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.
“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”.
Importantly though, the team isn't advocating for the activity to cease.
“Properly regulated trophy hunting can be a powerful force for conservation which is why we're suggesting a different management approach as opposed to calling for a ban,” Knell added.
The authors suggest that an age restriction is put in place. That way, males have a chance to breed before they’re taken away to be hunted.
Trophy hunting, when legal, generally follows the same model. Animals that wealthy people like to hunt are bred and released in a protected area. More often than not, males are targeted to be killed.
The money that’s raised goes to conservation efforts in the area, part of which ensures a stable animal population, and part of which funds the lives of locals who, without it, may try their hand at illegal poaching.
That’s the idea, anyway – and notable scientific organizations, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), support it in principle. However, others have pointed out that corruption means that much of this money doesn’t get to where it needs to go, and animal populations are often not as stable as they’re made out to be.
An argument that has the backing of several studies is that eco-tourism may be a better alternative. Nothing has to die, revenue is still generated, and giant swaths of the natural environment will still be protected.
Many different countries rely quite heavily on the funds raised by trophy hunting, so a sudden ban in most cases isn’t advised – but perhaps a transition to eco-tourism is. At the same time, a crackdown on ivory smuggling would arguably be a better way to ensure animals like elephants don’t go the way of the dodo.