William, Duke of Cambridge, second in line to the British throne, likes to go deer stalking. It must be a class thing. Until the 19th century, deer stalking – what in the US is called “hunting” – was largely confined to the ruling family and members of the landed aristocracy, so in the UK it represents the class system.
The US, on the other hand, is unique in that the right to hunt on public lands is, for the time being, an opportunity available to all who apply for a hunting license. To non-Americans, that access is one of the clearest indicators that the US is a democracy.
A public furore erupted when William featured as guest of honour at an unprecedented gathering of world wildlife agencies in London, which met in order to combat the acute global problem of poaching endangered animals for sale on the black market. The illegal taking of elephants, tigers and rhinos has only accelerated as their populations near functional extinction, and their trade has become so profitable that organised criminals are now joining in. The US is also joining this effort to reshape legal frameworks to better attack the problem.
The problem is that William also spent last weekend stalking deer and wild boar in Spain, drawing howls of protest from anti-hunting groups. Their basic argument seemed identical to the public backlash against culling Marius the Giraffe, the most recent animal outrage. In sum: only soulless bastards could take a life so cute. Humans are here to protect animals, so if we kill the ones we can see, what perfidies happen where no-one is watching?
Then why did Jane Goodall, high priestess of wildlife conservation and nobody’s political stooge, defend William? Because hunting is not poaching. Robin Hood and his Merry Men were outlaws because they were poaching game in the King’s Forest, a forest that only the King and favoured lords were allowed to hunt. Being poor and hungry was no excuse for breaking the law. Hunting is lawful; poaching is not.
Only species that exist in abundant quantities are legally hunted in every country. That hunting involves political power is unquestionable, but it is only recently that animal rights have become a factor in debates that used to revolve around class-based resentment that only aristocrats got to eat venison. And the reasons for the turn to animal rights is as good as any: it’s because wildlife is rapidly disappearing from the planet, so every public pet, every Knut the Polar Bear, Marius the Giraffe, and Shrek the Sheep becomes an icon for all the other mammals being bullied out of existence.
The disappearance of wildlife is a fact, not a political debate. It is also a fact that hunting and conservation have gone together since long before the concepts of “environmentalism” and “conservation” existed, since the rulers who were entitled to hunt quickly realized that you can’t hunt what is not there.
In the US, Teddy Roosevelt inaugurated the first national conservation programs precisely because he was a big game hunter, and because he understood that wildlife requires a true wilderness. Instead of yelling at William for being a prince and fighting to save wildlife, animal rights groups should listen to Goodall and focus their anger at the economic systems and first world privileges that enable poaching in the first place. Perhaps then, a few years from now, wild lions will be able to eat wild giraffes where no one can see, and it it will be as nature intended: without us watching.