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The Hunger Games: Hunting For Conservation?

The death of a celebrity often makes the headlines, but it is less common that the death of a wild animal has the same effect. However, in 2015 the entire world mourned the loss of Cecil the lion, killed just outside of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. This case put a recognisable face on the difficult problem of setting policy for hunting wild animals. It seems as if the killing of any animal for sport is directly contradictory to the goal of ensuring the preservation of our planets ecosystems. But is the barrage against hunting fully justified?

Records from 2012 show the parts of approximately 600 African elephants, 750 African lions, and 698 leopards were hunted by Americans and brought back into the US. Under Mr. Trump, this number has been allowed to rise, not just for African animals but hunting worldwide. While this hunting is for sport, some see it as an important tool for conservation. While it is sad that we sometimes have to resort to killing animals for conservation, it is important not to allow emotions to overtake arguments. Conservation is a complex industry and needs all the financial help it can get, however should this money be coming from the death of species we are trying to protect? This is perhaps one of the biggest arguments in conservation.

Hunting is defined as the “chase or search for something (game, wild animals) for the purpose of catching or killing.” Many argue that the majority of the time, hunting practices today do not follow this idea. Operations like canned lion hunts involve no search, only shooting a fenced in animal. But there are many different types of hunting that must be considered as humans have branched away from the traditional few of hunting for sustenance. Hunting has moved in trends, starting from this sustenance hunting, moving to commodities like fur and fashion, but now for many it is seen as simply a sport.

The fashion for wild animal skins and furs drove a hunting boom in the Amazon basin through the 20th century. Hides of otters, jaguars, caimans and many other species were soon being shipped round the world to turn into clothing. Between 1904 and 1969 at least 23 million animals representing 20 species of mammals and reptiles were killed for hide exports in the Brazilian Amazon. Luckily in the western world these products have been made socially undesirable. However, across Asia animal products for ornaments and fashion are still highly sought after, and this means an illegal trade of poaching animals has been propped up.

Furthermore, while some people hunt for food and resources, others do it for a completely different reason, the trophy. When someone shoots an animal for a trophy, it is because they want their head to display in their homes. Many conservationists and animal welfare activists view this kind of hunting simply as blood thirsty murder. However, in many cases hunting is actually what funds conservation practices.

Perhaps the best example comes from America, here the state wildlife agencies and the countries wildlife conservation system are heavily dependent on sportsmen for funding. Money generated from license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and angling equipment provide about 60% of the funding for these agencies, who manage most of the wildlife in the US. Although very controversial, this user-play/ user-pay system has been successful in the US at restoring the populations of North American game animals, some of which were once pushed close to extinction through unregulated hunting.

Moreover, in the US this system is highly regulated. In Africa however, where there are many more endangered species, the management of this “hunting for conservation” system is very hit or miss. The business is huge, worth more than US$215 million per year, for the selling of iconic animals to (manly foreign) hunters as a means of generating otherwise scarce funds. Cases like Cecil the lion show how much controversy this kind of sale can cause. Likewise in May 2015, a Texan was legally able to shoot a critically endangered black rhino in Namibia. This hunt raised US$350,000 that was meant to be re-invested into conservation, however questions have been raised to the direction of this payment.

Many landowners in Africa will argue hunting allows wildlife to thrive. The industry means that they stock their lands with desirable game that can be hunted for meat and trophies as well as being used non-consumptively for ecotourism. Thousands of former cattle ranches are now profitable game farms. If a minimum age limit is applied to hunted animals, so that only old animals who have already had a chance to mate and spread their genes are removed, then in theory populations can flourish. Unfortunately, even this scenario is likely to allow long-term populations declines if the problems of illegal poaching and habitat degradation continue to worsen. Trophy hunting by itself might be sustainable, but not when added to a background of other destructive practices.

Moving on, advocates of hunting will always bring up the same thing, overpopulation. When areas of nature become too over populated with certain animals, like deer, the animals suffer from starvation. Hunting allows populations to be controlled, preventing suffering from overpopulation problems such as starvation. This practise takes place across the UK with deer and even in some year’s elephants in places like Kruger National Park. With this type of management scheme, it is paramount to consider the effect of shifting baselines when setting hunting quotas.

