In modern western culture it is often said that the two subjects that illicit the most passionate responses are animal abuse and child abuse. This is ingrained from childhood. Cruelty is never accepted under any circumstances. The suffering of any animal, still makes me feel terrible. At a young age, in my teens, I was often asked to put an animal out of its misery. I remember a sick Peregrine Falcon, whose owner asked me to administer a coup de grace, watching me as I shot it. It was not a pleasant experience. I had hunted before then but this was heart breaking. I could not see an animal suffer. I still cannot. The same debate, interestingly, is circulating in human life now about whether it is ultimately more passionate to allow a person in great suffering to die.
I grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where wildlife was abundant, but where strict rules were in place about hunting seasons and poaching. Wildlife management was (and still is) of a very high standard. Elephants were a success story, or a failure depending on your viewpoint. Because of the outstanding stewardship of wildlife in Zimbabwe, elephants in the Hwange Nature Reserve now number in excess of 35 000. This far exceeds the carrying capacity of the land and the Elephants have a habit of stripping the vegetation in the area, which takes up to 25 years to fully recover. Elephants can consume 200kg of vegetation a day.
So we have multiple problems, and I use elephants as an example and the more astute will say that this is unfair, but I will also explore smaller beasts. The problems are that the elephants are “strip mining” the reserve and making life much harder for the other species of flora and fauna. Elephant-human conflicts are also becoming more frequent and there is understandable resentment from neighbouring villagers. Soon there will be no vegetation left and there will be daily conflicts as crops are raided. Crop raiding also breaks down fences, which can allow buffalo to mix with domestic cattle and spread Foot and Mouth disease. Elephants will become aggressive and people will die. The elephants themselves will probably starve to death or be killed for villagers competing for their very life. I can assure you that this will not be a “humane” death either way. There is a solution that is in place already but is socially unacceptable in some circles.
We also have multiple alternate solutions. The first is to use contraception. According to the WWF and SANParks, veterinarians in the Kruger national park in South Africa have tried this, but it is very expensive and only has the effect of stabilizing the population. Relocation is the obvious answer but to relocate each animal costs in the region of 12 000 US dollars. It has also been tried but it is only marginally successful and in the Kruger some elephants made their way back from Mozambique!
Lets leave the Elephant problem for now and move further north. In Germany the population of Wild Boar (Sus Scrofa) has exploded in recent years due in part to the milder climate. It is now not uncommon to see Wild Boar in suburban Berlin going through rubbish bins. Incidents of boar injuring German citizens are on the increase. In Berlin and in Darmstad there have been reports of attacks. The solution to the boar problem is predation. The grey wolf was the main predator and this is no longer the case for obvious reasons. Due to the excellent Jaeger and Jagdschein program in Germany, this is being dealt with effeciently with increasing hunting quotas. In the US state of Texas, the Wild Hog has grown into a major crop and even suburban issue and although numbers are being hunted every year there is a growing concern that this is not having enough of an impact. Innovative schemes are now being setup to hunt the hogs and use the meat for feeding the homeless. The whitetail (Odocoileus virginianus) population in some US states has increased from 500 000 in the early 1900s to nearly 15 million now. Similarly the African Blesbok (Damaliscus pygargus phillipsi) went from near extinction to an estimate of 240 000 to 300 000 and growing.
Why have the deer and buck species above been so successful? Firstly the populations have been managed. Hunting seasons and regulations were introduced. There is now careful management of these populations by both government and private land owners to stabilise the population to just below the carrying capacity of the land. The incentive and the management technique is hunting. This is not “Cruel” as the PETA organisation (branded as domestic terrorists by the USDA) would have you believe. Ethical hunting ensures minimal and often no suffering for the animal. Compare this to the oddly socially acceptable practice of slaughtering farm animals.
Where deer hunting has been banned in the US it has been a disaster – refer to the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona.
Back to our elephants.
In Kenya, allegedly in an attempt to cut down on poaching, all hunting (except wingshooting) was banned in 1977. This has resulted in a 60 – 70% DECLINE in wildlife. Elephants went from 150 000 to around 6 000 in twenty years. The reasons behind this is that the Professional Hunters who took their wealthy clients out, policed the area very effectivly. They also employed many of the local people who also, in turn, policed the area, since it was in their own best interests to do so. The other reason is that now wildlife belongs to the state and us such it holds no value to the average Kenyan. This opens up a whole different discussion outside the scope of this article, but for more on this topic Google Mike Norton-Griffiths for some interesting insight into fundraising for animal rights organisations and Eco-Economics in general.
So to return to my original question and to answer it for myself. Trophy hunting keeps animal populations in check in a humane and ethical way. In no country in Africa can you trophy hunt without a Professional Hunter guiding your every move to ensure the ethical hunting of trophy animals. Trophy hunting cuts down on poaching as we have seen in Kenya. Trophy hunting ensures the continued existence of the trophy animals and contributes billions to the host country’s economy.
Meat hunting in a regulated, ethical way keeps the populations vibrant and growing, as we have seen in South Africa and the US.
So in conclusion, hunting is THE most effective wildlife management tool available to the conservationist. True conservationists, those who aren’t ignorant armchair conservationists or others with more sordid agendas, recognise this fact and have since the Aldo Leopolds and Theodore Roosevelts of the world were around.