Backed by celebrity campaigners, including Joanna Lumley and Liam Gallagher, and with overwhelming cross-party support, a bill, voted through the House of Commons earlier this year, debated in the Lords on 12th September, will soon be passed into law. Thereby a policy, first announced by the government in 2021, will ban the import of hunting trophies to the UK. Trumpeted as a demonstration of this government’s commitment to biodiversity conservation, the unintended consequences may well show precisely the opposite.
To clarify, I find trophy hunting morally distasteful: it’s difficult to conclude that rich dentists who enjoy recreationally shooting beautiful animals are anything less than deranged psychopaths. Certainly, some forms of sport hunting are indefensible. In the UK, illegal foxhunting with dogs continues under the ‘smokescreen’ of a trail hunt. Grouse shooting, a form of ‘canned hunting’ involves creating a monoculture of red grouse, to be driven by beaters towards waiting lines of guns. Our grouse moors burn vast areas of land – much of it carbon-rich peat – to stimulate new heather growth to feed the wretched birds, and frequently persecute predators, quite illegally, into the bargain. Such bloodsports thrive in the UK at significant cost to the environment and animal welfare, yet most Tories seethe at the merest suggestion of banning them.
Informed scepticism, not knee-jerk bans
In addressing the reality of targeting individual wild animals for trophy hunting, a knee-jerk ban on trophy imports carries little evidential basis: the UK import ban will concern almost 7,000 species, around 25 times more than are even targeted for trophy hunting worldwide, let alone imported to our islands. An informed scepticism should have been welcomed from the outset.
Examples of poorly regulated trophy hunting and their detrimental consequences abound. Stalking bighorn sheep in North America, for instance, has led to an evolutionary decrease in the mean body mass and horn length of rams since the 1970s. The heaviest rams, sporting the largest horns, have been disproportionately targeted with possible implications for the health of the entire population. Other species display similar morphological changes, driven by hunter selectivity. Careful preventative monitoring by wildlife managers is an essential requirement.
Conservation benefits of hunting
So, let us consider the positive conservation impacts of trophy hunting. For instance, the acreage of Africa managed for hunting exceeds that of their National Parks. Licences often raise substantial revenue, particularly in underdeveloped countries, where budgeting for conservation management and monitoring is a struggle. Healthy funding allows conservation measures to compete with more intensive land uses like agriculture, urbanisation or heavy industry, and mitigates human-wildlife conflict.
Opponents often claim that trophy hunting is unsustainable and threatens targeted species, but in few, if any cases is this supported by evidence. A recent study of species that will be affected by the UK bill identified 73 CITES-listed species imported to the UK between 2000 and 2021. Most came from countries where populations of these species were stable or increasing. Crucially, according to IUCN Red List data, trophy hunting is not listed as a major threat to any of the species or subspecies imported to the UK.
Returning to the hunting of bighorn sheep: huge sums of licence money are raised which fund research and management of their population and habitat. Numerous other species, from American white-tailed deer to iconic species like rhinos and polar bears, have also been found to directly benefit from trophy hunting.
Allow under-developed regions their own agency
Trophy hunting can and has given rural communities in underdeveloped regions a sense of ownership and agency over their natural resources. In Zimbabwe for instance, the 1989 initiative known as CAMPFIRE (the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources), empowered representative Rural District Councils to sell concessions to safari operators for the use of wildlife on their land. From 1989 to 2001, 89 per cent of this revenue came from hunting, just around two per cent derived from conventional eco-tourism. Again, the efficacy of such schemes depends on regulation and administrative capacity, but trophy hunting within a model of community conservation can be viable.
Consequently, in 2020 community leaders from across Africa published an open letter criticising British anti-hunting campaigners including Ricky Gervais, Joanna Lumley and Piers Morgan for undermining conservation efforts and their right to manage their own wildlife, emphasising the costs that their communities bear to live sustainably alongside elephants and lions.
Personally, I resent the fact that conservation may be undermined, and human-wildlife conflict worsened in underdeveloped countries, merely for the Tories to greenwash their image and for celebrities in one of the wealthiest, yet most nature depleted countries in the world, to feel self-righteous.
Eco-tourism will not fund conservation
Photographic eco-tourism is often promoted as a ‘non-consumptive’ alternative, that can fund conservation without the ethical objections or social elitism associated with hunting. Yet, in most places where this occurs, conservation remains underfunded, and photo-tourism simply cannot replace trophy hunting everywhere. Due to lack of infrastructure, some places aren’t attractive tourist destinations, offering unfavourable landscapes, climates or political instability – whereas hunters still visit.
Arguably, trophy hunting is typically a far lower impact industry than photo-tourism. Conventional tourists generally pay less per trip than hunters, thus higher numbers are needed to generate similar revenues. Additionally, exclusive infrastructure developments, with negative ecological impacts, can directly disturb local wildlife. In 2018, Thailand’s National Parks department announced the indefinite closure to tourists of Maya Bay, made famous after featuring in the film The Beach. Excessive visitors flocking to the bay had inflicted great damage to its coral reefs and marine wildlife, which may take decades to recover.
As our government affects to care about biodiversity by passing a bill that will impair it overseas, let us consider the dumping of sewage or farm effluent into our rivers, the approved use of banned pesticides and its obstinate rejection to the reintroduction of apex predators. If our legislators were truly interested in biodiversity or animal welfare, they’d curb livestock farming, the single largest cause of habitat destruction worldwide, and provide some actual protections for our deceptively named Marine Protected Areas.
While we may feel morally conflicted about trophy hunting, I contend that it remains a valuable tool to protect habitats and wildlife. Policy should be based on evidence, not Tory cynicism or the misguided feelings of celebrities.
Ross McNally’s opinion on trophy hunting is personal and does not necessarily reflect the view of the Sussex Bylines Editorial Team. Ross does not share the consensus shown by the Global NGOs Joint Position Paper but we think his arguments deserve to be heard.