How Trophy Hunting Works

By: Oisin Curran
black rhinoceros
In 2014, a Texas millionaire paid $350,000 to kill kill one of the last black rhinoceros on the planet (like this one here) in the name of conservation. ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

When a friend approached 36-year-old Corey Knowlton in 2014 with a conservation problem, the Texas millionaire agreed to help. The problem was this: The friend was organizing an auction to aid conservation efforts in Namibia in southwest Africa and he was worried nobody would bid. Would Knowlton promise to put down an opening dollar amount just to get the ball rolling?

Knowlton said he would, when the auction came, he made it interesting with an opening bid of $350,000 [source: Radiolab]. Then he sat back and waited to be outbid. But it didn't happen. Going once, going twice and bang! Knowlton found himself with a prize he later said he hadn't really wanted — and one that instantaneously landed him in the media spotlight. Within hours he and his family were receiving graphic death threats. Despite the intense pressure, Knowlton decided to see the thing through.


The reason so many people were upset was that Knowlton won the right to hunt down and kill one of the last black rhinoceros on the planet. To many people — perhaps most — this seemed an indefensible action. But Knowlton felt certain he was doing a good thing.

On the appointed day of the hunt, he flew to Namibia and met with government officials and his assigned guide, who had been busy determining which rhino Knowlton would be stalking. Before long the two men were in the African bush with a small crew. After three days, they were finally closing in. Then Knowlton saw something in his peripheral vision: "a running beast with a saber on its head. It was like lightning," he told Radiolab in 2015.

Several shots hit the animal but failed to bring it down. The men followed the rhino's trail for 10 minutes before they found it, still standing but mortally wounded. Knowlton fired again. And again. Finally, the rhinoceros fell. Knowlton approached the animal and touched its open eye. When it failed to blink, he knew it was dead. He'd successfully killed a member of a species in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth. But Knowlton was engaging in a Namibian program that claimed to actually help the black rhino population grow. How could this make sense?


A Short History of Trophy Hunting

Teddy Roosevelt with elephant kill
Teddy Roosevelt, seen here with an elephant he took down in Meru, Kenya, was an avid big game hunter and was the founder of the Boone & Crocket Club in 1887. Library of Congress

The link between hunting, money and conservation is an old one. Since at least the time of William the Conqueror, elites have been concerned about preserving game for recreation [source: Usman]. The very name given to the prey, "game" is revealing. It refers to hunting for fun, rather than necessity.

In ancient and medieval Europe, maintaining game was primarily achieved through land ownership. Those with enough money controlled vast acreages set aside for sport hunting. Poaching was harshly punished. William the Conqueror, for instance, stipulated that poachers could variously be castrated, banished or have their eyes torn out [source: Usman].


But hunting game for sport wasn't quite the same as trophy hunting. The "trophy" in question refers to some form of evidence gathered from the prey. Trophy hunting as we understand it today can be traced back to the late 19th century. In 1892, a man named Rowland Ward outlined what he called the Horn Measurements and Weights of the Great Game of the World. It was the first official record of trophy hunts [source: IFAW].

Across the Atlantic, decades later, in 1930, the Boone & Crocket Club, which had been founded by Teddy Roosevelt in 1887, drew up the Boone & Crocket Trophy Scoring System for North American animals [source: Boon and Crocket Club]. In that same year the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC), which has its own Trophy Evaluation System, was registered in Paris [source: CIC]. Trophy hunting as a cultural phenomenon was up and running.

Note the words "Game" and "Wildlife Conservation" in the name of the CIC. From its beginning, trophy hunting aligned itself closely with the idea of conservation. Although counterintuitive to non-hunters, the logic is clear: if you don't protect the prey's habitat, there won't be any prey left. For trophy hunting advocates, this is a cornerstone of their philosophy — wildlife populations flourish where hunters hunt.


The Case for Trophy Hunting

big game hunter
Sara Brandenburg is seen here next to an eland antelope she killed in South Africa. The eland was her first African big game kill, and in Africa, it is tradition for hunters to paint their face with the blood of the first animal they kill. James Ambler/Barcroft USA/Getty Images)

Caroline Sorensen, a conservation officer with the CIC, says that trophy hunting "is often rejected as a term, because it is really 'conservation hunting.'" The hunter, she says via email, "typically isn't only going for the trophy, but rather the experience and memory. [They're] taking the trophy as a reminder of that time."

