Trophy Hunting, Poaching, or Habitat Loss: Which is Worse?

The carcass of a poached and mutilated white rhino lies on the banks of a river as a South African Police Services forensic investigator works on the crime scene on September 12, 2014 at Kruger National Park.
The carcass of a poached and mutilated white rhino lies on the banks of a river as a South African Police Services forensic investigator works on the crime scene on September 12, 2014 at Kruger National Park.  Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

Africa's iconic animals continue to disappear at alarming and accelerated rates. The continent has fewer than 30,000 lions — a decline of more than 50 percent since 1980 — about 20,000 rhinos and roughly 500,000 elephants, much of this due to poaching. But, given the recent furor over the death of Cecil from Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, what role does trophy hunting play in these declines?

Total numbers of trophy hunts are hard to come by, but those we do have make it clear that the practice impacts significant numbers of animals. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were 11 million big game hunters in the US in 1996. A 2005 report put the number of registered big game hunters in Europe at 6.8 million, with 1.3 million believed to hunt abroad.

TRAFFIC, an organization that tracks the international trade of wildlife, reports that almost 16,000 trophy hunts took place in 2000 in Namibia alone. These hunts involved a wide variety of species — birds, reptiles, mammals, and even primates — both endangered and not, including four of the so-called African big five: lion, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. TRAFFIC also documented 5,575 trophy hunts in 2001 in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Between 1999 and 2008, at least 5,663 trophies of wild lions alone were legally traded internationally, 64 percent of them imported to the US.

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Some argue that the industry has a positive effect on the economies of countries where the hunting occurs and can contribute to protection of species at risk. The overall economic impact of the trophy hunting industry worldwide has been put at anywhere from $10 million to $200 per year. But a study commissioned by Born Free USA, Humane Society International, The Humane Society of the United States and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2013 suggested trophy hunting actually makes a minimal contribution to national incomes.

Jeff Flocken, North American regional director for the IFAW, points out that hunting brings in much less revenue than wildlife viewing. "From an economics point of view, while an individual hunt may bring in a large amount of revenue that one time, much more can be made in sustainable, ethical, long-term wildlife viewing," he says. "Revenue to Africa from hunts measures in the millions, wildlife viewing measures in the billions. With the case of Cecil, who was a local celerity, thousands of people have come to the park just to see him. After this kill, he won't generate any more income for the area."

Trophy hunting has served to protect land in areas that are unsuitable for wildlife viewing and other forms of ecotourism, and bans on trophy hunting in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia actually have been associated with accelerated loss of wildlife. The IUCN, while stating that trophy hunting can be an important conservation tool, notes this has not been the case in key African lion hunting countries. Benefits from lion hunts are not directed to the communities, the organization reports.

Legal hunting hardly poses as significant a problem for African wildlife as loss of habitat — only 22 percent of the lion's historic range remains, for example. Other factors such as political and human conflict and climate change also are likely bigger problems, and worst of all may be poaching.

"By its very nature, wildlife poaching is hard to quantify because the activity is illegal, underground, and not always uncovered," says Adam M. Roberts, CEO of the Born Free Foundation. "What we do know for certain is that the effect of poaching on wildlife populations is profound." Poachers slaughter elephants for ivory, rhinos for their horns, and lions for skins and bones, all part of an illegal wildlife trade that may net as much as $10 billion a year, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Poaching in the 1970s and 1980s essentially halved the African elephant population. WWF reports that 1,215 rhinos were poached in 2014, an increase of 21 percent from 2013 and a mind-boggling 9,300 percent increase since 2007.  

Yet legal hunting can serve to provide a cover for illegal activities. In Cecil's case, it appears the hunter had legal permits, says Flocken, but used them illegally. Further, the trophy hunting industry lends legitimacy to having a lion head or elephant tusk on the wall, possibly fueling demand for poached products. Trophy hunting may not be the biggest threat to declining species, but clearly it is a threat. And it is one that we can address more easily than any other.