Monday, 29 January 2018

No 56: Whither trophy-hunting?

I guess in these blogs I’ve generally steered clear of obvious controversy. A while ago, though, I passed on one of those quite possibly ineffectual Facebook petitions, this one calling on US President Donald Trump to reconsider his project to reinstate trophy-ivory imports to the US – especially those from Zimbabwe. (The ban was instituted under Barack Obama because Zimbabwe was perceived as too corrupt and unregulated in its elephant conservation; this is seen to have recently improved, and elephant populations appear pretty healthy, hence the proposed reversal.)

An old school friend – let’s call him TC – accused me of jumping on the “Trump-haters” bandwagon, and challenged me to suggest an alternative to trophy-hunting as a tool of conservation. It has been a welcome prompt to pull together some thoughts that have been brewing behind my years of reading of elephant-related literature, and I’ve taken my time to put together a considered response. (Settle in: this is a longer one than my usual posts.)

The ethics of trophy-hunting is not, and never has been, an easy topic. Emotions run high and allegiances run deep on every side. The issue of whether, and in what ways, international trophy-hunting can or does aid conservation is a complex and ever-evolving one. Few generalisations are likely to hold, so I’ll try to avoid making too many. Perhaps the only immutable generalisation is that trophy-hunting, by definition, inevitably results in the death of an animal, and in the translation of that life into some or other form of death-mask display-trophy.

Hate is wasted emotion. Though I do find Trump loathsome, my concern is broader than just him: the concern is for the elephants, and thus for the state of global legislation which will help save them from imminent extinction. (Though southern African populations are healthy for now, there is no room for complacency; elsewhere an elephant is killed approximately every fifteen minutes, in some estimations.)  China is set to ban ivory imports in 2018. The US (the world’s second-largest emporium for both legal and illegal ivory) and Europe will likely be playing catch-up – if they decide to.  But Trump and his ilk’s gun-happy, hunter-friendly, environmentally denialist impulses run counter to the world’s increasing recognition that the health of animal-, bird-, fish- and insect-rich ecosystems is also our health.

TC also seemed surprised that I might want to prevent trophy-hunting, referring to my mother Jill Wylie’s well-known devotion to the saving of wildlife. Which is odd, since she was and is adamantly opposed to hunting, indeed to any form of exploitation of animals for mere human luxury. I, too – I nail my colours to the mast here – find the whole idea of trophy-hunting abhorrent. I can understand hunting for the pot when necessary; I can understand killing for mercy; I can understand the adrenaline rush of the kill – I have done all these myself. I can understand the need to cull animals in certain artificially constrained situations – though we humans usually have only ourselves to blame for such horrible scenarios. But killing just to stick a head or skin or tusk on a wall – this I find incomprehensible.

Having said that, I am prepared nevertheless to entertain the notion that in certain ways trophy-hunting is “good for conservation” as TC seems to assume. And having said that, I want to stress again that it is almost impossible to generalise about this. There are hunters and hunters and hunters, professional and occasional, ethical and unethical. There are hunting operations of every imaginable stripe, regulated and otherwise.  Motivations are highly variable. I have no doubt that some hunters do deeply know and even love the wild, even as they hunt – not a contradiction I personally could live with, but I guess we all live with some such contradiction or compromise.  Moreover, there is little agreement as to what ‘conservation’ actually means, and how ‘it’ might best be attained and sustained. Nor have hunters, their critics or the philosophers arrived at any agreement as to what ‘ethics’ might apply to trophy-hunting. So, while almost any critique is bound to upset someone, any one defence of trophy-hunting is equally unlikely to hold in all cases.

Given this mush, I want to isolate three distinct aspects around which to air a few thoughts, without trying to be comprehensive or dictatorial: history; economy; and psychological motivation.

A troubled history

I think it’s hugely important to view the present against the history of hunting in Africa. We are all complicit in, and products of, that history. It’s deeply ambivalent. Irrupting into the relatively low-impact hunting practiced by aboriginal Africans, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries European hunters gaily obliterated literally millions of southern Africa’s wild animals, all but denuding vast areas. The tide of slaughter was barely halted by the gradual and messy shift to conservation and the establishment of the first national parks. Ironically, hunters played no small part in this; they wanted to preserve their prey and their playground. These enclosed, originally racially exclusive areas – now usually termed ‘fortress conservation’ – remain the basis for almost all ‘conservation’ operations today, even as more inclusive ‘community-based’ models are being tried out. This includes private conservancies, reserves and hunting concessions – a thousand or more just in South Africa.  The old pattern holds: ‘wilderness’ areas are ever more securely separated from the rest of the country, and the bulk of the population becomes more and more ignorant of, even frightened of, and therefore at war with, the ‘wild’. Meanwhile, the (usually) rich white male jets in on exclusive packages to highly controlled and fenced-in locales, pays up, shoots and heads for home.

