Skip to content

In an insightful analysis of the dynamics of trophy hunting, Ian McCallum in Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature, has this to say: ‘It is difficult to argue against the proposition that trophy hunting is more about reinforcing dominance than creating joy, more about approval than creativity, more about aggression than assertion. To me, there is no poetry in trophy hunting. The “special feeling”, because of the absence of play, is one of power, which means that these hunters can never be satisfied – they can never get enough of it. It becomes a habit, and an addictive one at that.’

McCallum’s book comes at a juncture when the trophy hunting industry finds itself under ever-increasing scrutiny, and it adds to the questions being asked about the motivations of these hunters and of the role hunting plays in a society far-removed from one in which the ‘great white hunter’ was sanctioned. It also coincides with developments within hunt-ing and wildlife management forums in both South Africa and East Africa.

In the light of these developments, it’s worth looking again at what lies at the core of the hunting debate. While there are some who seek an outright ban on hunting, neither this magazine nor I have ever called for that. We have simply reported on the abuses and contradictions that take place within the industry, and have facilitated debate on the premise and principles under which it justifies its activities. (It’s worth noting that the industry comprises two parties – the operator or breeder and the hunter or client – each with his own interests and agenda.) In this regard there are two broad categories to consider: the conservation and protection of biodiversity, and the more emotional concerns relating to ethics and philosophy. In many instances they cannot be separated, particularly when control and regulation break down and abuse sets in.

Under the broadly defined banner of sustainable utilisation and the ‘wise use’ principle, hunting is still regarded by many as an acceptable component of South Africa’s wildlife resource management. The uneasy consensus ends here, however, as these terms have been interpreted and applied in very different ways. The result is that while some operators and wild animal breeders conduct their businesses with respect towards wild creatures, others show precious little concern for the animals in their care. And the targets of McCallum’s opening statement, those who are addicted to collecting trophies, are a massive pool of hunters, mostly wealthy people from outside Africa, who pay large sums of money to bag whatever is next on their wish list. In short, the debate concerns an industry that is seemingly less and less about hunting as a form of wildlife management, and more and more about the production and pursuit of trophies at any cost.

This world has long since changed from the one in which trophy or sport hunting was born. Yes, hunting has been around since Man was able to wield a club, but then it helped us to acquire the food and clothing that was key to our evolutionary development. As we moved to a more sedentary life, we started to trade, which stretched the rewards of the hunt beyond filling our need for protein and protection. Skins, tusks, teeth, horns and shells became goods for barter, then a measure of wealth and status. The leap from pot to trophy accelerated with the process of European-dominated colonialism where shooting large numbers of wild animals was accepted as an occupational requirement. In the slaughter that took place, some hunters collected specimens for museums and private natural history collections, but many pursued hunting as a quixotic diversion. This, in essence, spawned what is today a multi-million dollar industry that targets everything from doves to elephants.

And, no matter how you view what took place then, very little remains of that era today. The landscapes no longer teem with wild animals, our relationship with the natural world has fundamentally changed and so too has the romanticised nature of the hunt. It is no longer the animals that are ‘dangerous’, but the hunter, the notion of ‘fair chase’ is fast becoming obsolete and, in the not-too-distant future, so will that of a truly wild animal. And, in a telling twist of fate (the implications of which seem to have bypassed the hunting fraternity), many of the species that remain at the top of the trophy hunter’s wish lists also happen to be potent symbols of conservation and the fight to secure the planet’s biodiversity.

For many people, these misgivings are also based on a high level of mistrust towards the industry, brought about by documented abuses and over-exploitation, and are fed by a perception that the industry is seemingly unwilling or unable to control itself. A lack of transparency in certain organisations and countries (Tanzania, for example), does nothing to alleviate the sentiment.

It is this mistrust that undermines the acceptance of programmes under-taken by hunting bodies in the name of conservation. Initiatives that support certain causes – contributing towards the costs of tracking down the giant sable antelope, breeding game birds and setting aside land – are treated with suspicion because the perception is that hunters want these species to remain or be placed on the trophy list, and are simply engineering more wilderness in which to hunt. While to some the distinction between conserving for biodiversity and conserving for trophies may be subtle, in the field the ramifications of this distinction are grossly apparent.

