Commercial hunting is one of the most polarising issues in all of conservation. Those opposed to hunting often shout from the rafters that hunting denudes the land of its wildlife, and is a treat to conservation worldwide. Hunting enthusiasts on the other hand claim that despite what logic might tell you, killing animals is actually helping to conserve them. So who is right?
Let me state off the bat that I am not a hunter. I believe I could kill an animal to survive, but I find the killing for “sport” extremely barbarous and unfair. That said however, I am a realist, and the reality is that wildlife needs to pay for itself. Habitat loss is by far the biggest threat to most of Africa’s wildlife, and this is because in the capitalist economy, wildlife is competing with alternative land uses like agriculture and mining for space, and wildlife doesn’t provide the same economic returns. Wildlife therefore needs to generate some income to make it sustainable and to give landowners incentive to maintain wildlife on their land.
At the heart of that issue is how the land rights, and the ownership of animals are defined by the government. In South Africa the owner of the land owns the wild animals on the property. This has far reaching consequences because it means it is in a landowner’s interest to keep the animals on their land, which is why the South African landscape is riddled with fences. It has also spawned a massive wildlife industry where people can buy and sell wildlife at auctions, but can also make money from it through hunting and safaris. Hunting in South Africa is huge, and with about 205 000 km2 of land maintained as wildlife ranches by private land owners, compared to just 75 000 km2 set aside by government as protected areas. So hunting maintains vast areas of land in essentially wilderness conditions, and on top of that it provides jobs and significant economic income to large numbers of people. In South Africa alone hunting is estimated to bring in over $600 mil. in revenues. Hunters maintain that it is in their interest to manage the wildlife on their land sustainably to secure their income stream in future. This has meant that in South Africa, populations of trophy animals are very healthy, and generally on the increase as they are introduced to more and more private hunting farms. Hunting helped to bring species like white rhino and bontebok back from the brink of extinction as private land owners were incentivised to introduce these species onto their land, while South Africa is the only country in the world where lion distribution is actually expanding. Hunting land that is maintained in a wild state is holding back the march of human development, and it provides vital habitat for a whole host of non-target species like birds, reptiles, plants, and smaller mammals.
In most other African countries, wildlife is owned by the state, which is good in that it means there are fewer fences so animals are kept in a much more “natural” and free roaming state, and populations and landscapes do not have to be as intensively managed. On the downside however, there is no incentive for people on private or communal land to protect wildlife. If people can get away with it (which they usually can since it is very hard to police the wilderness), they will illegally hunt animals for food or sport, often leading to overhunting and depletion of wildlife populations. Countries such as Botswana, tried to counteract this “tragedy of the commons” effect by setting aside vast tracts of land as hunting concessions where private operators can profit from hunting wild animals. This only works where those concessions are long term, and do not change hands regularly. However, despite the Botswanan government’s best efforts to manage the industry sustainably, research found that wildlife populations had plummeted dramatically, in part because of hunting. They have therefore placed a moratorium on all hunting until populations recover.
In Zimbabwe, where much of the land is communally owned by local tribes, but wildlife is owned by the state, a programme called the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (Project CAMPFIRE) was started which gave communities the power to manage their animals for the economic benefit of the community. This allowed them to charge hunters thousands of dollars to come in and kill pre-defined numbers of prized animals on their land, to the general benefit of the community at large. This also allowed them to dispose of problem animals like elephants that were destroying their crops, or leopards that were killing their livestock, and make up for some of the losses they experienced. This programme was reasonably successful for a while, and similar projects are springing up across Africa now, but these are still subject to mismanagement and abuse by governments and communities.
Private land with private ownership of wildlife would appear to be the best from a conservation perspective. This stategy wouldn’t necessarily work everywhere though. The reason it is so successful in South Africa is that much of the country’s land is quite infertile and is poorly suited to agriculture. Wildlife ranching is a good alternative land use as it offers a good income from this otherwise unproductive land. In more fertile countries it is unlikely that wildlife ranching would be able to compete economically with agriculture, and so this ownership strategy would probably not be as successful. It seems however that in countries where the state owns the wildlife, sustainability strategies rely on the state granting some form of private proprietorship to individuals or communities.
There are of course many negatives to hunting too. The hunting of certain species such as leopards, elephants etc. is regulated in South Africa and many other African nations by a permit system. Permits are issued by the government, but the number and distribution of those permits are often quite random and not informed by science. So leopard permits might end up being concentrated on properties very close to each other, causing a decimation of the local leopard population.
