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Butchering of the terms ‘conservation’ and ‘extinction’ in hunting debates is a disservice to science

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Ed Stoddard is a Johannesburg-based journalist with a focus on resource industries, economics, wildlife and the environment. A Reuters correspondent for 24 years who hails from the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, he has been a fixture of the Business Maverick team since April of 2019. His work has has also appeared in Undark, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Slate, Salon, and MiningMX, among others. A lot of the time, Ed would rather be fly fishing.

Following the failed campaign to ban trophy hunting imports into the UK, the hunting industry seems to have renewed confidence in its messaging. This is partly because the anti-hunting movement has butchered terms such as ‘conservation’ and ‘extinction’.

The Custodians of Professional Hunting and Conservation (CPHC), one of the two main organisations that represent the professional hunting industry in South Africa, pointedly has the word ‘conservation’ in its name. This speaks to what it sees as part of its agenda — the conservation of habitat and wildlife, and the role that hunting plays in this contested terrain.  

One of the themes of its annual conference, held last month near the riverside Free State town of Parys, was conservation and messaging. As I have noted before, debates around hunting are often misleadingly portrayed — usually by animal welfare activists — as pitting “hunters” against “conservationists”. 

This immediately frames wider conservation issues in a way that excludes hunting and is a misappropriation of the term ‘conservation’. The term ‘extinction’ — a very real threat to many species globally — is also often falsely linked to sport hunting, notably trophy hunting.  

The fact is that most conservation scientists acknowledge the conservation contributions made by hunting.  

This includes the widely accepted estimate that about two-thirds of Africa’s protected areas are designated for hunting, including about a quarter of Tanzania’s surface area. This is not least because much of the African landscape is ill-suited to photographic safaris as it is remote, dull and dusty.  

South Africa’s success in herding white rhinos back from the brink of extinction was also partly incentivised by trophy hunting.  

Then there are the economic benefits, including the money spent through the hunting value chain and jobs generated.  

A 2018 study in the peer-reviewed journal Global Ecology and Conservation, The economic impact of trophy hunting in the South African wildlife industry, found that “trophy hunting annually contributes more than $341-million to the South African economy and supports more than 17,000 employment opportunities”. 

‘Influenced by emotions’

“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” Adri Kitshoff-Botha, the CEO of CPHC, told Daily Maverick on the sidelines of the conference

“People who have never been exposed to hunting and people who don’t understand hunting are misinformed and influenced by emotions… People also don’t realise the value of hunting, and the various socioeconomic and conservation benefits that it brings.”  

One theme at the conference was countering misinformation, and the failed campaign to ban the import of hunting trophies into the UK was often highlighted — not least because the hunting industry and many conservation scientists see it as a victory of facts over fiction.  

To wit, the ban in September was blocked by the House of Lords after 11 peers held it up and in effect ran down the legislative clock on it.   

One thing that struck me was the irresponsible misuse of the terms ‘conservation’ and ‘extinction’ employed by animal welfare activists in the campaign, which had wide support among celebrities up north, but pretty much zero among African governments and communities. 

Much of the campaigning in support of the Bill, especially on social media, claimed that “trophy hunting was driving species to extinction”. This was a claim that ran counter to decades of scientific research and was rubbished by many prominent conservation scientists, including Amy Dickman of Oxford, Adam Hart and others.  

There is a mountain of research which shows the opposite, while acknowledging that badly regulated trophy hunting can, for example, have an adverse effect on local lion populations if breeding-age males are killed.  

There are plenty of forces driving species to extinction, including habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution and climate change. Overhunting — say, for bushmeat — is also clearly a threat to vulnerable populations. Commercial-driven hunting in the past, such as for ivory in Africa, and beaver and bison in North America, has also triggered population collapses.  

Indeed, the planet, according to many scientists, is currently undergoing its Sixth Mass Extinction event driven by human activities — a key reason this geological epoch has been dubbed the Anthropocene.  

The first wave of this extinction event was probably triggered by human hunters who eliminated most of the planet’s megafauna outside of Africa tens of thousands of years ago after Homo sapiens migrated from its African cradle. I have speculated before that this may have been rooted in human-wildlife conflict. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Africa’s beastly burden: The case for shrinking the faunal poverty line 

The Sixth Extinction is real and needs to be addressed urgently — and responsibly. But the culprit here is not most sport hunting, and certainly not trophy hunting. To make such demonstrably false claims to advance an agenda is a disservice to science and the truth, and can make species more vulnerable if the economic incentives provided by hunting are removed.  