Sorensen goes on to argue that the major benefits of hunting include the consistency of funding (hunters are not as easily dissuaded from traveling to remote areas, or during conflicts); employment (professional hunters, trackers, butchers) in local villages; and community development (schools built, educational programs implemented). Most of the concrete benefits arise solely from trophy hunting's steady, large income.


"There are numerous cases where there is not only some, but sufficient evidence of population rises associated with the implementation of well-regulated community-based natural resource programs," Sorensen says. "Of course, trophy hunting is not the only answer to, or factor in, rising populations; however, it is a major component of these successes.

"The existence of hunting and hunters not only protects existing habitat, but also provides a viable incentive for land-use changes (typically from agriculture to forested land)," she says. Trophy hunting, she explains, puts a price on a certain quality of animal. The money paid for these hunts then can be returned to help manage the land where the animal lived.

"Furthermore, animals which are taken by a hunter who is paying would typically be marked for removal from the population [due to age], even if there is no one paying," Sorenson explains. "This, therefore, means that populations still have to be managed, but if no one is paying to hunt the target animals, then there is a financial loss."

This last point might be one of the most compelling arguments, especially for conservationists who otherwise balk at the idea of killing individual animals to save their species. Mikkel Legarth, founder of the Modisa Wildlife Project, has professed that he was, at one time, among those out on the street trying to get passersby to sign petitions to end lion-hunting. But when he saw the effects of a lion-hunting ban in Botswana, he changed his mind [source: Legarth]. The ban, he says in a YouTube video, actually resulted in the deaths of more lions than when they were pursued by trophy hunters.

That increase could be due to poaching. Previous bans on hunting in Kenya (1977) and Zambia (2001-2003) were followed by an increase in poaching in both countries [source: Mbaiwa]. In Kenya in particular, wildlife numbers dropped 40 percent between 1977 and 1996. As of 2013, the wildlife population in Kenya was half what it was before the hunting ban was implemented. Some sources attribute this precipitous drop to poaching [source: Mbaiwa].

The idea is that if a lion is no longer a valuable source of trophy-hunting tourist dollars, it's just a huge, extremely dangerous cat stalking local livestock and children. And if poached, not only would the nuisance be removed, its claws, head and hide might fetch a pretty penny from foreign buyers. Similarly, elephants, rhinos and other large species can make troublesome neighbors for struggling farmers. And since ivory, tusks, horns and other body parts can be highly valuable, the math is clear: For the people living near these animals, they're often worth far more dead than alive. That is, unless there's an incentive to maintain their habitats.


The Case Against Trophy Hunting

big game hunting protests
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protesters hold pictures of Cecil the Lion, who was killed by an American outside of a national park in Zimbabwe earlier that year, to protest against importing wild game killed as trophies. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Those who oppose trophy hunting usually make a three-fold argument, one part ethical, one practical and one scientific.

The ethical position argues variously that it's unjust to kill animals for sport. In other words, if you're not hungry or defending yourself, you shouldn't feel justified in taking an animal's life, especially if you're just after it to collect some of its body parts as a keepsake, trophy or to complete a collection.


Claudio Sillero, an associate professor of conservation biology at Oxford University and head of conservation for the Born Free Foundation, puts a finer point on this argument. [To] kill a sentient being for the sake of killing, and stuff its carcass or hang its head on the wall is sickening," Sillero says via email. "Under the veneer of helping the poor in biodiversity-rich, cash-poor nations, these people get away with a wicked abuse simply because they can."

The second part of the anti-trophy hunting argument is that the benefits of these hunts for conservation have been overstated and downsides minimized. First, say opponents, revenue from trophy hunting isn't as much as proponents claim, and second, there's often a great deal of corruption in handling the money raised. They also note that the alleged rise in poaching in places where hunting is banned, is not inevitable.

