Harary: Not All Fun and Game

by Paul Harary | 9/20/15 6:51pm

Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist with a penchant for sports hunting, has recently been the focus of international headlines and public outrage due to his fatal shooting of Cecil, a reportedly well-known and beloved lion in a national park in Zimbabwe. The 13-year-old carnivore was notable for being the subject of an Oxford University study on animal tracking, and his death has sparked discussion about a common practice regarding big-game hunting in both the United States and across Africa — the sale of hunting licenses to fund wildlife conservation. In Palmer’s case, he paid approximately $54,000 for the right and permits to kill and export a male lion from the Hwange Game Reserve — although not Cecil, specifically. While authorities are questioning the legality of this particular hunting safari, there is no doubt that trophy hunting is permitted in several countries, including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia and Botswana — as well as in the U.S. The dealing of these licenses is often an integral source of funding for wildlife conservation in these countries, but this makes little sense from a commercial standpoint and even less from a moral one.

Economically, the argument for the auctioning of one-off hunting licenses at first seems quite convincing. Not only is it a primary source of funding for wildlife conservation efforts, but it also allows governments to carefully regulate the quantity and profile of animals that are killed. This ensures that, in most cases, hunters focus their efforts on older, non-reproducing males — individuals that tend to pose a threat to wild populations by killing off younger, smaller animals. According to Voice of America, the official external broadcast institution of the U.S. government, the hunting industry brings in more than $744 million each year in South Africa alone. This money is used to support conservation infrastructure, pay the salaries of park rangers, police illegal hunting and provide mechanisms to control the black-market trade of pelts and ivory. In addition, the number of game tags put on auction is often strictly limited, guaranteeing high-prices for the few that are circulated and putting a hard cap on the number of animals killed per year — roughly 800 lions were killed in Zimbabwe between 1999 and 2009.

For all the money that big game hunting supposedly brings to these countries, however, it pales in comparison to that generated by ecotourism. Jeff Flocken, North American regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, drove home this point in a July interview with National Public Radio, where he noted that “legal trophy hunting is measured by the millions it contributes to Africa’s economy while non-lethal nature viewing [is measured] by the billions.” Nature tourism, he said, generates 13 to 15 times the revenue that comes from trophy hunting.

Flocken hit the nail on the head — the almost 4.7 billion that ecotourism is estimated to bring into South Africa each year dwarfs the millions in revenue from permit sales. Although the latter sum is still undoubtedly significant — particularly in countries where poverty and corruption serve to make wildlife conservation a relatively low government priority — it endangers the natural resources that draw ecotourists and creates a system that is at risk of abuse. Rather than relying on the hunting industry to foot the bill for conservation efforts, African governments should apportion some of the money generated by nature-viewing to care for native wildlife. Not only is it self-defeating to allow a resource as valuable as African fauna to dwindle in the interest of hunting — which brings in peanuts in comparison to tourism — but it is also irrational to argue that the funds for stewardship would not exist if not for the auctioning of licenses.

In addition to the compelling economic case against hunting is the moral argument. While it can be beneficial for an animal species as a whole — when managed responsibly, which it often is not — legal big-game hunting sets a dangerous precedent and justifies the killing of a few individuals for the benefit of the greater population. Although this issue could occupy an entire column on its own, it seems clear that sacrificing these few animals is entirely unnecessary. Non-lethal nature viewing generates enough income to pay for wildlife conservation more than a dozen times over — so why pretend that hunting licenses need exist at all?