Killing in the Name of Conservation

Can Trophy Hunting Help Save Africa’s Wild?


Conservation is not a morality play, but don’t try telling that to Kendall Jones. A 19-year-old student and cheerleader at Texas Tech, Jones has been hunting big game in Africa with her father since she was nine. This past July, she posted photos on Facebook of herself with her kills — leopard, lion, hippo, zebra, elephant, rhino. The response was overwhelming: 325,000 people signed a petition asking Facebook to remove the images, which it did, saying the act violated its rule about "graphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence.” The “Kill Kendall Jones” page remained for three days before Facebook removed it, too.

Jones was hardly the only hunter to find herself on the wrong side of public anger over their trophies. Axelle Despiegelaere, a Belgian World Cup fan, had her brief modeling career cut short when she posted a picture of herself with an oryx she had shot. Corey Knowlton, a Texas hunter who paid $350,000 at a Dallas Safari Club auction for a permit to kill a black rhino in Namibia, received death threats against his children.

Kendall Jones and many others, including conservationists and scientists with long experience in Africa, argue that trophy hunting helps fund conservation efforts and does no ecological harm. There are good reasons to be wary about such claims. The pictures of smiling hunters with their trophies, and the very idea of rich Texans paying handsomely to kill rare animals for sport are proof enough for many people that safari hunting is at best an anachronism and at worst an abhorrence that must be stopped. Conservation is about saving animals. Hunting is about killing them.

Hunting raises legitimate moral questions, but its potential role in conservation cannot be assessed solely in moral terms. For one thing, the people in Africa who stand to benefit (or not) from safari hunting have utterly different and often irreconcilable attitudes toward hunting than their Western opponents. The challenge for conservationists is to formulate a baseline for judging if and when hunting can contribute to conservation. Who controls the land and resources that support game animals? Who benefits from those resources, and can they be distributed in ways that that help conservation efforts?

Science plays an crucial role in answering these questions, but the debate goes far beyond science to issues of human rights, political ecology, criminology, public health, and economics. The most successful efforts to bring safari hunting and conservation together are not based on either moral or scientific judgements alone, but rather on the principal of self-determination, communities choosing how to use land to which they claim some degree of ownership.

Neither trophy hunting nor community-based natural resource management can be tied directly to many dramatic conservation successes. Neither remotely resemble panaceas for Africa’s myriad ills. Yet both remain part of the debate because, when done right, they stem from the same powerful dynamic: the shift of power from the center to the periphery, from national governments still burdened by corruption or postcolonial bureaucracies, or both, to the rural communities at the frontline of conservation. If people who share their land with Africa’s wild animals can benefit directly from conserving them, the results can be impressive, and trophy hunting has been at the center of some of CBNRM’s most notable successes.

The experience in Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, while far from uniform, demonstrates both how trophy hunting can contribute to conservation but also the many conditions that must be met and how fragile the balance among conflicting goals and ideals can be. While a movement from the center to the periphery is critical, for example, central government still plays an important role and the reality is that for CBNRM approaches to work it must fulfill criteria at a variety of scales, from rural communities all the way to central government and at times internationally.


Wealthy hunters will pay huge sums to hunt Africa’s most famous game species, the so-called big five — elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions, and leopards. Many populations of these animals live in areas of desperate human poverty. But the juxtaposition of poor people and a potentially valuable wild resource does not mean that the exploitation of one will necessarily lead to the betterment of the other. With appropriate scientific guidance, shooting a small number of animals will not do lasting ecological damage. But that is not enough. What are the institutional arrangements that would make trophy hunting viable as a conservation strategy?

Namibia offers one illustration. In 1996, Namibia enacted landmark legislation that gave tribal communities — who previously had limited rights to resources on communal lands — the ability manage and directly benefit from their wildlife. The rationale was straightforward: poverty and the lack of human development in the country meant that a conservation approach based on protected areas, law enforcement, and non-utilization principles would not work, or would be too expensive to sustain in the long-term.

Conservancies in Namibia quickly began striking deals with tourism companies. Many conservancies allow trophy hunting because it is far easier to get a hunting concession running than to build the lodges and other infrastructure needed for photo safaris. The fees paid by the operators go directly to the communities. The early returns prompted other communities to create conservancies, and there are now 79 conservancies that cover nearly 58,000 square miles, about the size of Georgia. Total land under some form of conservation management has increased to more than 42 percent of the country’s land area, three times that of the United States and one of the highest percentages in the world. Thirty-two of the communal conservancies are adjacent to or in key corridors between national parks, thus strengthening Namibia’s protected area network.

