The sad story of Cecil the Lion brought forth an outpouring not only of outrage, but fatuousness on an epic scale. The usual Twitter lynch-mob was out in force, of course, but those who chose to strike contrarian poses also distinguished themselves in the annals of idiocy.
Especially annoying was the more witless kind of whataboutery – e.g. ‘you’re upset about one African lion, but what about all the African children who died on the same day?’ Needless to say, it’s possible to care about both animals and people (for instance, the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was a co-founder of what became the RSPCA).
Then there’s the sort of fur coat wearing, foie gras guzzling, big game hunting reactionary who either delights in cruelty to animals or shrugs it off as a minor detail. In doing so, they seem to think that they’re striking a blow for freedom – as if the great cause of liberty can be reduced to our tolerance of sadism.
There is, however, a more sophisticated argument that merits a serious response. This is the claim – scrutinised by Jake Flanagin in an article for Quartz – that big game hunting can be force for good:
“This (typically quite affluent) slice of the sportsman community argues that trophy hunting, and its hefty price tag, is what keeps Africa’s conservation projects afloat. The exorbitant fees exacted by a typical Big Five hunting trip can be reinvested in park infrastructure and breeding programs, which cultivate genetic diversity among animal populations and better measures for protecting them against poaching.
Simultaneously, these fees support ostensible jobs for members of local, impoverished communities in tracking and field-guide work.”
So, leaving the moral questions aside, why don’t we harness the market to conserve wildlife? The answer is because, in this case, it doesn’t work:
“…the ecological benefits of trophy hunting are exaggerated. Though many hunters claim to limit their pursuits to old, sick, and/or infertile specimens, the culture of trophy hunting renders the largest, most impressive animals most desirable…
“This imperils one of the most basic mechanisms of healthy ecology: survival of the fittest. Eliminating the largest, and generally most virile members of a population produces a sort of reverse-Darwinism effect—‘survival of the weakest.’”
Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but she is also efficient. Taking out the big beasts at the top of the food chain is like sacking the top managers in a major organisation – all kinds of chaos ensue.
The business case doesn’t really work in human terms either:
“Economically, the benefits of trophy hunting are similarly exaggerated. A 2004 study (pdf) compiled by scientists at the Terrestrial Ecology Research Unit of the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa estimated that non-consumptive ecotourism (i.e., photo safaris, etc.) on private game reserves generated ‘more than 15 times the income of livestock or game rearing or overseas hunting.’
“Likewise, compared with ecotourism, trophy hunting does not facilitate meaningful or substantial employment opportunities for abutting communities.”
In the book of Romans it says that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him”; some right-wingers would substitute the market for the Almighty – believing that legality, transparency, property rights and competition can redeem our fallen world.
Yet there are some activities that are too immoral for mere market forces to put right. Even if there is a case for legalising a particular black market, one has to ask what sort of person would want to trade in something that most people find ethically repellent. It may be that some participants have hearts of gold, but a nasty business is likely to attract some nasty pieces of work too – in which case the trade will require careful regulation.
Therefore, when it comes to the underbelly of human existence, market solutions require a faith not only in the marketplace, but also the diligence and effectiveness of the state.