Is hunting good for wildlife? Trophy hunting is a contentious subject to be sure, but there are undeniable environmental, economic, & scientific benefits of hunting.
I think you’ll agree with me when I say that trophy hunting is a pretty controversial subject these days. The problem is that even though there are real, scientifically proven benefits of hunting, the reasons why hunting is good for wildlife conservation may seem counterintuitive at first. After all, how can it be true that killing individual animals can actually benefit overall animal populations?
No species has ever gone extinct from trophy hunting. Instead, there are two primary threats to animal populations in the world today: habitat loss and poaching. Fortunately, well regulated, sustainable hunting actually promotes wildlife conservation and there are some important environmental benefits of hunting that are essential to combating each of those two threats.
In this article, I’m going to explain why hunting is good for wildlife and show how the benefits of trophy hunting actually end up protecting wildlife populations from both poaching and habitat loss.
I understand if you’re skeptical at first. All I ask is that you read the article with an open mind.
Benefits Of Hunting: If It Pays, It Stays
Of these two threats, habitat loss is the most serious. The unfortunate reality of the situation in the world today (particularly in Africa), is that virtually all of the places left that can sustain populations of large and dangerous animals like elephants, lions, and rhino are already at, or exceeding their carrying capacity. Human encroachment has slowly but steadily reduced the amount of land left that is suitable for those animals to live on. This has brought these animals into conflict with people.
Seeing large species of African game like elephants and lion on vacation, particularly for the first time, is a truly amazing experience. However, living with them on a daily basis is a whole other deal entirely. I probably wouldn’t like it either if leopards and lions were stealing my livestock or if elephants were destroying my crops. When animals and humans are in conflict, the wildlife invariably loses. Looking at it this way, it’s not surprising that the locals take matters into their own hands and many of these animals get poached.
However, properly managed hunting programs, like the CAMPFIRE system in Zimbabwe, give local people tangible benefits from preserving wildlife populations. After all, they are the ones who must live with these animals. The true fact of the matter is that “if it pays, it stays.” It’s a whole lot easier to tolerate crop and livestock raiding animals if you’re given a job assisting with the hunt, the hunters give you some of the meat from animals that are killed, and when money from the hunt is invested back in the community.
Yes, trophy hunting does invariably result in a few animals being killed. However, when well regulated, sustainable hunting is practiced, only a very small number of animals (typically .5%-3% of the entire population), usually older males past breeding age, are taken. This does not result in any negative impacts on healthy wildlife populations and can even help populations grow.
The story of the village of Sankuyo in Botswana illustrates both the benefits of hunting to the local people and wildlife populations as well as the pitfalls of hunting bans. That village is located in a part of Botswana that at one point was a premier destination for trophy hunters until the country shut down hunting in 2013.
In 2010, (while hunting was still legal) the village earned $600,000 from visiting hunters. This is in addition to the meat from animals killed by hunters and the jobs created in order to support the hunting industry. Among other things, the village built toilets for 20 households (chosen by lottery) and connected another 40 households to running water with this money. Remember, the people in these areas are extremely poor and the simple act of providing easy to access to water or a toilet is an incredible improvement to their quality of live (not to mention a public health benefit).
According to Timex Moalosi, Sankuyo’s chief:
That’s what made people appreciate conservation. We told them, “That lion or elephant has paid for your toilet or your standpipe.”
Since hunting was shut down in Botswana in 2013, leopards, hyenas, and lions have taken an incredible toll on the livestock in the village. Understandably, the locals are starting to take matters into their own hands. After the ban was enacted, it was no longer in their best interest to protect animals, so poaching skyrocketed.
Hunting Is Good For Wildlife: Rewilding Farmland
Following along the habitat loss track, thanks to hunting, southern Africa is starting to see a trend of landowners “rewilding” farms and cattle ranches by converting them into wildlife conservancies with native flora and fauna. Not only does hunting often pay better than farming, but the native animals are much more tolerant of drought conditions and less damaging to the ecosystem than cattle.
This is one of the most important environmental benefits of hunting.
Additionally, these projects have resulted in a dramatic increase in wildlife populations over the past few decades.
For example, the Bubye Valley Conservancy is a great example of how hunting is conservation. In 1994, the 1,400 square miles (3,740 square kilometers) of land that is now the Bubye Valley Conservancy contained thousands of cattle, but absolutely no wildlife. All the native animals had been killed off by farmers to make room for their cattle. Now, the cattle are gone and the conservancy is home to the world’s third largest black rhino population, Zimbabwe’s largest lion population, a flourishing elephant population, and abundant plains game.
This is obviously an incredible wildlife conservation success and a wonderful example of how trophy hunting benefits wildlife populations, to include endangered species like rhino. However, building and maintaining the conservancy was not free. There are several outfitters that practice sustainable hunting in the conservancy. They pay for anti-poaching patrols and funnel a great deal of money back into the conservancy and the surrounding communities.
Let’s be clear here: the Bubye Valley Conservancy would not exist today and you would not see photos like the one below without hunting.
Another important side effect of these programs is better habitat for ALL wild animals in the area, not just for animals that hunters are pursuing.
Nobody hunts rhinoceros in the Bubye Valley Conservancy, yet those animals are now thriving in thousands square miles of prime wildlife habitat that simply didn’t exist back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Likewise, in addition to the many buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, and antelope that live in these areas, countless other species of birds, fish, and reptiles as well some other, more unusual creatures like pangolin are now enjoying the benefits of these rewildling projects.