In 2012, the conservancies generated over $4 million in cash income and an additional $1 million in in-kind benefits (such as the distribution of harvested game meat). This amounts to more than $300 per person, a substantial amount in a country where over 60 percent of the population, most in the rural areas where conservancies operate, live on less than $1 per day.

One element in the success of conservancies in Namibia is that fact that in much of the country the opportunity costs of conservation are low, as the arid lands do not support much beyond subsistence agriculture. Wildlife is far better adapted to the conditions and may represent the highest economic return. But even in the northeastern part of the country, which is much like the rest of east and southern Africa with its treed savannas and decent rain, conservancies have taken hold. The approach has even spread beyond communal areas, as some private landowners in so-called commercial conservancies are taking down fences to make larger landscapes and switching from cattle to wildlife.

Even though trophy hunting is a key revenue source for many conservancies, wildlife population trends have proven to be stable or increasing across regions where conservancies are operating. Until quite recently the trend even held for black rhino, which increased in Namibia while in decline almost everywhere else on the continent. The recent spike in demand for rhino horn, however, has driven the price so high that not even the financial incentives provided by the conservancies are enough to protect them, and poaching has been on the increase, especially in the northeast.

Despite the worrisome uptick in poaching, it is clear that people in rural Namibia see the value in sharing their land with wildlife, even the occasional crop-raiding elephant, because they make the decisions. They can sell a hunting permit for that elephant for $10,000, set the quotas and choose who to sell them to, and eat the meat. The conservancies thus address a key threat to wildlife: a political ecology in which benefits from wildlife accrue to people who bear none of the costs. While CBNRM is far from a universal success, where it has made a difference for both people and wildlife is has done so by redressing this imbalance.

There are still other conditions that must be met before trophy hunting can reliably contribute to conservation: good governance with transparency in laws, regulations, and enforcement; citizens with respect for those laws; an army of biological scientists and enforcement officers; and a public demand for conservation. Where trophy hunting fails to contribute to conservation the proprietary rights of landholders are weak and benefits are captured by other stakeholders through bureaucracy, excessive fees, and corruption.

While the idea of devolving authority over wildlife — including the right to allow trophy hunting — to landowners, including communal landowners, has spread in Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia, a very different approach is firmly in place elsewhere in Africa, most notably in Kenya. Kenya banned all consumptive use of wild species in 1977: no sport hunting, cropping, ranching, live capture and sale, taxidermy, trophies, or souvenirs. The country used the hunting ban to build its brand as the destination for wildlife tourism in Africa, and it developed a thriving industry that brings in millions of dollars each year.

Such a tourist industry requires a vast and expensive infrastructure, including airports, roads, and hotels. It also requires political stability, a pleasant climate, and large numbers of readily findable animals. Few places on Earth, let alone Africa, have that combination. Kenya’s high savannas are perfect; Tanzania’s miombo woodland, Zimbabwe’s thornscrub, and Namibia’s desert are not. Hunters will put up with the tougher conditions of those habitats so long as the game are present, but it is nearly impossible to create a luxury photo tourism industry there.

Since hunting was banned in Kenya wildlife populations have dropped by 80 percent. There are far too many confounding factors to attribute direct cause and effect of either banning or promoting trophy hunting to the fate of wildlife populations in Kenya and any country in southern Africa, but the dynamic is at least sufficient to give one pause when making the claim that hunting is per se bad for Africa’s wildlife. Yet that is precisely the claim that is often made.

Blame for the drop in wildlife in Kenya and across Africa cannot at this point by lain at the doorstep of trophy hunters. The leading causes are habitat loss caused by expanding human settlement, agriculture, and other kinds of land use incompatible with wildlife, followed by uncontrolled hunting, usually for bushmeat. In short, uncompetitive returns from wildlife compared with those from livestock or agriculture create incentives for landowners to convert any rangeland with agricultural potential to cultivation.

As habitat disappears, the risk of conflict between people and large and dangerous animals increases. Such conflicts are rarely resolved in favor of wildlife, unless people have exceptionally strong incentives to do so. The challenge of creating such incentives are so significant that some conservationists believe it may be time to abandon the ideal of coexistence and instead admit that the only solution is to separate people and wildlife altogether, with fences.