On the one hand, I am delighted that there are many more wild animals alive in southern Africa today than there were in, say, 1910.  I do feel, given humans’ overwhelming destruction of  habitats, that those wild-ish areas are more valuable than ever, despite their besmirched history. And in many areas, wildlife is healthier for the environment than agriculture: kudu do better in, and are better for, marginal Karoo areas than overgrazing sheep, for instance. Hunting revenues sustain a number of these ‘rewilded’ ranches and havens.

On the other hand, sheer numbers conceal serious anomalies. The areas devoted to wildlife are tiny compared to the animals’ precolonial range, and severely fragmented. Very few ‘conservation’ areas function as viable ecosystems, or do so only for some species at certain scales. Which species flourish, and at what level, do so only due to highly interventionist human management. That management is driven largely by commercial concerns, which are in turn driven by touristic whims, lethal and non-lethal. Hence many mammal species are flourishing only because of intensive and lucrative breeding programmes, auctions and cattle-like redistribution of animals for photographs or the hunter’s bullet. The canned-lion industry is only the most egregious of these efforts. In short, while hunting revenue is indeed partly to be credited for the expansion of ‘conservation areas’, what and how that ‘conservation’ is being implemented is often highly artificial and problematic. One does not have to be a ‘decolonisation’ apparatchik to worry that this kind of elite ownership and access will turn out to be politically vulnerable, if not unsustainable – as it has proved in various parts of Africa, including Zimbabwe. History weighs heavily upon us in this part of the world.

At best, philosopher Lawrence Cahoone concludes in his article “Hunting as a moral good”: “The wildlife management argument is a legitimate and important, but limited justification of contemporary hunting.” Just as unrestricted sport-hunting reached its limit a century or so ago, it may be that, in an era of postcoloniality, ever-increasing human population pressures, unprecedented species extinctions, and global climate change, historic modes of trophy-hunting have now had their day. Of course, trophy-hunting has a much lower impact on species such as elephants than illegal poaching for ivory and the like, and much lower than habitat destruction. And, as hunters often point out, their practice is far more targeted, knowledgeable and “honest” than the mass destruction of animals for meat in covert abattoirs. This is what the philosophers call the “least harm” argument. But, for the animals, it is harm nevertheless.

Economies of death

The dynamics of commerce have also shifted over time. Where the early hunters often made a living in part by selling the products of their slaughter (ivory, hides, meat), today’s hunters make different economic arguments for their practice.

One strong and persistent assertion is that trophy-hunting brings in revenue that is ploughed back into conservation. At times this is so fervently expressed you would think that, paradoxically, no wildlife would exist were it not for the loving attentions of the trophy-hunter. The claim is not untrue, but often exaggerated. The comprehensive South African government figures for 2014 indicate that trophy-hunting brought in  just one-fifteenth of all wildlife-related revenue; non-lethal game-viewing, while fraught with its own pressures, is overall far more lucrative. ‘Conservation’ on the broad scale could thus survive pretty well without trophy-hunting. The broad figures do conceal huge differences between operations: some will be wholly dependent on hunting revenue, others only incidentally; some will also have a decent whole-ecology philosophy, while others care only for the prey-as-prey (especially those trucking in extra-limital and foreign species to that end, and that end only). There is plenty of debate and critique amongst hunters themselves about this sort of thing.

A second claim is that hunting fees fund not only conservation, but also ‘community’ projects to build clinics, schools, and so on. Some instances of the now largely defunct CAMPFIRE projects in Zimbabwe are a case in point.  Some operators in my own region appear exemplary in this regard. But overall in fact the trickle-down effect has proved limited, albeit significant in individual cases.

Thirdly, hunting operators point out that central government garners significant income through taxes. True, but little if any of this is fed back directly into conservation, which is under-emphasised in the South African fiscus and positively starved in the Zimbabwean.

