Mention ‘hunting’ and most of us think of poaching – primarily for ivory and the demands of Chinese medicine – or trophy hunting (see maps below); and the unpalatable image of a triumphant (usually) white Westerner straddling a dead, charismatic mammal. But the issue is a much wider and more nuanced one.
As the human population expands, the need to address conflict between humans and wildlife becomes increasingly urgent. Over the past 70 years, demographic change and corresponding demands for land for development have increased in biodiversity-rich parts of the globe, exacerbating pressure on natural systems and resources that both humans and other animals rely on to survive. In east Africa, for example, key wetlands, once the last resort grazing areas in times of drought, have been turned into tomato farms. Rivers that once flowed from Kilimanjaro to Tsavo have been pumped dry for irrigation. Elephants can no longer migrate across their traditional rangelands, so they become overpopulated in areas close to human settlement. The Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association reported 2,416 human-wildlife conflicts in Kenya between 2011 and 2015. Retaliatory killings of lions that kill valuable livestock – for example by Maasai villagers in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park – are regular occurrences.
‘If you ban hunting but don’t address human-wildlife conflict in another way, the killing translates into other means – the indiscriminate killing of wildlife, the spearing of cubs, the killing of pregnant females,’ says Dr Dilys Roe, chair of the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). ‘From the perspective of a poor rural farmer, wildlife is more a liability than an asset. To live alongside it, and tolerate it, to put up with it killing livestock and destroying crops, there need to be sound financial incentives.’
Many conservationists however, believe hunting is a simplistic response to a complex issue. ‘If you opt for hunting for dealing with human-wildlife conflict then it shows the world you have lost your values and your creative thinking,’ says Dr Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of Wildlife Direct, a conservation non-profit based in the US and Kenya. ‘It’s very difficult to talk about conserving animals while shooting them. I’ve never heard of hunting actually helping to reduce conflict between humans and wildlife. Most human-wildlife conflict happens in a village setting, it’s usually a juvenile elephant jumping about. Hunting them just causes more stress to other animals in the herd or pride, they become impatient and that causes more problems.’
Yet, hunting as a conservation tool is implemented across the world, from African elephants to American gray wolves. Even some of the most committed animal welfare supporters see how it may be justified in some limited instances. ‘We live in an incredibly human-dominated, human-altered environment,’ says Dr Mark Jones, head of policy at Born Free. Although implacably opposed to hunting for sport or pleasure, he says: ‘The pragmatist in me says there may be circumstances where culling is the most appropriate, or the only form of management that is effective. But this must be done with minimal disruption and in as humane a way as possible. It needs to have clear rational objectives.’
The subject is so emotive that it can be hard, on a case-by-case basis, to make the right choice. As a 2017 report by the Society for Conservation Biology puts it: ‘Wildlife control has been a battleground for conflicting but ill-informed proposals between those who advocate culling without evidence that it will solve the problem; and those who insist on non-lethal methods without evidence that these will incur a lower welfare cost to the animals or achieve the desired outcome.’
‘Hunting is polarised for many good reasons, and has always been so,’ says Shane Mahoney, CEO of Conservation Visions, a US-based organisation that supports hunting where it is good for conservation. ‘Whenever fear and fascination are mixed, deciding on best approaches is laced with value assertions that often evade rational approaches.’
One problem is a lack of meaningful monitoring and raw data on the impact of hunting. ‘The data is scattered,’ says Roe. ‘People who are anti-hunting can rightly identify cases of really poor hunting and how it exacerbates the problem. But you can show good examples, where hunting has benefited species. You can cherry-pick your examples to suit your case. What we do know,’ she says, ‘is that for those animals on the [IUCN] Red List, hunting is never listed among the threats they face.’
Science-based advocates could do better at making the case for hunting, says Mahoney, ‘by discussing and providing empirical evidence for the comprehensive economic, social and conservation benefits of sustainable wildlife use. They should explain how these positive impacts extend even to individuals who do not themselves hunt, and to those who oppose hunting.’
