Trophy hunting: A new front opens in the War of Words

International public opinion is increasingly turning against trophy hunting, says the writer. (Photo: Nel Botha / Pixabay)

By Andreas Wilson-Späth - DM - 31 October 2019

The trophy hunting lobby and its ideological hangers-on will do whatever they can to defend the right of members to shoot wild animals and display their stuffed carcasses.

Using the pages of one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, a group of authors have recently suggested that trophy hunting in Africa, while perhaps repugnant, is a necessary evil without which wildlife conversation efforts are doomed.

Their claims are flawed, poorly substantiated and dangerous. Most tellingly, their credibility is diminished by their association with the international hunting lobby itself.

In a letter published in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr Amy Dickman, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford, four co-authors (Rosie Cooney, Paul J Johnson, Maxi Pia Louis and Dilys Roe) and 128 signatories, argue that hunting wild African animals for trophies plays an important role in their survival. They contend that restricting the export and import of hunting trophies has a detrimental effect on wildlife conservation.

The authors suggest that trophy hunting promotes wildlife biodiversity, significantly promotes the protection of habitats for wild animal populations that would otherwise be used for other purposes, such as farming, and benefits impoverished local communities financially.

They tell us that they themselves actually dislike the very concept of trophy hunting, but that Africa’s conservation challenge simply cannot be solved without it. They would have us believe that there is no long-term future for Africa’s wildlife without the benevolent bullets of trophy hunters.

The trouble is that the arguments presented by Dickman and her colleagues have repeatedly been debunked.

Many ecologists believe that there is little or no actual conservation value in trophy hunting and that the “sport” has detrimental effects on the genetic viability of mammal populations in the wild.

Despite many hand-waving protestations from the hunting lobby to the contrary, there are clear indications from across Africa that trophy hunting provides precious little in the way of economic support for local rural communities, especially at the household level. Instead, most of the profits end up in the pockets of domestic elites and foreign investors.

In a critique of Dickman et al’s letter, economist Ross Harvey illustrates the fallacy of their contention by pointing to the example of Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, much of which has been carved up into hunting concessions.

The result?

“The surrounding communities received hardly any benefits and elephants were decimated over a five-year period between 2009 and 2014.”

While a casual reading of Dickman et al’s letter may have convinced many people of the veracity of its content, there are a number of troubling issues that should have them questioning the intentions of the authors.

Publishing the piece in Science, one of the top academic journals in the world, and having it co-signed by no fewer than 128 signatories, creates the impression that there is widespread scientific consensus on the matter. As such, the authors’ discredited arguments were picked up and disseminated to a much larger audience by commercial media outlets, including the BBC.

The reality is, however, that such a consensus does not exist. In fact, a large number of conservation experts do not share Dickman et al’s confidence in the benefits of trophy hunting.

This much became clear when a subsequent edition of Science carried no fewer than six rebuttal letters, one of which included 56 and another 71 signatories in addition to the main authors.

Their critics show that Dickman and her co-authors used evidence that was “weak” and “selective”, and that they failed to provide factual data to prove that trophy hunting is beneficial to either conservation or local communities.

In the words of the University of Queensland’s Dr Mucha Mkono, a co-author of one of the rebuttal letters, “trophy hunting is not the long-term solution to Africa’s wildlife conservation challenges”.

“Responsible governance, characterised by accountability, rigorous, evidence-based policies and actions, and appreciation of wildlife value beyond the economic, is.”

The timing of the publication of Dickman et al’s letter should be suspicious to the astute reader as it comes at a strategically critical time for the trophy hunting industry.

Lawmakers in Europe and the US have been considering bans on the import of hunting trophies. Just four days after the controversial letter appeared in print, the so-called CECIL Act (Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act) was introduced in the US Congress.

Named after Cecil, a much-liked Zimbabwean male lion controversially killed by an American trophy hunter in 2015, this piece of legislation would, if enacted, restrict the importation of sport-hunted trophies into the US.

That alone establishes the CECIL Act as a major thorn in the side of the trophy hunting lobby, but what makes it even more significant is that it mandates a formal government investigation into “the effectiveness of trophy hunting in supporting international wildlife conservation efforts”, a study that would expose one of the industry’s most repeated arguments as a fallacy.

Supporters of trophy hunting in the US have been hard at work opposing the CECIL Act and given the timing and content of the contentious letter, it is difficult not to consider it as a part of this larger campaign.

