Value of trophy hunting to conservation massively overstated: report
Don Pinnock
22nd March 2022

A myth-busting exercise on hunting questions the claim that bagging wildlife trophies is sustainable. 

When you strip trophy hunting to its essentials, it’s about the desire to kill wild animals – justified by faulty economics. What it’s not about is conservation or community upliftment. That’s the finding of an extensive study by the Africa-wide research organisation Good Governance Africa (GGA). 

Written by natural resource economist Dr Ross Harvey, the study avoids complex issues of animal welfare and simply asks who benefits from trophy hunting and whether it can be justified in terms of conservation. 

Hunting organisations and the Department of Forestry, Fishing and the Environment (DFFE) maintain that trophy hunting is of value to both conservation and local communities. 

In February the department announced a hunting quota for 10 black rhinos, 10 leopards and 150 elephants. It justified the quotas by claiming that income generated by trophy hunting was critical for marginalised and impoverished rural communities, and that this form of hunting created economic incentives that promote conservation, was a useful wildlife management tool to remove excess males from a population and a way to generate conservation revenue.

According to Harvey, the DFFE is unable to prove any of these claims. The costs and benefits just don’t add up. 

Its high-level panel claimed that trophy hunting was a justifiable conservation tool on the grounds of the economic benefits it purportedly produces. The GGA report sets out to test such views by asking questions.

What’s trophy hunting’s value to the economy?

According to the GGA report, compared with tourism, trophy hunting provides very little economic benefit to the country. 

Almost no peer-reviewed economic work addresses the question and the only paper that does – by Professor Melville Saayman and others, written in 2018 – is questionable in its methodological rigour, according to the GGA report. 

Saayman estimates the value of trophy hunting to South Africa at $341-million for the 2015/16 season. By contrast, tourism in 2019 was worth $22.1-billion. So, trophy hunting represents less than 2% of the total tourism value to the country. 

What value are hunted species to the overall economy? According to Saayman, in the years assessed by him and his co-authors, the total estimated combined revenue earned from hunting elephant, giraffe, lion, white rhino and leopard amounted to $604,300. 

Leopard hunts earned a mere $30,500. 

“This renders it difficult to warrant a public policy decision to continue hunting the species,” says Harvey, “especially given its vulnerability.”

Hunted elephants earned an estimated $100,500, a minuscule amount compared with what an elephant earns in potential ecotourism value over its lifetime. Their loss, says Harvey, seems too high a price to pay in an industry that is literally dying because of lower elephant densities and smaller tusk sizes from poaching and trophy hunting.

White rhino earned $40,500. 

“Again, given unprecedented levels of recent poaching of rhinos, on both public and private land, it appears difficult to justify a policy decision to make rhino available for trophy hunting.”

Does trophy hunting serve conservation?

There is little doubt that human beings have overstepped a number of interconnected planetary boundaries leading to planetary warming and biodiversity collapse. At least one million animal and plant species are reportedly threatened with extinction.

In this context, says the GGA report, the world is rightly asking whether the legally sanctioned killing of wild animals can reasonably be tolerated. 

“Given that trophy hunting is an obvious form of direct exploitation that undermines ecosystem functionality and is hardly a requirement for human survival, its continuation should be plainly understood as a likely hindrance to conservation.” 

Increasingly, says Harvey, it also undermines tourism potential, which strengthens the argument for the abandonment of the practice. 

“In short, it is extremely challenging to sustain an economic argument in favour of trophy hunting in South Africa as a key conservation tool.”

The argument is often made by hunters that trophy hunting is the only conservation alternative in non-photographic areas. The report calls this a false dichotomy in which alternatives are not tried simply because of the idea that they will not be successful at the appropriate scale. 

“In South Africa, the argument for trophy hunting as the only option for conservation in landscapes aesthetically unamenable to photographic tourism appears to be unfounded,” says the report, “as many privately owned trophy hunting ranches are located in areas that are aesthetically pleasing and therefore potentially amenable to non-consumptive tourism.” 

In fact, unknown to international tourists, many high-end tourist lodges are situated on land where hunting takes place alongside tourism. Prime examples are Timbavati, Umbabat, Balule and Klaserie.

Is it sustainable?

It appears that many ranches are farming the wild rather than wilding the farm and potentially perpetuating land ownership inequality under the guise of South Africa’s “conservation success story”, says Harvey.

