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Can hunting help conservation?



Killing animals in the name of conservation? The very sentence is rife with contradiction. How can killing an animal for sport, especially an endangered one, not be contradictory to the goal of ensuring the survival of species?

The hunting industry would have you believe that it funds conservation - that without hunting, conservation would not be viable.

Rhinos mating

Meanwhile, conservationists argue that ecotourism provides far more funding for conservation than hunting - after all, an elephant can be ‘shot’ many times with a camera, providing far more income-generating opportunities and jobs.

Further clouding the issue are the emotional, knee-jerk reactions of people disgusted by seeing animal cruelty, animal rights activists and of course, hunting lobbies -whose primary purpose is to ensure that the right to hunt remains sacrosanct.

But there is far more to this issue than money. There is real murkiness in the information we are given; from ambiguity in hunting regulations to the misuse of important terminology, namely cropping, culling and population control - concepts which seem to have become synonymous with hunting.

With such vested interests, it's really difficult to determine whether or not there really is any measurable conservation benefit to hunting.

I personally dislike hunting, but it is not my aim to dismiss the hunting industry altogether without examining the facts. Could there be any circumstances where hunting is a necessary evil?

Can Hunting help Conservation: The need for Population Control

The hunting industry argues that it helps control animal numbers. The need for population control in South Africa is a real one given that the majority of “wild”, habitats are managed areas of land called game reserves and national parks.

These defined areas vary greatly in size, but they are all limited by fences. These fences mean that migration in and out of an area is impossible for most species and if their population numbers grow too large, they can over-exploit resources causing damage and habitat degradation.

The most well-known example of this is the elephants in Kruger National Park, whose numbers have grown to such an extent that there is huge concern about their impact on the environment.

elephant family

There are also various opinions as to how to manage the situation, from expanding the reach of the park to taking the fences down altogether, or employing culling techniques.

Can Hunting help Conservation: Culling or Cropping

Culling is a difficult and complex practice, particularly where elephants are concerned. Unlike cropping, where selected individuals are removed from a population at night with a silencer on the rifle (such as old or sick individuals, largely antelope), in culling entire family groups are removed.

This method has to be used with elephants because their intelligence level makes it impossible to remove selected animals without causing distress to the rest of the herd, who will obviously mourn the loss of family members.

Therefore, when elephant populations are culled, it is a brutal, almost military-like operation, where only skilled people shoot out entire families from a helicopter with very limited people on the ground (usually no more than three); there are no silencers on rifles and no healthy individuals are spared.

baby elephant sits on baby elephant

Each and every member of the group is summarily executed until none remain. Even though it sounds horrendous, no one can fully comprehend such an operation unless they have been directly involved with it.

The reason I have gone into some detail about this subject is because I have heard people who don’t understand culling saying: "how great it is that foreigners come over to hunt animals, because they pay lots of money to do it and it controls population numbers".

However, even after researching it, I cannot find any supporting information that verifies that a person can pay to take part in such an operation (please feel free to let me know if you have any facts to support this).

Large scale population control can only be executed by highly skilled professionals who are employed (not paid) to perform a vicious, but often-necessary service to ensure the health of an ecosystem.

Ultimately, the value in culling lies in a lessened impact on the enivornment - less money has to be spent on fixing the damage caused by excess animals degrading an ecosystem, which means the savings can be redirected elsewhere (assuming proper management is in place).

Much as people don’t like the idea of culling, it is clear to see that there are some conservation benefits to it - but certainly not any provided by hunters.

Canned Hunting

Even further removed from this is the sickening practice of canned hunting. Canned hunting is illegal, but worryingly still takes place. It occurs when an animal (characteristically a lion) is bred in captivity, often hand-raised for tourists to play with - and it grows up liking humans.

When it is too big and dangerous for human interaction, these animals are released into a confined areas and then shot, without any real hope of escape or opportunity to contribute to an ecosystem.

The below video, courtesy of the Guardian vividly shows hand-reared lions hunted in a fenced enclosure by canned hunters - and provides more information on this issue.


Though wild lions are supposedly protected by canned hunting, but even with an increase in farms where captive lions instead of wild ones are shot, wild lion populations have continued to decrease.

Hunting damages the Gene Pool

If a game farm relies solely on hunting - with no natural migration because of fences and slower natural breeding rates, all their animals would soon be depleted.

Therefore, animals have to be either bought or bred in a controlled environment so that they can be released or translocated onto the reserve for prospective hunters to shoot.

This drastically contradicts the idea of population control as animals are being bred and released for the purpose of hunting. Not only can it create more animals than an ecosystem can cope with, under certain circumstances, it could also damage the genetic viability of a population.

