Our Burning Planet


Hunting and wildlife trade will save our wildlands, not CITES trade bans – experts argue

A taxidermist brushes the mane of a stuffed lion at a taxidermist workshop near Johannesburg, South Africa, on 23 August 2007. (Photo: Naashon Zalk / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Trophy hunting and the wildlife trade are emotive subjects that divide many rooms. Over time, Our Burning Planet will publish various views on the subject. In this piece, several economists posit that Africa’s wildlife economy is vast and largely untapped, but if the continent’s people are to benefit while natural systems are preserved, we must face up to some tough truths. 

While the rest of the world has lost 82% of its wildlife in the past 50 years, southern Africa’s wildlife populations, including rhino and elephant, are increasing rapidly.

This is no thanks to poorly-managed and under-funded national parks, says wildlife scholar, Professor Brian Child.

Child said private game reserves and ranches have more success with rewilding and conservation than their national counterparts, while generating considerable revenue for conservation and livelihoods.

But sanctions on wildlife trade, including rhino horn and ivory, were imposing “opportunity costs” of about $1-billion a year – “enough to manage all the protected parts in Africa”, said Child.


Child was among the guest speakers on a Tipping Points webinar recently hosted by Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation – a not-for-profit organisation that fosters research and dialogue on human-nature relationships.

The webinar looked at how wildlife economies could be developed in Africa to improve the lot of communities while conserving wildlife and protecting the natural environment. 

Indigenous communities, the webinar heard, got a raw deal in the past when it came to conservation efforts organised by, and for the benefit and enjoyment of, the well-to-do. 

Speakers focused on how things might be done more fairly in the future and addressed the question, “Paying the price: Is a conservation economy worth it?”

Case for hunting 

Child, an associate professor at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Florida and an expert on conservation, park management and economics with years of hands-on experience, made the case for hunting and wildlife trade. 

His presentation lashed out at CITES, the multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals, for “continuing to reward failure and punish success in African conservation since 1975”. 

And he explained why he believed tourism alone was insufficient to conserve Africa’s wildlife and why we shouldn’t look to agriculture either. 

Besides no longer being profitable – neither for traditional commercial farmers or small growers – agriculture would not help solve major issues of climate change, soil degradation and deforestation in Africa. 

Hungry farmers 

Farmers were getting hungrier, said Child. “And it’s going to get worse… Many of our grandparents were farmers. They are not now because it’s not viable.” 

He said intensive livestock and crop farming had also wiped out wildlife populations on vast swathes of land, causing massive biodiversity loss. 

More recently, he said, wildlife experts in Namibia challenged southern African colonial policies and the ownership of wildlife was returned to landowners and farmers. The result today was that some wildlife numbers, including rhino, were increasing rapidly in southern Africa, and in ways that could benefit growing numbers of people, including many previously excluded from the conservation economy.

Land use 

Referring to a map of Africa, Child said: “Just look at all this space – this green unproductive land – we have got to develop this economy.” 

As things stand, people in these communities were earning less than a dollar a hectare, said Child, while by comparison, Namibian game ranches were making between $40 and $50 a hectare. “One ranch that has hunting and tourism on the same land, makes $200 per hectare.”

Child said Africa’s national parks could work well as an engine for economic growth, but out of a total 85 national parks, only 10 were working effectively. “The other 75 are really struggling.”

The Kruger National Park created more than 36,000 jobs and added $807-million to South Africa’s GDP each year, but these tourism activities were closely clustered around a small area near the park.


“Tourism is really good at making a lot of money and creating a lot of jobs in really small areas. It won’t conserve Africa’s wildlife. That is why we need hunting and wildlife trade.” 

In addition to sanctions placed on wildlife trade, in particular rhino horn and ivory, moves to ban trophy hunting were also a concern, he said, as trophy hunting in southern Africa was worth half a billion dollars, and $200-million to local farmers. “It’s paying for and conserving about 60% to 80% of the wildlands in the region,” said Child. 

“But there is a target on its back. Important markets are being closed down by international people, with a huge amount of resentment from the very people who are looking after wildlife. Here in Namibia, people are calling them sanctions,” said Child.

