Trophy Hunting Is Not a Problem
By now, you've probably heard that Cecil, one of Africa's most beloved lions, was killed by a Minnesota dentist on a trophy hunt. Cecil, who dwelled in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park and was closely monitored via GPS collar by scientists at Oxford, was apparently lured out of the wildlife refuge -- where hunting is illegal -- shot with a crossbow, stalked, and finally finished off with a rifle forty hours later. The incident, whose legality has yet to be conclusively determined, has already sparked international outrage. Many are calling for lion trophy hunting to be banned altogether
Whatever your personal feelings about killing a majestic animal solely to have a trophy (I personally find it repugnant), reasoned discourse demands a dispassionate examination of the evidence, and the evidence suggests that, when managed properly, trophy hunting isn't a problem, and can actually help species recover.
African lions have taken a beating over the decades. While they numbered in the hundreds of thousands a century ago, today, between 23,000 and 39,000 animals remain, spread across just one-fifth of their historic territory. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists lions as "vulnerable," one step up from "endangered." Habitat loss, disease, and human interference are the major reasons for the decline.
Considering those dire statistics, you might think that the IUCN would oppose trophy hunting. After all, the singular act of killing reduces a species' population. But the organization actually supports it.
"Trophy hunting is a form of wildlife use that, when well managed, may assist in furthering conservation objectives by creating the revenue and economic incentives for the management and conservation of the target species and its habitat, as well as supporting local livelihoods," the IUCN announced in a 2012 report.
That same report reveals two case studies where the establishment and proper regulation of trophy hunting grounds actually helped threatened animal populations recover. Nature writer Richard Conniff shared even more examples in a 2014 op-ed published in the New York Times, including that of Namibia, where lion populations are now increasing. In Conservation Magazine, Jason Goldman shared another instance:
"According to a 2005 paper by Nigel Leader-Williams and colleagues in the Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy... the legalization of white rhinoceros hunting in South Africa motivated private landowners to reintroduce the species onto their lands. As a result, the country saw an increase in white rhinos from fewer than one hundred individuals to more than 11,000, even while a limited number were killed as trophies."
In a 2013 study published to PLoS ONE, an international team of researchers zeroed in on the trophy hunting of lions. They found that the number of hunting kills in Africa has fallen considerably, down to just 244 per year. That number was as high as 550 a decade ago. They also urged countries with legalized lion trophy hunting to restrict trophy kills to males six years of age or older, to ban the hunting of females altogether, and to require minimum hunt lengths of at least 21 days to ensure that hunters are being properly selective. Most importantly, the researchers recommended that countries take an evidence-based approach to setting hunting quotas.
When it came to choosing bans or management reforms for lion trophy hunting, the authors elected the latter.
"Reforms are arguably preferable to trade bans because they would provide scope for the retention of financial and economic incentives for the retention of land for wildlife and for tolerance of lions, while reducing the negative impacts on lion populations. Given the resilience of lions, populations affected by excessive trophy harvests would likely recover rapidly if lion hunting was managed more sustainably."
If properly wielded, trophy hunting can be a valuable tool for conservation. While Cecil the Lion's death is regrettable, let's make sure it doesn't result in knee-jerk decisions that could actually harm his species as a whole. That would make Cecil's demise even more of a tragedy than it already is.
(Image: Associated Press)