How Trophy Hunting Works

The Case Against Trophy Hunting

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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protesters hold pictures of Cecil the Lion, who was killed by an American outside of a national park in Zimbabwe earlier that year, to protest against importing wild game killed as trophies. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Those who oppose trophy hunting usually make a three-fold argument, one part ethical, one practical and one scientific.

The ethical position argues variously that it's unjust to kill animals for sport. In other words, if you're not hungry or defending yourself, you shouldn't feel justified in taking an animal's life, especially if you're just after it to collect some of its body parts as a keepsake, trophy or to complete a collection.

Claudio Sillero, an associate professor of conservation biology at Oxford University and head of conservation for the Born Free Foundation, puts a finer point on this argument. [To] kill a sentient being for the sake of killing, and stuff its carcass or hang its head on the wall is sickening," Sillero says via email. "Under the veneer of helping the poor in biodiversity-rich, cash-poor nations, these people get away with a wicked abuse simply because they can."

The second part of the anti-trophy hunting argument is that the benefits of these hunts for conservation have been overstated and downsides minimized. First, say opponents, revenue from trophy hunting isn't as much as proponents claim, and second, there's often a great deal of corruption in handling the money raised. They also note that the alleged rise in poaching in places where hunting is banned, is not inevitable.

"Although the dollar figures associated with killing a large, often endangered or vanishingly rare, animal can be mouth-watering for those managing wildlife resources in faraway countries, these figures often do not stack up when scrutinized," Sillero says. "Booking agencies, outfitters, professional hunters, air charters, caterers, camp managers and the occasional backhanders, take the lion's share of the fees paid by the clients. Speaking from experience in Africa, most of that money does not even reach the country where the killings takes place."

Furthermore, Sillero says, even though governments do command hunting fees, the money rarely goes to their treasuries, the people that live next to wildlife or the game rangers charged with protecting these wild spaces.

Another common argument made by the trophy hunting industry is that hunting occurs in communal areas outside national parks or reserves, and that those areas would not be able to keep their wildlife without the help of hunters. But Sillero disagrees. He says many of the popular hunting blocks are actually adjacent to national parks, and that hunting trophy animals creates a vacuum — an ecological trap — where new animals move in searching for food or mating opportunities. Those new animals may end up hunted and shot as well, producing a conveyor belt that affects a protected population deep into the park. He says this was clearly the case for Zimbabwe lions in Hwange National Park.

When the wildlife in these hunting blocks are depleted, hunters seek out permission to go elsewhere, and typically blame the reduction of animal populations on poaching. And it's not just elephants, lions or buffalo that get killed. "In order to keep the hunters engaged and entertained during a 21-day safari [necessary to justify the large fees hunting outfits command] clients are encouraged to kill dozens of other animals while they wait for their 'big one,'" Sillero says.

When arguing against the idea that hunting bans are necessarily deleterious, advocates for bans sometimes point to polar bears. In 1994, U.S. Congress made it legal for American trophy hunters to import polar bear trophies from Canada. Almost immediately, the average number of Canadian polar bears killed for trophies climbed from an average of four per year to an annual average of 361 between 2004 and 2008. But when, in 2008, the law was once again changed, this time to ban the imports, the numbers dropped significantly to an average of 210 polar bears killed for trophies between 2009 and 2012 [source: IFAW].

And there's even more science that backs up the anti-trophy hunting ideology, including concerns that hunting animals for specific traits — like dark-manes on lions or large tusks on elephants — fundamentally alters different species. A 30-year study of bighorn rams, for instance, found that trophy hunting resulted, over time, in an overall reduction in size of the species. That's because the biggest rams with the biggest horns were removed from the gene pool before they got a chance to pass on their genetic material in any significant numbers.