Site icon Conservation news

Can we plan for a future without trophy hunting? (commentary)

  • Proposed legislation in Britain to ban the import of hunting trophies like horns, antlers, and tusks enjoys popular support.
  • But in Africa, rural communities often rely on revenue from trophy hunting to support development and conservation projects.
  • In response to a recent Mongabay commentary, “UK trophy hunting import ban not supported by rural Africans,” writer Merrill Sapp argues that it’s possible to have both development and healthy elephant populations, without hunting.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

In December, the British government announced a plan to ban the import of hunting trophies into the UK.  The proposal has popular support, but there is a vocal contingent that claims the ban will do more harm than good for both people and animals.  Though the ban would be for all trophy hunted items, the most vocal dissent has come from those who are particularly interested in hunting in Africa, especially elephants.  I support the ban, but it must be accompanied by money and a plan for infrastructure development by other means.

Trophy hunting of elephants primarily happens in the countries of southern Africa—Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.  These also happen to be places that suffer from long lasting effects of colonialism and marginalization of local people, often with harsh living environments and few natural resources that result in widespread poverty.

The middle 1900s, especially the 1970s and 80s, were rough for elephants in Africa.  Elephants were hunted by Europeans and Americans to perilous levels and extirpated from many areas.  This was both for sport and for ivory.  As elephants gained protection due to their decreasing numbers and demand for ivory went down in many parts of the world, the number of African savanna elephants rebounded slightly.  Elephants have been in decline again since the early 2000s.  Although they are still endangered and at risk of extinction, some people in Southern Africa complain of “too many” elephants because of conflict with humans over space and resources.  People in these places need income, food, and water security.

Old bull elephant in Kenya. Image courtesy of Merrill Sapp.

There are people on the pro-hunting side of the debate who would prefer that no animal ever be killed as a trophy, it is simply a compromise they are willing to make for income towards conservation.  Of course, there are others who believe that trophy hunting is true sport, a source of entertainment.

Since the days of rampant trophy hunting, the animal rights movement has become a part of the collective consciousness of people all over the world who are not willing to compromise on trophy hunting.  The more we learn about animals through scientific study, the stronger is our collective belief in their right to live a natural life without having to pay for their existence with trophy hunting income.

Trophy hunting proponents claim that it is an essential method of reducing human-elephant conflict in areas that are burdened with elephants.  Consider Botswana as an example.  The government imposed a hunting ban in 2014 and within a few years human-elephant conflict increased, which was used as rationale for lifting the ban in 2018.  Though it was initially thought that the conflict was caused by an increase in the number of elephants, land surveys showed that was not the case.  Though the numbers were the same, elephants had repatriated into their former range where they had lived prior to the decimation of the elephant population in the mid 1900s.

Elephants are smart enough to know where they are safe and where they are not.  The claim is that because there was no longer a lethal threat for going near people, that the elephants expanded too close.  Most elephants will avoid people if they can, even without a lethal threat, but when their habitats perpetually shrink, they may not have much choice.  In addition, around the year 2000, some of the elephants in Botswana had moved there to avoid the civil war in Angola and could not go back home because of land mines and fences.

Notably, the cause of conflict in Angola was poverty and food scarcity.  The entire picture does not lead to a conclusion of “too many” elephants.  Botswana had absorbed most of Angola’s elephants long before increasing complaints of conflict.  They had spread out, probably to find food and water, but neither the combined number nor the number in Botswana had increased during the time of increased complaints of conflict.  Efforts are underway for creating safe passage of elephants back to Angola.

The problem is less about numbers and more about sharing resources.  Elephants can only eat and drink what is available to them.  When elephants damage food or water supplies, they put the lives of people at risk or cause a financial burden to people who can least afford it.  Better food protection and water storage is needed.  There are also other safety interventions that can protect people around elephants or other large wildlife.

See related commentary: UK trophy hunting import ban not supported by rural Africans

Wild African elephant in the red dirt of Tsavo National Park, Kenya. Image courtesy of Merrill Sapp.

In Sri Lanka, the Wildlife Conservation Society bought an Elebus for kids who walked to school in high elephant areas. Aritra Kshettry wrote in Mongabay (“Biting the bullet: Elephant-human associations in perspective”) about protecting elephants and people in India with simple tactics like better lighting or more complex analyses of locale specific conflict reduction.  Wildlife corridors work. Some organizations are teaching farmers non-lethal methods of crop protection and personal safety.  Fixing these problems does not require killing elephants, but it does require a source of revenue.

It is true that people from other parts of the world have no experience with how difficult it is to live with elephants, but that does not mean that the animal rights movement does not have merit. Elephants are convenient as the focus of this debate because they are who animals. They recognize each other as individuals and feel the loss when one is killed.  They know who is here and who is gone.

