Recent controversies over trophy hunting and the killing of wild animals in Africa have brought the question of whether or not such hunting should be allowed to the forefront of international debate. (Photo: Michela Ravasio/Stocksy)
Climbing through tall grass fields, over hot sands and rocks to summit a steep “koppie,” as the natives call these hills in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal reserve, Brad Hempkins sighted a majestic kudu through the scope of his rifle. As Hempkins told Yahoo Travel, the kudu is an animal he had “always admired,” with its sweeping, twisting horns, artistic thin white stripes on the body, tufts of fur like a beard. To go on an African safari to hunt and “harvest” a creature like this for a trophy had been a “lifelong dream” for Hempkins since he was a young man reading Hemingway at home in Texas.
Hempkins shot the kudu and another half dozen of the plentiful “plains game” species found on the large game preserve during the trip, for which he had researched and saved for years. The self-professed “Joe Average Hunter” had trophy heads brought back to camp, along with cuts of meat for the barbecue and a zebra skin for his wife. What he didn’t keep, the “grateful” drivers, trackers, and guides took for their own use. “Literally nothing was wasted,” he told Yahoo.
Protesters from Animal Rights Coalition and Minnesota Animal Liberation gather in front of the dental practice of Walter Palmer on July 29, 2015, in Bloomington, Minn. Palmer is accused of killing Cecil, a beloved lion, in Zimbabwe. (Photo: Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
Contrast Hempkins’s hunt with the now infamous killing of Cecil the lion, the recent $350,000 auctioned permit for hunting and killing an endangered rhino, the Trump family’s extended killing holiday, and the epidemic of poaching in Africa (including a recent slaughter of baby elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park). Incidents like these — combined with expansion of human populations overrunning wild-animal ecosystems — have caused many species to plummet rapidly toward extinction.
The question is, are Hempkins and other responsible hunters like him part of the problem? Or the solution? Why do supposedly pro-wildlife organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) actually support trophy hunting of threatened species in Africa? Rogue killings like Cecil’s aside, and dodging the moral question about the ethics of killing animals for sport, is there a legitimate environmental reason to allow these hunters to hunt?
At home in the U.S., Hempkins and 691,000 other hunters are members of Ducks Unlimited, a “green hunting” organization that has conserved more than 13 million acres of wetlands environments since 1937, dramatically increasing the populations of ducks. Yes, the group’s ulterior motive is to have an unlimited supply of ducks available to be shot, but the net result has been more ducks and more habitat to go along with all those duck dinners.
U.K. hunter David Barrett with an elephant he shot dead in 2009 in Zimbabwe. Barrett, a 59-year-old former civil servant, has traveled the world hunting big-game animals. He has killed more than 300 animals, including three elephants in Zimbabwe, one hippo in Mozambique, and 14 buffalo. (Photo: Barcroft Media /Barcoft Media via Getty Images)
Could this model of eco-hunting partnership work to preserve and increase animal populations in Africa? Hunting groups say it is the “only way.” Animal lovers say “no way.” Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation at Duke University’s School of the Environment, says, “It’s complicated.”
“There is no clear-cut answer,” Pimm told Yahoo Travel. While he says hunting has the potential to bring needed money to local communities and environmental efforts without hurting animal populations, he adds, “All this supposes that hunting is done in a sustainable way.”
That’s a challenge for poor countries with limited resources — even if the officials from those countries are sincerely interested in anything but pocketing the hunting fees. Craig Packer, University of Minnesota professor of ecology and author of the book Lions in the Balance, told Yahoo Travel, “Very rarely does the small revenue stream even make it to the villages,” where it is promised, due to government and business corruption.
It’s probably no coincidence, then, that Cecil’s hunt took place in Zimbabwe, ruled by the cartoonishly corrupt Robert Mugabe and his family. “I’ve seen plenty of examples of dead goats or donkeys, strung up on trees, just outside national parks. This allows hunting guides to take their clients to a place where it’s easy to find a lion or leopard reaching up to grab the meat and then shoot it at close range,” Pimm told Yahoo.
Organizations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (which has filed a lawsuit) have issued strong statements against hunting of endangered species any place for any reason, while other groups are calling for a boycott of Namibia until its hunting policies have changed.
The WWF, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and several naturalists have officially endorsed the Namibian hunting policy and that of other nations, “working within the legal framework and local realities,” of those countries. But the “local reality” within these countries, is, as Pimm would say, “complicated.” WWF’s former communications specialist in Namibia, Helge Denker is an outspoken supporter of the benefits of legal, regulated hunting. But his brother also happens to run African Hunting Safaris and is president of the Namibian Professional Hunting Association, which Denker has also represented.
