Trophy hunting: Conservation impacts and animal welfare concerns
Trophy hunting is a highly controversial activity. Proponents claim the activity can help fund conservation and benefit local communities through income generation, employment opportunities and local development, while incentivising the protection of wild animals and wildlife habitats. However, the selective removal of individual animals, particularly from threatened species or populations, can have serious implications for the stability of social groups and the wider ecology, damaging conservation outcomes. Trophy hunting can also cause significant and avoidable animal suffering. This essay considers the damaging impacts of trophy hunting, and concludes that alternative humane ways to incentivise wildlife protection and resource local community development should be prioritised.
Recreational hunting is a centuries-old activity, but the modern practice of trophy hunting arguably emerged among Europeans during the colonial era, and in the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. Over subsequent decades, the desire among wealthy hunters to ‘bag’ trophy animals had devastating impacts on populations of many iconic and keystone species, particularly across South Asia and East Africa.
In recent years trophy hunters have continued to covet trophies from a wide range of species. For the decade from 2011-2020, more than 300,000 trophy items derived from more than 300 species listed on the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), were exported by 112 countries. These included more than 40,000 brown bear trophies, 38,000 African elephant trophies, and 11,000 lion trophies. The United States was the main destination, accounting for 36% of the total, with European Union countries identified as destinations for around 23%.[i]
These figures only represent exports of trophies from species that are threatened with extinction, the international trade in which is regulated by CITES. Reliable data on the scale of domestic trophy hunting and the targeting of species that are not CITES listed are harder to come by. Nevertheless, the total number of animals that fall victim to trophy hunters is far higher than the CITES data might suggest. Research by the Humane Society of the United States revealed that trophy hunters imported a total of more than 1.26 million wildlife trophies into the United States in the decade to 2014, almost two thirds of which were derived from Canada and South Africa.[ii]
With increasing public awareness of the biodiversity and species extinction crisis, and concern for the welfare of animals and the ‘value’ we place on them, trophy hunting has become the subject of widespread scientific and public debate. The killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015 by an American trophy hunter generated a great deal of public outrage and concern about the ethics and sustainability of trophy hunting and the animal suffering involved, resulting in widespread calls for policy change.[iii] Since then, a number of countries have banned or restricted imports of hunting trophies. In December 2021 the UK Government announced its plans to introduce legislation that would end the import of trophies from around 7,000 threatened species.[iv]
Proponents of trophy hunting often claim the activity is already well-regulated through international agreements and national rules and research-based quotas; that the money generated by trophy hunting is essential for wildlife authorities of the countries where trophy hunting is permitted, and local communities living in areas where trophy hunting takes place; that trophy hunting provides monetary value from wild animals, incentivising local people and policy-makers to maintain areas for wildlife that might otherwise be converted for other uses; that trophy hunting is an effective and sustainable way of managing wild animal populations and removing problem or redundant animals; and that the carcasses of trophy hunted animals are a desirable supplemental source of food for local communities.
However, studies and reports have increasingly questioned the economic,[v] conservation[vi] and societal values[vii] of trophy hunting activities, and its sustainability[viii]. Far from being well-regulated, animal populations are often manipulated and quotas set to maximise profits, recommended age-based and area-based limitations are frequently ignored, hunting levels often exceed quotas, and much of the revenue generated from trophy hunting ends up in the hands of hunting concession operators, officials, and foreign companies.[ix] In the report ‘Missing the Mark’ published in 2016 for the US House Committee on Natural Resources, it states: “Claiming that trophy hunting benefits imperilled species is significantly easier than finding evidence to substantiate it.” [x]
Currently, CITES and most regional or national wildlife trade regulations do not address the moral or ethical objections to trophy hunting, or its impact on animal welfare, which are frequently identified as issues of public concern.[xi] They also arguably fail to effectively address what they are designed to ensure, namely the legality and sustainability of the activity. Established quotas for trophy exports may not be based on robust scientific information for key species.[xii] Concerns also surround the accuracy of assessments of non-detriment to the target population, a key requirement for the issuing of CITES permits for the export and import of hunting trophies from internationally protected species.[xiii]
Far from removing surplus or decrepit animals, or those considered to be a threat or nuisance, trophy hunters typically covet the animals that make the best trophies – lions with the largest or darkest manes, elephants with the longest or heaviest tusks and so on - and are actively encouraged to do so by hunting organisations.[xiv] These targeted animals are often key individuals within their societies and the wider ecosystems of which they are a part, and their removal can have profound conservation implications that go beyond the simple numerical impact, affecting the social, behavioural and genetic integrity of wider family groups and populations.[xv],[xvi]
Because some trophy hunters value rarity and are often prepared to pay more (in some cases a great deal more[xvii]) to hunt rare animals, the most threatened species may be disproportionately targeted, increasing the pressure on already vulnerable populations and creating what researchers term an Anthropogenic Allee Effect, potentially pushing species towards localised extinction.[xviii]
Trophy hunting agents and outfitters often sell ‘packages’ which may include the preferred target animal (such as one of the so-called Big Five African species), but also several other animals from ‘lesser’ target species, often prey species such as antelope, zebra or ostrich. The targeting of prey species, some of which may not enjoy national or international protection or be subject to strict quotas, may skew populations and affect predator-prey relationships.[xix]
The trophy hunting industry has also been implicated in the trafficking of wildlife through so-called ‘pseudo-hunting’, with trophy hunts being used as a front to facilitate the acquisition and export of valuable parts of protected animals for illegal commercial trade, including rhino horn.[xx] In January 2018 the incoming Environment Minister of Tanzania accused hunting operators of being involved in poaching and illegal exports of ivory.[xxi] Such associations further undermine the credibility of the trophy hunting industry’s conservation claims, and place vulnerable wildlife populations at increased risk.
