Trophy Hunting: The Good, the Bad, and the Not what you thought.

Following a request from myself to write for the amazing nature/environmental magazine Natures Gold, and in keeping with the theme of “Home” present as the core of the 6th Issue of Spring 2021, I wrote an article that dealt with the much debated and controversial topic of “Trophy Hunting”, or as some know it as, “Conservation Hunting”. It has always incited much talk, and I decided I would base the article on an episode of the much loved nature podcast “Into the Wild, Hosted by Ryan Dalton”, as this episode I believed came from a place of authenticity, and also represented the views and opinions of those who actually understood and had experienced the issues talked about, rather than people speaking on their behalf.

The article is available in the magazine here – Trophy Hunting: the Good, the Bad, and the Not what you thought.

I said, “Trophy hunting is wrong”. But who am I to make that decision…?

Close your eyes. Feel the intense heat rising. Inhale the rich, coarse air, ridden with scents of the undergrowth. Floating between the waves of heat are the sounds of wildlife, close and far, large and small, they approach your ears tentatively, playing between the fronds of your limp hair. You’re walking. Forward. Slowly. The lucid movements of crickets leap into your brain from either side, dust jumps excitedly up to meet you, punching you softly in the mouth. A crackle from the tough grass startles you. Relax. This is a land you are not used to but have always been a part of… Real? Romantic? Movie magic? Fantasy? All of this and more I think. This is what always ran through my mind whenever I thought of strolling through the plains of Africa. I’d be dressed in khaki. Eyes glued to a battered pair of binoculars. Drinking in the magical sight of a male lion a few feet away from me, yawning as he stretches lazily in the yellow strands of grass, the sunlight glinting off his long teeth.

But.

I’ve never been to any country in Africa. I’ve never been on a safari. And yet I have this entire dream built around it. I have this entire fantasy, a painting in my mind of the world that is encapsulated here. A surround sound movie that plays out whenever I close my eyes, I can almost taste the acrid scent of hot air and dust ridden fumes of cars driving away into the sunset, the dusky sounds of insects come out to play in my mind… See, there I go again. Fantasizing about this world I have truly never seen. Where did I get this fantasy? Look no further dear reader. I have a shelf full of wildlife documentaries right here.

Narrated by Sir David himself. Don’t get me wrong, I love these films; the beauty of the story, the incredible shots, and the wildlife are what inspired me and many others, including most of my peers, to become so involved with our environment and with the fate of the planet. But they are one perspective. Just the one. And sometimes, with the rock and roll of beautiful documentaries, leaks in a tiny bit of lets-stretch-the-truth. Take today’s subject (I know, it took a while but you got through my waffle eventually ) – Hunting. As a child I’d watch in awe as the camera panned up and down in search of greater challenges, wildlife seeping out of every angle. And then I’d see an article, or a post, or some content online; a grainy picture of a bloodied corpse, a man standing over it, grinning sadistically as he held up the head of a now flaccid and crumpled corpse. I was, to say the least, livid.

How could one justify the extermination, in such a crude and indifferent fashion, of something so glorious? I was furious at humanity for raising such monsters, furious that we poison the land, pump toxic waste into the oceans. Humanity could be sent to mars for all I care. Humanity was a plague on this dear earth, terrible and calculating…

But again. And I’m sorry if you thought this was going to be an article bashing humanity, or ranting about the negative effects on the earth. It’s not. This view I had was My Opinion. An opinion grown from anger, anger at seeing these perspectives of other people. I was never shown anything to suggest otherwise.

And herein lies the issue. I had never experienced the wildlife of this country, but I had also never experienced the people. I had never walked amongst them. Never seen their food being grown or caught, never seen their way of life, never stood in their shoes for a fraction of a second. Never felt their hunger, their sadness, their happiness, their joy. And yet here I was. Making decisions about the fate of humanity, and the fate of their environment, based on a vision that was not theirs. Sounds rather ridiculous now doesn’t it? Making decisions based on information is what we do as organisms that think.

