“There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs” – Thomas Sowell
Trophy hunting may be the only way of saving African animal populations. This argument may seem counter-intuitive at first – how can killing wildlife preserve it? – but bear with me. By allowing the free market to engage in legal trophy hunting there will be both benefits to the animal population and an economic boost to the local community.
The Western narrative around trophy hunting is very emotional, one-sided, and limited in its perspective. One has the image of a wealthy American trophy hunter shooting a majestic African animal, say an elephant. He then proceeds to gloat over his kill on social media, causing immediate backlash and the story goes viral. Thousands of disgusted activists take to the streets to make their disapproval heard. After all, the species is being threatened and this hunter has decided to take one out so that he can have tusks on his wall and a story to tell. Understandably, this narrative is compelling, but the truth of the matter is far more complicated than a story like this will lead you to believe.
To dispel these myths, we need to understand why so many animals are dying out in the first place. The two main culprits in the decline of African wildlife are generally considered to be poaching and habitat loss, not trophy hunting. Let us examine the second cause, habitat loss, using lions as an example. Today, lions have disappeared from 94% of their historic range, according to National Geographic. The loss of habitat has many causes, ranging from desertification (a result of climate change) to farming. Poaching and habitat loss are the main threats to animals, not trophy hunting.
Now that we know why these animals are going extinct, let us investigate why trophy hunting is a valuable strategy in combating extinction. Under a system of trophy hunting, animals are worth more alive than dead because of the fees that hunters pay for each kill. If there is economic value, there is a great incentive to preserve them as much as possible in order to guarantee future profits. Hunters provide valuable revenue which goes straight to conservation. Namibia is a case-study in this regard. Trophy hunting has been identified as crucial for financing conservation and provides an average of $27 million in revenue per year. Trophy hunting revenue across all of Africa is estimated at $200 million, but this figure is controversial.
Counter-intuitively, this has increased the animal population. Since White Rhino trophy hunting was introduced to Namibia in 2004, its population has increased 67%. By 2015, Namibia and South Africa (which has a similar system) conserved 90% of Africa’s rhinos. Of course, this increase in population could just be a coincidence – and while such a coincidence does not definitively prove causation, it does point to at least a correlation deserving further investigation. We can find further support for trophy hunting’s effectiveness by looking at the counterfactual, ie by estimating what the animal population would have been, had trophy hunting not been introduced. A good example is neighboring Botswana, which has a similar geography, but no trophy hunting system (for rhinos). There, the rhino is close to being wiped out due to poaching.
To further reinforce the effectiveness of trophy hunting as a conservation strategy, let us examine what happens when it disappears from a region. This usually happens not through the choice of the local population, but through American and British import bans. The largest importer of trophies is the United States, which some sources claim has imported nearly 32,000 trophies from the African Big Five species between 2005 and 2014. If activism causes political pressure in the US, the government bans the import of trophies from, say, Tanzania. Though trophy hunting may still be legal in Tanzania, it is effectively destroyed because although Americans can still hunt, they cannot bring their kill back home which is the entire point of the venture.
It is worth noting that nowhere in this process did anyone ask the population of Tanzania what they thought. The protests took place in the US, and that is also where the decision was made. In the West, we may consider elephants cute and worthy of preservation on that basis alone, but in Africa it is a different story. If there is no profit associated with preserving animal populations, the benefits to the community disappear, and the drawbacks are no longer worth it. And the drawbacks are substantial: elephants regularly trample crops and crocodiles eat children. Animals become worth more dead than alive. An extreme instance of this occurred in 2016, when a Zimbabwean conservancy considered killing 200 lions because they were seriously disrupting other wildlife. The average fee to kill a lion is $10,931. If there had been a good trophy hunting system in the area, it would have generated $2,186,308 – money which would have gone to habitat preservation and anti-poaching efforts, or at the very least would have created jobs in the local community (game wardens, safari guides, hotel employees). Instead, there is zero revenue for the locals, but the result would be the same: 200 dead lions.
If the lack of trophy hunting does not cause overpopulation as it did in the above example, it can certainly have the opposite effect too. The former game wardens have no other opportunities in a rural African village, so they turn to poaching. There is thus no profit associated with keeping the wildlife alive anymore, so there is no anti-poaching effort. In this case too, animals become worth more dead than alive, but due to poachers rather than the local government. Another factor to consider is that trophy hunters will shoot just one or two of a given species. Poachers (who now have free reign over what used to be protected land) hunt as many as they can – the more elephants they kill, the more ivory they can sell.
As to why some areas experience overpopulation and others the opposite, the reason is that while elephants, for example, are going extinct when their total number is considered, the loss of habitat forces more and more elephants onto a smaller area, causing overpopulation. The result is that elephants receive a similar treatment as the lions did in the Zimbabwe example.
But trophy hunting is no silver bullet. In many areas that employ it, the animal populations still suffer greatly. The reason for this is mismanagement of the hunting quotas for different species, as well as poor implementation of anti-poaching and habitat preservation efforts. The culprit, as it is in so many cases, is overreach of government. Either the local government manages the trophy hunting itself, or it applies heavy-handed regulation to the businesses that do. The solution is to let the hunting occur on private land that is also run by a private company. If the land is run privately, there is a greater and, more importantly, a direct incentive to protect the animals. An example of where governments fail in their approach to trophy hunting is lions. Not only are the quotas sometimes far too high or low, but government sometimes allows the wrong lion to be shot. Shooting a dominant male can set off a chain reaction that sometimes leads to over 20 dead lions (mostly cubs) due to the war of annihilation that formerly subservient males fight for the now vacant dominant position. A private company, by contrast, sees significant and immediate profit associated with preventing that from happening, and thus will simply issue a tag to hunt a different male. If, under a free market approach to hunting, a company fails to anticipate events such as the one above, they would see the results immediately and subsequently either sink or swim. The same thing is true of quotas: the free market is far better at setting them than a government is. By its very nature, it is difficult to do this efficiently in a government bureaucracy. Add to that the fact that government is a monopoly, and you get a severely mismanaged trophy hunting system.
Keeping trophy hunting in private hands also gets rid of a lot of the corruption that can plague a system when a lot of money is involved. If the hunting is run by the state, it is very hard to tell whether the revenue is going towards conservation or towards a yacht. If hunting is privately run, the companies have an immediate incentive to preserve the land and the animals. Though governments declare their goodwill in helping animals, good intentions do not always produce good results. Incentives are far more trustworthy.
This entire debate could be avoided if we just asked the locals what they thought of it. It is not only very arrogant of us in the West to assume that we know better, but it runs into the age-old problem of first-world people trying to solve third-world problems. Overwhelmingly, those who live in these areas and understand the situation, support trophy hunting. Still, the protests in the West rage on, as do proposals for legislation. It is difficult for activists to understand the situation, as most have never been to the communities they imagine themselves supporting. Their activism is motivated by either virtue signaling or ignorance. All their outrage is purely reactionary and political, not a well-thought- out approach, as is needed.
Trophy hunting looks wrong. None of us like to see a rich Westerner gloating in front of a dead lion or with elephant tusks on his walls. But we need to look at this pragmatically, not idealistically. It truly is the lesser of two evils, even if it does not seem to be that way at first glance. Trophy hunting is no panacea, but it is the best option we currently have. As the economist Thomas Sowell notes, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”
Robert F. Kennedy is a scientific assistant at the Austrian Economics Center.
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.