Precious asset

Dr Sue Snyman, an economist by training and the director of research for the School of Wildlife Conservation at African Leadership University, said institutional failure, mismanagement, skewed priorities and a lack of imagination had stymied efforts to develop inclusive and sustainable wildlife economies.

And judging by the way the world has been working over the past few decades, it seemed many people had forgotten that economies, livelihoods and wellbeing ultimately depend on the world’s precious asset: nature.

She shared graphs showing that capital – machinery, tools and buildings used to produce goods and services – had increased more than 100% over 22 years; human capital – skills, knowledge, and experience – had risen by nearly 20% over the same period; but natural capital – the world’s stock of natural resources – had fallen by nearly 40%.

It need not be this way, said Snyman. Conservation and development could work together for the benefit of current and future generations. 


“It is a key growth opportunity for Africa,” said Snyman. “Unlike other continents that have virtually depleted their natural capital and are now rewilding, Africa still has spectacular fauna and flora.”

Looking at the key enterprises which make up Africa’s wildlife economy, she noted that ecotourism was traditionally the biggest, with the wildlife safari industry valued at between $12.4-billion (direct) and $42.9-billion (total).

Then there were hunting; ranching; wildlife estates (which was relatively new); film and photography (huge potential, but not currently utilised); non-forestry timber products; and the largely untapped carbon offset market (which lets companies or individuals invest in environmental projects to balance their carbon footprints from other activities).

Snyman stressed that most wildlife hunting in southern Africa was not for trophies but for venison – game meat for the pot. In South Africa alone in 2019, local hunters contributed $875-million (85%) and international hunters $158-million (15%) to the economy. Game meat sales in South Africa generate about $56-million a year.

Snyman saw great potential in tourism. She noted that in 2018, Africa received only 5% of worldwide tourism arrivals. Stakeholders simply needed to illustrate the value of this unrealised potential in ways that would result in investment and ultimately growth in natural capital.


In his presentation, conservation economist Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes stressed the need to promote collaboration in developing the wildlife economy. Here, ownership was a key factor. People with “skin in the game” not only care for the land and conserve its wildlife, but also find ways to generate revenue from it, he said.

’T Sas-Rolfes referred to a case study which showed that wherever rhino conservation and anti-poaching efforts were left in the hands of the state, these had failed. The Kruger National Park was, for example, losing the battle to protect its rhino populations, whereas private game reserves were winning. 

He said the trade in rhino horns and other body parts had generated as much as  $350-million a year over the past decade, “but almost exclusively by people we would regard as criminals. It has not gone back into conservation”.

This leads to the question as to who benefits from the rhino horn trade ban: those conserving rhinos or those killing them? And who would benefit if the trophy hunting ban, now lobbied for internationally and in South Africa, was approved? asked ’T Sas-Rolfes.

Above all, whose values and priorities count when making such decisions? Answering those questions, said ’T Sas-Rolfes, was not just about economics, but moral and ethical considerations too.

He concluded that an effective wildlife economy needed to be diverse, sustainable, and adapt to different and diverse approaches arising from decentralised (bottom-up) governance, not a top-down approach if it is to be resilient in a changing world. 

Cappuccino critics

Elaborating further in the webinar’s Q&A session, Child said: “If I am a hungry person and I need to intensify my land use to feed my children, is that a wrong thing? The whole question of what’s domestic and what is wild, and what is good and what is bad, needs a lot more nuance. We trash trophy hunting where people are killing animals that live as wildlife and also eat them, but we are quite fine eating chickens.”

“This is something we need to debate in a way in which the ordinary people living with the wildlife have a voice,” said Child. “At the moment it is being debated by the liberal Westerners who are drinking cappuccinos in the capital cities of the world without the input of local people. That is not going to result in sustainable solutions. Local people are quite aware of issues of cruelty and the beauty of the environment. If we simply trust the local people (to conserve rhino for example), I think a lot of these problems would go away.” DM/OBP

Rio Button is a marine biologist, commercial diver, and surfer and regular correspondent for Roving Reporters. Dominic Naidoo is a freelance environmental journalist. Fred Kockott is director at Roving Reporters.


Absa OBP

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