A further justification is, bluntly put: ‘if it pays, it stays’. Income from hunting, say supporters, can pre-empt the economic incentive to convert land into agriculture or build upon it. ‘A lot of land kept for hunting is not suitable for tourism, it can be remote, or too scrubby,’ says Roe. Tourism also requires high-density wildlife populations to guarantee viewing, high capital investment and infrastructure such as hotels, food and water supply and waste management. ‘Tourism is also quite fickle – if an area becomes politically insecure or there’s an outbreak of Ebola, then tourism falls away. What do you do then?’
Yet, aside from the ethics of taking the life of a wild animal, hunting has plenty of pitfalls, including weak governance, corruption, a lack of transparency, excessive quotas, illegal hunting and poor monitoring. In a 2017 paper titled International Consensus Principles for Ethical Wildlife Control, the Society for Conservation Biology also identified ‘acute stress and injury from live trapping; prolonged fear, thirst, and hunger from relocation; pain and suffering before loss of consciousness; starvation of dependent young, and disruption to social groups and ecological systems.’
From a Western perspective it can be easy to assume that the over-arching problem is one of over-population and poorly managed urban areas, which bring humans into conflict with animals. That may be true, but the West, and the UK in particular, is in no position to lecture. The island of Britain has, over the centuries, overseen the local extinction of bears, wolves, lynx and sea eagles.
In the UK, thanks to the absence of top predators, the deer population has swollen to around two million. Deer trample and eat crops; carry ticks that transmit lyme disease to humans; trample fragile peatlands; and by grazing woodlands and plants have contributed to the decline of some woodland birds. Some sources associate them with 50,000 traffic accidents annually.
In January this year, a coalition of Scottish conservation groups called for legally enforceable culls of deer, while raising the prospect of local communities becoming more involved in shooting and killing deer for food. ‘Natural systems have kept things in balance for millennia but they are now out of kilter,’ says Born Free’s Mark Jones. ‘The UK is a classic example – it has basically removed the top predators. With no natural limits, the prey animals expand and damage the wider environment. People can think the issue of hunting only applies to Africa or Asia. But we are trying to prevent the mistakes we have made in the West being made elsewhere. Even in the UK, deer stalking is effectively trophy hunting.’
Hunting can also be symptomatic of a societal attitude towards wildlife and perceived risk. When a lynx escaped from a Welsh animal park in 2017, the local council authorised a marksman to shoot it dead, even though it posed no danger to the public.
POWER TO COMMUNITIES
Of all the animals caught up in hunting, it is the African elephant that draws most attention. Botswana is home to the world’s largest African elephant population and, last year, the government found itself under fire from conservationists when it announced the end of its five-year ban on elephant hunting.
By and large, the Botswanan moratorium had been enforced meaningfully, with anti-poaching units given military-grade weapons and a shoot-to-kill mandate towards poachers. The ban also enabled opponents of hunting to show there were alternative means of curtailing the negative impacts of elephants – principally their roaming through valuable livestock and crops.
Now however, the ban has gone – the government chose the oddly sanitised euphemism ‘selective cropping’ to describe the new regime. Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism cited the increasing prevalence of human-elephant conflict as justification, but Born Free is sceptical. ‘The claimed population increases just don’t stack up,’ says Jones. ‘Are we saying the elephant population has jumped in just four years? That just doesn’t happen. The new government has its own agenda.’
In any case, argues Jones, feasible alternatives, such as contraception for elephants, exist. Other tried and tested measures include fences, colonies of bees and dung bricks embedded with chilli. ‘Elephants hate chilli and they really don’t like bees,’ says Jones. ‘By setting up aviaries, local people can deter elephants and earn more income from the honey.’
