Should We Kill Animals to Save Them?
A 13-year-old girl from the United States hauls the carcass of a bontebok back to camp in Eastern Cape, South Africa. She shot the antelope in 2010 and kept the skin and horns.
Trophy hunting fees help fund conservation. Critics say the benefits are exaggerated and that killing big game animals is wrong.
On November 17, 2017, after much public outrage, President Donald Trumptweeted that hewould reverse the lifting of the import ban. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke released a statement saying he has put the issuing of import permits on hold while the decision to lift the ban is reviewed.
On November 15, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that trophies from elephants legally hunted in Zimbabwe and Zambia can once again be imported to the U.S., reversing a ban under former President Barack Obama. Elephant populations in Zimbabwe have declined 11 percent since 2005, and as much as 74 percent in some parts of the country. African elephants are listed asthreatened under the Endangered Species Act. In a prepared statement the service says it “has determined that the hunting and management programs for African elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.”
Though the Fish and Wildlife Service’s official position has long been that of supporting “legal, well-regulated sport hunting,” the benefits of trophy hunting for wildlife conservation in Africa are controversial. This story from the October 2017issue of National Geographic takes a closer look.
The people in this story agreed to be photographed on condition that their names be withheld.
Elephants kept appearing in wrinkled herds, loitering near the dusty pans, in search of water. With the September temperature pushing a hundred degrees at midday, the pachyderms were moving at the edge of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia in a community-run wildlife reserve, or conservancy, called Nyae Nyae, where roughly 2,800 San people live today in unyielding conditions.
The elephants left snapped branches and warm scat in their wake. When they caught our scent, our sweat mixing with the sun-scorched grasses, they broke into a trumpeting jog and were gone.
Later, more materialized on the horizon, in the shade of the camel thorn trees, shades themselves. For such enormous creatures, they were nearly invisible but to the sharpest eyes. And those eyes belonged now to Dam, a short, compact man, a tracker from the local San people who stood in the back of the Land Cruiser.
“Oliphant!” he cried, leaning hard over the right side of the vehicle, picking out tracks in the sand. He tapped on the door, and we came to a whiplashing halt. Dam jumped down, checking a footprint, its edges corrugated and etched inside with smaller bubbles. He motioned, and Felix Marnewecke, the professional hunter and guide on this expedition, popped out of the driver’s side door. Strapping, ruddy, and blond, in his 40s, he seemed straight from central casting, wearing a cloth hat and shorts. He stood over the impression for a moment, a quizzical expression on his face, and nodded his head in agreement. If Nyae Nyae’s desert scrub is home to San families, it is also home to some of the last, biggest wild elephants in the world. This footprint was proof.
The rest of us unloaded, followed by the tracker they only ever called the Old Man, another tracker in training, and one more San, who was acting as a “game guard” to make sure the hunt was conducted in accordance with the conservancy’s rules and quotas. Last to emerge in that swelter was the client himself, an American businessman, who opened the passenger door and reached up to the rack for his gun, a 12-pound, bespoke .470 Nitro Express double rifle. These guns, costing up to $200,000, are favored for big-game trophy hunting because of their stopping power, and this is what he was here for, of course—a trophy. Two of them, actually. An avid hunter whose adventures had led him to Central Asia to shoot Marco Polo sheep at 15,000 feet and to Africa to shoot a leopard, he was now back in Africa for elephants.
According to Marnewecke, the going rate for a 14-day, single elephant hunt is about $80,000. The trophy hunt limit of five elephants a year in Nyae Nyae represents real money to the San. A portion of the fee is paid directly to community members and to a fund for conservation projects to protect the area’s wildlife. As for the elephant trophies themselves, the client would take the tusks home, while the meat would all go to the San.
Marnewecke and his client—anonymous at his request, given the controversial nature of elephant hunts—hoisted their rifles over their shoulders and fell in behind Dam, who took off at the speed of a jackrabbit. Marnewecke turned to me and said, as I stumbled to keep up, “I swear, there’s no better tracker in Africa. If it takes 30 miles, he never gives up.”
From Charles Darwin and John James Audubon to Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, the most enlightened hunters have long viewed themselves as naturalists and conservationists, committed to sustainability among animal populations and the preservation of wild places where they stalk game. The linkage has become inextricable. Revenues of hundreds of millions in federal excise taxes levied on hunters go directly to wildlife management and related activities each year in the U.S. alone. And anyone who keeps a freezer full of venison is likely to tell you that the act of killing your own dinner in the wild is more humane than buying the plastic-wrapped meat of industrially raised livestock.
But trophy hunting today, especially of the so-called big five in Africa (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and Cape buffalo), brings with it a larger set of moral and financial questions. The sport killing of animals beleaguered in the wild can arouse fierce opposition, even more so if the animal—Cecil the Lion, for example—is named. Biologists estimated total losses of large mammals in protected areas on the continent at up to 60 percent between 1970 and 2005. As big game populations dwindle further under pressure from human encroachment, shifting climate norms, and widespread criminal poaching, there are hunters—the American client in Nyae Nyae, for one—who argue that a thoughtfully regulated and expensive hunt for bull elephants in their waning days makes a sustainable way to protect both species and habitat.