Controversy has surrounded the WWF, which is known for its fight to protect the world’s panda population but which also supports hunting of exotic animals. (Photo: Stéfan/Flickr)
Airlines serve as an enabler of the trophy trade, and the response has been mixed: South Africa Airlines recently instituted a ban on transport of animal trophies on its flights, and Emirates followed with its own ban. But pressures from the hunting lobby caused SAA to rescind the ban. Delta Airlines at first maintained its policy of shipping all legal animal trophies, then backtracked after a petition from frequent fliers and the negative publicity surrounding Cecil.
A professional hunter poses for a picture next to the trophy animal she shot — a blesbok antelope — on a safari in Namibia. (Photo: Johan Jooste/Alamy)
The view from the locals
But what are the realities in the field? I recently traveled through Namibia and heard anecdotal stories from people on both sides of the hunting issue. I visited several private game reserves supporting rhino and cheetah populations — and their hunting. Some skeptical locals told me they thought the hunting fees mostly go to line the pockets of corrupt local officials (Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story). Local Neil Mazenge was quoted by environmentalist CJ Carrington as saying about a sanctioned elephant hunt that “only the ones in office benefit from such a stupid decision.”
Not surprisingly, local hunting operations heartily endorse the theory that more hunting means more animals. Carola Oelofse, of the family owning the Mount Etjo Safari Lodge and its hunting area, responded to my queries to say, “We do not feel that we should have to justify our decisions,” given that the lands are “teeming” with game animals despite 40 years of hunting. This resort simultaneously runs eco-themed animal-viewing safaris for some tourists while having the same species killed by visitors to the hunting lodge in a separate part of the property.
However, Monica Grüttemeyer, manager of tour operator Namibia Tracks and Trails, told me in a statement that they “do not condone the hunting of any of these animals under any circumstances, but also recognize the right of hunting companies to operate within the framework of the Namibian law.”
The debate is not only on land: A huge seal population lines Namibian ocean shores, providing a good photo op for eco-tourists. It’s also the site of an annual seal slaughter, with tens of thousands of baby seals being clubbed to death for fur. Again, the government says this practice is “pro-environment” because the seal habitat is protected for this purpose, and the overall seal numbers remain high. Some question the economic need (and moral justification) for this practice, given that only 80 people are employed to do the clubbing and are organizing campaigns to fight this slaughter.
Recent incidents have created concern that even legal hunting in countries like Tanzania and Zimbabwe is not being properly managed. (Photo: iStock)
What are the results?
It should be easy to measure the success of hunting programs — just count the animals. But even this basic process becomes complicated with the politics involved, as well as measuring the impact of poaching and population shifts. Some of the numbers seem to support the government hunting policies — the WWF says the rhino population has tripled in Namibia since 1982, and the country has the largest free-roaming cheetah population in the world. Rosie Cooney of the International Union for Conservation of Nature says “the data are unequivocal” that trophy hunting is a “fundamental pillar” to supporting growth in animal populations and the finances help communities. Pimm cited to Yahoo the growing population of more than 400 cheetahs on private reserves in South Africa, equal to the number in the largest national park.
But another study by Economists at Large categorically rejects these claims, as does the research of several other biologists, including Packer, who spent decades studying lion populations in Tanzania. While lion populations have dramatically dropped in anti-hunting Kenya, Packer told Yahoo, “Hunting may actually have helped drive down the lions even faster in Tanzania than in Kenya, but the Tanzanian government is engaged in a serious cover-up — just like they did with the elephant surveys the past few years.”
So it’s hard to know who to trust when it comes to measuring the net effect of hunting.
Given the role of the private, fenced-in game reserves, in a couple of generations, well-managed hunting destinations like Namibia and South Africa may become no more than giant land-based versions of a country-club trout pond, except well-stocked with cheetah and rhino for the amusement of hunters. For some, this would be a perfectly acceptable outcome — at least some of the species and environment have been preserved. Others find this hunting model ethically troubling and environmentally questionable.
A herd of bonteboks in Mount Etjo Park, Namibia. (Photo: Getty Images)
Two factors will drive the future of the hunt: money and public opinion. Change will happen only as individuals vote with their wallets and the majority choose either hunting safaris or eco tours, or skip visits to certain countries altogether.
Countries such as Kenya, Botswana, and Zambia have instituted total or partial trophy hunt bans, in efforts to attract eco-tourism dollars in support of their policies. Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, and Zimbabwe are trying to have it all by combining hunting with eco-safaris in the same general areas.
As the scientists argue, lobbyists ply their trade, and dollars flow across borders, the deciding factor may be, a dozen years from now, how cool will it be to have a lion’s head mounted on your wall?
WATCH: Meet the Men Fighting to Save South Africa’s Rhinos from Poaching
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