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Image courtesy of The Independent
On 7 February 2020, Botswana held their first auction of items obtained through elephant hunts since a ban was lifted last year. Widespread disgust and criticism was quick to appear in response. Animal welfare concerns follow the trophy hunting debate tirelessly, and there is no doubt that ego-driven murder of wildlife is barbaric and outdated. Where there is doubt though, is whether a ban is the best option for all parties. It’s imperative to include local communities in this decision, and this consideration is largely missing from many views on the ‘sport’.
Such is the intensity with which animal welfare is championed, human welfare appears to fall down the agenda. It is possible to disagree with the sport of trophy hunting on moral grounds whilst appreciating the community benefits it brings, although many seem unable to do so. As with a great many issues in this day and age, polarisation has taken a firm grip over trophy hunting. If you’re for it, you’re a morally bankrupt animal killer. Those who consider themselves pro-animals, often at the heart of many people’s self-perceived identity, are threatened by the notion of accepting that such a barbaric act might have benefits.
Conservation is not exclusive to wildlife and implementing conservation initiatives and strategies has unavoidable impacts on the local communities. To prioritise wildlife over these groups instead of treating them equally only serves to exacerbate potential for conflict. Communities can grow resentful towards wildlife if money and resources are directed away from them and towards the animals.
However romanticised the Western view of characteristic megafauna (like elephants, giraffes and zebras) is, the reality is somewhat different. Last year, in Zimbabwe, elephants were responsible for 30 deaths. The majority were the breadwinners for their families. In Botswana, they killed 38 people in 2018, and are reported to have destroyed a season’s worth of crops in a single night. It is difficult to equate the magnitude of that loss to anything we experience in the developed world.
Published in Science, community trust leaders in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, expressed concern about Western-catalysed hunting bans: “if wildlife is just a threat to us, and our incentives to conserve it are removed, its future will be…bleak”. If the benefits to the community of trophy hunting, which compensate for and reduce the threat wildlife poses, are removed, only the threat remains. The African communities right to self-determination should not be undermined by conservationists who allow their romanticised spectacles to cloud judgement. Critical thinking and emotional detachment are vital when assessing human-wildlife conflicts at a species level.
Local communities are provided with meat from kills, employment opportunities, and, according to them, reduced human-wildlife conflict through hunting. What right do Western conservationists and NGO’s have to deny communities this? From the local perspective, it is just another example of foreigners prioritising pests over people.
No one can be certain that trophy hunting is beneficial to conservation. What can be said for certain is that community-led initiatives aided by the global knowledge and expertise of conservation agencies are the way forward, in order to create sustainable change beneficial to all.
Western attitudes towards trophy hunting must be tempered by pragmatic African voices, those who would be directly affected by a ban, and who live daily with the wildlife we spend our lives dreaming of seeing. One cringes at endorsing trophy hunting, but foolish or misguided is the conservationist who ignores the community voice on the matter.