"Although the dollar figures associated with killing a large, often endangered or vanishingly rare, animal can be mouth-watering for those managing wildlife resources in faraway countries, these figures often do not stack up when scrutinized," Sillero says. "Booking agencies, outfitters, professional hunters, air charters, caterers, camp managers and the occasional backhanders, take the lion's share of the fees paid by the clients. Speaking from experience in Africa, most of that money does not even reach the country where the killings takes place."

Furthermore, Sillero says, even though governments do command hunting fees, the money rarely goes to their treasuries, the people that live next to wildlife or the game rangers charged with protecting these wild spaces.

Another common argument made by the trophy hunting industry is that hunting occurs in communal areas outside national parks or reserves, and that those areas would not be able to keep their wildlife without the help of hunters. But Sillero disagrees. He says many of the popular hunting blocks are actually adjacent to national parks, and that hunting trophy animals creates a vacuum — an ecological trap — where new animals move in searching for food or mating opportunities. Those new animals may end up hunted and shot as well, producing a conveyor belt that affects a protected population deep into the park. He says this was clearly the case for Zimbabwe lions in Hwange National Park.

When the wildlife in these hunting blocks are depleted, hunters seek out permission to go elsewhere, and typically blame the reduction of animal populations on poaching. And it's not just elephants, lions or buffalo that get killed. "In order to keep the hunters engaged and entertained during a 21-day safari [necessary to justify the large fees hunting outfits command] clients are encouraged to kill dozens of other animals while they wait for their 'big one,'" Sillero says.

When arguing against the idea that hunting bans are necessarily deleterious, advocates for bans sometimes point to polar bears. In 1994, U.S. Congress made it legal for American trophy hunters to import polar bear trophies from Canada. Almost immediately, the average number of Canadian polar bears killed for trophies climbed from an average of four per year to an annual average of 361 between 2004 and 2008. But when, in 2008, the law was once again changed, this time to ban the imports, the numbers dropped significantly to an average of 210 polar bears killed for trophies between 2009 and 2012 [source: IFAW].

And there's even more science that backs up the anti-trophy hunting ideology, including concerns that hunting animals for specific traits — like dark-manes on lions or large tusks on elephants — fundamentally alters different species. A 30-year study of bighorn rams, for instance, found that trophy hunting resulted, over time, in an overall reduction in size of the species. That's because the biggest rams with the biggest horns were removed from the gene pool before they got a chance to pass on their genetic material in any significant numbers.


The Ivories Aren't Ticklish

ivory bonfire
Paleontologist and conservationist Richard Leakey is famous for his 1989 bonfire of ivory worth at the time about $3 million. The ivory was confiscated from poachers by Kenyan Game Wardens. Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

Richard Leakey's parents famously excavated the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and he, himself, grew up to become a distinguished paleontologist. Having established his name in a field concerned with the ancient past, he became increasingly concerned with the present and future. He'd spent much of his life in rural East Africa, gaining first-hand experience of that region's extraordinary wildlife, and he knew that it was in trouble.

Poaching for ivory, for instance, had reduced Kenya's elephant population from 65,000 in 1979 to just 17,000 by 1989 when Leakey was appointed head of Kenya's Wildlife Conservation Department by then President Daniel arap Moi [source: Perlez]. In that role, Leakey was notified that 12 tons (10.8 metric tons) of ivory had been seized from smugglers. Some people urged Leakey to sell the stash — it would have fetched around $3 million, which could be plowed back into conservation work. It made sense in lemons-into-lemonade kind of way.


But Leakey was having none of it. Instead, in 1989 he built a great tower from the huge tusks, doused them in gasoline and President Moi lit it up. The ivory bonfire burned and burned and as it did so, the news went around the world and led to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) banning ivory sales. Just as Leakey had hoped, the publicity generated by his bonfire of the ivories alerted the world to the plight of the elephants.

And in the wake of the burning and the ban, the bottom fell out of the ivory market. Instead of losing thousands of elephants a year, Kenya reported only about 100 killed in 1990 [source: Schiffman]. The numbers stayed low for about a decade until several African countries persuaded CITES to let them sell the ivory that had been sitting around. Prices went back up, cartels got involved and poaching regained traction.