Cognitive acrobatics is a side effect of self-awareness. We have to make snap decisions based on the information we have available to us or we’d never get anything done, and so with greater information, comes greater ability to make a more open and useful decision. So that’s exactly what I did. I sought out greater information. I read and watched, talked and tweeted, squeezed energy out of myself to find answers I may have not wanted to hear. One of the forms that people, especially myself, have found information increasingly accessible nowadays, is podcasts; these incredibly useful little machines fill our head with all manner of facts and figures, allowing my much decreased attention span a moment’s respite from the flashing images and videos of today’s touchscreen world. I have spoken before about being invited on a wonderful podcast called Into The Wild, hosted by Ryan Dalton, to speak about the issues of diversity in nature and conservation as part of a panel.

Well if he didn’t just strike gold again with the very poignant topic of Trophy Hunting, in another episode previous to mine… The episode was fascinating, to say the least; it touched on all the little doubts and questions I had in my mind about this controversial topic, a complex and intricate interview with people from various degrees of expertise in different sections of the subject, all the way from Namibia (thus gaining fresh perspectives from people who actually understand the predicaments of the land this topic is mostly about, and the stresses they are under every day), and with the ultimate result being an opinion change for Ryan himself. I will link this episode at the end of the article so that you may all also share in this eye-opening soundbite. I was moved and decided I should press further; as I come from a similar angle as Ryan (British, westernized views on a subject I have only read about and not seen in person as of yet), I thought that his thoughts on the interview and the reason for his perspective change would be perfect for an article. My first question centred on introducing the subject, but also dissecting that which we don’t necessarily always prefer to approach; our own bias.

“Before you had listened to the people you interviewed as part of the episode on trophy hunting for your podcast, what was your view on trophy hunting/conservation hunting? Do you think this is a view that is shared by other people with a similar background/experience to yourself?” Ryan’s reply was, to say the least, relatable.

“Before recording the panel show with Maxi Louis, John Mwlima & Lorna Dax, my view was quite ‘simplistic’, that killing can not be a conservation practice. I found it to be an oxymoron, how can people kill animals they are trying to preserve? Isn’t that counterproductive? My view was that it was barbaric, seemed outdated & needed to be stopped. I think this view is massively shared. I would imagine, due to the lack of open discussion & platforms talking with the right people (in terms of people who live & work with it), the information that can rightly support its case is rarely put out there”.

He hit the nail right on its own bloody head. This is what I grew up thinking – how can killing anything in such a manner other than survival be justified? But here I was just equating survival to something like starvation and not simple existence through making a living, so now who’s biased? The accessibility and openness of discussion also struck a sharp and cutting chord; the information we have available to us as; the public, on the subject of trophy/hunting is limited, broken, flipped away by the angry rants of keyboard warriors (pause here, my hands are hurting from too much typing), too often are we left to form our own decisions from very little knowledge, and from a romanticized vision of what “The Great African Plains” look and feel like. I fear this may be becoming too much of a rant already so we’ll move forward with the discussion.

But I do wish to say that I am never condoning passion and empathy even when you lack relevant knowledge because that is how one starts on this journey to becoming a protector of the environment. You must capture that emotion, and not be turned away because you don’t know facts and figures. But all I ask is that you do not stick with one view born of emotion, because then you become the problem, so in order to grow, you must learn more.

The second question I asked really sought to round up some of the very important views and facts that I heard expressed in this conversation and to get a sense of what Ryan had learned here and indeed what all of had learned here; “From listening to and talking to people in these environments, what are the main benefits to hunting you can see?” I very much wanted to highlight the fact that the views being expressed by Ryan were simply a vessel for the information taken from the people who actually experienced these issues firsthand. Erasure and speaking over others is a very big issue in today’s world of Popularity-Equates-Relevance, and I would also like to bring your attention to the extremely important word, Listening. Listening is invaluable in any discussion, especially those where you do not know all the facts, and even if you do, haven’t the experience. Listening and sharing are fundamental in a conversation such as this one.