Research shows that losing a family member can lead to at least 20 years of disruption for those left behind, with evidence of abnormal behaviors, including hyper-aggression, and high levels of cortisol.  Cortisol is a stress hormone that leads to poor immune system function and lower fertility rates.  Though they are not as well studied as female family groups, males also rely on each other for learning and well-being.  Author and conservationist Lawrence Anthony wrote that he had never had a problem with “hunting for the pot,” but to him trophy hunting was an ‘anathema.’ “Those who hunt old bulls don’t-or refuse- to understand the harm they are doing.”

Trophy hunting selectively eliminates the oldest, most genetically fit elephants from the population because they have the largest tusks.  Those animals are the most successful at surviving drought (which is increasing throughout Southern Africa), raising young, and breeding.  In fact, the vast majority of successful breeding in wild elephants is by old bulls, those over the age of 35.  Older elephants are also the leaders who teach survival skills to young elephants, the ones who are left traumatized and with chronically high cortisol levels.  Removing the healthiest animals puts the rest at risk in many ways.  There is a significant negative impact beyond the simple subtraction of the animal that was killed.

Another concern expressed by some in favor of trophy hunting is that if hunting is not allowed, the land will be converted to other use that does not include any place for animals.  I cannot discount this fear, but there are other concerns that are relevant here.  For example, the legal movement of ivory out of Africa opens avenues for illicit trade.  It is impossible to tell the provenance or age of ivory by looking at it.  Ever since select countries in Africa first banned trade in ivory, illegal smuggling has occurred.  Ivory moves from places where export is illegal to places where it is legal through porous borders.  A simple fraudulent certificate can “authenticate” the origin of the ivory and then it can move freely.  History shows that this system is difficult to control, even with good intentions.

When any country allows the movement of ivory across its borders it can trigger illegal hunting of elephants throughout the continent.  This is one reason that trophy hunting, or even sale of ivory from elephants who died from natural causes, is dangerous for all elephants.  When illegal hunting is spurred by legal hunting, populations can be decimated very quickly.  Keep in mind that although there are “too many” elephants in isolated areas of Southern Africa, in other places they are critically endangered.

Elephants break the fence of a private game farm to gain access, probably to water. Image courtesy of Riaan White.

If people refuse to protect land unless they can generate income from animals there, let us develop tourism with models that have been successful.  Kenya has invested in wildlife tourism, which has become the second highest source of direct foreign income to the country and has created many jobs.  Anthony Ikiki, a friend of mine and native Kenyan, has worked in the wildlife tourism industry there for more than twenty years.  His income from guide work supported all four of his daughters through university and his small cattle farm near Mt. Kenya.  Anthony is very proud to live in a country that does not allow hunting.  He said that sometimes there is conflict between people and elephants, but that they try to “balance.”  He told me that the problem is that the human “population keeps growing, but the land doesn’t expand.”  Not every community is suitable, or wants, to become a tourist destination, but perhaps income from tourism in some places can be used to develop other options elsewhere.

Historically, the establishment of either national parks or trophy hunting reserves has resulted in the exclusion of native populations and end of traditional land use.  This custom is not based on ecological need; native people have long been the protectors of ecosystems.  One problem with the custom of moving people out of “protected” land is that tradition of living near elephants in these places is now gone.  Coexistence of humans and wildlife is both possible and essential for successful conservation.  Most conflict with elephants occurs in areas where close proximity of elephants and humans is recent.  Rather than relying on trophy hunting as the only solution, can we support study of each community to determine what people there need to feel safe and food secure?  We can analyze how to reduce elephant encounters, including making sure elephants have options for food and water that do not require sharing with humans.

The better we are at coexistence, the more elephants can move in ways that are healthy for them and the ecosystems where they live.  Savannah elephants spread seeds, maintain grasslands, and dig wells that other animals can use.  They have several unique ecological functions that are valuable to other animals, including humans.

There are many pragmatic reasons to save wildlife, but ultimately it is a moral decision.  I do not believe that only charismatic or sentient animals should be protected, but elephants make it easy to talk about animal rights.  The principles brought up here apply to other animals as well, at least in part.  People who speak out against trophy hunting are often painted as naïve or foolish but valuing animal rights is neither of those things.  It is a worldview that recognizes that the lives of animals have value without regard for what they can or cannot do for people.  It is a belief that animals should not have to pay the price for human development.  This worldview drives a need to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

I do not want to ignore the will of people in southern Africa who want to use trophy hunting for income; I want to find an alternative that is acceptable.  As an international community, if we truly support development by other means, would they choose to end trophy hunting?  What if other options had greater financial incentives?  A living elephant can thrill a tourist for more than sixty years, but a hunted trophy can excite a hunter only once.