This is a critical example of how hunting benefits all wildlife, not just big game species.
Benefits Of Hunting: Fighting Poaching
As I mentioned at the beginning, poaching is another serious threat to wildlife populations. A common tactic of the anti-hunting lobby is to lump poaching and ethical hunting in together. This is a completely false assertion and I’ll discuss the differences below.
Unlike hunting, poaching is incredibly harmful to wildlife populations. No species has ever gone extinct due to well regulated, ethical hunting.
The same cannot be said about poaching.
It’s not just the large numbers of animals that poachers kill that makes them bad, but it is the indiscriminate killing of animals as well. While ethical hunters tend to selectively pursue older males, poachers make no distinction between killing old males, young males, females, and babies. This is particularly damaging to animal populations.
Killing a small number of mature males that have already had an opportunity to breed and pass on their genetics has no negative impact on an animal population. In fact, it can actually improve the overall health of the herd. At the same time, shooting the same number of females can be absolutely devastating to the population, especially with animals that have low reproduction rates like elephants and rhinos.
With that in mind, one of the other important benefits of trophy hunting is that sustainable hunting funds anti-poaching programs.
The men and women actually fighting on the front line against poachers are incredibly dedicated, but they don’t work for free. They also need training, weapons, vehicles, radios, and other equipment to adequately protect wildlife. These things all cost money, and hunters gladly pick up the tab for them. The anti-poaching units for the Bubye Valley Conservancy (which have never lost an elephant to poachers) and in Mozambique’s Zambezi Delta are both examples of highly successful anti-poaching programs that are funded primarily by hunters.
Trophy Hunting vs Photo Safaris
Anti-hunting groups claim that photo safaris can provide all the same benefits to African economies as hunting, but without killing any animals. On the surface, this would appear to be a good idea, but it just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Look at Kenya and Tanzania as prime examples of how hunting promotes wildlife conservation. Both of these East African countries had some of the largest and most diverse wildlife populations in the entire continent during the early 20th century. However, Kenya banned hunting in 1977 and decided to focus solely on earning income from wildlife through photo safaris and other non-consumptive forms of tourism.
Since then, wildlife populations have declined by over 60% and virtually no wildlife lives outside of national parks in Kenya.
On the other hand, Tanzania banned hunting in 1973, but reopened hunting again in 1983 after suffering a large drop in wildlife numbers. The country now has some of the largest wildlife populations in Africa and offers some absolutely outstanding hunting opportunities. Wildlife is thriving both inside and out of the national parks and other protected areas because the wildlife now has value and hunters are funding anti-poaching programs.
Photo safaris simply cannot provide the same level of economic and conservation incentives as hunting. Photo safaris are most successful in areas that are easy to access, have an infrastructure that can support comfortable and safe accommodations for large numbers of people, and have large, diverse populations of wildlife. Most parts of Africa simply lack one or more of these attributes and are not suitable for photo safaris.
On the other hand, hunters are willing to travel long distances, stay in very basic accommodations, and expend a great deal of time, energy, and money just to encounter a small number of animals. There is a reason why bongo are almost exclusively pursued by hunters and not photo tourists. Any country that decides to ban hunting in favor of photo safaris will be giving up all of the income and conservation benefits of conducting sustainable hunting in the corners of the country not suited for photo safaris.
Make no mistake: photo safaris are important contributors to the economies of many countries. Fortunately, it’s not an either/or situation and countries may do both. Photo safaris and sustainable hunting should be viewed as complimentary instead of competing activities. Countries that have taken this approach, like Tanzania, South Africa, and Namibia, have thriving wildlife populations.
Benefits Of Hunting In North America
While this article has focused primarily about the benefits of hunting in Africa to this point, hunting benefits conservation elsewhere in the world as well. This is particularly true in North America.
For instance, American sportsmen and women pay an excise tax when they purchase firearms and ammunition. Formally known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Act taxes all purchases of guns, ammunition, bows, and archery equipment. A similar law called the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, which is better known as the Dingell-Johnson Act, established an excise tax on fishing equipment in 1950.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service receives these funds and then distributes them to the individual fish and game or natural resource agencies in each of the 50 states as well as Washington D.C. and the territories. These funds, along with license fees generated from the sale of fishing and hunting licenses, are used to fund wildlife management and research projects.
Conservation efforts that North American hunters helped fund in the United States and Canada saved many species from the brink of extinction. Indeed, species like wild turkey, elk, whitetail deer, and Canada geese were in serious trouble in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
However, conservationists worked to end market hunting, establish hunting seasons, and protect vital wildlife habitat. These principles have since been enshrined in what is now known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.
The results have been astounding and pheasant, waterfowl, turkey, moose, elk, and deer populations (not to mention many other wildlife species) have dramatically increased.
Why Hunting Is Good: Conclusions
So, back to the original question: is hunting good for wildlife?
If you’ve made it to this point in the article, it should be pretty clear that well regulated, sustainable hunting promotes conservation and that there are several important benefits of hunting. By giving wildlife tangible value, providing incentives to landowners to conduct “rewilding” projects on their land, by funding anti-poaching efforts, and by protecting valuable wildlife habitat, hunting is good for wildlife populations in many different ways.