Leopards, elephants and lions – examples of species adversely affected by trophy hunting
Leopards are vulnerable to extinction and are in serious decline across much of their range.[xxii] Commercial international trade in leopard specimens has been banned since 1975, by virtue of the species’ listing on CITES Appendix I. However, the export of leopard hunting trophies and skins for personal use continues under a quota system administered by CITES since 1997.[xxiii] At the time of writing, 12 countries had annual quotas, and more than 6,500 leopard trophies were declared to have been exported over the past decade, almost a quarter of which were destined for EU countries.[xxiv]
However, CITES quotas for leopard trophies are not based on reliable or verifiable population data, which simply doesn’t exist for some of the populations from which they are hunted, and clear guidance on establishing non-detriment findings for trade in leopard hunting trophies, mandated by a specific CITES Decision from 2019, has yet to be produced.[xxv] The 2015 IUCN Red List leopard assessment recognises that: “if poorly managed, trophy hunting can be detrimental to the population, especially when permits are focused in one geographic area and targeted individuals are in their prime, territorial, reproductively active.”[xxvi] A number of recent scientific studies have questioned the sustainability of leopard trophy hunting under the current system. One such study concluded that the current regime largely fails to meet the general principles of precaution, sustainable use and adaptive management.[xxvii] Another reported that 87% of professional hunters surveyed, who have hunted in Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia or Zimbabwe, responded that they were willing to hunt an adult female leopard with significant potential adverse impacts on the viability of the local population and on any dependent young.[xxviii] A third study examined the effects of trophy hunting and other human activities on leopards, and highlighted disruption to subadult male leopard dispersal with potential negative consequences for the future viability of populations.[xxix]
At least two of the countries that have leopard quotas do not have a Management Plan in place for the species. In spite of this, leopards continue to be legally targeted by trophy hunters.
‘Big tusker’ African bull elephants have declined precipitously as a result of being the targets of trophy hunters and poachers, with the loss of accumulated social knowledge and experience, as well as genes that may be vitally important for herd health.[xxx]
A recent study found that male elephants increase their energy allocation into reproduction with increased age as the probability of reproductive success increases, and that man‐made interference (such as trophy hunting and poaching) could drive fundamental changes in elephant reproductive tactics.[xxxi] Research has shown that female elephants tend to prefer to mate with older, bigger bulls.[xxxii] Removal of the biggest tuskers, who are prime targets for trophy hunters, therefore removes the most reproductively successful bulls, with inevitable consequences for natural selection and future population health and viability.
Far from being ‘redundant’, older bull elephants also help to control younger males in bachelor groups, whose behaviour may become less predictable when the older bulls are removed, with the resulting potential for increased conflict with people.[xxxiii]
The impact of elephants on the habitats and ecosystems of which they are a part has also been shown to provide important ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration. Studies published by the International Monetary Fund estimate that that each individual forest elephant may be responsible for activities that result in carbon capture worth more than $1.75 million throughout its lifetime.[xxxiv] Removing individual elephants before their time results in a loss of this vital ‘service.’