There are accusations that people who object to trophy hunting are maintaining colonialist hierarchies in which the objectives of foreigners are more important than those of African communities that want to sell hunting permits or that we do not care if they are stuck in poverty.  I think it is more accurate to say that there are shadows of colonialism on both sides, whether it is simply trying to strong arm people in Africa to do what we want, or to continue the power structure of wealthy foreigners killing animals on the playground of Africa.

See related: Thai tourism elephants are ‘far better off’ in forests

Elephant damage to water supply structure built by a communal conservancy on the dry western side of the country. Elsewhere like in Namibia’s northeast, the most common damage is to crops. Image courtesy of Gail Thomson.

For my part, my position is not from a belief that we are superior, it is from the knowledge that we are not.  It is also about a hope for something better for Africa than our Western agenda of separating human from “wild” and our poor protection of animals.  And it isn’t only about elephants or other African animals; many people who want to protect elephants also want to protect beavers, wolves, badgers, rattlesnakes, dairy cows, and any other living thing.  Some people and organizations that are pro-hunting label themselves as “anti-animal rights.”  This is a viewpoint that is not acceptable to many people, especially as we continue to learn about animals and appreciate them for what they are, not as lesser versions of ourselves, but as individual beings with an inherent right to exist on the earth.

We should not have this conversation without addressing the policies of nations and international organizations that maintain African countries in a state of dependency.  Perhaps better economic policies, not directly related to conservation, would have more benefit than the potential income from trophy hunting.  For example, the global banking industry treats poor countries differently than wealthy countries based on perceived risk.  Jeffrey Sachs wrote that “Developing-country borrowers pay interest charges that are often 5-10% higher per year than the borrowing costs paid by rich countries.”  These differential lending practices are not only unjust, but Sachs also argues that the risks are exaggerated and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are many ways that international banking and lending practices keep poor countries poor and could be changed to reduce poverty (suggestion—watch Jeffrey Sachs address the United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit in 2021).  Poverty fuels the reliance on trophy hunting for income and is also the root cause of conflict in the region, which causes direct and indirect threats to both humans and animals.

There are other ways forward—ways to keep people safe and foster development that do not require killing animals but do require money.  As an international community, if we are going to object to trophy hunting, we must do more to support viable alternatives.  The defense of trophy hunting as a compromise is about giving local people an incentive to protect wildlife.  Ultimately, the people of Africa have the right to decide what happens there.

A herd of elephants drinks at the Linyanti River in northern Botswana. Image by Roger Borgelid for Mongabay.

Likewise, the people of the UK have the right to decide what happens on their soil, which includes a refusal to allow hunted trophies into the country.  Animals should not have to pay for the right to live wild and they need us to stand up for them, but this moral stand should be accompanied by an imperative to change policies that perpetuate poverty in Africa.  If we are going to stand up for animals, we have to make a plan for something else—a plan that includes financial investment and a path forward.  We must find creative ways for living animals to be an asset or we must provide direct financial support to communities that protect animals.

It is possible that elephants will go extinct in the near future.  Habitat loss might be the final blow, but it is hunting that got them to the precipice.  Killing animals does not save them—protecting their habitats, their space on the earth, will save them.  I have been reading that the sixth extinction has really begun and that African forest elephants are almost gone.  It is time to make a choice.  Elephants are not disappearing from the earth; we are actively killing them.  Can you live with that?

Merrill Sapp is a professor, cognitive psychologist, and Director of Research at the Stephens College Physician Assistant Program.

More from this writer at Mongabay:

Do we love elephants enough to let them live free? (commentary)

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A ‘stubborn optimism’ for elephants fuels an Indigenous conservation effort in Kenya, listen here:


Anthony, L. (2009). The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild.  St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Chase, M. (2018). “Arguments for lifting the ban are unsound” Mmegi online.

Gobush, KS, Mutayoba, BM, Wasser, SK. (2008). Long-term impacts of poaching on relatedness, stress physiology, and reproductive output of adult female African elephants.  Conservation Biology, 22, 6, 1590-1599.

Hollister-Smith, J.A., Poole, J.H., Archie, E.A., Vance, E.A., Georgiadis, N.J., Moss, C.J. & Alberts, S.C. (2007). Age, musth, and paternity success in wild male African elephants, Loxodonta africana. Animal Behaviour, 74: 287-296.

Kshettry, A. (2020, July 7). Biting the bullet: Elephant-human associations in perspective.

McComb, K, Moss, C, Sayialel, S, Baker, L. (2000). Unusually extensive networks of vocal recognition in African elephants.  Animal Behavior, 59, 1103-1109.

McComb, K, Shannon, G, Durant, SM, Sayialel, K, Slotow, R, Poole, A, Moss, C. (2011). Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age. Proc. R. Soc., 278, 3270-3276.

Sachs, J.D. (2021, Dec 3). Time to overhaul the global financial system.

Sachs, J.D. (2005). The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. Penguin books, New York.

Somerville, K. (2016). Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa. Hurst Publishers.

Exit mobile version