Will you be ‘conservation hunting’ elephants in Africa?

The practice of trophy hunting is a controversial topic and one that has been ongoing for many decades, but has mostly existed within the peripheries of people’s minds and only occasionally at the forefront. The controversy recently flared up again due, in part, to Mr Trumps reversal of the Obama administrations ban on the importation of Elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.

So, why’s it today’s hot topic? 

Despite being an ongoing issue, it has flared up recently for less than standard reasons. Specifically, because trumps reasoning appeared to go against expert consensus and advice. So, the question became; why was the ban reversed? Was it to satisfy the desires of the minority of American hunters and several lobbying groups, who desire a renewal on the importation of elephant parts? Was it because Trumps son is an avid trophy hunter, whom was unable to mount the heads of his kills in his bedroom thanks to the passing of this ban? Or, was it simply out of spite for the Obama administration and everything it stood for?

Whatever the reason, it does not seem to be on the basis of conservation because the two countries in which the bans have been removed are in the midst of political and civil turmoil. It was nothing more than a dull murmur. Now, it’s almost none existent because the conservation and monitoring of elephant populations exists far below the spectrum of interest.

This issue is not isolated to Mr Trumps renewal of importations, but this has given a good reason to, once again, talk about why the hunting of animals for trophies and the importation of said trophies, in this specific case of elephant trophies, should not be continued, with the general argument being that it is ethically permeable; its importance to conservation is erroneous; it is economically trivial and socially negligible; and simply a remnant of a bygone era of cruelty, arrogance and irrationality.

Why is the trophy hunting of elephants allowed?

On which justification do trophy hunters houses remain full of heads and ethicists heads full of contempt? Few people would argue that such a practice is ethical and the few that do would be unable to rationally justify their view. Nonetheless, several arguments commonly stand out for its continuation, ranging from its ‘benefits’ to the overall population of elephants to its value for the African economy. Most of these arguments are permeable and stand as nothing more than a smokescreen to distract people while they argue about the legitimacy of said act. All the while, it continues. Nevertheless, the following sections shall address some of the most common points that arise in relation to this polarising topic.

Elephant populations are out of the dire straits

Over past centuries, the population level of elephants in Africa has always fluctuated, sometimes erratically, but they have always remained at a relatively sustainable level. Come the dawn of the 20th century this trend took a dramatic change. In the early 1900’s, there was as many as 10 million elephants in Africa. By 2017, there is less than 350,000. This is more than a 95 percent decline in population over a mere century. Despite this, it is claimed that elephant populations in Africa have stabilised and have even begun to rise; that they are out of the dire straits and can support regulated hunting.

This belief likely came about due to a lack of data on the exact numbers of elephants. Up until 2016, prior to the release of the continent-wide survey of elephants dubbed the Great Elephant Census, there was no concrete understanding of population levels. Numbers had been thrown around and estimations given. These approximations took into consideration educated estimates on what the expected population would be with things such as poaching bans, isolated ground surveys and conservation plans, in place. They were all a fair way off.

The release of the of Great Elephant Census, which took a team of 90 scientists, six NGOs, and two advisory partners, 3 years to complete, gave a conclusive number on the current population. And it was far below what anyone expected. Even more so, it revealed the current loss, largely from poaching, was having a far more significant impact than first thought.

Today, 27,000 elephants are slaughtered yearly or about 8 percent of the total population – this is largely due to ivory poachers. Come countries have experienced as much as a 60 percent decline in elephant populations in 5 years. In Tanzania & Mozambique, as well as several other countries, elephants are considered at risk of extinction. There is even a risk of local extinction in Cameroon where the population is only 148 individuals. You can be assured that elephant populations have in no way stabilised, but only continued to decline.

So, while trophy hunting is touted as being legal and may even be sustainable under good governance, the effects of illegal hunting and government corruption on the elephant populations are too significant to consider legal hunting sustainable. However, as there is more to the equation of trophy hunting, specifically its lucrative pay deals, there is more ‘arguments’ in need of addressing.

Trophy hunting supports local impoverished people and conservation strategies.

With the cost of some hunting safaris exceeding 100’s of thousands of dollars, it would be assumed that the argument that there are great benefits for local people and conservation to be true. But, again, it isn’t as glamorous as commonly depicted.

Of the stated $200 million received for trophy hunting in Africa every year, less than 3 percent of this goes towards local tribes and conservation – it should be noted, that many question the legitimacy of this large claim due to the poor resources and methodology used in the paper to come to this conclusion i.e. it is likely to be less then stated. As a percentage of any African countries GDP, trophy hunting is less than 0.13%. And this, in Botswana, is the highest contribution trophy hunting makes to any African country.

