Trophy Hunting - A Wildlife Conservation Tool?

David Peddie
September 2014 (Reproduced September 2017)

Trophy hunting is a topic that has stirred passionate debate. Unfortunately, though, many of the comments made, and attitudes taken, by both opponents and proponents, frequently through social media, have not helped reach the pragmatic solutions needed for the successful conservation of African wildlife.

I have hunted and fished all my life. However, whether it was doves and pigeons taken with an airgun for lunch while on bicycle forays into the bush along the Deka River; crop raiding baboons in the maize fields of villages around Hwange town; impala and guineafowl for meat for my university digs taken off my uncle’s ranch; buffalo for staff rations and research, or elephant for management in Rhodesia / Zimbabwe National Parks, and even as an occasional Professional Guide helping guide safaris; I have tried to followed my father’s dictum of : “If you shoot it, you eat it - or give it to someone who needs the food”. Alright, the baboons did not make the dinner table, but the elephant meat fed the local villagers.

Elephant Meat to Villages
Save Valley Conservancy, Zimbabwe

Although hunting was an essential element in our evolution and is embedded in our genes, there are, at least in my opinion, some principles of “hunting” that should be borne in mind in todays world. If hunting is not part of the subsistence livelihood of a society; is not done for protection of life or livelihood, or for the restoration of ecosystems unbalanced by Man’s interference, then it should, at the very least, be conducted in a manner as closely aligned as possible with ancient subsistence hunting and a “fair chase” dictum. It should never, in any way, negatively affect the viability of the population of the quarry, nor its role in the ecosystem, and it should be undertaken without malice or misguided ego. If a hunt is not specifically for food, protection or ecological management, and is part of a commercial safari, then the hunter, if he / she is to connect with the wilderness, should adhere to these principles and participate in all facets of the experience, including processing and consuming the quarry.

Regrettably, it seems to me, that the concept of safari hunting has been widely degraded into a travesty of trophy collection, without morality, without respect for the quarry nor concern for the fate of the species hunted. That is, of course, a broad and serious generalisation, and those friends and colleagues who are both ethical Professional Hunters and committed conservationists know that. Nevertheless, a close inspection of the industry reveals that greed; the misguided demands of the trophy hunter for more and bigger, and endemic corruption make such ethical Professional Hunters (PH) and ecologically sound safari hunting operations, something of an exception rather than the rule.

There is evidence, obviously mostly anecdotal and unrecorded, of clients shooting from vehicles; of the PH shooting animals, and following up wounded animals for clients; of clients insisting on shooting more than one animal of the same species, looking for a trophy big enough to be listed in the record books; of operators shooting animals over or outside the quota; of baiting and calling predators along the boundaries of protected areas, including National Parks, to lure them to where they may be “legitimately” shot. The list goes on, but perhaps two of the worst developments have been canned hunting - mainly in South Africa - and the corruption of some national wildlife protection agencies into allowing unscrupulous operators to trophy hunt in National Parks under the guise of ration hunts or management (culling) hunts.

A portion of the blame for the evolution of the modern trophy collector and the trophy collection safari - accepting a distinction between a safari hunt and a trophy hunt - lies with the big American “Safari Clubs”. Although these Clubs raise and invest large sums of money for conservation (where and how those funds are applied is also a matter for discussion), the practice of rewarding and glorifying those members of the Club who shoot the most and shoot the biggest, panders to a group of people, many of whom seem to have lost perspective, who primarily pursue the satisfaction of a perverse ego.

One fallacy put forward by the Clubs is that the biggest and most impressive animals are those which are always too old and past their prime to contribute to the reproductive health and social structure of a population. For some species, like sable antelope and buffalo, the horns of the oldest animals have often been worn down, while those of animals in their prime are at their longest and most impressive. Social behaviour is also not considered when, using sable as an example again, dominant bulls are regularly shot and the remaining bulls have to continually fight for dominance to replace them - with possible consequences for reproduction. 