Soon after the Dickman et al letter appeared in Science, it became apparent that the people who penned it may have been motivated by more than science.

Harvey notes that some of the 128 signatories “are not scientists by any stretch of the imagination — some lack credentials and some have a vested interest in the trophy hunting industry”.

As it turns out, four of the five main authors have had financial links to the trophy hunting industry in the past, including support from the Dallas Safari Club and Safari Club International. These are among the world’s most uncompromising and influential supporters of trophy hunting and their destructive impact on populations of African wildlife is well documented.

The editor-in-chief of Science, Jeremy Berg, has acknowledged that at the time the Dickman et al letter was published, the journal did not require authors to disclose any conflicts of interest. They have since done so in an addendum and the journal’s policy in this regard is “under revision”.

The authors’ reluctance to reveal their connections to the industry lends credence to the view that their piece is little more than a marketing effort disguised as a serious scientific contribution.

In their attempts to convince readers that trophy hunting is an unfortunate but indispensable conservation tool, they appear to wilfully ignore existing and viable alternatives, a number of examples of which are showcased by the authors of the rebuttal letters.

The reality is this: trophy hunting is an indulgence for a global minority of super-rich individuals and the only way in which it can be justified is by erecting pseudo-scientific arguments suggesting that it is somehow beneficial.

International public opinion is increasingly turning against this practice, recognising it for what it is: a cruel and unnecessary evil.

Threatened by this situation, the trophy hunting lobby and its ideological hangers-on will do whatever it can to defend the right of its members to shoot wild animals and display their stuffed carcasses.

In these Trumpian, post-truth times, this frequently means spinning lies and misrepresentations into seemingly rational and reasonable arguments. The letter by Dickman et al should be interpreted in this light.

(*) Author

Andreas Wilson-Späth is a part-time freelance writer and ex-geologist who lives and works in Cape Town. This article was provided by the Conservation Action Trust.


Initiative by SATSA



There has been an interesting and positive development in the South African tourism industry. SATSA, the South African tourist Association has launched a guide for tour operators and tourists to evaluate captive wildlife interactions.

The excellent and well researched guide can be downloaded here:

This guide will enable foreign and local visitors who wish to interact with animals, tour operators and others to make informed decisions that support responsible tourism in South Africa.

There is a visual guide in the form of a line in the sand, a curve going from red through orange to green. Those facilities that fall in the red category should be avoided and the line of acceptability progresses through orange to green, which includes genuine ethical establishments such as rehab centres and sanctuaries.

This is a wonderful initiative and all involved should be complemented.

I see two problems with the proper implementation of this guide:
First, lion farmers are very astute and convincing to pose as genuine sanctuaries. Only someone experienced in animal welfare and conservation in South Africa would be able to separate the good from the bad especially since there are often shades of grey.

Second, the guide establishes an excellent system for raising awareness and making better informed decisions on which facilities to support and which to avoid. But it raises the question of how conservationists and animal lovers are going to move from being better informed to having the decision made for them by some kind of certification process. 
There is clearly a need for an accreditation process in which knowledgeable inspectors could decide whether a facility should be promoted by SATSA, or not.

Notwithstanding, this is a praiseworthy step in the right direction for promoting responsible tourism and giving tourists the power to promote ethical treatment of animals in their spending of tourist money. Well done SATSA.


SIGN: Pass the ProTECT Act To Ban Barbaric Trophy Hunting in the US

SIGN: Pass the ProTECT Act To Ban Barbaric Trophy Hunting in the US

PETITION TARGET: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

More than 125,000 animals are murdered, hacked apart, and imported every year by American trophy hunters. Elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, and leopards are stalked in the wild and slaughtered with guns, knives, or arrows for entertainment. Others are bred in captivity and given no chance to escape. Their lives end in pain and terror. Hunters then turn their tusks, heads, hides, and, at times, entire bodies into sick souvenirs commemorating the thrill of the hunt and the joy of the kill.

The Prohibiting Threatened and Endangered Creature Trophies (ProTECT) Act would help end the hunting of species classified as endangered and threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The bill from Representatives Ted W. Lieu (D-CA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Peter King (R-NY) would end the permits allowing canned hunting within the States and the import of trophy items from animals on the list.

Supporters of trophy hunting claim that it helps control populations and fuel local economies, but science widely disproves these arguments. This gruesome sport is detrimental to the survival of our most at-risk species as the targeted animals are often the strongest and largest and have the best genes.