In a 2016 paper, researchers noted that “Trophy hunting has had negative effects on lion populations throughout Africa”, and that “Hunting resulted in population declines over a 25-year period for all continuous harvest strategies”, particularly where males under seven years old are targeted. The authors concluded that “Age-restricted harvesting… is probably not sufficient to yield sustainability.”[xxxv] The widely-used minimum age for lion trophies is six years, although some males remain dominant in the pride and successfully breed at well beyond this age: Cecil the lion, who was reportedly 13 years old when he was killed by a trophy hunter, had recently sired cubs before his death.
Removing older male lions who control prides may also lead to younger males killing any cubs left behind so as to be able to breed themselves (thereby reinforcing their genetic line), with serious welfare implications for the cubs themselves and for the adult females who care for them. A recent study of the impact of a three-year moratorium on trophy hunting around South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, demonstrated that the moratorium resulted in significant growth of the Luangwa lion population with more cubs being born in each year of the moratorium than was previously the case when trophy hunting was taking place. The moratorium also resulted in the recovery from a male-depleted population to a more balanced demographic structure.[xxxvi]
Burkina Faso had the highest lion hunting quota in Africa for many years, yet the lion population has continued to decline and the quota has now collapsed. Quotas have had to be reduced in Cameroon, and Ethiopia no longer issues a quota. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that trophy hunting has failed to result in ‘sustainable management’ in these countries and may have contributed to the continued decline in lions.
Trophy hunting may also result in parts and products derived from hunted animals entering international trade, which may stimulate demand and have negative consequences for individuals and populations. The increasing international trade in lion bones, identified as an emerging threat to the species, has, to a significant extent, been fuelled by the supply of skeletal products from lions that have been killed in trophy hunts.
Leopards, elephants and lions are just three of many species subject to trophy hunting that are at conservation risk. For a significant number of species, we simply don’t understand enough about the impact of removing targeted animals from populations in order to make informed judgements about its sustainability or the degree to which it might or might not be detrimental to populations.
Animal welfare implications
In most circumstances where animals are deliberately killed (for example, domesticated animals for food), convention and legal provisions demand that the methods used should minimise negative welfare impacts, and that operatives must be trained and subjected to oversight. However, no such requirements apply to trophy hunters.
Not only are trophy hunters not trained professionals, they are also seeking a good quality ‘trophy’, and may, therefore, seek to avoid damage to body parts that will subsequently be displayed, such as the head, thereby increasing the chances of a protracted and painful death for the target animal. There are many high-profile reports of animals targeted by trophy hunters that have been wounded, only to be tracked and killed hours or even days later.
Trophy hunting organisations offer Awards for unconventional methods of killing a trophy animal which might include the use of bows and arrows, crossbows, handguns, or ‘traditional’ weapons such as muzzle loaders, methods that clearly do not prioritise the welfare of the target animal.[xxxvii] Both Cecil the lion, killed in Zimbabwe in 2015, and Mopane the lion killed in the same area in 2021, were reportedly targeted by American trophy hunters using bows and were both reportedly initially wounded by the hunters and only killed sometime later. [xxxviii],[xxxix]
Target animals may be pursued for long periods of time (in some cases days) during hunts. Individuals may be separated from family groups or populations, which may result in considerable distress, and in some cases target animals may be deliberately lured into areas where the presence of potential predators or competitors might also cause distress.[xl] This was reportedly the case for both Cecil and Mopane, lions who were reportedly lured out of a protected area with bait into an area where they could be targeted by hunters.
The killing of animals by trophy hunters may also have welfare implications for animals beyond the targeted individual. As noted previously, the killing of mature male elephants can disrupt bachelor groups leading to increased aggression between individuals, and greater human-elephant conflict, which, in turn, can lead to increased persecution of the remaining members of the group.[xli] In the case of lions, the removal of older males who control prides may result in an influx of younger male animals and a consequent rise in infanticide, which may have serious welfare impacts for cubs and the adult females who care for them, and may severely disrupt social cohesion and population stability.[xlii]
Some forms of trophy hunting involve the exploitation of wild animals in captive situations. A clear example is so-called ‘canned hunting’, where animals are typically bred and raised in captivity for release into an enclosed area where they are targeted by paying hunters, and where there is no chance of escape. The breeding of lions and other predators for this purpose in South Africa has resulted in an industry that currently involves as many as 12,000 animals.[xliii] This has led to a host of additional animal welfare concerns relating to the conditions in which the animals are bred and maintained, and there have been a number of high-profile reports of serious animal abuse and neglect relating to South Africa’s lion breeding farms.[xliv]
Trophy hunting bans
A number of countries, including Brazil, Costa Rica and Kenya, have banned trophy hunting. Some others, including Israel, Australia, France and to some extent the United States, have introduced bans or restrictions on the import of certain types of trophies.