So, why is such a small amount portioned off for local people and conservation? Africa is infamous for corruption. When you have a lucrative business, such as trophy hunting, it inevitably draws in unscrupulous characters. This 3 percent is even questionable. There have been many cases, such as the fabled CAMPFIRE scenario, that have been revealed to drastically overinflate the estimated benefits to local people. For example; In a study analysing the validity and integrity of CAMPFIRE, it was revealed that corruption had drastically diminished the amount of revenue received by councils and local communities.

Most rural councils are drastically underfunded – this is a notorious issue in many African countries, particularly Zimbabwe. In the Chiredzi Rural District, where a hunter payed over $50,000 AUD to kill one of the largest bull elephants ever seen in the area, the region recorded negligible revenue in an end-of-year report. The CEO of CAMPFIRE, Phindile Ncube, reported that his rural district made more than $158,000 from hunting fees, in some years, for local communities and infrastructure. However, when the regions local villagers where interviewed about said funding, they stated that they have not received a single cent from the council.

While the theoretical model for funding local communities through trophy hunting may have some validity, in practice, it is a complete failure, due to the poor political and civil structure of Africa, but also for pragmatic reasons in relation to the inadequate amount of money put into circulation. Craig Packer, a prominent biologist & zoologist chiefly known for his research of lions in the Serengeti National Park, sees the importance of conservation and ‘contribution’ of trophy hunting in practical terms:

“If hunters were shooting lions for millions of dollars and returning a million per lion directly into management, they would be on solid ground. But lions are shot for tens of thousands of dollars, and very little of that money goes back to conservation”.

He was referring to lions, but the same line of thinking is equally applicable to elephants. Essentially, after all the colliding parties take their ‘share’ of the profits, there is very little left over for conservation and local communities, especially when these latter parties exist very low on the spectrum of political importance and have very little power to say otherwise.

The removal of older & bigger elephants is not harmful to the broader population and can have benefits.

 The regulated and targeted removal of older & bigger elephants is claimed to not be harmful and said to even harbour benefits for the broader population, due to said individuals being past breeding age or having passed on genes enough times that they have made a ‘significant contribution’. (One could question the whole assumption that at some point in an elephant’s life they will eventually reach a point where they have bred ‘enough’, as if this is some predefined number and we should only view an individual as a ‘breeder’). From the outset, this reasoning seems sound. Unfortunately, research has shown that this argument is incorrect. Apart from establishing themselves as keystone players in social organisation – a point address later in this article – it seems that older elephants have a lot to contribute to future generations.

Elephants reach sexual maturity around the age of 15 for females and 10-15 for males, although most males will not be able to successfully compete with other bulls until there at a size and skill level reached around 20 years of age. However, ‘prime’ breeding age for males is considered between mid-40’s and 50 years old. Female elephants have been shown to actively target males of a greater age during breeding times, likely due to their size and/or social and physical dominance.

The argument that elephants are of little importance when of an older age is not applicable based on birth alone. It could be argued that elephants reaching ages that will see them soon on their death bed may not have much in the way of breeding to contribute. Maybe, if the importance of an elephant was solely founded on its breeding contribution then they could be taken without any harm to the broader population. However, an elephant should be valued on far more than just its breeding potential.

Note: I’ve never agreed with this line of reasoning because it assumes that we should act on anything that is pragmatic, but discount other factors that give value to the quality of humanity, such as morality. Essentially, the same mindsight that the killing of the elderly that burden society through the increased services required to care for them and their lack of contribution, would come at a benefit to the economy and the broader country in general. There is a rational justification for it, but who is going to be in a mindset to justify such actions. They are heinous, but, in some ways, beneficial. They make this suggestion because they are relying on people to not be impartial on the matter. To value elephants as lesser beings, and hence this act of barbarity is not ethically the same as the killing of elderly humans.

The importance of older elephants is unfairly valued!

 The decision as to the worth of an individual elephant is often only noted in relation to its reproduction potential. That is, if an elephant has been given enough time to reproduce then this is considered adequate, although there is an ambiguity to this claim as it supposes that because one is old enough therefore there is no point allowing them to further contribute. If an elephant is not seen to be able to contribute to the population or has contributed ‘enough’ sexually it is put up to the board to be executed. In this narrow view of what constitutes value, special interest groups are intentionally misdirecting people away from the value of older elephants, specifically their importance as repositories of social knowledge and pillars for order and stability.

When you remove an individual from a herd it disrupts the social structure. In some cases, this can be detrimental, resulting a herd to disband and sometimes the deaths of its individual. For you see, elephants are social creatures that rely on herd dynamics for safety, knowledge, communication et cetera.