Such measures, though, can simply displace the conflict elsewhere, in the way that a sea wall just pushes the inundation further down the coast. ‘Human-wildlife conflicts often occur from human activity and we should be looking at co-existence,’ says Jones. ‘When you have a “problem” animal like a lion, it may be the problem is not the animal behaviour but the actions of humans. We have to think beyond the approach that it is the animal that is the problem. Usually it is because humans have changed the local land use. Wild animals are only trying to survive. Can you mitigate things by changing the human behaviour?’
‘Trophy hunting is utterly hypocritical,’ says Dr Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of Wildlife Direct, a conservation non-profit based in the US and Kenya. ‘It’s steeped in colonial history. If local people hunt animals they do it for food, not for pleasure.’
Nevertheless, advocates of trophy hunting say it can be a legitimate form of wildlife management. ‘I know there are always examples of totally unacceptable hunting, and people quite rightly think that a trophy hunter standing on top of a kill is gruesome, but it is a really complex story,’ says Dr Dilys Roe, chair of the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). She points to the Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe, as an example of trophy hunting that makes a positive long-term difference. The conservancy covers 375,000 hectares and 25 years ago it was home to cattle and working farms. Then it was bought out and converted into a private reservation funded entirely by trophy hunting. Wildlife including lions, cheetah, elephants and giraffe were introduced and rhino translocated. Visitors pay US$3,000 to shoot a strictly controlled number of lions. The lion population in Bubye valley has risen from 17 to 500. The black rhinos generate no income – they are not hunted and there is no photographic tourism – and yet cost well over $1million a year to protect from poachers. ‘Where does that money come from? Trophy hunting. Not many tourists would cough up that kind of money,’ says Roe. ‘If decisions to ban or restrict trophy hunting are taken, there is a need to identify and implement in advance viable alternative long-term sources of livelihood.’
Roe acknowledges the inherent practical problems that bedevil hunting. ‘More needs to be done to professionalise hunting – professional hunters recognise this and they despair when they see trophy hunters standing on top of their kill.’
Yet the charity Born Free counters that trophy hunters rarely target problem, infirm or old animals. ‘Hunters want the most charismatic stag as a trophy, the super-tusker elephant, the lion with the most striking mane. Important individuals get taken out. That can then lead to altered behaviour among the animals and to more conflict with humans,’ says Mark Jones, head of policy at the charity. ‘Often local people oppose it but are unable to prevent it because of vested local interests – because some people get a cut of the trophy fee.’
This risks one of the major pitfalls and false steps made by conservationists over decades – that Westerners tell black Africans that the conservationists know best and the local population is getting it wrong. ‘Everyone involved needs to be mindful that solutions are found at the local level,’ says Jones. Born Free employs its Kenyan staff to work with communities. ‘It’s not us in the UK doing this,’ Jones adds. ‘Using local knowledge is incredibly important. It’s a case of understanding what the problems are and working with local communities. Lions and other predators such as hyenas take livestock such as sheep, cattle and goats. These are valuable to their owners.’
Paula Kahumbu, of Wildlife Direct, also recognises this narrative and where it can lead: ‘When there’s a documentary about poaching, it shows the African as the bad guy who ends up behind bars – but local people are not heartless. Most human-wildlife conflict is retaliatory and happens because they feel no-one listens or helps them when they lose their wheat. They are told to provide their land for wildlife tourism but they do not see any reward. The landscapes and the wildlife have been taken away from local people.
‘You see women and men selling souvenirs around the edges of national parks, begging tourists to buy – that’s not a way out of poverty, they don’t have real jobs. We need creative and imaginative solutions to support people who are suffering in our wildlife corridors. We must return the assets back to the communities, so they become part of the solution.’
Increasingly, examples of this can be found. In Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, the conservation charity Big Life compensates herders for a percentage of the market value of animals lost to a predator and operates three patrol vehicles that venture out at night where farmland meets wildlife habitat. This compensation is significant to the Maasai, and retaliatory killings have been dramatically reduced in the area, with lion and other predator populations now on the rise. Thunder flashes (harmless noisy pyrotechnic deterrents) are handed to farmers to help them protect their crops. The construction of fence-lined corridors enables elephants to seamlessly pass by communities without incident.