The cost of sustaining wildlife is far greater than the revenue generated hunting it. Take lions. A good hunting zone has a lion density of two per 100km2, requiring a hunting area of 5,000km2 to sustainably shoot one lion a year. The annual upkeep alone of such an area in Africa costs about $4-million. A safari to hunt a lion costs about $50,000, a mere 1.25% of the cost of maintaining the lion. 

This means, says the report, that the hunting industry does not pay the real price of safaris. The result is that trophy hunting will lead to depletion, not conservation.

Apart from the fact that killing to conserve is a moral contradiction not easily resolved, there’s a critique of trophy hunting on biological grounds. 

Trophy hunters demand the best-looking animals because hunting is driven by the aesthetic desire for an animal in its prime. They’re not selecting animals that are surplus to biological requirements, as is often claimed in defence of hunting, says Harvey.   

Rather, they’re eliminating animals that would otherwise be contributing to the health of the gene pool.

“The argument that they are only shooting surplus animals, primarily to support conservation efforts, appears dubitable. Elephant tusk sizes, for instance, are becoming increasingly smaller as a result of prime males being targeted.

“Moreover, hunters are selecting the very animals most important to other animals, the ecological integrity of the landscape in which they live and to photographic tourists.”

The major problem, says the GGA report, is that supporting research is extremely thin. 

“The recent quota setting, for instance, offers neither a public rationale that connects the stated numbers with corresponding conservation benefits nor a scientific argument for how the figures were derived. 

“One would expect that the department would provide an ecological report detailing the exact population dynamics for each species in question and how, based on net growth rates, a certain number could be hunted for trophies without jeopardising population health. But this has not been presented to the public – if indeed it exists. 

Do communities benefit?

Given the lack of research in South Africa, the idea that trophy hunting of lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and giraffe benefits communities appears to lack basis in fact, says the report. What can be claimed with confidence is that most of the economic benefits which come from trophy hunting are not concentrated among low-income households in rural areas. 

There is also no research on how the benefits of trophy hunting are distributed. What little information is available is not encouraging. 

“At best, the trophy hunting industry – according to its own estimates – supports 15,000 jobs in South Africa. Non-consumptive biodiversity tourism, to the contrary, supports at least 90,000 jobs, according to recent research.” 

Even pro-hunting institutions such as the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation find that hunting companies, on average, contribute only about 3% of revenue to communities living in hunting areas.

In setting hunting quotas, says the GGA report, the DFFE insists that income generated by trophy hunting is especially critical for marginalised and impoverished rural communities. But that appears to be based on a report to a parliamentary committee which indicates that only 9% of trophy hunting revenue was allocated to community outreach, and only some of that to low-income households. 

What the DFFE failed to note is that almost all hunting in South Africa takes place on private land, so it is questionable how this benefits marginalised and impoverished rural communities.

This seems to be especially the case in the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) – private land joined together on the boundary of the Kruger National Park. Hunting is carried out in 90% of the APNR where the Kruger fence was dropped in 1996. So, private trophy hunting revenue is being accrued from animals that belong to the South African public.

Trophy hunting, says Harvey, appears to be a hobby for the wealthy that benefits the wealthy and generates little value for poor rural community members.

Is there good governance?

Aside from the obvious lack of economic or conservation arguments in favour of trophy hunting in South Africa, says the report, there’s strong evidence of misgovernance.

“There is next to no evidence that trophy hunting has been, or will be, well governed in South Africa. Even if it was, the fact that the practice may directly undermine other economic activities such as non-consumptive tourism, is a good governance reason to abandon the practice and condemn it.” 

The fact that male elephants and lions are sometimes shot in their prime (or in front of tourists), or that contracts are sometimes suddenly allocated to a distant chief, suggest that governance constraints are absent. 

Moreover, the process by which trophy hunting quotas are allocated in the APNR remains unclear and is not available to public scrutiny, even though the animals being shot are clearly Kruger Park animals. 

The report’s findings, says Harvey by way of conclusion, indicate that trophy hunting is of limited conservation value from an economic perspective. It’s also questionable whether it produces significant economic value on its own limited merits. 

“The fact that it provides minuscule economic benefits, especially to poor households, and may directly undermine conservation, appears to be a strong argument in favour of abandoning trophy hunting, especially of iconic species.” DM/OBP

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