“From talking with Maxi, Lorna & John (& it’s important for me to highlight that the discussion of Trophy Hunting was focused on Namibia), the main three benefits I took was: – Financial support for local communities & conservancies including security from dangerous wildlife, jobs, schooling, food & water. – Financial support for wildlife & the surrounding environment including providing water areas during droughts, rangers to protect from illegal killings & areas of land being used to support wildlife instead of developed on or used for agriculture. – It gave people in Namibia the opportunity to resource the land or their benefit & for wildlife’s benefit”.

Ryan’s emphasis on Namibia as being the country focused on here also brought forward another bias I, and many of us have; the lack of attention to the fact that Africa is a vast and extremely complex continent, as most continents are, and yet it is often presented as a country, and the differences between each country within it and the problems and proficiencies each face is also forgotten in this process. Namibia’s view and representation of hunting and trophy hunting may well be different than the rest of Africa, more research into the complexities of those areas is required if an overall picture of this continent is to be painted. The benefits stated by Ryan sound absolutely incredible, and truly something to be admired; but how does this all work? I hear you ask…personally I was still viewing hunting as this separate entity and was still having trouble putting it in the same sentence as “benefits”.

But as I have stated before, the reality of what we feel and what is real can often contradict one another; in this case, we are mainly talking about financial benefits, and these are often trodden on in favour of empathy towards the wildlife. Simply put, in order to protect the environment, we need to protect the people who live there, and part of that protection is supporting them financially or not interfering with their chance to support themselves financially.

This land is not cheap, the areas that must be protected for the benefit of the wildlife have to be maintained and protected, from those wishing to kill animals for financial gain, and in order to do this you have to employ people to guard their lives and their habitats. This is a hard job, and often tiring and at times extremely dangerous.

The point made about correct usage of land is particularly useful to consider; wildlife here exists in droves and quantities unheard of in much of Europe and especially in the UK, and in order to properly conserve it and allow it to exist and thrive there must be space, this space can often be taken up and taken over by industry and agricultural practices, which, whilst useful in the short term, can often be devastating and destructive to the land, as corporations take control away from the people and they are left fighting too hard for too little. Initiatives like sustainable hunting allow land to be used in a way that gives the animals large open habitats and also staves off industrial and farming practices, as the land is providing money for the community and the economy, and thus is seen as an asset rather than a practice that takes away from benefiting the people.

This not only is useful to the animals but provides a sustainable structure through which people can continue to thrive, and it can be maintained because people WANT to maintain it, and so it works for both nature and the people. And yet I was still slightly suspicious; I mean how it’s still killing for the sake of what…fun? Or am I deserting the bigger picture because of my emotional connection again? “Did you see anything that could be deemed as wrong or didn’t sit right with you after you had spoken to these people?” I wanted to poke further, to see if there was anything from this interview that may have seemed off-balance, because of course Ryan’s done this for a while now, and as someone with a shared interest in getting the truth about this out there I trusted him to tell me.

“Not from this chat no, however, as with any country anywhere on this wonderful planet, there is always the opportunity for corruption or wrongdoings in the process however this is only on assumption & I can not say with any support that is going on, has happened or where it happens. From my chat, I learned that Trophy Hunting in Namibia is heavily regulated & controlled & the IUCN data supports this.

The animal populations have increased significantly in the last 20 years”. I am a very big supporter of our need to ask questions. It’s what makes this society stronger; if we are not allowed to question those in power or those around us and bring them to account for actions or activities that make us uncomfortable, then we lose the power of understanding, as understanding can only come with knowledge, and questions help you gleam knowledge. So the need to question the viability of the people who record such numbers sprang into my mind, and even the need to question the IUCN themselves.

So I urge you, the readers of this article, to question what you see in front of you, but to the point at which you find answers; this article is only part of the journey. “Do you think there is a level of privilege which we as a British society have, that means we look down on other countries and their practices, such as hunting?” This was the question that had developed in my mind, after reading up about practices in hunting and the benefits being overlooked, after seeing the protests happening around me, after experiencing racism first hand, and the bias and privilege that exists in this society.