In an ideal world, heavily managed hunting practices could be used as a conservation tool. Unfortunetly, we are far from an ideal world. Species are facing so many different threats, that the added pressure of hunting can be too much. This is not helped by waves of corruption across the hunting sector. For example the direction of raised funds. Revenue generated often goes to the private sector rather than distributing benefits to conservation and local communities. Often the money raised from game farms across Africa is just plugged back into the owners business, not into the species that died.

This corruption can also lead to unregulated hunting practices. Allowing for high levels of over-take for many species, not given the wild population a chance to grow or even maintain itself. A prime example of this comes from the iconic Giraffe. Habitat destruction coupled with high hunting pressure have reduced population numbers by 30%. Without regulation the hunting of wild animals could cause them to silently slip towards extinction.

Furthermore, hunting can have great biological effects on the ecosystems they work in. Heavy fishing in coral reef environments are causing major ecological shifts. As herbivorous fish are overharvested, they are unable to peform their ecoglogical service. Without these fish algae cover increases rapidly causing coral reef enviornments to shift towards algae dominanted areas. It is not just the ecosystem compostion that can change, but also species physical attributes.

Following on , size-selective harvest of larger fish is favouring maturation at smaller sizes, meaning fish are actually growing to smaller sizes. Atlantic cod, for example, responded to fishing pressures by growing smaller and maturing faster, and no longer occupy the apex predator niche they once did. In terrestrial systems, trophy hunting can artificially increase mortality of individuals with large horns, tusks, or antlers, which can induce selective pressures and lead to evolutionary changes in heritable morphological traits that cannot be quickly reversed by natural selection.

Hunting for trophies focuses predation on what we call “sexually selected” traits. These evolve because they give the (usually male) animal that carries the trait an advantage in competition for mates, either by allowing him to dominate and exclude rival males – think of red deer stags – or because females of his species actively prefer to mate with males with large, loud or bright sexually selected traits, as in the case of birds of paradise. The expression of these traits is linked with the genetic “quality” of the individual. The long-term effects of removing these individuals through hunting, and therefore their genes from reproductive circulation are little appreciated by hunting organisations.

In other cases game mangers will breed those indivduals that have the most desirable colour variations, as well as other traits. The dangers inherent in intensively breeding animals from limited genetic stock, leading to the problems associated with inbreeding, including reduced viability and fertility, are of a real concern when it comes to breeding to re-stock hunting grounds. Genetic diversity gives populations strength to adapt to adverse and ever changing environmental conditions.

Selective hunting also changes behaviours within species. For example, removing a dominant territorial male will lead to disruptive competition from other males to take over the territory. This can lead to further mortality through aggressive fights and infanticide. Even traits like parental care are being altered. In Sweden mother bears are raising their cubs for up to one year longer than they have in the past, under the pressure of hunting. This happens because it is illegal to hunt female bears with a cub, and so staying in family groups for longer means the mother will not be shot, nor will the cub. This behaviour leads to a loss of reproductive opportunities in the species which could have unforeseen consequences for population dynamics.

Moving on, it is clear that there are two sides to this story. Hunting if used properly can be used as a conservation toll for managing populations and also creating huge sums of money that “could” be used to fund conservation activities. However, mismanagement could lead to an overload of pressure not only on the species but on the entire ecosystem. Hunting can affect not only the evolutionary direction of a species but also its behaviour.

It seems like an Orwellian and archaic idea that the killing of an endangered species can be sanctioned as an idea to save that same species. While hunting to control invasive species or over-populated common species could be seen as acceptable, killing threatened species just should not be done. Where will it end? Will a Safari Club offer $1 million for the opportunity to shoot an orangutan, $2 million to shoot a panda, and maybe even more for a Siberian tiger? Who are we to me putting monetary values on the life of an animal? This is why the interlinking concepts of hunting and conservation are so controversial.

We do not live in an ideal world, species populations are being pushed to the brink by many factors. However, another truth is that people will realistically always hunt animals. If this urge can be carefully managed then it can in theory work with conservation. Although allowing it to be done in one case allows the practice to continue in lesser managed environments. I feel as though we should be pushing hunters to put down their guns and pick up binoculars and cameras. If we can make people think of species as worth more alive than dead, then we can stop them dying. Money can be raised in much more sustainable ways, as people still get to enjoy the thrill of seeking animals and taking in their beauty, but allowing them to continue doing this by keeping them alive. By setting himself apart from the ecological community man has become a tyrant of the earth, but a tyrant who surely will fall if he succeeds in winning the struggle for existence.

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