Trophy Hunting: is it OK if we just shoot the old ones?
"This is sick! What are you gonna use a dead giraffe for?" was one of the comments 12 year-old hunter Aryanna Gourdin received on her facebook page after posting photos of herself with a dead giraffe from her hunt in South Africa. She bit back in defense "Hunting is a major part of wildlife conservation, and this bull was a danger to the others and will provide food for several orphanages and villages in the area!" Bold claims!
Is she right though, does trophy hunting play a role in wildlife conservation?
Funds generated by hunters can act as an incentive to conserve animals on large areas of community or private lands which could otherwise be used for agriculture or development. Funds can also help towards law enforcement and provide community benefits.
But couldn't wildlife tourism just do the same? Yes and no, tourism does play a economic role, but only later in a parks life when animal populations are booming. Parks often rely on funds from hunting in early stages to get established. And whilst it is true that an elephant is worth more alive than dead there are some areas in Africa that are simply not suitable for tourism, due to low wildlife populations, political instability or unphotogenic landscapes, these areas sometimes rely on trophy hunting for economic gain.
Still the industry has faced scrutiny over the use of trophy hunting as a conservation management tool. We all remember Cecil, the radio collared king of the jungle, who was illegally shot back in 2015. This event sparked many to question the integrity of hunting practices, major airlines signed up and refused to carry trophies of the 'Big Five', and concerns over declining lion populations led Australia and France to ban lion trophy imports altogether.
Today there are as few as 20,000 wild lions left in in the world (including the single population of Asiatic lions in India), compared to the 450'000 in the 1940s. Lions are now (as of late 2015) listed as 'Endangered on the US Endangered Species Act. This decline is not all because of trophy hunting, it is mostly to do with human expansion and human wildlife conflict - which is what perhaps we should be focusing on. However, trophy hunting is still a hugely important issue and one that gets facts and opinions tossed ferociously into bias arguments. Really though, if you are going to shoot an animal for fun, it should be sustainable.
Is the solution Age Based Hunting?
If properly implemented age based hunting could work. Killing a lion under the age of 5, before they have raised a litter of cubs to maturity, could have disastrous impacts for a pride due to infanticide. A study from 2016 proposes that only male lions (never female) over the age of 7 should be hunted, this age was agreed upon due to the overestimation by hunters of a lions age. It is extremely difficult to age a lion, particularly through the scope of a rifle, because they have no one age dependent defining phenotypic characteristic, a hunter must judge together the colour of the nose, length of the mane, facial scarring and tooth colour before they get a little trigger happy, and even then not all African lions across the continent are the same.
Rigorous training is required before a hunting license is issued and this cannot be stressed enough, the success of age-based hunting is dependent on a hunters ability to accurately age a target.
Unfortunately where there is money to be made lions will be over-exploited, hunting quotas will be broken and training rules will not be followed. Poorly managed hunting, like that reported in Zambia, and Tanzania can have devastating effects on lion populations; reducing genetic variation, increasing stress levels and changing animal behavior, all resulting in the lion's demise. This dodgy practice is also disastrous to local communities; over time reducing the opportunities for future wildlife-based tourism, increasing the human impacts of land conversion and driving further species decline from bushmeat poaching.
The thirst for blood:
With more people interested in hunting, and fewer lions in the wild, of course an industry has been built to capitalize on this. The negative attitudes towards hunting and the issues many conservationists and animal welfare activists face do not stem from traditional, sustainable hunting practices but from a far more bloodthirsty operation. Canned Hunting in South Africa sees intensively bread lions and some other wild animals in terrible conditions, released into enclosed areas, shot and exploited for their bones and body parts which are then sold into illicit markets. Absolutely no hunting skills are required whatsoever.
Like all wildlife controversies, education and clarity is needed to understand the best practices. Trophy hunting has to be monitored effectively and quotas have to be stuck to or else it is in danger of becoming a failed conservation practice, one that could be a huge potential success for wildlife and people.