We MUST understand our own privilege if we are to truthfully seek a way of making this planet a safer and better place for all. Because by refusing to do so, we run the risk of making decisions that actually harm the environment more than they benefit it, and then we become part of the problem. “100%, I am comfortable saying this as someone that sat in his own bubble of privilege & believed it to be barbaric. We are happy for us here to control our wildlife but not happy for people in Africa to control theirs? We expect people around the world to live happily with dangerous wild animals without a thought of how challenging this can be. We are happy to say Trophy Hunting is a colonial practice (despite African people having hunted their wildlife for 1000s of years) but not happy to notice the colonial attitudes British organizations have when trying to ban Trophy Hunting in Africa”.

I have known a lot of people, myself included, who have used our “love” of wildlife and nature as a weapon against the practices we see as evil, such as trophy hunting, and yet we refuse to acknowledge the benefits that it has and the fact that, whilst it may not be a brilliant practice and one that I would encourage in most places, oftentimes there is little choice to be made in the matter. Here Ryan formally understood and acknowledged his privilege as someone who has not first-hand experienced what these people experience and he challenged and questioned the majority opinion on the subject, which, as activists and people trying to make a change for good, we should all be doing.

The next question I asked led on from this, in the sense that it sought to question our privilege as people who live in the west and perhaps profit from organizations that cause much destruction to the infrastructure of African countries, and yet we criticize their existence with vigor at the drop of a hat. “Do you think that the destruction of infrastructure in marginalized countries at the hands of western countries is perhaps a reason that trophy hunting has to be a main form of income to a lot of people?” Ryan then picked up on a big hiccup in my question… “I’d say you’d have to ask communities in Africa that question. I think it’s definitely something that would have some real truth in it but I also think that Africa has resourced off its wildlife since forever. I believe Trophy Hunting, just like eco-tourism, is a way for local communities to monetize a part of their wildlife that in some areas is needed anyway”.

I had always gone into any discussion of this thinking from a perspective of either the west is at fault here, or they are helping. But what if… They just weren’t a part of the equation…? Stay with me here; of course, as Ryan has stated, there is an element of truth to this, the destruction of infrastructure, whether that be by war, corporations, etc. has definitely played its wellearned part in Trophy Hunting, but again stated here, what’s so easy to roll over is that perhaps the attributing of any of this at all to the west is a colonial ideology, and by ridding ourselves of this can also rid ourselves of the biases that are stopping us from seeing hunting as anything but good. By reattaching the idea to terms like cultural practices and traditions, and understanding what we are truly talking about here, of course with due evidence and sustainable practice, perhaps we will be able to see this for what it is…a necessary practice.

I’d seen all the benefits and more, my mind had been opened, I was no longer looking at this from a point of view where I only saw animals dying and nothing else, I saw this from a conservation point of view…dare I call it…conservation hunting…? Ryan himself had changed terminology by the end of the episode upon the discomfort by the panel at the term “Trophy Hunting”. And yet. I still took issue with the whole…killing side of things… “As a conservationist and animal lover, I of course understand the benefits of population management and control, but still have a problem when thinking about an animal bred for killing, do you think we as a society have become so entrenched in this system that there is no alternative to this way of conserving the environment?”

“I’d agree, I don’t like the thought of an animal being bred for killing, but, to my knowledge, that isn’t what Trophy Hunting is? That is more canned hunting. I do think the thing we have to remember is how big Africa is or even how big Namibia is. There is a lot of land that would not work for something like ecotourism due to its location/environment but that doesn’t mean animals are not there. I think it’s about using the right activity in the right area. However saying all this, I think everyone would like to see Trophy Hunting end & something put in its place with the same effect for people & wildlife”. The question I asked here was obviously before I had reached any conclusion on the subject and before I had any of the answers, and so what I take issue with, in terms of my own question here, is that I lumped canned and trophy/conservation hunting into one box.