Kahumbu believes longer-term solutions to human-wildlife conflict will require a fundamental shift in power towards local communities. ‘There is a need to transform the way conservation operates in Africa,’ she says. ‘National governments need to recognise the role played by local communities and reward them with greater involvement in tourism opportunities.’ Current problems arise, she says, when ‘villagers have no say in wildlife tourism and see no benefit from an industry that is highly lucrative for a few individuals.’
Crucially, according to Kahumbu, involvement in tourism acts as a form of compensation for villagers and means they can afford and accept the occasional loss of livestock. ‘There would be no tourism in places such as Amboseli if local communities said they were not going to tolerate elephants going through their land,’ she says. ‘Foreign landlords make vast amounts of money from wildlife tourism while the people who live there eke out a living grazing goats and cattle. I have not found in Kenya a single community involved in a tourism project with the government.’
Such conservation programmes have their place, agrees the IUCN’s Roe. ‘It’s a fair comment,’ she says. ‘But the decision of the community will vary from place to place. Some will actively choose the [trophy] hunting option rather than tourism. If you are empowering a community to make their own choices you can’t then take away that right if you disagree with what they do.’
A different debate about hunting is currently playing out in the United States, where the Trump administration is seeking to remove all remaining federal protection, in the form of the Endangered Species Act, from gray wolves.
The gray wolf, an iconic species of the American West, had all but disappeared from landscapes in the lower 48 states by the early 20th century but now roams free in nine states.
Wolves number an estimated 3,700 in the Great Lakes region, 1,600 in the Northern Rockies and 275 in the Pacific Northwest. ‘After four decades of intense conservation effort, there is no doubt wolves are thriving in some areas, though they still occupy only about 20 per cent of their historic range,’ says Shane Mahoney, CEO of Conservation Visions in the US.
Yet, wolves also take livestock, causing problems for farmers, and wolf hunting has been on the rise. According to Earthjustice, around 3,500 wolves have been killed since 2011 in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming following the loss of federal protections. Hunting has already reduced Wyoming’s wolf population by 25 per cent, according to the Sierra Club, a US-based environmental organisation.
Following the proposed delisting, the US Fish and Wildlife Service received what may be an unprecedented 1.8 million public comments as well as a letter signed by 100 scientists opposing the move. The final decision is still awaited.
‘Proponents of wolf hunting say gray wolves no longer meet the standard for protection and so should be delisted,’ says Mahoney. ‘There is significant scientific data to support the assertion that well-monitored, legal hunting and trapping can be regulated as a management tool, to prevent eradication or steep declines in predator or other targeted species numbers and sometimes even to reduce human-wildlife conflict,’ he adds.
The return of wolves has improved the environment, primarily because they predate on elk. With less grazing pressure from elk, willow and aspen are regenerating after decades of over-browsing; in turn this creates better habitat for native birds, fish, beaver and other species. Wolves have also reduced Yellowstone’s coyote population by up to 50 per cent, triggering an increased population of pronghorn and red fox.
The fear of the Sierra Club is that wolves could be trophy hunted in every state where they’re found – regardless of whether they’ve actually recovered in a given area. But, despite rogue cases, Mahoney believes most hunters are law-abiding, with a respect for and love of wildlife and wild places. ‘There is really no historic evidence to suggest that regulated hunting has caused the extirpation of carnivores,’ he says, ‘though certainly unregulated hunting, trapping or poisoning efforts definitely have.
‘While returning wolves to all their historic ranges may seem desirable, it is impractical given the land conversions and human population density increases that have occurred across the US,’ Mahoney continues. ‘There are limits to how many large carnivores can be maintained on today’s landscapes.’
