Environment Secretary Michael Gove has come under fire after announcing that the UK has no plans to ban trophy hunting imports.
Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, Gove said that the issue was a “delicate political balancing act” and that he had been advised by wildlife charities to “be cautious” about taking a stance against the controversial sport.
“Don’t come in, you know, with your clod-hopping boots from the UK and necessarily tell people in each of these countries exactly how they should regulate their own wildlife,” the minister said during the interview on Beast of Man, a new podcast hosted by England cricketer Kevin Pietersen that investigates rhino poaching.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Trophy hunting - the killing of pre-selected animals, including some endangered species, under government controls - made headlines in 2015, following the fatal shooting of Cecil, a well-known lion in Zimbabwe, by American dentist Walter Palmer.
Australia, France and the Netherlands all implemented bans on the import of lion trophies in the wake of the ensuing public outcry, while Palmer was “forced to go into hiding”, The Independent reports.
In April this year, The Guardian published an open letter co-signed by dozens of celebrities, politicians and activists criticising the UK government for failing to take action on the issue.
“The number of animals killed by trophy hunters is staggering”, said the letter, which noted that “in total, 1.7 million trophies were legally traded worldwide between 2004-14, around 200,000 of them from threatened species”, and that “of these, 2,500 were brought home by British hunters”.
“Banning the import of hunting trophies will send a clear message to the international community that there is no place for trophy hunting in this day and age,” the letter continued.
But the BBC suggests that calls for a blanket ban “fail to take into account the complex relationship between hunting and conservation”.
So what are the arguments for and against a trophy hunting ban?
Avoid unnecessary suffering by animals
Anti-hunting charity the League Against Cruel Sports says that “clean deaths are not common” during trophy hunting, with many animals suffering lingering deaths.
This was the case with Cecil the lion, whom the charity reports was “first shot with an arrow and after 40 hours of agony was finally shot dead with a gun”.
“The practice should be banned on animal welfare grounds alone,” the league adds.
Prevent inhumane practices
Many campaigners argue that any form of hunting is inherently inhumane, but recent developments in the trophy hunting industry and a lack of oversight have facilitated the rise of particularly controversial techniques.
Education funding charity Vittana reports that some hunters have “resorted to lures and feeding stations, especially when hunting deer, as a way to make it easier to fill their tags”, a practice that strips away “many of the benefits that are spoken of when discussing the joys of hunting”.
“It would be like going out to the barn and shooting a cow to have beef, then declaring oneself a great hunter,” the charity says.
Related to this is so-called “canned hunting”, in which the animal is kept in a confined area in order to increase the likelihood of the hunter obtaining a kill. Pro-hunting blog I Trophy Hunt reports that canned hunting is seen as “damaging” by many fans of the sport, because the animals are “raised for hunting and do not possess the real tactics for running or escaping hunters”.
Protect against extinction
Animals that “stand out from the crowd because of their impressive horns or lustrous manes” are often targeted by trophy hunters, the BBC reports.
But these animals also have the “best genes”, and scientists have suggested that removing “even 5% of high-quality males risks wiping out the entire population”, the broadcaster continues.
Dr Rob Knell, an evolutionary ecologist at Queen Mary, University of London, says that “high-quality males with large secondary sexual traits tend to father a high proportion of the offspring”, allowing their strong genes to spread rapidly.
“Removing these males reverses this effect and could have serious and unintended consequences,” he warns.
The Independent reports that since 2015, the number of African lions in the wild has dropped from about 20,000 to 15,000.
UK government promised ban
Whether or not a blanket ban would have a positive impact on conservation efforts in Africa, the UK government appears to have gone back on its word regarding trophy hunting imports.
The Independent says that in 2015, then-environment minister Rory Stewart said the UK would “halt imports of parts of the big cats by 2017 unless the hunting industry cleaned up its act” - a pledge that was echoed by his successor Liz Truss the following year.
A “frequent argument” for allowing trophy hunting on private properties in Africa is that this “motivates land owners to preserve the ecosystem, instead of burning down the bush for cattle, African oil palm, or other agriculture”, according to the Brookings Institute.
“For a while in South Africa, where the controlled hunting of the white rhinoceros on private reserves is permitted, the species increased spectacularly,” says the Washington DC-based think tank. “But the positive results of that regime have withered in recent years due to a dramatic escalation of poaching, which has gutted the gains of well-managed licensed hunting.”
Funds anti-poaching efforts
Hunting packages in Africa are extremely expensive. One professional hunter and guide in Namibia told National Geographic that the going rate for a 14-day, single elephant hunt was about $80,000 (£60,000).
The wildlife magazine reports that hunters and government officials “often cite a hotly contested estimate by the Safari Club International Foundation”, a pro-hunting group with the stated goal of promoting conservation. According to the group, the estimated 18,000 trophy hunters who come to Southern and Eastern Africa each year contribute $436m (£330m) to the region’s GDP.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states “that well-managed trophy hunting can provide both revenue and incentives for people to conserve and restore wild populations, maintain areas of land for conservation, and protect wildlife from poaching”.
But the numbers are disputed. The Humane Society International says that hunters actually bring southern and eastern Africa up to $132m (£100m) in revenue.
Wildlife population control
According to Vittana, hunting may help to maintain control of the local wildlife population in any given region.
The charity cites deer as an example, noting that the species “can cause a lot of damage in a short period” and are “opportunist animals that can safely eat more than 700 different plant species”.
Pro-hunting blog I Trophy Hunt makes the same argument, suggesting that well-regulated hunts can balance out any excess populations.
According to Namibia-based company Kalahari Trophy Hunting, the sport is an important educational tool that can inform people on “compassion, patience, generosity, courage, fortitude and humility”.
Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist and author of multiple works on violent children, has claimed that the Columbine High School shooting - the 1999 massacre in which Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris murdered 13 people - “never would have happened if those boys had been properly mentored in hunting and shooting”.
Meanwhile, Vittana suggests that hunting may give people a “chance to discover the outdoors in a way that cannot be experienced by watching TV or walking along a well-developed nature trail”.
Some hunters argue that the main benefit of trophy hunting is simply the entertainment factor.
Speaking on the same BBC podcast as Gove, an unnamed trophy hunter said: “To shoot an elephant is an awesome thing to do, it is a stunningly, stunningly awesome thing to do, which is why I did it.”
Ron Thomson, a hunter based in South Africa, told The Guardian in 2018 that hunting “was a great thrill to me, to be very honest”.
“Some people enjoy hunting just as much as other people abhor it. I happened to enjoy it,” he added.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.