Trophy hunting, where animals with characteristics such as large antlers are legally hunted, and their meat usually eaten - is highly contested. While some argue it is unethical and delivers few benefits, others say it provides an important incentive for conserving threatened species and habitats by helping generate revenue for governments and local communities.
Restrictions on trophy hunting imports have been imposed in the US, Europe and Australia, while the UK recently announced that it would “ban imports from thousands of species … as part of a wider UK drive on international conservation”. As a professor of wildlife conservation with over 25 years’ field experience, I strongly believe that trophy hunting import bans are driven more by misinformation than the weight of scientific evidence, and risk increasing threats to wildlife and undermining local rights and livelihoods.
My colleague Hans Bauer recently argued the opposite case in The Conversation, supporting an import ban based on what he considers trophy hunting’s disappointing contributions to conservation and local development. Here’s why I’m not convinced.
A complex situation
Bauer cites alarming lion population collapses in West Africa to support trophy import bans. But for effective policy, we must understand the reasons behind these trends. The cited steep declines among lion populations in West African countries with trophy hunting could be taken to imply that trophy hunting was an important factor, but the 2011 paper referenced in the previous article attributed wildlife declines to poaching, habitat loss and disease. It never mentioned trophy hunting as a threat, but did say that it can help fund anti-poaching and wider management, as well as providing community benefits.
Bauer also uses another West African conservation area, the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) complex as another example of how he thinks trophy hunting has failed lions. But a 2016 study found that “the lion population was not significantly affected by hunting” in the region. The authors of this study also said: “An import embargo on lion trophies from the WAP would not be justified. It could ruin the incentive of local actors to conserve lions in hunting areas, and lead to a drastic reduction of lion range in West Africa.”
Even if the West African case example was clear-cut, which it is not, insights from one region are often not representative of elsewhere. With the proposed UK import ban purported to affect nearly 7,000 species (a baffling figure as there aren’t 7,000 species trophy hunted worldwide), it is crucial to consider the bigger picture. Campaigns to ban trophy hunting often raise the risk of extinction. But it seems no one can cite a single species for which trophy hunting is a major conservation threat. Far greater threats to lions include loss of habitat and prey, and conflict with people.
Just like photo-tourism, trophy hunting can help reduce those larger threats. Both businesses generate revenue from wildlife, which can incentivise wildlife and habitat conservation, help fund anti-poaching efforts and mitigate conflict between people and wildlife. Numerous case studies show the positive contributions of trophy hunting to conservation, including for rhinos, lions, argali, markhor, Marco Polo sheep and others. Hunting can also help support non-hunted species (including endangered ones) by contributing to wider habitat and species conservation.
Conservation costs and benefits from trophy hunting vary between locations and species. It can harm populations if poorly managed: if quotas are too high for example, or if females or younger males are hunted. It’s particularly worrying when hunting adds additional pressure to small, threatened populations. But it’s often possible to reduce those threats by restricting the age of animals killed, reducing quotas or instituting temporary bans.
But why take the risk? Why not ban trophy hunting and replace it with photo-tourism? The argument that trophy hunting has failed to deliver effective conservation could be levelled at photo-tourism just as strongly, if not more so, given how heavily it is promoted as a supposedly better option. Fewer than a third of African protected areas with lions (including photo-tourism and hunting areas) have managed to maintain lions at half the capacity the land could support. The underlying reason is a lack of funding. Even with photo-tourism, around 90% of African state-owned protected areas with lions are underfunded, meaning managers are unable to tackle major threats such as poaching, human-wildlife conflict or livestock encroachment.
Campaigners for trophy hunting bans have shared that an elephant is apparently “worth US$1.6 million” in its lifetime from photo-tourism: perhaps US$23,000 per elephant annually. With roughly 400,000 African elephants, that should equate to US$9.2 billion a year. Yet protected areas with lions (most of which overlap with elephants), receive combined management funding of only US$381 million annually. If any land use is making unmet promises, it’s photo-tourism.
The conservation business model is failing – this applies to photo-tourism, donor funding and trophy hunting. So, given the mismatch between expected and actual revenue, should photo safaris be banned? Most people would say no – that some revenue is better than none, and revenue streams should be increased, not diminished. The same conclusion holds for trophy hunting.
Crucially, Bauer offers no explanation for how bans would reverse wildlife decline. They won’t – without better, locally-accepted alternatives are ready to replace any benefits of hunting at the same scale. Those alternatives don’t appear ready, despite many areas without trophy hunting where they could be developed. Without viable alternatives, bans would only undermine local rights and accelerate the loss of wildlife.
Placing faith in international finance mechanisms to cover all the costs of conservation is overly optimistic; donors have failed to meet other commitments, such as helping developing countries adapt to climate change. Relying on countries like the UK to deliver full financing after bans seems unrealistic, while many community representatives are unimpressed that they should be forced to switch from legal, regulated, natural resource use to dependence on external funding.
Bans, including trophy import bans, will reduce revenue in hunting areas, making them less economically viable. Already, data from Tanzania highlights that operators giving up hunting areas is an emerging threat, with more illegal use in areas without active management. Bans risks increasing habitat loss and conflict with people – leading to more, and more horrible, wildlife killings.
If the UK hates trophy hunting, it should first ban it domestically, especially as it exports far more trophies (such as red deer antlers), than it imports. A recent poll found most Britons wouldn’t support import bans if they harmed wildlife or people. That should be respected when setting policy.
Any import bans should be carefully targeted smart bans to avoid unintended consequences: these would only permit imports if community and conservation benefits could be demonstrated.
Ultimately, Bauer and I both long for a future where conservation is effectively funded, including through finance mechanisms less reliant on hunting. Better alternatives will hopefully emerge over time, perhaps including wildlife bonds or biodiversity credits, where countries and communities are financially rewarded for maintaining their biodiversity. This is something I and many others are working on, but they are not yet available at scale and the market for them is uncertain.
But if those better alternatives emerge, they will naturally outcompete trophy hunting, so there is simply no need for bans – instead, gradual transitions would occur without the major risk of vacant hunting areas.
Until better, locally-desired alternatives do emerge, campaigns for bans risk intensifying threats to biodiversity, and sow harmful divisions among people who want wildlife to thrive. But, unlike many of the immense conservation challenges we currently face, this one can be reduced simply: by not supporting misguided bans which ignore the weight of conservation evidence and risk major harms for people and wildlife.