Matriarchs, generally the older and biggest cows within a herd, are repositories of social knowledge. Over the course of their life, some spanning more than 70 years, these individuals have spent their life forming social networks within and externally to their herd and accumulated ecological knowledge about the land, such as the locations of waterholes and the trails to take to navigate the lands. These are invaluable resources that ensure the survival and health of elephants.

These individuals stand as bodies of knowledge for younger generations to gain experience and develop skills to survive, for which they in turn, become essential to pass unto the next generation and the next. In a perpetual circle, with each link connecting the next and if anyone were to fail then the whole chain would fail. These strong bonds are hard things to lose. And, it is believed, a contributing factor to the reason elephants mourn the passing of any individuals, regardless of if they had contact with them or not.

Patriarchs are similarly important in elephant society, even if they spend most of their life in solitude. Without guidance or the authoritative role that larger bulls play, it can cause vice within young elephants resulting in heightened aggressiveness. The scenario is comparable to the higher likelihood of juvenile delinquency in humans in the absence of fathers.

Older elephants appear to be pillars of stability in elephant society. There reproductive capacity may have declined, but their importance for social structures only grows as they become older and more intertwined in the social networks of the elephant world.

An elephant is worth more alive than dead!

Would you choose a single wad of cash totalling $20,000 or a continuous income over 40 or so years totalling in the millions of dollars? This is not hypothetical. This is the real scenario for elephants. The killing of an elephant for a trophy will bring in a single payment. However, the continued use of elephants for non-lethal activities, such as photography, provide a continuous and far more lucrative income.

While trophy hunting does bring in some capital to African countries, it makes up as little as 1.8 percent of tourism revenues. The majority of this revenue comes from tourists hoping to experience Africa’s wildlife in non-lethal manners.

Being that elephants are part of an iconic species, they are particularly sought after by non-lethal tourists, similar to lions and jaguars. It has even been shown that countries than ban all hunting, will maintain a lucrative tourism industry without the contribution from hunting. For example, Botswana banned all forms of hunting in January of 2014 after consultation with learned individuals on the conservation cost of big game hunts versus the income generated from photo tourism – the photo tourism season is longer, makes better use of animals and employs significantly more locals. That same year, Botswana generated $344 million from non-lethal tourism.

The continual draw of non-lethal tourists to an area for a single rare elephant, particularly big ones known as tuskers such as the illusive Nkombo, will inevitably bring in far more proceeds over the years of its life compared to a single lump sum of $20k to take its life and remove that incentive for people to travel to that specific area.

It could be helpful if it was regulated

Inevitably, any argument to the counter, once rationally argued against, will fall-back on a final point; Trophy hunting could be beneficial if it were regulated. Besides admitting that trophy hunting is not helping, it suggests that they are not defending this act on the basis of its conservation value, but their own desire to hunt heads.

It has been demonstrated in this article and many others, that the fables of trophy hunting are not as beneficial as they claim. Potentially, I have left the most important point until last. And that is that trophy hunting will never work in these countries because they lack the civil, political and economic structure to ensure that the act is appropriately regulated, enforced, and that it is not the subject of corruption.

Africa is infamous for its civil instability, economic volatility and political corruption. Singularly, these are troubling issues; collectively, they are devastating. While Africa remains in such a state, the complex relationship between conservation and trophy hunting, will never reach a sustainable plateau.

An excuse, not a reason!

Out of all the issues explored above, one point should be abundantly clear, if nothing else. Regardless of whether you support trophy hunting or not, the mixing of conservation into the brew and depicting the act as something beneficial and necessary for the animal kingdom is nothing more than an excuse and a smokescreen. In reality, people carry out this act not because they feel obliged by some deep-seated compassion for nature, but because they desire some insipid sensation that comes from the killing of rare animals and permanently mounting their head on the wall as a reminder of that sensation. It is as if someone realised the act of trophy hunting is entirely unethical, but wished to carry on anyway, thinking to themselves; “how can I spin this so it does not seem so barbaric and unnecessary”.

The conservation of species is in no way relevant in the reasoning used by hunters for taking heads. The same goes for the so-called benefits of hunting which provide food for local people. After a hunter has removed anything they value from the carcass, the local people are given whatever remains. This is not an act of kindness. This is, simply, allowing local people to have whatever the hunters don’t want. Not a single hunter visits Africa with the intent of hunting an animal to feed local people. This is another ploy used to add smoke to the screen.

If these people who profess to care for the animals they are killing or are doing so for conservation reasons, would it not be more reasonable to donate the money to conservation strategies and allow the animal to live and contribute to the population, rather than divide the proceeds amongst many individuals, only leaving conservation with a mere 3 percent of your contribution?

With all this in mind,


Will you be ‘conservation hunting’ elephants in Africa?

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