Trophy hunting is an expensive hobby and a billion dollar industry. Between 2004 and 2014, around 1.7 million hunting trophies were traded, with hunters primarily from the USA. The sport is global with 107 countries exporting trophies, and 104 countries importing them.
Asia is by no means a main trophy hunting destination. In Asia, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia export the most hunting trophies. They exported fewer trophies than most others in Europe, Africa, South America, and North America. Additionally, only 25 percent of the most commonly imported species of trophies came from Eurasia.
Despite this, the markhor—a large wild goat—in Central Asia has become one of the most expensive trophy hunts in the world, commanding over US$100,000 for a single trophy fee. There are less than 6,000 markhor left in the wild, and their remoteness and impressive horns have made them prized targets.
Many claim that the money generated through trophy hunting is vital to saving species. Others view it as unethical and a threat to wildlife.
Many scientists and authorities working in conservation, including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), proclaim that when managed properly, trophy hunting can be beneficial for conservation. For areas that are not viable for ecotourism (because they are not large, accessible or attractive enough), wildlife and their habitat must prove their economic worth or risk being replaced. Local people may convert habitat to farmland, or illegally poach animals, to earn much-needed income.
With trophy hunting, the money generated from killing a small number of animals can convince communities that large swathes of habitat and wildlife should be protected. Trophy hunters also have a lighter footprint than safaris: only a few, very wealthy people partake in trophy hunting, meaning less carbon emissions and infrastructure is needed to host them.
Some of the money generated from trophy hunting also goes back into conservation. In Zambia, hunting revenues have been used to train and hire village scouts for anti-poaching activities. In Namibia, the revenues generated from trophy hunting have reduced poaching, and led to the recovery of zebra populations. The spectacular rebound of the white rhino in Africa from just 50 individuals to over 20,000 today is partly attributed to controlled trophy hunting, as the revenues generated were channeled into conservation efforts.
The money that is needed for conservation is often not available—but trophy hunting has, in many cases, provided it.
Still, critics of trophy hunting maintain that the sport is cruel, unethical, and rarely accrues benefits to wildlife populations and society. In Tanzania, government corruption has prevented hunting fees from reaching conservation efforts. In Kyrgyzstan, local communities hardly receive any economic benefits from the sport and are not supportive of it developing further. Moreover, some hunting ‘quotas’ are not based on reliable scientific evidence, which can cause wildlife populations to decline. This has reportedly been the case for lion populations in Africa, cougar populations in America, as well as ibex (wild goat) and argali (wild sheep) populations in Kyrgyzstan.
Trophy hunting can also fuel the illegal wildlife trade. In South Africa, trophy hunting of caged lions has fueled a lion bone trade in Asia (for medicine). This new demand could threaten wild lion populations. Criminals also exploited the legal trophy hunting loophole to take rhino horns back to Vietnam—which are then illegally used in traditional medicine.
Inadequate management and lack of foresight have prevented trophy hunting from being an effective conservation tool in many places. Some of the most ‘successful’ trophy hunting projects, however, are found in Asia.
In the 1980s, local tribal leaders developed the Torghar Conservation Project to protect declining markhor and urial (wild sheep) populations in Pakistan. In exchange for stopping hunting, the local community were hired as guards to prevent poaching. To finance their salaries, foreigners could pay to trophy hunt a limited number of markor and urial. Between 1986 and 2012, trophy hunting generated over US$2 million, covering the salaries of over 80 guards, and funding schools and healthcare facilities. As a result, poaching decreased, and the markhor population increased by 3400 percent, and the urial population by 1170 percent. The markhor that was famously killed for US$100,000 in Pakistan was one of twelve that are reportedly allowed to be hunted each season.
In 2004, traditional local hunters began to conserve the declining population of Markhor in Tajikistan. Revenues generated from trophy hunting were used to employ local people as guards. As a result, the markhor population increased by 270 percent (see data vis 4). There is also a higher density of snow leopards, which prey on ungulates like markhor, inside hunting areas. This suggests that in Tajikistan, trophy hunting of ungulates has benefited snow leopard conservation as well.
Where do we go from here? The world is split.
After an American hunter illegally shot Cecil the lion in 2015 without the correct permits, trophy hunting was thrown into the spotlight. Amidst the uproar, numerous airlines banned the shipment of wildlife trophies—even if legally acquired. Namibia’s Environment and Tourism Minister said that this decision “will be the end of conservation in Namibia”.
There will always be a deep divide when it comes to trophy hunting. For many, the proven benefits to conservation cannot justify the inhumanity of the sport. This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that some animals that are hunted—such as elephants—are known for being sentient and mourn the loss of companions.
Importantly, other countries have achieved wildlife population increases without trophy hunting. For example, the number of greater one-horned rhinos in India and Nepal increased from 600 to 3,500 , even though the sport is banned. Perhaps not every country, however, is able to achieve this feat.
A world where we do not need to ‘shoot to save’ wildlife would be ideal. But for now, in some places at least, it has proven to be a necessary, uncomfortable evil, that is likely here to stay.