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Photo safaris trump trophy hunting

In July, the illegal killing of Zimbabwe’s iconic lion, Cecil, re-ignited the debate over the desirability of trophy hunting in Africa. Supporters of the practice argue that it contributes significantly to the continent’s economy – particularly in impoverished rural areas – and helps to fund conservation efforts. But are these assertions actually true?

In September, a New York Times article claimed that a ban on trophy hunting in Botswana lead to “a precipitous drop in income” for local communities.

However, Costas Christ, Editor at Large for National Geographic Traveler magazine believes that it’s misleading to argue that rural communities in Africa benefit more from trophy hunting than they do from non-consumptive wildlife tourism and that they have been negatively impacted by the ban on trophy hunting. “I have yet to find more than a one-off random example of trophy hunting viable as either a conservation strategy or income generator that can compete with the economic benefits of non-consumptive wildlife tourism.”

South African safari operator and conservationist, Ian Michler, agrees. He comments “There is no evidence to support the claim that rural communities benefit more from trophy hunting than they do from non-consumptive wildlife tourism. In fact, in areas where the two exist as a comparison, the opposite is true and that’s one of the primary reasons the Botswana government has stopped trophy hunting. Of course hunting offers work and creates revenue, but when measured in the bigger picture against a range of factors, including ecological and ethical ones, well-managed, non-consumptive tourism offers a significantly better long-term model”.

While Larry Rudolph and Joe Hosmer of the US-based hunters’ organisation Safari Club International, have claimed that “revenues from hunting generate $200m annually in remote rural areas of Africa”, the accuracy of this figure has been questioned. More importantly, it shrinks into insignificance if considered in the context of the whole of the African tourism industry.

In 2009, a study published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature characterised big game trophy hunting in West Africa as using “up a lot of space without generating corresponding socio-economic benefits”, making “insignificant” financial contributions to local populations and national GDPs.

A more recent briefing paper released by the World Tourism Organisation asserts that “the total international tourism receipts for Africa in 2013 reached $34.2bn” and that the number of international arrivals is predicted to more than double from a record 56 million tourists in 2013 to 134 million a year by 2030.

The authors note that Africa accounts for about half of the global wildlife watching market, which “has been estimated at 12 million trips annually and is growing at a rate of about 10% a year”. They highlight the fact that “wildlife watching represents 80% of the total annual sales of trips to Africa and sales are increasing”.

Regional case studies show that in 2005, 176 000 nature tourists spent $194m in Zambia, and in 2009, Tanzania’s popular Serengeti-Ngorongoro Circuit alone generated $500m from wildlife watching visitors.

The recently released documentary ‘Blood Lions’ estimates the annual revenue generated by a typical African hunting lodge to be $800 000 compared to $2.46m raised by an equivalent photo safari outfit. Operating all year round, the wildlife-watching business trumps the seasonal (6 months of the year) hunting company by serving a significantly larger number of tourists and making a substantially greater contribution to the local economy, for instance through airfares, wages and taxes.

A 2013 report by the organisation Economists at Large describes the role of trophy hunting in Africa as “tiny” and “completely insignificant” in the context of national economies, accounting for less than 2% of overall tourism revenues and never more than 0.27% of the GDP of the countries surveyed.

This appears to be the case even in South Africa, the continent’s most lucrative trophy hunting state. A report published by the global wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC in July puts the average annual revenue for all mammals killed by trophy hunters in South Africa between 2003 and 2010 at $55m. Approximately 20% ($10.9m) of this is accounted for by the controversial practice of hunting lions bred in captivity. In a recent opinion piece, Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs, estimated the number of international hunters visiting the country in 2012 at 8 500 and the value of its trophy hunting industry in 2014 at about $80m (R1.07bn).

These figures are dwarfed in comparison with the yearly income raised by the country’s tourism industry as a whole, which is estimated at around $19bn. Non-consumptive wildlife watching tourism plays a much greater role than trophy hunting in South Africa and the eco-tourism sector has become one of the leading and fastest growing segments of the market.

Contrary to claims by the industry, very little of the money made from trophy hunting appears to be finding its way to affected communities. Based on an analysis of the literature available on the issue, the Economists at Large report finds that only 3% of this revenue actually reaches the rural communities in the areas where the hunting takes place.

By contrast, the World Tourism Organisation’s briefing paper suggests that “there is a wide range of beneficiaries from wildlife watching tourism”, including local communities which draw both direct and indirect benefits, for example through the provision of goods and services to tourists, employment opportunities, fees from national parks and social and infrastructure development programmes. In the case of the Serengeti-Ngorongoro Circuit in Tanzania, mentioned above, for instance, $100m a year is considered “pro-poor”, reaching local people in the form of wages and other benefits.

To what extent trophy hunting fosters the conservation of African wildlife remains open to debate (although at least one scientific paper published in recent years suggests that it does the opposite), but it seems clear that its supposed economic benefits are routinely overstated by its supporters.

What’s of growing concern is the immense reputational damage this small industry can potentially inflict on the continent’s much more important non-consumptive wildlife tourism sector. The dubious, unethical or downright illegal actions of some of its members can have devastating effects on public sentiment as the overwhelming worldwide outcry following the killing of Cecil attests.

For the South African tourism industry in general, and for its very substantial and valuable wildlife watching component in particular, the mounting controversy over the captive-breeding and ‘canned’ hunting of lions, which is powerfully documented in the documentary Blood Lions, adds a particularly distasteful dimension that is unlikely to find any favour among international tourists interested in experiencing our increasingly embattled wildlife in its natural surroundings.