The white hunter

Outrage against arrogant hunters is not enough. Wildlife conservation requires rethinking.

Topi in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. Image credit Ray in Manila via Flickr (CC).

The wide circulation of photographs of hunters posing proudly alongside the carcass of wild animals killed in trophy hunting expeditions, has been followed by widespread outrage recently. “Couple shamed for kissing behind dead lion in safari photo” read one of the headlines on the web portal World News. One of those most widely circulated was that of Cecil the Lion, a tourist attraction at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, who reportedly suffered “incredible cruelty” during a drawn-out death that took as long as 12 hours.

The nearly universal outrage following such public displays hides a number of ugly truths about trophy hunting. As CBS News’ relatively more nuanced reporting of “the American hunter in a viral photo of slain giraffe” suggested, trophy hunting also enjoys widespread support. Ironically, ardent supporters of trophy hunting include self-declared conservationists, mostly white men, who defend the practice as the “If it Pays it Stays” model of conservation. The CBS News documentary showcases Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe, as evidence that this model works. The head of the conservancy claims that this is the only way conservation can be done in the “third world.”  This is a typical refrain dating to colonial times when the same argument was used to justify imperialist expeditions. For example, the Wildlife Preservation Ordinance (Wildschutzverondnung) of 1896 provided the legal means for establishing wildlife reserves in then Tanganyika (Tanzania), while supporting the “sport” hunting industry practiced by Europeans. Colonial conservationists said this was the only way to support conservation in Africa. In the final days of European colonialism, imperial governments acted swiftly to create new forests and wildlife reserves, which led to a “postwar conservation boom.”

Initiatives such as Bubye Valley Conservancy carry forward the colonial legacies in more ways than may be apparent. Hunting fees from white hunters, received by the white owners of Bubye Hunting Lodge, are used to fund the Bubye anti-poaching task force—led by a white man and staffed by Africans. There are no people of color in positions of power or profit. Villagers appear as the recipients of charity donations of meat from Bubye Hunting Lodge.

In each of the cases profiled on social media, the hunters are white males or females and their hunting grounds are somewhere on the continent of Africa. Trophy hunting thrives on the legacy of colonialism and perpetuates racism on multiple grounds. Cecil was killed in Zimbabwe by a dentist from Minnesota; a rare giraffe was hunted by a Texan on a hunting expedition in South Africa—from its hide she made decorative pillows, a gun case, and said that she found the slain giraffe meat to be “delicious”; and the kissing couple who hogged the limelight last month is from Edmonton, Canada and were hunting in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa.

The apparently “balanced” coverage of the debates over hunting safaris that CBS News sought to present are problematic on a number of grounds. First, scientific evidence does not support the claims made by the proponents of the “hunting for conservation” model. Research by David Coltman and colleagues shows that trophy-harvested rams were of significantly higher genetic “breeding value” for weight and horn size, in comparison to the rams that were not harvested. Rams of high breeding value were also shot at an early age and thus did not achieve high reproductive success. Similarly, Peter Lindsey and colleagues analyze the management of lion hunting in Africa and point to the unscientific bases for quota setting, excessive quotas, and off-takes in some countries, and a lack of restrictions on the age of lions that can be hunted.

Such reports also perpetuate the racist foundations of the hunting safari, while promoting faulty solutions to the challenges of wildlife conservation. For instance, the CBS News report got a thumbs up from Amoland Sports Shooting News, which doubles down on the rhetoric that only white people with guns can save wildlife. The reports of a wildlife park in India shooting dead more than 50 people on the suspicion of being poachers also elicited similar responses on the webpages of Bored Panda. The increasing popularity of hunting safaris has been matched by increasingly exclusionary and violent models of conservation, which manifest in the frequent violations of human rights.

The collective sharing of social media outrage helps assuage our sensitivities, but a more effective way would be to stop donating to exclusionary models of conservation that promote hunting expeditions while perpetuating violence against local residents. We must think deeply about how political and economic inequalities contribute to the production of paper parks and exclusionary, violent, and unsustainable models of conservation.

Further Reading