The UK is far from being the largest importer of wildlife trophies. Nevertheless, over the past decade more than 2,000 trophies from threatened and protected species, including elephants, hippopotamus, zebra, leopards, lions, bears, and even baboons, have been imported by UK-based trophy hunters.[xlv]
Public opinion polls have consistently shown strong public support for a UK ban,[xlvi] and in its 2019 election manifesto the Conservative party promised to end the import of hunting trophies. The Government ran a public consultation on the issue in early 2020, again with reportedly overwhelming support for the introduction of an import ban.
Born Free has consistently encouraged Government to move ahead with a ban, believing this would reflect the wishes of the majority of the public, would go some way to reduce pressures on diminishing wildlife populations, and would set a precedent for other countries to follow.
In December 2021, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced its plans to ban imports of trophies from species listed on Annex A and B of the UK’s Wildlife Trade Regulations (reflecting CITES Appendix I and II), plus additional species subject to hunting and classified as Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered or Extinct in the wild on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened species. According to DEFRA the ban will cover nearly 7,000 species.[xlvii] At the time of writing the legislation had yet to be introduced to Parliament.
Trophy hunting is a controversial issue that has become the subject of a great deal of often passionate discourse in the scientific and wider literature and media in recent times. The killing of animals, many of which belong to threatened species, by a relatively wealthy and predominantly Western elite is, for many, ethically and morally objectionable, and there can be no doubt that the activity results in unnecessary and avoidable suffering at the individual animal level. In spite of the arguments espoused by trophy hunting proponents, there is also evidence of serious negative consequences for the viability of family groups and the conservation of many species, a fact we are beginning to understand as we learn more of the social and cultural complexity among targeted animal populations.
Clearly, a direction of travel that would end in greater restrictions on and potentially end of trophy hunting, is not without consequences. Policies should take this into account and actively seek to encourage and support alternative livelihoods, revenue generation, conservation activity and wildlife habitat security in cases where, to some degree, these activities relied, albeit modestly, on trophy hunting.
At a time of unprecedented crisis for biodiversity, with as many as a million species at risk of extinction,[xlviii] the global community is under pressure to identify and implement progressive and effective measures to incentivise and resource nature’s protection and recovery. To achieve this, a greater recognition of the value of individual wild animals to their family groups and the wider biodiversity of which they are a part is an essential prerequisite. However, the wanton destruction of wild animals in the name of sport should surely have no part to play in a forward looking and compassionate society.
[i] CITES trade statistics derived from the CITES Trade Database, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, UK. Search conducted in January 2022 for exports associated with Purpose Code ‘H’ (Hunting Trophy), excluding items declared by weight or volume.
[ii] HSUS and HSI. 2016. Trophy Hunting by the Numbers - the United States’ role in global trophy hunting. http://www.hsi.org/assets/pdfs/report_trophy_hunting_by_the.pdf
[iii] McDonald et al. 2016. Cecil: A Moment or a Movement? Analysis of Media Coverage of the Death of a Lion, Panthera leo. Animals 6(5), 26; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani6050026
[vi] Ripple et al. 2016. Does Trophy Hunting Support Biodiversity? A Response to Di Minin et al. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 31 (7) P495-496 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2016.03.011
[vii] Batavia et al. 2018. The elephant (head) in the room: A critical look at trophy hunting. Conservation letters 12 (1). https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12565
[viii] IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law Ethics Specialist Group. 2017. Compatibility of Trophy Hunting as a Form of Sustainable Use with IUCN’s Objectives. https://www.iucn.org/news/world-commission-environmental-law/201909/compatibility-trophy-hunting-a-form-sustainable-use-iucns-objectives
[ix] Leader-Williams et al. 2009. The Influence of Corruption on the Conduct of Recreational Hunting. In: Recreational Hunting, Conservation and Rural Livelihoods: Science and Practice, 1st edition. Edited by B. Dickson, J. Hutton and B. Adams. Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4051-6785-7 (pb) and 978-1-4051-9142-5 (hb)