This undermines wider efforts at ‘conservation’, a term that, like ‘conservationist’, has also been appropriated in egregious ways by the anti-hunting wing of the animal welfare movement.  

A shared goal

Both hunters and animal welfare activists, in my view, are conservationists who happen to take different approaches to the shared goal of the preservation of wildlife and habitat, and there are many shades in between. This also reflects divisions over the consumptive use of wildlife.  

Animal rights activists have tapped into a legitimate vein of public opinion. Many people do not like — or absolutely despise — hunting, for whatever reason. The problem is when misinformation is employed for the cause, which makes it far less noble and even counterproductive.  

The hunting industry can also create a false spoor. Unscrupulous hunting outfitters in Africa have allowed clients to shoot underage lions, and the scourge of canned hunting has tainted the industry’s reputation. (The CPHC and the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa both maintain they are opposed to the practice). Fake “hunts” in the past have been used as cover to obtain and smuggle rhino horn out of South Africa.  

The hunting industry has also been accused of making exaggerated claims about its economic and conservation benefits. These benefits are real, but there are legitimate questions about equity (think of South Africa’s still-glaring disparities in land ownership), how much revenue is channelled to poor rural communities, and concerns around the habitat fragmentation caused by game fencing. More research and scrutiny are still needed in these areas.  

Still, in the failed campaign to ban the import of animal parts obtained by trophy hunting into the UK, it was the anti-hunting side that resorted to outright distortions and fabrications. It must be said that this propaganda found a receptive audience with a gullible public. A few peers who listened to scientists shot down the Bill in the end.  

Conservationists across the spectrum do find common ground on issues such as climate change. Most accept the science on this front, including hunters and anglers who spend a lot of time outdoors. It is when animals and the issue of hunting get thrown into the mix that things become emotive and science gets cast to the wind. Ignoring science is not a good strategy for confronting the Sixth Extinction. DM

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  • FO Molteno says:

    Excellent article.
    As an ex Professional Hunter who has lived and worked all over this continent, I have yet to meet a peer who was not a dedicated conservationist.
    Governments on the other hand, are exclusively about appeasing people and making quick money, and remain lousy custodians of most things.

  • Bruce Danckwerts says:

    The late Isaac Asimov observed that “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.” This article is a great cry for the support of fact based Science. However much one may dislike hunting (as I do) one has to acknowledge that it has been a great help in the fight to conserve various species, especially in the United States, but also in South Africa and many other parts of the world. It is a conservation tool, and, like ALL tools, we need to learn to use it properly. Conservation needs all the help it can get. Bruce Danckwerts, CHOMA, Zambi

    • Michele Rivarola says:

      I could agree if you defined hunting as a way of procuring food I cannot agree where you equate hunting with trophy hunting and the satisfaction of blood lust, nothing less. Who eats a lion or a rhino or an elephant or a leopard or a cheetah? Some call it a sport which is totally disingenuous given that hunters use high powered rifles with the most expensive and sophisticated telescopic sights frequently taking multiple shots at the same animal as they are unable to despatch it the first time around. Want a sport? Go and hunt a lion with a knife that is sport!

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        Regarding your last statement … it wouldn’t be a ‘sport’ then … it would be a genuine contest … and which ‘hunter’ would want that ? It would be like the Israeli military with complete and absolute US support, ‘taking on’ the Palistinians !

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    I am still waiting to see some scientific facts that prove that hunting is conservative. The money goes into the pocket of the professional hunters, the lodges and the cost of the permits, so tell me where conservation comes in, please?

  • Simon Espley says:

    The author accuses the anti-hunting lobby of misinformation and then claims that “about two-thirds of Africa’s protected areas are designated for hunting, including about a quarter of Tanzania’s surface area.” Why did he not disclose that by 2019, 72% of Tanzanian and 40% of Zambian trophy hunting concessions had been shot out and abandoned, leaving them to be poached out?

    The author also does not distinguish between fenced and unfenced hunting areas. Hunting is a significant conservation tool in South Africa because farms are owned and fenced. The damage to populations of trophy hunting target species is in the unfenced areas across Africa, where quotas are set by politicians who ignore science and are often exceeded in any case. Big ticket species such as lions and large-tusked elephants have been extirpated.

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