Trophy Hunting Quickly Pushes Animals Toward Extinction

African elephants are a particularly vulnerable species. EcoPrint/Shutterstock

Trophy hunting is back in the spotlight after the Trump administration decided that it would allow the remains of elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia to be imported into the US. Although confusion abounds regarding the reasons why this decision was made, it did raise the issue of how good or bad an idea legal trophy hunting actually is.

A new study by ecologists at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has been taking a look at the controversial activity, and it’s concluded that it may actually lead to the extinctions of vulnerable species, including lions and elephants.

Using cutting-edge computer models, the team created simulated populations of animals, and then subjected them to “selective harvesting” – the removal of a small number of them from the community for hunting purposes. They wanted to know how this would affect the overall survival rate of the species.

The animals selected for hunting are often those with large secondary physical features related to mating. That means males with large antlers, manes, horns, or tusks are picked out.

As it so happens, these animals are the most likely to pass on their genes through reproduction. Taking them out of the population for sport has a shockingly large effect on their overall survival rate.

The team’s model reveals that even a selective harvest of just 5 percent of these males can trigger extinction of wild animals. Writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, they do note that this has little effect when the environment is unchanging, but thanks to habitat destruction and climate change, this isn’t the reality on the ground.

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“Environmental change is now a dangerous reality across the globe for considerable numbers of species,” lead author Dr Rob Knell, from QMUL's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, said in a statement.

They even point out that an altered environment alone is only somewhat likely to push a species into extinction – but trophy hunting occurring at the same time “makes extinction a near-certainty”.

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