Naturally, trophy hunters also want the best trophy for their collection; an impressive animal that will look good on their wall. However, it can be assumed that individuals with strong physical characteristics possess strong genes.

If these individuals are hunted in an unregulated way, it can be severely damaging to the strength of a population because healthy, virulent genes are being removed from a wild gene pool, giving weaker individuals breeding opportunities they would not normally get.

Furthermore, hunters will pay more to shoot a rare animal such as golden wildebeest⁵ or white impala. No different to a regular impala, a white impala simply has the recessive gene allele, that when expressed in the animal, produces a different coat colour, similar to red hair in humans.

In order to produce as many (more valuable) white impalas as possible, controlled breeding takes place with individuals that possess the allele for a white coat.

This continued selective breeding can result in large numbers of animals that are very closely related. If these individuals are then released onto reserves, their lack of genetic diversity could propagate further in a wild or wild-managed environment.

Can Hunting help Conservation: Land Restoration

Hunting can help ensure land conservation on a more immediate time scale, preventing the alternative of commercial farming, which has its own set of environmental issues (and that's another article).

Attending a lecture at Pretoria Zoo a few years ago, the lecturer described how the conservation industry is moving away from traditional ideas of species preservation and onto land or ecosystem conservation - without adequate land to sustain whole ecosystems, our efforts to save individual species won’t be effective.

Something which works hand-in-hand with land conservation is top down regulation. Predators are top of the food chain and as such require a healthy ecosystem to sustain them. In turn, they help ensure ecosystem health.

By aiming to conserve a top predator, there are environmental benefits - if an ecosystem can support such an animal, it implies that it must be in a healthy state.

In hunting. a limited number of permits for hunting predators are issued per year (assuming this is adequately regulated).

However due to their importance in ecosystems and the fact that their meat is not used for food, practically, I see no reason to hunt predators at all.

From an emotional perspective, there was a global outcry against Melissa Bachman, who was famously portrayed posing next to the carcass an African lion.

I do wonder whether the same level of anguish would have been expressed had she been seen next to a Springbok or an Impala carcass.

Personally I feel any kind of trophy hunting is abhorrent (regardless of the species in the photograph) and I will never understand the mentality of people who kill living creatures for this kind of "sport".

Hunting for Trophies or for Food

In discussions of internationals (or even locals) paying to shoot an animal, people are usually talking about trophy hunting or in some cases, hunting for the pot.

If people are going to eat meat, I don't see hunting for food as any worse than commercial farming and it's certainly better than factory farming.

However, on some privately owned farms, specifically marketed for hunting, animals aren’t necessarily hunted on a "when needed basis".

What I mean by "when needed", is that the land owner would wait until the population of a given species gets too high and then offer hunting permits to control it.

This would mean that he/she would have to rely on ecotourism as well as hunting to survive financially. While this may be viable in commercial areas where there are more tourists, in less popular tourist areas, game farms have to rely purely on hunting to survive - which means that animals would be hunted purely for the sake of profit.

Trophy hunters would also have you believe that controlled trophy hunting does not harm populations. In the case of African lions, the steepest declines in lion population numbers occur in African countries with the highest hunting intensity, illustrating the unsustainability of the practice.

"Trophy hunting is driving the African lion closer to extinction," said Teresa Telecky, director of the Humane Society International. "More than 560 wild lions are killed every year in Africa by international trophy hunters".

Trophy Hunting a smokescreen for Poachers

Then there's the issue of trophy hunts being used as cover for poaching. According to a report “The Myth of Trophy Hunting” by Save African Animals, “Opening up even a limited legal trade creates a smokescreen for poachers which is almost impossible to police.

Prior to 1986, when the whaling moratorium was introduced, legal quotas were widely used as cover for poaching, driving some species near to extinction. The same is happening with trophy hunting of endangered species.”

Hunting Legislation

The last issues I want to address concern the hunting legislation itself and the fact that it is full of ambiguity. To mention each unclear point would be exhaustive, so I will stick with two examples I find particularly glaring.

Firstly, the legislation stipulates “no hunting using a motorised vehicle except for tracking an animal where the hunt takes place over long ranges”. In theory this idea seems fair, but there is absolutely no minimum limit set as to what actually constitutes a long range.

It may seem like common sense, but people’s idea of what a long range is can vary dramatically and therefore animals which are supposed to be protected by this regulation fall through the cracks. A good example of this would be a Zebra, which are very water-dependent species and thus would not normally be found far from water.