Fences are as hot-button an issue as hunting. They symbolize the loss of wilderness, not its salvation. Private, fenced ranches in South Africa have done well in restoring some game populations and converting farmland back to something more closely resembling its wild state, though the extent to which that is the case is subject to debate. The idea of putting up fences on the East Africa savannas will generate intense opposition, but Craig Packer, a leading researcher on lions and long-time resident of Tanzania, makes just such an argument. Fenced reserves are cheaper and more effective at conserving lions; nearly half the unfenced lion populations may decline to near extinction in the next 20 to 40 years, Packer argues.

Packer is neither a reflexive supporter nor opponent of hunting. For one thing, he points out that the $10,000 fee to hunt a lion in Tanzania is far too low and, in any event, little of that money gets back to the local community. After analyzing data on harvest trends across Tanzania’s hunting blocks Packer and colleagues found that the intensity of trophy hunting was the factor most responsible for lion declines. Yet even so Packer does not rule out the possibility that hunting may be beneficial in some circumstance and his recommendation was not to ban hunting but to lower the quotas.

The fact is that any species can be hunted sustainably, outside of the extreme case of removing the last reproductively viable male or female, if the science and enforcement are good enough. But there is ecological sustainability and there is economic sustainability, and they don’t necessarily overlap. With rare species, the level of ecologically sustainable hunting would be too low by themselves to keep an outfitter in business and contributing to local economies, The exception may be those few species that command extraordinary fees. So the $350,000 paid for the rhino in Namibia, while it stoked massive outrage, could be appropriate if most of that money made it back to the communities in whose hands the future rhinos and their habitat ultimately lies.

Few places other than a handful of locations in Africa have animals that are as desirable for hunters. It may be the case that trophy hunting is only viable where there are healthy populations of elephants and rhinos, or perhaps with particularly rare and valuable sheep like markhor, a species of mountain goat native to the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Permits for markhor can go for $150,000 each and there are efforts to set up conservancies akin to those in Namibia to direct most of that money to local communities.


The debate we should be having is not whether trophy hunting is moral or immoral, but whether it can be justified on scientific and conservation grounds, who ultimately benefits from it, and what kind of conservation it can support. But that is not how the debate plays out in the Western media, and, in some cases, within African governments themselves. Organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and others have sophisticated lobbying and fundraising efforts and they now wield enormous influence. Unfortunately, that influence often rests on painting Africa, Africans, and hunters with such a broad brush that it obscures rather than clarifies the fundamental questions.

In 2006, the Kenyan government announced a major review of conservation policy. The Humane Society, IFAW, and others feared this was the first step toward reintroducing trophy hunting and mobilized to stop it. Animal welfare groups paid activists to disrupt public meeting on the new policy, orchestrated an anti-sport hunting media campaign on television, radio and in the press, with anti-hunting posters in the streets and at Nairobi’s international airport, prevented mainstream conservation organizations from presenting their views, and funded the creation of local, anti-hunting NGOs. A proposal to allow more use of wildlife, even though it delayed reconsideration of the hunting ban itself, was withdrawn.

Botswana for many years allowed trophy hunting and had had among the healthiest game populations on the continent. In 2014, however, Botswana banned all hunting on public land. Among the most prominent voices advocating for the ban were filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who have close ties to both the President of Botswana, Ian Khama, and animal welfare organizations, including IFAW.

Hunters are losing or have already lost their social license to operate in many places. If hunting is to make a meaningful contribution to conservation they need to get it back. This is not a question of mustering scientific evidence about sustainability; it is as much, or more, about perception and emotion, and hunters have been strangely slow to understand the terms of fight they are now in. The way in which hunters respond to the deeply felt belief among a growing number of people that killing wild creatures for sport is always and in every circumstance wrong may determine whether is has a future, regardless of scientific evidence regarding sustainability. Hunters need to accept this as a legitimate concern; the failure to do so is what leads to the in-your-face trophy shots. Hunters need to demonstrate high ethical standards, clear connections to broader conservation, and local empowerment. Even then, hunters and conservationist need to recognize that what works in one place will not necessarily work in another.

Given the long history of hunting on Africa, and the place it holds in the Western imagination, it is easy to forget that the current model of commercial recreational hunting in southern Africa is just 30 years old. It continues to evolve to fit changing circumstances. It would be foolish in the extreme to decide now that it has no place in future conservation, just as it would be foolish to assume that hunting by itself will be integral to both conservation and development.

Jonathan S. Adams is a conservation biologist, writer, and former program director of the Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Knowledge and Communities Program. He is the author of The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation Without Illusion and Nature’s Fortune, written in collaboration with Mark Tercek.

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