We must use our voices to tell Congress to treat this issue with the gravity it deserves and protect these animals from the horrors of this cruel sport. Sign the petition to urge the House and Senate leaders to support this bill and help put an end to trophy hunting.



Moral Objections To Trophy Hunting Are Not At Odds With Science

By  - 30. October 2019

A pro-trophy hunting letter published in Science magazine caused quite the stir in the wildlife conservation community. Scientists questioned the integrity of the letter and fired back with rebuttals providing counter arguments. These recent events confirm what one lion researcher claimed for years, corruption is ripe in the trophy hunting industry and it can negatively affect wildlife populations. Opposition to trophy hunting isn’t just about morality, its also about science.

Craig Packer spent thirty-five years studying lions in Tanzania under the Serengeti Lion Project. He learned quite a bit in his years of research including female preference for males with darker manes and canine distemper’s impact on lion populations. But his biggest discovery ultimately led to him being banned from the country.

Tanzania holds more lions than any other African nation even though numbers have declined significantly over the past few decades. Habitat degradation, prey loss, and retaliatory killings are commonly blamed for decimated lion populations. However, Packer’s studies concluded there was another threat to lions, trophy hunting.

In his 2010 paper, Effects of Trophy Hunting on Lion and Leopard Populations in Tanzania, Packer demonstrated how areas with the highest levels of population decline corresponded with the highest levels of trophy hunting. His research showed lion hunting was unsustainable and his personal experiences in the country gave him insight to the corruption between government officials and industry leaders. He sounded the alarm and called for changes in an attempt to save what remained of the country’s lion population.

At this point, it’s important to note Packer is not anti-hunting. He thinks it can be done sustainably, it’s just that most of the time it isn’t. But calling for trophy hunting reform was the demise of Packer’s studies in Tanzania. He was banned from the country in 2014 after the government accused him of tarnishing their reputation thanks to his criticism of the industry.

Packer wasn’t the only one with scientific evidence showing the negative impacts of trophy hunting on lion populations in Tanzania. A study published in 2016 by Henry Brink of the Selous Lion Project, Sustainability and Long Term-Tenure: Lion Trophy Hunting in Tanzania, concluded the same thing. Population declines were steepest where lions were hunted the most.

Brink’s study found the hunting blocks with the most unsustainable harvests were under short-term leases. Short-term leases were also noted to provide more government revenue than their long-term counterparts. Seems like a perfect opportunity to make money through unsustainable exploitation of wildlife, right?

Trophy hunting is a business model that only works if it makes money, and there’s going to be corruption wherever there is money to be made. In a cruel stab to the heart, Packer was replaced with researchers financed by Safari Club International, an organization widely known to favor the hunting industry over wildlife conservation. Surely, it’s understandable if you view this act as an admission of guilt from Tanzanian officials.

Packer’s calls for reform of a corrupt industry fit in nicely with the latest news coming from Science magazine. In a letter signed by many scientists and published at the end of August 2019, Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity, Amy Dickman outlines how trophy hunting positively impacts wildlife conservation. Policies which might limit the scope of trophy hunting, even well-meaning, could have devastating effects on what little remains of wildlife.

There’s a small issue with Dickman’s claims though, as pointed out by another contingent of scientists. Several authors of that pro-trophy hunting letter have ties to the hunting industry. For instance, Dickman is the Director of the Ruaha Carnivore Project which just so happens to have received funding from pro-hunting organizations such as, you guessed it, Safari Club International.

Science magazine published rebuttals last week which both criticized the integrity of the pro-trophy hunting letter and provided alternative methods to benefit wildlife conservation. Even if you support trophy hunting on the basis the negative effects outweigh the positives, its concerning to see industry ties potentially fueling scientific publications. Or, in Packer’s case, funding field research.

A key take-away here is, yes, there is scientific opposition to trophy hunting. There is no shame opposing trophy hunting from a moral perspective but that doesn’t mean you have to be labeled as an unscientific fool. The debate surrounding trophy hunting isn’t morality versus science. There is science supporting and opposing trophy hunting as a conservation tool but it’s important to understand who benefits most on both sides of the argument.

Trophy hunting: Insufficient evidence, A. Treves

Trophy hunting: Values inform policy, Chelsea Batavia

Trophy hunting: Broaden the debate, Hans Bauer

Trophy hunting: Role of consequentialism, Guillaume Chapron

Trophy hunting: Bans create opening for change, Katarzyna Nowak