In 1999, Leakey became Kenya's cabinet secretary and in 2015 he was back in the conservation business as chair of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). In 2016, he orchestrated another burn, this time it was 100 tons (90 metric tons) of ivory going up in smoke [source: Schiffman]. Similar burns in other countries followed.

In December of 2017, China, the world's largest market for ivory announced that it was closing all domestic ivory markets [source: Humane Society International]. This was the fulfillment of an agreement made between China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015, but it's not hard to see that the negative attention brought to the ivory trade by activists like Leakey are the background to this historic shift.

But Sorensen of the CIC doesn't believe that Kenya is not a good model to emulate when it comes to conservation. "Kenya banned hunting in 1977 and since has not seen improvement in its wildlife populations, but rather has less protection on the ground (hunters themselves being in the field are a deterrent to poachers) and are still seeing wildlife loss as a result of that," she says.


Regulating Trophy Hunting

elephants in Africa
Two elephants play in the Mara Triangle, the northwestern part of Masai Mara national reserve managed by the Mara Conservancy, in southern Kenya. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

For those who steadfastly believe that trophy hunting is a good conservation strategy, research indicates that for it to really work, it must be carefully regulated. One study from 2012, for instance recommends that lion hunting quotas be limited to 0.5 lions per 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles). And not only should the numbers be limited, but the age of the lions should also be highly restricted. Under such circumstances, the study argues, trophy hunting could remain sustainable while helping to preserve large tracts of lion habitat.

Sorensen agrees, underscoring the fact that, "regulation plays a key role in the success of trophy hunting programs ... and administrative transparency is critical," she says. "Each area varies and is influenced by human development, climate change, etc. and each piece of land must be assessed each year to determine the need for hunting programs to be implemented." In the end, she says, there is no single activity that can fulfill the requirements of true conservation on its own. For her part, she believes that hunting isn't the only answer, but rather it's an integral part of a multi-faceted approach to the problem.


Sillero of the Born Free Foundation couldn't disagree more. He says he believes that there are more values attached to wildlife than money. "We may want to protect wild species and their habitats for their ecological role, for ethical or esthetical reasons, or even for their cultural role," he says. "Using an utilitarian argument to justify the persistence of wildlife – if it pays it stays –  is simply wrong. Particularly so when it involves wealthy individuals, paying for the right to take a life, regardless of what others may feel about it."

In the case of large charismatic mammals, Sillero says, local people can derive benefits through non-consumptive use, with visitors spending money to come and see those very animals through the lenses of their cameras, not their guns.

He suggests appealing to wealthier nations and societies to help those poorer countries that host the largest diversity of animals that may not have the financial resources to protect them effectively and sustainably. "We live on one planet, and the majestic wildlife that still roams free is our common heritage," Sillero says. "We can do more, we must do more, to protect wildlife, and we can do that without the help of those insisting that they protect wildlife over the barrel of their guns."

As far as Texas hunter Corey Knowlton goes, he still says he believes that killing that endangered black rhino will help the species survive. "I felt like from day one it was something benefiting the black rhino," Knowlton told CNN's Ed Lavendara, who Knowlton invited to join him on the hunt in early 2018. "Being on this hunt, with the amount of criticism it brought and the amount of praise it brought from both sides, I don't think it could have brought more awareness to the black rhino."

But what's really at the heart of the complex debate over trophy hunting is one of the great conundrums of the 21st century: How do we all — humans, lions, elephants, black rhinos and every other species on Earth — live together and flourish? This, surely is what everybody desires, regardless of where they stand on trophy hunting.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Trophy Hunting Works

This subject is one of those deeply divisive issues that gives rise to impassioned arguments on both sides. More than once, more than I liked, I found myself experiencing a kind of cognitive whiplash as I was tossed back and forth between excellent arguments made on both sides, each backed up by sound logic and empirical data. In these circumstances, I find that I end up on the side for which I'm most temperamentally suited. I was raised a vegetarian with the understanding that I should try to avoid killing as much as possible. There are good arguments to be made against this position and I've considered them, but whether due to that formative principle, or to an inborn penchant, I remain a bleeding heart.

Related Articles

More Great Links

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