You may have missed it, but there has been a fierce battle raging in certain parts of the media and internet this week over hunting. Not the traditional British debate about whether or not we should be allowed to chase foxes with dogs, but over African big game hunting and its contribution, if any, to the conservation of endangered species.
Perhaps predictably, it took an attractive young woman to garner all this sudden attention. That young woman is Kendall Jones, a cheerleader and huntress from the United States whose Facebook page charts her game-hunting adventures. Whilst there are plenty of hunting licences sold annually by African states and the subject is covered extensively in sports journals, a picture is worth a thousand words and the site of a slim blonde in camouflage clothing, toting a compound bow and posing with her kills (or tranquilised animals, in some cases) has evidently touched a nerve.
The backlash has already led Facebook to remove her more controversial pictures from her page – on the rather ropey grounds that photographs of state-regulated, licenced hunting ‘promotes poaching’. But while it might be tempting to join in what the Independent describes as ‘worldwide fury’, we should not. Even setting aside the sexist undertones of singling out young women from hundreds of (largely male) hunters for this cacophonous chorus of execration, Kendall Jones is essentially right. Hunting has an important, legitimate role to play in conservation.
For a start, population control is an essential part of nearly all modern conservation programmes. In the United Kingdom, where we wiped out our apex predators a long time ago, systematic culling of over-populated species is just part of the process. Why would that not be the case in Africa, where the animals in question can also pose serious threats to the livelihood – and the lives – of local farmers? If you believe that these animals should just be completely left alone, as does this commentator in The Independent, would you be prepared to see the (unregulated, remember) reintroduction of wolves and bears to this island? And if culling is necessary, why impose costs on African citizen to have state wardens do it when wealthy foreigners will pay top dollar for the privilege?
Second, hunting gives communities a stake in the wellbeing (and continued existence) of their local big game populations. Whilst it is easy for governments – and remote Westerners – to argue that these animals are just super and should be cherished for their own sake, in reality they impose costs and risks on locals which need to be addressed. When Zimbabwe operated a locally-administered hunting licence system, its elephant population boomed. Farmers, who could see their livelihoods devastated by elephants and other destructive grazers, had an incentive to look after them and not cooperate with poachers.
These two arguments come together into the big one: legal hunting undermines poaching, and all the evils that come with it. Unlike regulated hunters poachers kill what they can, and are neither selective in their targets nor restrained in their overall haul. Areas which have banned legal hunting have often traded stable game numbers and an inflow of foreign money for devastating collapses in the game population and an expensive, high-stakes ‘war on ivory’ that is starting to match the war on drugs in its militarised ridiculousness.
Finally, providing legitimate avenues for the acquisition of ivory eases global demand and further cuts into black-market profits. Since demand for ivory can no more be commanded out of existence than could demand for drugs, cigarettes, sex or alcohol, a regulated above-board trade in ivory is the most sensible answer the real world appears to offer.
It’s easy to see why that seems counter-intuitive. In a university debate it would be a golden opening for a bit of crowd-pleasing rhetoric: “You mean the way to save endangered species is to kill more of them?!” (That would be followed by an incredulous gurn at the crowd). In hunting, as with firearms or indeed any controversial issue, it is easy enough to avoid proper debate altogether by mocking, rather than examining, arguments that contradict some very simplistic assumptions.
Don’t get me wrong. If you’re a vegan or committed green or some such, you’ve got an intellectually coherent case against ivory farming, even if I disagree with it. But if you’re a meat-eating, leather-wearing type like me, it’s much harder to construct one. After all, an elephant is no more intrinsically value than a cow or sheep, and both of those species have benefited enormously from their ‘exploitation’ by humankind.
By meeting market demand, incentivising conservation, managing and boosting populations, enriching local communities and defunding criminality, regulated hunting sits at the intersection between human interest and animal welfare where any successful conservation effort must be. Good hunting, Kendall.