How Hunting Trophies Work

By: Andrew Aguecheek
Horned cattle, beloved animal of many cultures.
Mounted animal heads as trophies, Texas Ranger Museum.
Walter Bibikow/The Image Bank/Getty Images

That big mo­ose head hanging on the wall at your local hangout is what hunters call a trophy: a souvenir of a kill. Quite literally, trophy animals are prized as trophies. They are used for decoration, bragging rights or income. Taxidermists create cleaned, dressed and mounted trophies for museums, restaurants, hotels and private homes.

Man has hunted since prehistoric times, and the hunting experience brings up some of the most primitive human feelings, such as the thrill of a dangerous chase. Less obvious is the desire to show off one's successes -- an impulse not far removed from beasts strutting in courtship. For some hunters, bagging a trophy large enough for the record books is their central motivation. For others, simply immobilizing the animal and taking a photo will do.


Sportsmen have developed rules and conventions to regulate hunting activity throughout U.S. history. As wildlife populations gradually dropped in the 1800s, hunters began to narrow their range. They began passing over females and targeting the­ largest, most mature male specimens [source: Lee]. In recent years, many in the hunting community have argued that this selective process makes trophy hunting a useful component of sustainable wildlife conservation programs. Other advocates for nature claim the opposite and have sought to restrict or ban trophy hunting.

­Trophy hunting of big game or exotic animals can stir up great emotion within communities. In recent years, polar bears have taken center stage in the debate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added polar bears to the threatened species list in 2008. This listing ensures that polar bears, who are suffering from environmental and climate issues, cannot be brought into the U.S. as big game trophies. A ban on hunting polar bears has been in place since 1972 (with the exception of subsistence hunting by Alaska natives, but it has previously been legal to import kills from Canada [source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service].

Polar bears are just one example of the heated controversy surrounding trophy hunting. In this article, we'll explore both sides of the exotic and big game trophy hunting argument. But first, let's take a look at the trophies themselves and how they're acquired.


Types of Hunting Trophies

While anyone can throw a deer head on the wall and call it a trophy, in hunting trophy is more appropriately used for big game or exotic animals. These types of trophies are as varied as the animal kingdom itself.

In North America, big game trophy animals include:


Organizations in Africa offer hunting safaris for:

  • Impala
  • Gemsbuck
  • Nyala
  • Zebra
  • Warthog
  • Wildebeest
  • Hartebeest [source: African Trophy]

They can also provide safaris for the "African Big Five." These highly coveted trophies include lion, buffalo, rhinoceros, leopard and elephant [source: African Sky].

Whatever your feelings about hunting, there can be no doubt that for the hunter, it's a very intense, visceral experience. After the thrill of the hunt is over, it seems only natural that the hunter would want to keep some physical memento to capture the memories of the experience. Mere photographs may not be enough.

Some trophies include the lush pelts of animals such as sheep and bear, tanned hides, and elephant tusks (although the ivory trade is still banned in some countries under international law) [source: CITES]. The predominant concept of the hunting trophy, however, involves taxidermy. Preparation of a head, head and shoulder mount, antler rack or full mannequin involves skinning, drying, bleaching, cleaning, dressing and creating a mold or model [source: Missoula Valley School of Taxidermy].

Taxidermy is considered an art. The placement of features such as glass eyes, the hiding of seams, and cosmetic repairs to cover up defects, such as bullet holes or blemishes, all contribute to the lifelike quality of a well-mounted trophy.

How do hunters end up with their trophies? Read on to learn about collecting these giant creatures.


Collecting Hunting Trophies

­So you want to trophy hunt? You ju­st need to head out into the wilderness, find a large animal, shoot it and send it to the taxidermist, right? Unfortunately, it's not that simple -- or cheap. This elite sport requires planning, special equipment, permits and a lot of cash. Prices can range up to $20,000 in Alaska to collect big game such as the Kodiak bear [source: Nilsson].

Organizations throughout the world offer memberships to trophy hunters. Participants are usually wealthy businesspeople with upper class salaries. They travel around the U.S. and to remote areas in foreign countries to find the big game.