Opponents of hunting say that other deterrents are just as effective and include construction of turbo-fladry (lines of rope mounted along the top of a fence, from which are suspended strips of fabric or coloured flags that will flap in a breeze) and livestock guard dogs. ‘There are always alternatives; but often we need a cocktail of them to be effective,’ says Mahoney. ‘Improved land-use planning – protecting key areas for wildlife, creating buffer zones, and investing in alternative land uses – is perhaps the most important long-term solution, alongside sustainable wildlife management, or hunting.’
PREDATOR PROOF PROTECTION
Kenya’s Amboseli Ecosystem is one of the richest wildlife areas in all of Africa and a stronghold for lions. But, in Kenya alone, their numbers have plummeted from 10,000 in the 1980s to only about 2,000 today. Amboseli is a hotspot for human-lion conflict, and this is one of the main threats to their survival.
Livestock predation is a serious problem for the Maasai people living in Amboseli. The loss of a single animal can deprive the Maasai of their livelihood and some community members retaliate by poisoning and spearing lions. Between 2001 and 2006, an average of 18 lions were killed per year.
Born Free’s Pride of Amboseli programme has been working in the region since 2010 to reduce human-lion conflict and promote co-existence. Central to this approach is the construction of predator-proof livestock enclosures, known as bomas.
Each boma consists of a ring of strong poles, spaced three metres apart, then a two-metre high hexagonal steel wire mesh. The entire boma is constructed with recycled materials: doors are made from old metal drums, door hinges are cut from old car tyres or old Maasai sandals, and posts are made from recycled plastic. The process is based on a cost-sharing approach, whereby communities contribute towards the cost of the materials while also providing labour.
In 2015, Born Free began adding ‘smart’ components to the bomas, including solar lighting, energy-saving stoves and water harvesting structures to enhance rural development. To date, Born Free has built 275 bomas, protecting 5,800 people and 83,000 livestock; no livestock has been killed. Lion numbers are rebounding: there are now approximately 200 individuals, up from an estimated 50 at the beginning of the programme.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE HUNT
Compensation for loss of animals is just one way in which humans can be encouraged to desist from hunting. More radical measures include the concept of a Conservation Basic Income, which works along the lines of a Universal Basic Income, with unconditional payments to help people meet their basic needs and thus have more livelihood options.
Roe is sympathetic to such approaches, which get bunched under the term ‘Payment for Ecological Services’ (or PES schemes). ‘These can prove useful for drumming up investments or voluntary contributions from governments, philanthropists and the private sector,’ she says.
Roe points to the Sustainable Amazon Fund (FAS) in Brazil’s Amazonas State, which aims ‘to make forests worth more standing than cut’. FAS was paid £7m by a combination of government and corporate funding (including Coca-Cola) with the quid pro quo being community commitment to conservation measures such as carbon sequestration, water filtration and biodiversity and soil conservation. Villagers are also required to undergo training in entrepreneurship and community-based environmental conservation and children required to attend school.
In a study released this spring (2020) for the Luc Hoffmann Institute, Roe and her colleagues identified some other, decidedly unconventional projects that incentivise conservation outside of protected areas. These included impact investing, online games and blockchain [bitcoin] schemes.
Online game options include a project by Zooterra, which issues digital collectible tokens (called terra), each associated with one hectare of a natural area from around the world. Proceeds from each terra directly support a specific project. As players collect more terras and project badges, they reach higher levels. For every token purchased, a player gains access to exclusive content about the project they are supporting. Whether such projects can work at a greater scale remains uncertain. ‘There are no easy or obvious alternatives that generate benefits at the scale and geographic spread of trophy hunting and tourism,’ says Roe, ‘all have limitations and all are likely to be appropriate only in certain contexts.’
Can a balance between humans and wildlife be struck? One source of optimism is that the amount of protected land available to wildlife has doubled in Kenya since the 1970s and now comprises 6.3 million hectares and 160 conservancies. ‘This is so important,’ says Kahumbu. ‘When land is gone, carved up and sold, it’s gone and very hard to put back into one big conservation area. But species can recover quite quickly from low numbers – a lioness can have seven cubs.’
