, many wildlife organisations regularly post pictures demonizing individuals who pose with hunting trophies of big game.


I personally detest the thought of hunting for trophies. But we must be realistic, hunting is still a popular activity and a large generator of income used to conserve parks and wild animals. There still remains around 250 sporting estates in Scotland, covering approximately 2 million hectares – equivalent to 43% of all privately owned land in the highlands. Hunting is even bigger in the US, with nearly 15 million hunting licences issued in 2011. Much of the countryside we enjoy is preserved for the sake of game and sport. The very creation of ‘conservation’ as an idea and practise was pioneered by Buxton, Seton-Karr (in Africa), Roosevelt (in the US) and the like, who themselves were avid hunters. The first national parks were created to preserve wild game for sport.

In 1907 William Hornaday (largely credited with saving the American Bison and Alaskan fur seal from extinction) wrote that:“the great mass of worth-while sportsmen are true protectors and conservators, who sincerely desire the perpetuation of game and hunting sport, and the conservation of the rights of posterity therein”.

It is true that these men and these ideas are from another generation, and that conservation has progressed since then. However there is still the argument that well-regulated trophy hunting can provide net positive conservation benefits.

More than 18,500 hunters, mainly from the USA and Europe, visit Sub-Saharan countries each year, generating annual gross revenues of at least US$201 million (Lindsey et al., 2007). Take Lion hunting as an example. It generates significant returns ($60000 to $120,000 per lion hunt,) and is conducted over vast areas where ecotourism is often unviable. Quotas exist to prevent overexploitation, and supposedly only mature males, unattached to prides are targeted.

Removing the EU and US markets for lion hunting would likely result in a significant drop in the price of lion hunts and could make it difficult for operators to sell lion hunting safaris. Such changes would render trophy hunting less viable in many areas, and in extreme cases could result in a conversion to less conservation-compatible land uses such as agriculture and pastoralism. In Kenya, where trophy hunting has been banned since 1977, for example, protected areas now lack the buffers that are provided by hunting blocks in many other African countries, and wildlife populations have declined by 60–70% since the hunting ban. While it is not possible to determine whether, or to what extent, the trophy hunting ban contributed to negative wildlife population trends, the prohibition certainly failed to improve the conservation status of wildlife (including lions) in Kenya (Lindsey 2013). Furthermore, despite Lion populations being in decline on the whole, Trophy hunting takes place on private land in regions of high lion densities. If income is not generated through hunting, then poor local farmers – not necessarily the rich land owners- may be less tolerate of lions (or other game) leading to their killing anyway.

However, there is evidence that suggests that like ecotourism, trophy hunting actually adds very little to the income of the local communities. Moreover, age restrictions and quotas are often ignored and overexploitation may result.  Whether or not trophy hunting may be a viable – if ugly – conservation tool requires further research, and perhaps much greater regulation. However when thinking about demonising individuals who choose to hunt – legally – I think the conservationist should appreciate that outrage is not argument.  I believe this extract from a recent article in the Guardian by Tauriq Moosa is worth consideration

“When people say it’s “morally wrong to kill animals, regardless of practical considerations”, one must ask what that means: Saying “morally” before “wrong” doesn’t tell us anything. Right and wrong are conclusions, not the beginning of a position. Disgust doesn’t negate moral agreement: I am “disgusted” by hunting, but I’m uncertain that it’s actually always wrong. It could be right – given certain scenarios, such as it actually benefitting the environment, reducing suffering (since animals aren’t forced to die painfully with ethical hunting practises as they might with natural predation or illegal poaching, for example), and so on. Situations are complicated more than feelings allow. Disliking doesn’t mean opposing: it means merely disliking. By always maintaining a sense of uncertainty in moral claims, it can help prevent solidifying into a stance that sees people threatening others, like Melissa Bachman. Preventing moral certainty is as important a goal as preventing the suffering of creatures. This case of outrage is a good example of where so many fail.”

I don’t like hunting. But we must be realistic and appreciate that in our capitalist world everything has a price. If well managed trophy hunting estates can contribute to the conservation of Africa’s big game than so be it (although I would urge for greater study to validate this).

I’d rather see a picture of a dead lion every so often than never seeing one again at all.


About theNatSci

Cambridge Natural Scientist.
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