I did not make the very important distinction between them, a distinction that has a huge outcome on the animals and environment involved. Ryan picked up on the fact that Africa is a massively complex and differing continent, and even Namibia itself is huge, so to speak of all of it one phrase would be wrong and ignorant.

He did however speak about the fact that all involved would like to see Trophy Hunting replaced with something that perhaps involved less destruction to individual wildlife, another point that was made previously. This is necessary for the conservation of this environment, but that doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable, or even necessary forever. Due to the circumstances at hand this may be the only option available in certain areas, and perhaps the only chance to provide some balance between the people and animals living in the same environment. “Should we as western conservationists and naturalists be advocating this practice? Or by the same token are we butting in where we shouldn’t and should stay out of it because it’s none of our business?” “That’s a hard question but a good one haha… I don’t think you have to be pro or anti Trophy Hunting. I think it’s too complex for that kind of black & white thinking & you have to be more nuanced in thinking & look at case by case activities in different areas. I do believe local people should be at the forefront of conservation.

By giving local people benefits & a voice, especially when these people are so knowledgeable about the wildlife & environment around them, you will have people making good sustainable decisions. I don’t think we should keep out of it, but we should do more listening rather than talking”. A very clever and understanding answer; the subject of hunting, especially Trophy/Conservation Hunting, is one that has been debated for years, and often the debate has been extremely one sided, those who have a louder voice in the argument only possessing such a voice due to their privilege. It is a complex and intricate subject, and as Ryan has put, far too complex for black and white thinking; it is neither good nor bad in the ultimate sense of either word. It can be useful, and other times not so useful, but that usefulness depends on the state of the environment in that particular space, the health and well-being of the people, the infrastructure that has been put in place, the sustainability of the project and the trust and truth of the regulators.

And who better to speak about its usefulness and its effectiveness, or in the same sense, its destruction or uselessness than the very people affected by it! Local people are the most knowledgeable as Ryan has stated here, but they also possess something extremely valuable in this conversation – experience! So by listening to this experience (linking back to the previous question and answers that talk about the importance of listening ), and by acting upon this, we can make a useful difference, instead of an irrational and biased response. Many people think of listening as being a neutral activity, a stationary point in time, when in reality it is often more useful than talking, because it allows you to gain understanding, and understanding of the situation and its intricacies can never be underestimated as a conservationist.

My last question splintered off slightly, and I sought with this one to maybe plant the seed of questioning into anyone’s heads who read this; the question of whether or not what we are doing is useful, or even if it was at some point but now no longer is. “Do you think there are other practices that are vilified as part of modern conservation that should perhaps be approached from a different angle?” “I mean Seaspiracy certainly tried to make NGO’s in the fishing world look silly but we rarely hear about the good they do. I think that’s an area that also needs to be looked at with a fine-tooth comb”. Short question with a short answer. And whilst I am wary of documentaries that over-romanticize conservation and the endangerment of the environment and species, I also see the brilliance of these programs and the use of their shock-factor at uncovering grisly truths we are not aware or prepared to be aware of and will leave that discussion for another day and another article. This article was not written to make you think Trophy/Conservation Hunting is good or bad.

It was not written to force your hand or your perspective, at the end of the day you will come away from this with your own conclusion and your own opinion. It’s not even written to answer all your questions / all the questions that exist about Trophy/Conservation Hunting. This article simply seeks to point you in the direction of the right questions. To ask questions. Of corporations, of people around you, of yourself. If you really are here as a wildlife enthusiast, as a naturalist, as a conservationist, as someone who really seeks to make a difference and conserve our planet for the future and now, then it’s important that you understand that we need to forever be questioning our motives. Arguing passionately for something you don’t understand can lead to terrible mistakes made and terrible decisions reached.

So I hope this lent you some tools for seeking out your own research, and to try to tackle this issue further, for a better future for all.

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