In the U.S., there are multiple nationwide and state-run organizations that support trophy hunting. These groups fund competitions, maintain vast records and offer multiple services to their members. If you don't want to join a group, licenses and information about trophy hunting in your state can be found at your regional Department of Natural Resources.

Exotic trophy hunting is a popular global pastime, but U.S. citizens make up a healthy chunk of those who fly to Southern Africa and other remote locations for professionally-run safaris.

The trophies are then imported back to the U.S. Animals protected under the Endangered Species Act cannot be brought into the country as trophies except for special purposes, such as scientific research [source: Humane Society of the United States]. Collectors can also purchase trophies on the open market -- sometimes by the same outfits that plan the safari packages.

Trophy hunting is a hot topic for animal lovers and hunters alike. It tends to be a polarizing --either you love it or you hate it. Read on for a better understanding of those who support hunting for trophies.


Arguments in Favor of Hunting Trophies

­Hunting has many supporters, but some consider t­rophy hunting a more controversial part of the sport. Dieter Schramm, the president of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation, sees trophies as a way to commemorate the satisfaction of the quest. In "Africa Indaba," a newsletter dedicated to African wildlife conservation, Schramm says, "When the hunter looks at the trophies on the wall, she or he is engaging in one of humanity's primary privileges: self-assertion and the experience of joy and happiness." Schramm supports trophy hunting, but is quick to point out that it's the hunt itself, not the trophy, that deserves to be celebrated [source: Schramm].

Schramm is not alone in his support. Sporting writer Don Meredith defends hunting white-tailed and mule deer in Alberta, Canada, for the following reasons:


  • There are large populations of these deer in the area
  • Big game deer are difficult to hunt -- which is why they grow so large
  • Most hunters are using the deer for food, negating the need to hunt only for record sizes
  • A trophy-sized deer has already passed its genes to the next generation through mating [source: Meredith]

The most sophisticated arguments in favor of trophy hunting stress its contribution to wildlife conservation and environmental stewardship. Hunting advocates note that selective hunting can sometimes be an effective means to defend endangered species or restore balance to an ecosystem. Additionally, commercial trophy hunting brings significant revenue to cash-poor, nature-rich regions like sub-Saharan Africa. Governments, in turn, can use some of that revenue to promote conservation and sustainability efforts [source: Gunn].

Needless to say, there are many who strictly oppose trophy hunting. Read on to learn about the other side of the story.


Arguments Against Hunting Trophies

­For supporters of animal rights, hunting for trophies is one of the worst kinds of violations­. The animal rights viewpoint starts with the premise that animals deserve to live out their natural lifespan just like humans. From that standpoint, killing any animal for sport is morally offensive: It deprives animals of their right to life, and their deaths serve no justifiable purpose. The offense is compounded when some of the animals killed by trophy hunters are from rare or endangered species.

Some methods of obtaining exotic or outsized trophies are far from sportsmanlike. Proponents of ethical hunting and animal welfare both condemn the practice of canned hunting -- breeding animals in captivity to be killed by hunters in enclosed spaces. South Africa is one of several countries that have banned the practice, but it still continues [source: Environmental News Service]. Practices like canned hunting are considered by some as abuse of wildlife.


Some scientists say that systematically hunting the most mature members of an animal population can adversely affect its gene pool. This will reduce the average size of future generations and threaten the ability of the species to thrive in its habitat. Researchers claim repeated hunting over many years has gradually diminished the size of the Kodiak bears of Alaska. Furthermore, hunting has altered the bears' behavior in a cause-and-effect manner. Because the bears have grown so frightened of humans, they are more likely to forego their normal salmon runs, thus undermining their own nutrition and health. Killing off the adult males of any species may decrease the survival odds of the surviving young. It may also destabilize the population by creating a shortage of males. If females are also targeted, hunting can mean the loss of the survival knowledge that mother bears pass on to their offspring [source: Nilsson].

Despite the arguments, trophy hunting is sure to continue around the world. How do you feel about it? Is trophy hunting good, bad or somewhere in the middle? Now that you have the facts, you can join in on the debate that is sure to continue for generations to come.


Lots More Information

Rel­ated ­HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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