Hunters also regularly talk about killing problem animals such as leopards as a solution to the problem, when in fact, this often ends up making the problem worse. Leopards are territorial, and when one is killed it creates a power vacuum, which draws leopards in from the surrounding areas. These are often young individuals that have not established a territory, and if they are drawn into an area with lots of livestock, these inexperienced hunters are more likely to kill them for an easy meal, and thus establish a habit of doing so early on in their lives which is hard to break. So by killing leopards, you are likely to increase the local leopard population in the immediate future, and possibly create more problem leopards. The best solution is to have a settled population of leopards, and to better protect the herds with dogs, collars and better holding pens at night.
Then there is the issue that when a property is managed for wildlife hunting, it can be detrimental to other non-target species. If for example, the main income of a property comes from breeding prize kudu or sable, then it is in their interest to protect those animals from predators. Ranchers will therefore kill leopards, caracal, jackal and hyaena, often illegally, to protect their wildlife. Often many other harmless carnivores like foxes, aardwolfs, and serval are persecuted in the bargain. This also causes people to kill cheetah and wild dogs that stray onto their land.
Another serious issue with the hunting industry is genetic dilution. For example, the sable from Angola and Zambia have bigger horns than the South African specimens, and are therefore being introduced into South African herds. This mixes the genes from the different populations the genes of distinct subspecies are being diluted by such activities. This is being taken to an extreme in the exotic game breeding industry. Wildlife breeders are using selective breeding to isolate recessive genes in certain species, creating natural oddities like white lions, black impala, and golden wildebeest and zebra. These animals fetch massive payloads from hunters seeking a “freak of nature” to hang on their walls, and these animals thus go for jaw dropping prices at animal auctions. From a conservation perspective however, these animals are probably doing more harm then good. They are significantly inbred to isolate those genes, and as we all know, inbreeding is bad. As they become more expensive though, farmers are replacing the “normal” animals on their farms with these inbred populations that contain these genes. Many landowners prefer having white lions to normal lions, even though white lions in nature rarely survive.
On top of this, private ranches will often overstock popular hunting species like buffalo or kudu causing major degradation to the ecosystem. The ranchers will supplement the feeding of their valuable species with farmed feed, however the other species in that system will often suffer or disappear. In effect, these species become semi-domesticated animals, bred for the bullet.
Then there are the arguments about hunting out certain genes. The heaviest elephant tusk of 102kgs comes from 1899, and today, giant tuskers are so rare that they have almost become celebrities. In most popular trophy species, you will find that the records for the largest and most impressive specimens come from several decades ago, and few animals these days even compare.
Commercial hunting has also spurred the development of the canned hunting industry. This is the practice of essentially raising high value species like lions or buffalo in small camps until they are of prime hunting age. They are then released into “the wild” which is usually a relatively small reserve, and a hunter then pays big bucks to come and shoot it. Many lions that people pay to pet when they are cubs end up in this industry, and the bones are then exported to the East to be used in traditional medicine. This is a barbaric and unsporting practice, and on top of that, it encouraging the use of lion bones as medicine which is likely to have spill-over effects onto the wild lion population.
On the human side, hunting often causes landowners to exclude poor and hungry communities from their land, often violently. This creates an antagonistic relationship between communities and wildlife areas, which makes community members more likely to get involved in more serious forms of poaching like rhino poaching. Furthermore, while the hunting lobby will often quote impressive numbers regarding the scale of the income generated from hunting, what they often leave out is that only a fraction of that will actually stay in the country where the hunting occurs. Foreign hunting clubs will usually purchase a hunting licence from the government or from a community, and will then auction it on overseas for many times the price that they bought it for. Most exchanges therefore happen outside the countries borders.
On a balance, I would say that while I personally hate hunting and find it barbaric, hunting is actually has a net positive impact for conservation. There are major caveats to that statement though. In order for hunting to be beneficial to conservation, it needs to be closely regulated, and strict quotas need to be enforced. Endangered species like black rhinos should never be targeted when there is a poaching crisis raging. Best practice guidelines need to be created to ensure that hunting benefits the overall ecosystem, and all quotas need to be informed by sound scientific information to ensure sustainability. Local communities need to be included in the industry, and some of the benefits must flow to them to give them an appreciation of wildlife.
Hunters and anti-hunters both claim to love nature, but emotions on both sides prevent them from engaging in constructive talks. We all need to come together and make compromises for the greater good of nature.