The sector in which they are most evident is South Africa’s canned hunting industry. Regular readers of Africa Geographic will be familiar with its horrors as the magazine has given it extensive coverage. Its future is presently in the hands of a panel, appointed by South Africa’s Minister for Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk. It has been tasked with advising him on the formulation of legislation that will control what the minister described as ‘this despicable practice’. This comes after the minister rejected the original draft on the Regulations for the Sustainable Utilisation of Large Predators because it ‘did not go far enough to remove this cancer from our society’.

As these issues are still being debated, the arguments against the industry are worth repeating. While the act of a canned hunt is abhor-rent, even more disturbing are the indefensible breeding and management practices carried out by many of those who supply the animals. These include the cross-breeding of species (lions with tigers) and sub-species (blesbok with bontebok), repetitive in-breeding for sought-after genetic strains (white lion) and forced breeding against natural biological cycles (removing week-old cubs from lionesses to induce another cycle).

Animals are drugged and moved across veterinary boundaries, species are introduced into areas far removed from their natural environments and are even stolen from national parks for their breeding potential. They (particularly predators) are often kept in cages and confined enclosures.

The industry web extends beyond the fences and includes numerous facilitators – the annual auctions, certain vets and relocation companies, and the authorities who issue permits. In summary, these practices have absolutely no bearing on conservation and the protection of biodiversity, and to most people they are immoral and unethical. What is taking place is human over natural selection and has everything to do with exploiting wild animals for financial gain. And it happens because there is a vast market of hunters prepared to pay substantially to obtain animal trophies. I believe that these practices are starting to domesticate wild animals and, at the very least, they contradict all the usual justifications for hunting.

So why are we entertaining a process that seeks to regulate and monitor behaviour as objectionable as this? Surely an outright ban would be more appropriate? Well, there are two likely reasons. Firstly, the industry has been allowed to flourish and form a lobby based on economic factors, especially job creation. Secondly, I believe these practices are tacitly supported by groups within the hunting industry and people in positions of power. The shameful reality is that if people had acted with conviction when they should have, this situation could have been avoided.

Despite statements voicing their disapproval after the Cooke Report first exposed the horrors of canned hunting in 1997, government authorities and pro-fessional hunting bodies have turned a blind eye. This inactivity has allowed canned hunting to establish itself, and today the South African wildlife management community has a monster on its hands that may prove impossible to curb.

But an even worse scenario may lie ahead if any form of acceptance and legalisation through policy imple-mentation is allowed. The canned hunting industry could be the thin edge of a much larger commercialisation wedge. Between outright canned hunting operations and true conservation projects lies much blurred ground.

Landowners who breed wildlife on lands once tilled or stocked with do-mestic species did not always change through conservation convictions, but rather for financial gain. In these instances, the selective breeding of lucrative trophy animals on heavily fenced farms will no doubt benefit the population statistics of those particular species, but will do little to protect biodiversity. Although the conservation flag is flown to ensure public acceptance, some of these farms only breed trophy animals to be shot or sold on auction. Who knows what may transpire when what is now known as the canned hunting industry becomes accepted practice through legislation? One can only hope that the panel takes the nature of commodity markets into their considerations. It is also not far-fetched to speculate that canned hunting will soon make its way to Botswana, Namibia and further north.

Much further north, in Kenya, trophy hunting has been under a moratorium since 1977, imposed by then president Jomo Kenyatta because of widespread abuse and corruption. Most within the industry supported the move at the time, but felt it should have been lifted after a full investigation and a tightening of the laws and controls.

This lobby may finally be successful. In December 2004, a bill was intro-duced into the Kenyan parliament that, among other things, proposed the re-introduction of trophy hunting. Although rejected by President Mwai Kibaki, the bill has been returned to the various role players for further review, a process that continues and has brought new energy to the debate in Kenya.