TAJIKISTAN'S SNOW LEOPARDS
In Tajikistan, hunting of markhor antelope and ibex (wild goats) raises money to pay game guards to protect these species against poaching. Previously decimated, these populations are now recovering, as is their key predator, the snow leopard. Supporters of managed trophy hunting are convinced that the practice has driven the recovery of all three species. Poaching and overgrazing became serious problems under Soviet and post-Soviet regimes, leading to declines in snow leopards, while ibex dwindled to barely 200 individuals in 2009. Eight conservancies have been set up in far-flung, poor areas, where traditional lifestyles are largely dependent on natural resources. Each ibex hunt (5-10/year) generates, after government permit fees and other expenses, US$2,000 for the conservancy. Of this, 30 per cent is invested in local community development projects. Markhor hunt (2-4 per year) command even higher fees. Today the areas are home to around 2,500 ibex, 2,000 markhor (there is no data for markhor pre-2009), as well as 70 snow leopards. Around 300 jobs are directly provided, with 20,000 community members benefiting indirectly in the form of camps, bridges, better roads, better equipped and functioning schools. If trophy hunting and trade in the area was stopped, advocates say that the livelihood impacts would be severe, and grazing and poaching would increase.
HERE TO STAY
With the human population continuing to grow, human-wildlife conflict is not going away. Solutions that secure space and livelihoods for both are increasingly necessary. ‘It is very easy to be pessimistic,’ says Jones. ‘It would be naïve to say we should move back to some utopian age from hundreds of years ago. That’s not a sensible way to think. Things are going to change. But we need to look at how we manage that change, in order to help people out of poverty and thrive while maintaining nature and biodiversity. This needs to happen for its own sake and also so that nature can provide us with food, clean air and clean water.’
Kahumbu acknowledges the pressures of increasing populations. ‘We do need to plan our urban areas better,’ she says. ‘The problem is that Kenya and other countries are in a hurry to develop – and wildlife and the environment gets painted as a threat to that. Everyone rightly wants development – jobs and good roads – but it’s a false case to say that conservation is at loggerheads with that aim. If we lose our wildlife and culture we lose our identity. Wildlife tourism is a huge part of development – it’s one sector where you don’t need a degree to have a good job.’
Conflict between humans and wildlife is essentially, most observers agree, a symptom of a deeper problem. ‘If you somehow stopped all hunting overnight you would still have a problem with animal decline,’ says Roe. ‘It’s not just about hunting or tourism or some other “better” or more innovative means of dealing with animals, it’s a much bigger issue.’
That bigger picture, argues Roe, is that the major driver of biodiversity loss is loss of habitat due to the conversion of land to agriculture and the impact of urban development. ‘Our global economic system is broken when it comes to recognising the value of nature and trying to help it. We need a fundamental change to our economic system, what we value, how we value it and what we invest in. At the moment we’re just applying a sticking plaster.’
Ultimately, though, Jones feels that hunting is a particularly uncomfortable manifestation of that far bigger problem. ‘Many societies increasingly realise that animals are sentient and we need to be mindful of the damage we cause to them, not least because that also can damage us,’ he says. ‘If we get better at recognising this and the needs of animals, we will get better at managing biodiversity and that will benefit us in the long term.’
Hunting though, suggests Mahoney, is here to stay in one form or another. ‘Hunting may be perceived as irrelevant – a cruel anachronism in today’s modern world,’ he says. ‘Yet all world fisheries are hunts; and billions of people rely on wild harvested foods, that signify animal death; there is no death-free card to swipe in the wild theatre of food provisioning.
‘Human-wildlife conflict is real. Those who scream for the exterminator when a field mouse invades or a cockroach scurries, might be a little more empathetic for those who live with the beasts that will naturally confront, kill and consume us.’