September 28, 2016

Trophy hunters not winning humanity any medals

liongraphicRecently, a photo of big-game hunter Rebecca Francis went viral, thanks to a disapproving tweet of the image by Ricky Gervais. The photo is a full-body shot of a smiling Francis, lying on her back next to a downed giraffe.

“What must’ve happened to you in your life to make you want to kill a beautiful animal and then lie next to it smiling?” Gervais wrote.

This isn’t the first time a photo of a blonde camouflaged woman posing with dead animals has gone viral. It happened last summer with Kendall Jones, a cheerleader at Texas Tech whose lifestyle also involves big -game hunting.

Such photos are often met by two camps of people: those who despise these young women for their hobby, and those who place them on a pedestal.

This is a multi-layered issue with so much to consider. Because I think it’s worth more than an afterthought, let’s first look at the gender implications underneath these public responses.

It’s pretty clear to me why photos like this go viral: because girl. It’s an unusual juxtaposition, right? Photos of male hunters posing next to big game kills are by no means novel or hard to find. But a skinny girl in a full face of make-up holding an entire leopard? That’s a spectacle! So precious, that little lady, taking down that giant predator. That’s the kind of girl I want to come home to.

But then there’s the backlash—the crowd of people who direct their rage not at the practice of big-game hunting, but directly at the women in question. Again, while comparable photos of men are generally either upvoted, ignored or looked down upon, women who kill endangered animals are under fire and receive a litany of death threats. Why? Should women know better? Do we expect them to stay out of such nasty business? Do we defer to male judgment on this issue but expect women to be wantonly killing precious animals without reason?

I think it’s important to focus not on the individuals involved in this practice, but on the issue about which people contend to be so passionate: the legal hunting of endangered animals.

There’s a common and predictable backlash to the backlash. When animal rights advocates show dismay for this practice, a swarm of defenders come armed with one resounding response: big-game hunting actually aids conservation efforts, so you hippies should be thanking these sportswomen for their brave service.

Thankfully, there’s enough truth to this argument that it warrants critical thought and research. Unfortunately, the issue is not as simple as these people may like to believe.

Trophy hunting is subject to strict regulation (in most circumstances), so that only a certain number of animals can legally be killed within certain regions. As a result, landowners and parks can charge huge prices for hunting permits. Animals subject to legal hunting are often older males who are past mating age and have been ousted from social groups. Trophy hunters—including Francis—tend to paint these as mercy killings, saying these males would otherwise suffer alone until death or act aggressively toward others of their species.

The supposed benefit of big -game hunting—at least in Africa—is the funding that comes in the form of enormous fees landowners can charge to allow hunting on their property. All kinds of groups, from hunting-positive organizations to animal conservation efforts, maintain this money goes directly to local economies, assists in the maintenance of natural areas and funds anti-poaching initiatives.

Some contend that the killing of particular animals also helps the locals by providing them with food, supplies for manufacturing, and safety from problematic animals that have been known to terrorize communities.

The recent increase in southern white rhino populations is often cited as an example of the success of trophy hunting. But correlation does not equal causation, and even if big game hunting is to thank for this trend, one should not conclude that the practice works in all contexts. In many ways it depends on the species and the region in question.

For instance, lion populations have been decreasing in Tanzania, where trophy hunting opportunities sell for big dividends. This is true in many parts of the country, where lion hunting is either legal or illegal.  A study in 2008 suggested about 92 percent of this drop is due to trophy hunting having unintended consequences.

Such consequences include the muddling of legal hunters with poachers, who hunt big game for their black market value. In regions where regulations are not heavily enforced, or where policing hunters is difficult or impossible, legal trophy hunting opens a narrow but significant loophole for poachers. Authorities are often bribed to turn a blind eye to illegal activity. Some private trophy hunting organizations fund smugglers of elephant tusk and rhino horn.

When laws are put in place without the means to enforce them, corruption can make a big difference in the effect that legislation has. This is a big deal when it comes to the lives of animals that have already become endangered due to sport hunting.

The strongest argument I have heard in support of trophy hunting is that the financial rewards reaped by landowners are a powerful force in encouraging them to protect natural areas in Africa. Without this incentive, it is said, locals would opt to farm their land and destroy natural areas in the process. This is compelling only if this funding actually reaches and affects the lives of the locals, and even this is still subject to scrutiny. Studies suggest that in some countries, landowners actually receive very little as a result of opening their land to hunters. In some situations, they are owed a small percentage of the revenue and usually end up receiving less than promised.

It’s complicated, and it’s frustrating. I wish we lived in a world in which tourism dollars didn’t come from what amounts to animal death porn, but from more earnest efforts to respect the lives of exotic animals. I encourage readers to research this issue further, and to seek ways to support the preservation of natural areas without supporting hunting. It is possible, but it will take a lot of work, and a few paradigm shifts along the way.

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