Trophy hunting is considered by many to be a Bad Thing – but this black-and-white approach may be the wrong way of looking at the issue, say a group of more than 130 international scientists in a letter published in Science.
It is a hugely controversial argument but their reasoning boils down to this: in African countries that allow some level of trophy hunting, more land has been conserved for trophy hunting than has been for National Parks. Indeed, properly regulated hunting seems to have the apparently paradoxical effect of increasing wildlife populations globally for many species of animal, including rhino, markhor, argali, and bighorn sheep populations.
"Poorly managed trophy hunting can cause local population declines, but unless better land-use alternatives exist, hunting reforms – which have proved effective – should be prioritized over bans," write the letter's authors, who were led by the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, UK.
The scientists reference legislation including a bill in the US called the CECIL Act. If it passes, the bill would ban imports of lion and elephant trophies from Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as well as limit imports of animals listed on the Endangered Species Act as either "threatened" or "endangered". Countries such as Australia, France, and the Netherlands have already passed legislation to restrict trophy imports, while others (including the UK) are facing pressure to do the same.
While bans like these are frequently born from an interest to improve conservation efforts, the scientists argue these well-meaning intentions are undermined by the fact that removing the financial incentives associated with hunting risks land conversion and biodiversity loss. What's more, it takes away a possible source of income for poor, marginalized communities.
Photo-tourism, frequently listed as an alternative to trophy hunting, may not work in areas that are more remote or deemed "unappealing" by potential visitors, they add.
"In order to make decisions on trophy hunting, we need to have a holistic view and assess the evidence from a variety of angles including social, economic and ecosystem perspective," Professor Nils Bunnefeld, a signatory and a professor at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Stirling, said in a statement.
"Trophy hunting, when well managed, can have positive effects on both wildlife populations and people's livelihoods."
Species like lions, they say, are most at risk in areas without photo-tourism or trophy hunting, where unregulated (or illegal) hunting may be far more prevalent. Undue focus on trophy hunting may also deflect from some of the other big threats to animals (like, say, pollution, climate change, and changes in land use), they suggest.
"Although there is considerable room for improvement, including in governance, management, and transparency of funding flows and community benefits, the IUCN calls for multiple steps to be taken before decisions are made that restrict or end trophy hunting programs," the authors write.
"Some people find trophy hunting repugnant (including many of us), but conservation policy that is not based on science threatens habitat and biodiversity and risks disempowering and impoverishing rural communities."
Or, as Dr Jeremy Cusack, also of the University of Stirling, put it: "Trophy hunting is an emotional issue, but it is only through well-informed and unbiased decision-making that we can ensure wildlife populations and humans will coexist in the long-term."