Instead, massive amounts of money are ploughed not into ‘conservation’ as such, but into infrastructure such as luxury lodges and expensive fencing. The vast bulk of the profit goes to just a few individuals – the ranch owners, mostly; a few taxidermists; some animal breeders – with fairly low long-term job-generation compared to other fields of work. The whole enterprise is ineluctably elitist, its economic benefits palpable but pretty narrow in distribution. And not a little is deliberately diverted; I have it on good authority that substantial hunting revenues gathered in Zimbabwe are siphoned off into accounts in Botswana, South Africa or elsewhere.

This should not surprise us: instance after instance in history shows us that any activity that becomes dominated by purely commercial concerns provides fertile fields for illegal exploitation. It is not an indictment of honest hunters to remind ourselves that in too many areas legal and illegal extraction of wildlife ‘products’ have  become almost impossible to disentangle. Obviously, this is worst in poorly regulated countries, as Zimbabwe has been; the recent case of Cecil the lion is just one revolting case. But even amongst ‘legal’ operations, commercialisation can mean that animals are reduced to monetised ciphers in powerful humans’ games, mere pawns to entertainment. This is clear from the language of Bill Morrill, for example:

The African elephant is a natural resource that lends itself to assignable ownership and that ownership, couples [sic] with benefits produced from hunting, provides an incentive for conservation. ... Hunting of the African elephant by foreign tourists has a long-standing tradition and is one of the uses of choice by many African nations today.  Africans were hunting elephants before Eastern peoples or Europeans arrived in Africa.  ... Hunting of elephants by tourists is cost effective, profitable and easily monitored ... Foreign hunters are willing to convert [assignable ownership] from an asset capital in exchange for a cultural experience compatible with the history and use of the elephant.

I find this instrumentalisation of animals, this sanitising language, more chilling than any of the numbingly brutal hunters’ descriptions of actual elephant killings. It is also self-contradictory and self-deceiving. Would elephants, could they speak, agree that they “lend themselves” (as if voluntarily) to  “assignable ownership”, that their wholly unnecessary death is somehow  a valid “cultural experience” supported by a seamless “history”? It is human, not elephantine, “tradition”, at work – and such ‘traditions’ are historically fleeting, mutable, and culture-specific. They have changed over time, and can (and will, and probably must) mutate again as our world changes. The ‘tradition’ argument is as weak as saying we should  continue publicly to stone women for adultery as described in the Old Testament, just because it is an “archaic” or “neo-traditional” practice.

Commercialisation has further skewing effects. Some species become valued as trophies above others, with incalculable effects on animal genetics, diversities and distributions, and their intricate relations with natural ecosystems – which, as I’ve already hinted, effectively cease to exist. In her comprehensive and level-headed book, The Extinction Market, Vanda Felbab-Brown notes that

private ranches in South Africa are increasingly keen to stock non-indigenous species for hunting, such as fallow deer and wild boar from Europe, even though they may have a highly detrimental impact on local species. [They] are also increasingly interested in stocking and breeding animals with certain desirable trophy hunting traits, such as specific colours, thus interfering with natural selection and negatively influencing the genetic stock of species.

A more insidious effect of rampant commercialisation is a demeaning of humans’ own involvement in the world – a self-centredness which no longer owes allegiance to any wider or higher concern beyond profit or egotism. It will be protested that hunters (or at least what National Geographic’s recent [October 2017] discussion of trophy-hunting calls “enlightened hunters”) do both hunt and revere such loftier ideals. But to the extent that such ideals are occluded, it is to fail to be fully human, to fully engage our most valuable intellectual and emotional assets. Appealing solely or primarily to self-indulgent boastfulness is – well, unappealing. I’ll return to this in a moment.

The main point I want to make here is this: it is not the death of the animal per se which funds the conservancies or the anti-poaching patrols or whatever – it is the money which funds them. The money exists independently of the animal’s death, before and after; it could be made available without anybody having to die.