[x] Missing the Mark: African trophy hunting fails to show consistent conservation benefits. A report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Natural Resources. 2016. https://naturalresources.house.gov/imo/media/doc/Missing%20the%20Mark.pdf
[xi] Ghasemi. 2020. Trophy hunting and conservation: Do the major ethical theories converge in opposition to trophy hunting? People and Nature 3 (1) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10160
[xii] Trouwborst et al. 2019. Spotty Data: Managing International Leopard (Panthera pardus) Trophy Hunting Quotas Amidst Uncertainty. Journal of Environmental Law, 2019, 0, 1–26 DOI: 10.1093/jel/eqz032
[xiii] Missing the Mark: African trophy hunting fails to show consistent conservation benefits. A report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Natural Resources. 2016. https://naturalresources.house.gov/imo/media/doc/Missing%20the%20Mark.pdf
[xv] Naude et al. 2020. Unsustainable anthropogenic mortality disrupts natal dispersal and promotes inbreeding in leopards. Ecology and Evolution 10:3605–3619. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.6089
[xvi] Russo et al. 2019. ‘Intentional Genetic Manipulation’ as a conservation threat. Conservation Genetics Resources 11, 237–247. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12686-018-0983-6
[xviii] Palazy et al. 2012. On the use of the IUCN status for the management of trophy hunting. Wildlife Research, 39(8):711-720. https://doi.org/10.1071/WR12121
[xix] Michel and Rosen. 2016. Hunting of Prey Species: A Review of Lessons, Successes, and Pitfalls – Experiences from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In: Snow Leopards. Edition: Biodiversity of the World - Conservation from Genes to Landscapes. P219-244. DOI:10.1016/B978-0-12-802213-9.00016-X
[xx] Milliken and Shaw. 2012. The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates. TRAFFIC, Johannesburg, South Africa. https://www.traffic.org/site/assets/files/2662/south_africa_vietnam_rhino_horn_nexus.pdf
[xxiv] CITES trade statistics derived from the CITES Trade Database, UNEP World Conservation
Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, UK
[xxvii] Trouwborst et al. 2019. Spotty Data: Managing International Leopard (Panthera pardus) Trophy Hunting Quotas Amidst Uncertainty. Journal of Environmental Law, 2019, 0, 1–26 DOI: 10.1093/jel/eqz032 https://academic.oup.com/jel/article/32/2/253/5673585
[xxviii] Braczkowski, A. R., Balme, G. A., Dickman, A., Macdonald, D. W., Fattebert, J., Dickerson, T., Johnson, P., Hunter, L. (2015). Who Bites the Bullet First? The Susceptibility of Leopards Panthera pardus to Trophy Hunting. PLOS ONE, 10(4), e0123100.
[xxix] Naude et al. 2020. Unsustainable anthropogenic mortality disrupts natal dispersal and promotes inbreeding in leopards. Ecology and Evolution 10:3605–3619. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.6089 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ece3.6089
[xxxi] Taylor et al. 2020. Movement reveals reproductive tactics in male elephants. J Anim Ecol. 2020 Jan;89(1):57-67. doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.13035
[xxxii] Hollister-Smith et al. 2007. Age, musth and paternity success in wild male African elephants, Loxodonta africana. Animal Behaviour, 74(2), pp.287-296.
[xxxiii] Slotow et al. 2000. Older bull elephants control young males. Nature 408, 425-426.
[xxxiv] Chami et al. 2020. The Secret Work of Elephants. https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2020/12/pdf/how-african-elephants-fight-climate-change-ralph-chami.pdf
[xxxv] Creel et al. 2016. Assessing the sustainability of African lion trophy hunting, with recommendations for policy. Ecol Appl. 26(7):2347-2357. doi: 10.1002/eap.1377
[xxxvi] Mweetwa et al. 2018. Quantifying lion (Panthera leo) demographic response following a three-year moratorium on trophy hunting. Plos One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0197030
[xxxvii] Safari Club International. World Hunting Awards. https://safariclub.org/world-hunting-awards/
[xl] Jones and Draper. 2018. Trophy Hunting and Animal Welfare. In: Animal Welfare in a Changing World. Edited by Andy Butterworth. CABI Publishing. ISBN: 9781786392459
[xli] Slotow et al. 2000. Older bull elephants control young males. Nature 408, 425–426.
[xlii] Loveridge et al. 2016. Conservation of large predator populations: demographic and spatial responses of African lions to the intensity of trophy hunting. Biological Conservation 204(B), 247–254. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.10.024
[xliii] Ashcroft. 2019. Unfair Game An exposé of South Africa's captive-bred lion industry. ISBN-10: 1785906119
[xlv] CITES trade statistics derived from the CITES Trade Database, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, UK.