In one study, they were recorded to have home ranges varying between 49 - 566 sq. km⁹. Hypothetically, 566 sq. km could be considered a large home range, but what about the zebra(s) at the other end of the scale whose home ranges were closer to 49 sq. km?

Because these individuals naturally range over a smaller area, in theory they would be less likely to require a long range hunt. I know there are selection criteria for permits, but I doubt if individual home range size or animal movement is one of them and thus the rule about not hunting wide-ranging species from a vehicle cannot be properly enforced.

Another problem is that the use of a vehicle to get close to an animal in the first place, could sufficiently spook it to move over a longer than usual range and thus such a hunt could happen as a product of the vehicle being used, rather than because the vehicle is necessary in the first place.

The murky world of Hunting Permits

Secondly, the regulation I find most shocking concerns hunting permits: "recognition will be given to hunters who are members of a 'recognised hunting organisation', however membership is not compulsory." This illustrates a huge area for better regulation within the industry.

Not only is there no clear definition of what constitutes a recognised hunting organisation, as stated above, being a member is not even compulsory. I may need to be corrected on this, but it seems logical that if people do not have to belong to a hunting organisation to obtain a permit, there may be gaps in reporting the kills that have actually been made i.e. a hunter has a permit for one waterbuck, but goes home with two carcasses for his freezer.

I was unfortunate to witness at least five buck being taken by two hunters in the space of two days at a private hunting lodge, presumably at the owner’s discretion.

5 buck, 2 days, one small farm? To me that seems excessive and I have to wonder if these hunters had permits for all these animals. If so, who issues them? And were they checked at the lodge? Where profits are involved, it's generally difficult to believe that rules are closely followed.

Is Ecotourism a viable alternative?

As discussed, one of the key arguments supporting the hunting industry is that it provides conservation benefits by managing and maintaining areas of land containing genetic biodiversity, and even directly supports conservation with donations.

However, if adequate fundraising or investment were directed towards these areas to help ensure effective ecotourism - it would negate the 'need' for hunting at all.

watching wildebeest from game vehicle

In fact, a recent study on the economic benefits of trophy hunting in Africa found that African countries and rural communities derive very little benefit from trophy hunting revenue. The study, authored by Economists at Large, discovered that only 3% of revenue reaches the rural communities where hunting occurs.

"The suggestion that trophy hunting plays a significant role in African economic development is misguided," said economist Rod Campbell, lead author of the study. "Revenues constitute only a fraction of a percent of GDP and almost none of that ever reaches rural communities."

xhosa huts,wild coast

According to Jeff Flocken, North American regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, "Non-consumptive nature tourism-like wildlife viewing and photo safaris - is a much greater contributor than trophy hunting to both conservation and the economy in Africa.

If trophy hunting and other threats continue depleting Africa's wildlife, then Africa's wildlife tourism will disappear. That is the real economic threat to the countries of Africa."

taking pic of elephant crossing in front of game vehicle

Meanwhile, in the USA it has been shown that ecotourism is twelve times more profitable than shooting bears and if the proper management is in place, there’s a very real possibility that this could apply to South Africa, even in currently “unpopular” tourist destinations.

Furthermore, any profit generated through well-managed ecotourism can go directly back into local conservation or sustainable community development - rather than into the back pocket of a wealthy land owner who could be foreign and would therefore take any profit back to his/her country of origin.

ecotourism community project

Ultimately, I think that there are huge areas for better regulation, more ethical practices and further progression towards ecotourism to educate people about living animals rather than how to kill them.

So instead of going to shoot big game, why not take the time to go appreciate wild animals in their natural state, and let the only shooting that happens be with your camera.

References/Further reading:

  1. Elephants to cull or not to cull that is the question: Kruger Park Times
  2. Too hungry, too destructive, too many: South Africa to begin elephant cull - The Guardian
  3. Lethal Management of Elephants: Rob Slotow
  4. Bear watching more profitable than bear hunting: CBC News
  5. Exotic Breeds: Kukuma Hunting Safaris
  6. Top-down Regulation of Ecosystems by Large Carnivores: The Rewilding Institute
  7. Canned hunting: the lions bred for slaughter - The Guardian
  8. New Rules for Hunting in South Africa: SA government's top-down regulations
  9. Home Range sizes for the zebra in Kruger National Park: Koedoe
  10. Conservation is good business: Common sense Canadian
  11. Trophy Hunting almost worthless according to new report: Wildlife Extra
  12. How much does trophy hunting really contribute to African communities - Economists at Large
  13. 5 Reasons Trophy Hunting is not Conservation - One Green Planet
  14. The Myth of Trophy Hunting as Conservation - Save African Animals

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