“A most delightful mania”

This brings us to the third focus: the psycho-social motivations for trophy-hunting itself. Why do these men (it is mostly men) hunt at all? There are probably as variable a mix of reasons as there are hunters, and justifications have also shifted somewhat over the last century or two. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries hunters in southern Africa routinely saw themselves, rather contradictorily, as both vanguards of imperial ‘civilisation’ and as escaping the strictures of conventional society. Killing animals was rebelliously adventurous fun, “a most delightful mania”, as one put it – at once an assertion of control over nature, and an indulgence in unleashed ‘natural instincts’. Modern hunters have not entirely escaped either motive, even as they try to advance the ethic of the “sportsman”, later “professional hunter”. The latter project themselves as hunters with some kind of morally-supportable fairness and cleanness in the hunt, as opposed to the uncaring “gunner” or “poacher”.  It’s all about precision, control, technology, coolness.

This framework of intricate and rational planning and execution runs counter to another oft-expressed notion (treated at length by Matt Cartmill in his brilliant book, A View to a Death in the Morning; Hunting and nature through history). Many hunters aver that hunting is the expression of an ancient embedded brute spirit within man, a real kind of savagery that is somehow more authentic than the allegedly thin veneer of civilised society. Hunting, according to hunter-philosopher Ortega y Gasset, humbles the man and “lowers him towards the animal.”  A century before that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that Western men had been reduced to a sick ineffectuality by the slave morals of Christianity and commercial over-indulgence. Healthy men, he wrote,

revert to the innocence of wild animals: we can imagine them returning from an orgy of murder, arson, rape, and torture, jubilant and at peace with themselves as though they had committed a fraternity prank ... Deep within all these noble races there lurks the beast of prey, bent on spoil and conquest.

We are “depraved animals” ourselves, in this view – and somehow giving in to this depravity is seen as more authentic than any of the gamut of other emotions we might feel. Critics of hunting, that addicted animal-killer Theodore Roosevelt scoffed, are “nature-fakers”. This sort of thing is sometimes uttered in conjunction with some version of Robert Ardrey’s infamous “hunting hypothesis”, the idea that hunting was fundamental to the emergence of homo sapiens. Both ideas have been pretty thoroughly debunked now; how otherwise can 9 out of 10 men – or it may be even 999 out of 1000 – ignore, never feel, or sublimate these alleged hunting instincts in other non-lethal activities? I would agree that humans can be depraved in all sorts of ways, but not that giving in to bloodthirstiness is more authentic than the appreciation of beauty, reverence for life, awe at nature’s complexity, a nurturing sense of responsibility, or just pleasure and love that I feel when I’m in my local forest. Though rough-and-tough hunters are liable to dismiss these feelings as somehow namby-pamby or flimsy or feminine, they are as anciently embedded, as vital to our evolution, and as intrinsic to our humanness, as propensities towards competition, violence or the hunt.

Now many hunters do experience those feelings, too: indeed, they may feel them oddly heightened precisely by the act of inflicting death, precisely because at that moment all those other impulses must be put aside. I suspect that the pathology of the compulsive trophy-hunter derives its sensation of power not just from the intoxicating capacity to command a death, but from the ability to suppress those emotions – compassion or empathy or awe – that might spare the animal’s life. This is to be manly, too, perhaps just one manifestation of a much wider sociology of masculinism. Where that expression of attaining full masculinity has to be compulsively repeated, an underlying insecurity reveals itself. (Which is why the naturalist John Muir asked Roosevelt when he was going to grow up and stop killing things.) The famous hunter Frederick Courteney Selous made this syndrome explicit, as he admired a scene filled with “noble” and “majestic” elephants:

The whole picture is so vast, made up of the great beasts with their trunks and ears swinging ever to and fro, and the huge forest with its mighty trees and glorious vegetation, and the contrast of the tiny little human being amongst it all is so great that I feel it is really hopeless for a person to try and picture it ... I will therefore leave my own feelings at once, and ...

- so he proceeds directly to the hunt. Similarly, some latter-day hunters I have read admit to ambivalent, even remorseful feelings on killing a beautiful sable or giraffe or whatever – but obviously those feelings of awe or beauty or appreciation or regret must be, and can be, set aside in order to execute the killing. Further, the appreciation is transmuted from something independent, living and elusive, into another thing – the trophy – which is owned, dead and locked into an effigy of false permanence. The underlying ambivalence of this seems obvious to me in the conventional way the prize, shortly after being shot, is propped up for the obligatory photo in a semblance of a living stance, and later in the way the beheaded lion is taxiderm’ed into a fixed snarl, the buffalo’s liquid eyes replaced with staring glass. Personally, I find this simply grotesque. On the level of psychological theory, the ability persistently to entertain this contradictoriness amounts to a pathology.