The arguments for and against a re-introduction are not dissimilar to those in South Africa, but there is one major distinction – at present, wildlife in Kenya cannot be privately owned. There is no doubt that this will become an issue – for the pro-hunting lobby, the financial value lies in being able to claim ownership. For those against trophy hunting, ownership suggests a South African-type scenario, while for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the body that manages the country’s wildlife resources, it is about ensuring that it is not disenfranchised.

At the moment, opinion among Kenyan stakeholders seems to be evenly split. Pointing to statistics that indicate that Kenya has lost over 50 per cent of its large mammal populations in the past 25 years, those in favour of a re-introduction stress the role hunting would play in increasing the value of wildlife. They believe it is foremost an economic issue, and that economics, with hunting as a major financial contributor, will provide the incentive to protect wild animals. Among these voices, though, are those who are concerned about con-trolling abuses. In its present state, KWS is not seen as a viable protector and there are fears that the industry is not capable of self-regulation.

Those against trophy hunting also fret about the decline in wildlife populations and believe economics to be the major issue, but for very different reasons. For them, gross mismanagement and government corruption over the past two decades have produced inordinately high levels of poverty, which in turn has placed unsustainable human pressures on the wilderness in general.

Pointing to the high poaching levels that drive a thriving bush meat trade and the rate of deforestation, they contend that the government urgently needs to address the socio-economic slide and that protection agencies simply need to do their jobs. For them, the re-introduction of hunting would exacerbate the wildlife decline as any form of legal recognition would blur the poaching–hunting divide.

They also believe that because Kenya no longer has the luxury of large wilder-ness areas, any land that is parcelled into hunting blocs is likely to be over-exploited. Additional concerns include the inevitable increase in fencing if private ownership becomes a reality and, again, abuse and regulation.

Whatever happens in South Africa and Kenya, it is unlikely to alter the momen-tum of growing opposition to trophy hunting. If hunting is to survive on the grounds so passionately put forward by some – that it is primarily a management option and a component of conservation and biodiversity protection – I believe it will have to adapt fundamentally. Again, McCallum has put it most succinctly. ‘The argument is not about human rights, but about the nurturing of an ecological intelligence. It is about trying to show the non-sense of killing for that “special feeling”…’

It is difficult not to draw the con-clusion that the root cause of what is rotten in hunting is the trophy – the lengths to which the hunter will go in order to obtain it and the operator to supply it. On these grounds, I believe a major start can be made by doing away with both the Safari Club International Record Book of Trophy Animals and Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game. It is interesting that Point Six in the Rowland Ward Code of Conduct for The Guild of Field Sportsmen states: ‘that all forms of competition in the field between Sportsmen whilst hunting and fishing be avoided’. What then is the purpose of these record books?

Regarded as the bibles of hunting, hunters would be hard-pressed to argue that they don’t serve to foster competition by rewarding those who shoot the biggest and the best in the gene pool. One need only page through the advertising section of any hunting magazine to understand the role these books play. Few, if any, are selling hunts on the grounds that they offer trophies of old and infirm animals, whereas many promote themselves on the basis of how many records they hold.

In short, pursuit of these records encourages the abuses carried out by operators, breeders and hunters and, ultimately, alters the gene pool. If hunters hunt for the reasons they say they do, then there is no need to brag and they should not be targeting the prime breeding animals.

If the removal of these record books is not sufficient to curb the abuse, then the next step would be an outright ban on all trophies leaving the shores of Africa. What to do with them? They are part of Africa’s heritage after all, so perhaps they should remain here as non tax-deductible donations to the thousands of schools, colleges, universities and museums across the continent that cannot afford such educational exhibits.

In the ‘Viewpoint’ column in this magazine in March 2003, Ed Reardon, a member of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Safari Club International, USA, wrote: ‘If, in the future, we hunters lose the right to hunt, it will most likely be through our own actions.’ In the same way that the hunting community draws distinctions between canned hunters and ‘fair chase’ hunters, maybe the time has come to draw a more forthright distinction – those who hunt for the trophy and those who don’t. As McCallum says, ‘The hunting of wild animals is learned behaviour … as the context changes, what we have learned can not only become inappropriate, but maladaptive.’ Hunters need to change the way they think.