The most impressive male lion with a large and spectacular mane is also often the animal in his prime and in control of a pride. Death not only takes him out of the gene pool, but also results in his young cubs being killed by the replacement pride male. This, of course, takes place naturally when he is usurped, but at the appropriate time, and in populations influenced more by habitat and prey availability, than by poorly selective trophy hunting. It also goes against the dictum of “if you shoot it, use it”.

Likewise, many of the big elephant tuskers are actively breeding, and their removal from the population can be both socially disruptive and genetically depleting. As a result of both trophy hunting and poaching, there are few remaining big tuskers. These tuskers are, especially in light of the current poaching epidemic, likely to have a greater long term financial value alive through photographic tourism; tourism marketing and conservation fund raising than that of a one-off trophy hunt - not to mention the impact of their genes and their social influence.

So can commercial safari hunting be a part of wildlife conservation efforts? The answer is yes, but with a number of clear provisos.

The first is that the “trophy hunting clubs” need to change their criteria of what constitutes a successful African hunting safari. The clear ethical norms of the hunt, which already exist but seem to have been corrupted, need to be reinstated and the wilderness experience, the chase, the effort, and the story need to become the objective, not the number or size of heads on a wall. The quarry needs respect and the hunter needs to desire the whole experience of the wilderness, not the “trophy”.

Trophy Collection
Six buffalo? A Roan?
Matetsi, Zimbabwe

Secondly, the trophy hunting industry needs to be cleaned up. Rogue operators abusing the wildlife resource and jeopardising the industry’s validity in southern Africa, need to be named, shamed and put out of business by the relevant conservation authorities.

Thirdly, some of the wildlife management authorities need to redevelop the expertise they once had in managing hunting safari areas, including their research and monitoring capacity, and to apply strict control over quotas and operators. 

Fourthly, those same authorities need to think carefully about where they use safari hunting as part of their wildlife conservation strategy. Formally protected areas of high wildlife diversity and density, and which are easily accessible, are, obviously more suited to, and financially more lucrative as, wildlife viewing and multiple use areas. All forms of wildlife management, however, place high demands on expertise and operational funding.

Finally, and critically for the future of wildlife and wild areas, the whole approach to the distribution of benefits - financial, employment and indirect - to rural communities living in, or adjacent to, wildlife areas, including State commercial safari hunting areas, needs to be reviewed. It is essential that the flow of benefits to these communities is equitable and transparent, if the areas are to be retained with wildlife as a principle land use, and the hunting industry is to truly live up to its claim of contributing to wildlife conservation.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the northwest Matabeleland complex of National Parks, Safari Areas, Forestry Reserves and communal lands lends itself to a whole new land-use planning model that shifts the emphasis on trophy hunting in the Matetsi and Deka Safari Areas and the Kazuma, Fuller and Panda-Masuie Forest Reserves into game viewing and wildlife management in association with Victoria Falls. All the while developing new options for the adjacent communal lands to benefit from these formally protected areas. There is a realistic opportunity, in conjunction with State protected areas, to incorporate wildlife management, commercial safari hunting and game viewing into a diverse, rural socio-economic development model, where wildlife takes its place alongside conservation agriculture and other food production and economic enterprises within the communal areas.

There are still large areas and circumstances where well controlled and ethically conducted safari hunting has an important role in wildlife conservation  - the Zambezi Delta in Mozambique is an example where controlled hunting concessions have provided the revenue, manpower and security to allow depleted wildlife populations to recover.

To reiterate my opinion. Trophy hunting, as it is currently managed and practiced in many areas and by some operators, as an ethical conservation tool?

Safari hunting? When, if, it is conducted with quotas set on sound scientific knowledge; the off-take is strictly managed; the hunt is conducted ethically; it, transparently and verifiably, contributes significantly to wildlife conservation and to rural community socio-economic development, and the corruption, so prevalent, is eliminated.

Post Script
I strongly recommend that the hunting industry drop the word “Trophy” from their narrative, and develop a philosophy which promotes the wilderness experience - one in which hunting forms a part, and in which the participants are actively involved in all the elements of that experience.

Curriculum Vitae                                                   Conservation    Community    Commerce    Culture                                      © David Peddie 2017