Some hunters claim a certain superiority in their bushcraft, their knowledge of the habits of the animal they stalk, their tracking or their camouflage or their stamina or their patience. (This obviously doesn’t apply to those who pay guides to do that hard stuff for them, who shoot from safe and distant vehicles or hides or helicopters.)  I too valorise bushcraft: I learned with my mother to stalk animals; we tracked, got close, observed and understood them – and finally backed quietly and respectfully away. No one’s bushcraft has to eventuate in a death, nor justifies it. All hunters take pride in their marksmanship, too, and in their weaponry: the hunting magazines repeat and relay obsessively the details of armaments, when and where to hit an animal. I was also taught from an early age to shoot, and took pride in improving my accuracy. But I did not feel the need to use this skill to kill for the sole purpose of boasting later; and I found other ways of growing into courageous adulthood (unlike many in my local farming community, who assume and teach that killing something is crucial to that transition). Like most of the arguments, these are post-event rationalisations, a poor basis for a fundamental ethic.

In the end, pure self-gratification is the central motivation. Some seem happy to be quite explicit about this, like Donald Prizio:

The hunt itself may be the least important and least gratifying phase of the sport, without the equally gratifying anticipation and recollection to complete the experience. [In the anticipation phase, y]our imagination is your guide.  You are in control.  During the recollection stage, you are blessed with the gift that erases the bad memories and enhances the good ones, allowing the story to mature and improve much like fine Bordeaux wine.  Reality is the root of the realisation phase, however.  It comes on someone else’s terms, and you must tackle it with storybook imagination or selective memory.

Avoidance mechanisms at their finest. It is, it seems, not the death of the animal that is important, but the story of the death. In a way, the story is the real trophy, the lion’s head with its rictus snarl just a visible cipher, the staring glass eyes speaking only of the whole thing’s ultimate emptiness.


All these points can be argued at greater length – and have been by people more eloquent than I am. Lawrence Cahoone sums up what he sees as trophy-hunting’s values: “Regulated, ethical hunting embodies the goods of trophic responsibility, ecosystem expertise, anachronistic self-sufficiency, a rare experience of animal inter-dependence, and a kind of honesty.” These all seem weak to me; all these goals are achievable without death. The argument is circular, presupposing an unspecified ethics in the first instance. And too many hunters hunt without any of these values in place.

But to return to the beginning. TC challenged me to suggest an alternative to trophy-hunting, and I thank him for the prompt.  The alternative seems to me perfectly simple. If these trophy hunters have all these tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars to devote to the hunt, and if they are serious about contributing to conservation, then why not just donate that money to clearly targeted conservation efforts? Buy land that can retain or be restored to at least a semblance of wilderness, especially in vital water catchment areas, wetlands, and rain forests, all of which are being destroyed at a mind-blowing rate. Educate farmers into management techniques better than indiscriminate shooting or poisoning every perceived threat. Curb illegal wildlife trafficking. Educate our children into living alongside nature rather than at war with it – they are the ones who will have to live with the monumental fuck-up our generation has made of nurturing the planet.

Repellent, egotistically jejune and anachronistic as I find trophy-hunting, I am not about to advocate a total ban on it (only on already endangered species). Trophy-hunting has had at least some positive spin-offs, and in the grand ecological scheme of things, it’s perhaps one of the least of our worries.


Dan Wylie’s book, Death, Compassion and Elephants in Southern African Literature is forthcoming from Wits University Press.


  1. Thanks for this, Dan. You've put down in words so much that I've intuitively felt, and given me fodder for the next time somebody challenges my revulsion with trophy hunting with the 'conservation argument'.

  2. Thanks, Dan, for writing this very eloquent and highly ethical piece. As you point out, much more can be written on the subject, for instance, the self-deception of trophy hunters when they use religious terms like "sacrifice" or pseudo-scientific arguments that the individual must be sacrificed for the survival of the species. The truth is that the hunting industry is not interested in ecology but only in profit-making. An instrumentalist, economist attitude to wildlife runs contrary to the reverence that prehistoric hunter-gatherers had for animals. I cannot see how blood lust or the addiction to killing can ever be ethically justified. I look forward to reading your new book on elephants.