Scientists Debate the Future of Trophy Hunting

In a series of exhilarating letters published this week in Science, some amongst the world’s most prominent scientists in the field of conservation biology debated whether trophy hunting should be banned in the foreseeable future.

To start the debate is a letter initially published in Science in August 2019 by Dickman et al. titled “Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity”, with 128 signatories from across the world including many high-profile academics1.

Dickman et al. begin their letter highlighting how nowadays “trophy hunting is under pressure: there are high-profile campaigns to ban it, and several governments have legislated against it”. The authors stress how a ban on trophy hunting would threaten habitat and biodiversity conservation and would risk disempowering and impoverishing rural communities, as a large proportion of African landscapes are protected under trophy hunting and ending this activity may result in land conversion. In contrast, with effective governance and management there is evidence that trophy hunting can have positive impacts on conservation and local livelihoods, the authors add.  

Six responses, also in the form of letters, followed this week, mostly raising arguments against the points made by Dickman and colleagues.

Letter 1 “Trophy hunting: Role of consequentialism”2

In their response, Chapron and López-Bao criticise Dickman et al. for discarding deontological concerns, and hence for making the claim that “evidence-based policymaking must trump moral-based policymaking.”

Letter 2 “Trophy hunting: Values inform policy”3

Batavia et al. reply by emphasising how “adjudicating policy requires both understanding the likely results of a policy (science) and evaluating whether those results are desirable (values)”. While the role of science is to quantify the risks, it is then down to morality to inform us on whether such risks are acceptable or not. For this, the authors conclude, governments should include both scientific evidence and the values of their citizens when instituting policies.

Letter 3 “Trophy hunting: Broaden the debate”4

Bauer et al. criticise Dickman et al. for failing to mention that trophy hunting zones can be part of already protected areas and thus that a ban on the hunting activity would not necessarily result in land conversion. Moreover, “habitat in hunting zones is often not effectively protected”. The authors then conclude saying “[t]rophy hunting is neither the main threat to nor the main opportunity for wildlife conservation, and we encourage a broader debate”.

Dickman et al. replied to Bauer and colleagues saying: “It is hypocritical for a rich country to reduce the viability of trophy hunting in poor countries while taking no action against domestic sport hunting”

Letter 4 “Trophy hunting: Bans create opening for change”5

Nowak et al. argue that “Trophy import bans present an opportunity to rethink how we can conserve wildlife in non-extractive ways that are consistent with shifting public opinion”. The authors go on to point out that trophy hunting relies on deep geopolitical inequalities, it can intersect with crime, and it yields low returns at household levels with only a fraction of the generated income reaching local communities. The authors then add that trophy hunting also siphons off wildlife from adjacent protected areas, reduces population connectivity and resilience, and can have demographic, behavioural, and genetic consequences on wildlife populations, including reductions in body, horn and/or tusk size.

Dickman et al. replied to Bauer et al. saying that the “the true risk is losing funding streams that require the presence of trophy hunted species and therefore incentivize conservation of their populations and habitat”.

Tourism reforms could make wildlife-viewing tourism greener and more beneficial to local communities. Image credits5

Letter 5: Trophy hunting: Insufficient evidence6

Treves et al. begin by pointing out how Dickman et al. do not provide evidence that bans to trophy hunting harm biodiversity. Rather, the authors say, “the prediction that a ban on trophy imports or hunts would indirectly harm biodiversity could be just the converse: Perhaps hunting concessions would be upgraded in protection by catalyzing a governmental rethinking of carnivore management systems”. The authors also dislike how Dickman et al. included a list of signatories in their letter: “the addition of a long list of signatories implies a call to authority that should play little or no role in what should ultimately be an evidence-based scientific debate”.

Dickman et al. replied with “action should not be taken without evidence for its effectiveness [but] we believe the burden of proof clearly lies with those who support [the removal of trophy hunting]”.

Letter 6: Trophy hunting: A moral imperative for bans7

Horowitz argues that the “[c]ulling of endangered species is a self-evident fallacy”, and that “[u]nless required for basic existence, hunting of all forms is a practice that should be eradicated like the smallpox virus”. He then adds: “[w]hether Dickman et al. concur or not, wildlife has the basic right of existence, irrespective of human existence and interests. Intentional killing of animals to satisfy the whims of wealthy individuals is detestable”. Lastly, he concludes with: “[b]eyond rational arguments, the most appropriate response to the Letter by Dickman et al. is outrage.”

Dickman et al. replied that “[Discontinuing] trophy hunting without implementing better alternatives risks worsening the situation for both wildlife and people”.

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