Wicked Problems: Trophy Hunting

Elephants on the Maasai Mara. One of the most famous national reserves in the world. A WWF study found that the biggest cause of wildlife losses on the reserve in recent years has been human settlement, leading to land-use changes and human-wildlife conflict. (Credit: Matt Scobel CC-BY-3.0)

My article on Wicked Problems is probably one of my least read and yet I would argue most important. ‘Wicked problems’ are what occurs where science, technology, society and politics meet in the arena known as ‘social planning’ – i.e. how do we want to make our best world in the future, and what are the best means of doing so. Marriage rights, sex and gender, wealth disparity, transportation infrastructure, climate management – these are all wicked problems and so is trophy hunting.

There’s been a lengthy back-and-forth on twitter about trophy hunting, recently. Perhaps you’ve seen it, perhaps not. Perhaps like many others you have seen newspaper headlines about the UK attempting an outright ban on returning trophies from trophy hunting locations, supported by high-profile celebrity voices. It is being done as a measure to protect wildlife, however the issue becomes complex when large areas of habitat, and species, are kept on private reserves for game hunting.

These reserves depend upon the funding from hunting. They often have their own rangers, or else invest in local ranger services to protect their wildlife from poaching. They promote breeding, maintain the entire ecosystem to be conducive to this end and, unfortunately, yes, they fund it all because a few people feel big and powerful when they use a shooty-shooty to kill big, beautiful wildlife.

But it’s a messy issue. Hunting for sport is not something I agree with in the least, however the kills, as well as providing a trophy for the hunter, also often provide meat for the locals to eat, hides to work with, wear or utilise elsewhere. They provide an income that is used to support local communities. The IUCN have recognised the role of trophy hunting in the protection of wildlife and habitats and also agree it’s a complex issue. They also make a note in one report that the value of that land in terms of agricultural value is often somewhere on the region of 300-600 times more lucrative, financially, than hunting.

A diagram demonstrating the complex interdepencies that create ‘wicked problems’. Finding solutions in amongst all this social, scientific, political and emotional spaghetti is hard to do and one of the textbook issues wicked problems provide is a lack of easy consensus due to their complexity. (Credit: LoraCBR CC-BY-2.0)

Making trophy hunting no longer viable risks land owners deciding the best way to deal with their loss of one livelihood is to invest in the other, more profitable one. Most of the reserves, which are already suffering due to covid, would end up converted to farmland to significant detriment to wildlife.

Habitat loss, and human-wildlife conflict are just the leading conservation problems of our time. Whilst indiscriminate hunting has, in the past, led to, at the very least, dramatic reductions in some species populations, even outright extinctions, today it is not so open-and-shut a case.

I don’t want to bog people down in minutiae, the discussion is mainly being led by conservation scientists and science communicators and animal rights activists. There’s plenty of nuts and bolts if you want to go find them. I want to focus on the complexities. The things to think about that make it a ‘wicked problem’ with no easy solution.

I agree there is a ‘problem’ – I don’t like or support hunting for sport. I just don’t get it, I don’t think it’s necessary and it should, in time, fuck off.

But is an out-and-out ban the best way to go about this?

One thing to consider is that there is a fair amount of data out there but data from where?

Considering where your data comes from is an important thing. What one reserve in Zambia does, or how it operates, may not be the same in Kenya, Namibia or Tanzania, or across different reserves.

These can be private businesses, there are many private hunting reserves in South Africa, for example. They can also be huge areas of land (apparently potentially as large as multiple UK counties or the country of Luxembourg!) managed as hunting blocks. These areas of land are usually put out to bid by local authorities to be run by concession owners. For example in Tanzania the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority, working under the national Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, puts their wildlife hunting blocks out to tender. They even have a copy of their tender application advertisement so you can see their standards and how they expect the land to be managed. In Namibia the Ministry for Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) allows communities to register as self-governing ‘conservancies’. Whilst the MEFT are relatively hands-off in these areas they do have the right to revoke conservancy status. It should be noted that not all of these conservancies allow hunting. You can get more details on Namibia’s conversancies here. Thanks to Professor Adam Hart for the clarification.

What becomes apparent is that each region of each country has a huge amount of difference in what can happen, how and where. There is a huge difference between them.

Consider your own local businesses. I am sure you’ve picked up a lunch somewhere and it’s been terrible and picked up a similar thing at even a different franchise of the same business, in a different city, and it’s been great! Now scale that up to the size of, say, A CONTINENT!

The mercator projection map commonly used has skewed our view of how big Africa actually is. It could fit the UK in it probably 300x over. It can probably fit 2-3 United States of Americas in it! It’s MASSIVE! (Go here for a perspective on that) When talking about conservation issues there is a huge focus on the Western-Southern regions; Kenya, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania etc. Probably only around 1/3 of the entire continent! With drastic differences in government, urbanisation, infrastructure, ecosystem etc. across all these countries, is a one-size-fits-all solution really ideal? (Credit: physicalmap.org CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Whilst some trophy hunting reserves may be outright corrupt and exploitative what they have to do, at the very least, is maintain an ecosystem for the wildlife to be able to breed in to sustain numbers so they don’t just run out of animals to be killed.

Even the worst practitioners have to maintain sustainability.

But the best practitioners may use that money elsewhere. Perhaps they invest in protected or controlled zones around their private reserves so that there can be a steady flow of wildlife between the two? Perhaps they pay for local communities to get involved as guides, trackers, employees, wait-staff, bar staff, cleaners etc.? Perhaps they maintain their wildlife on a constant upward trajectory, ensuring they’re growing their populations of animals?

It is different in each location – and thus so will the suitability of any particular scheme used to adapt that community from a dependence on hunting to one that can be sustainable and community led without hunting.

Consider the species, too. There are an estimated 1-1.5 million blue wildebeest in Africa (although numbers of some populations and subspecies vary) of these it is estimated close to 250,000 die per year in their annual migrations – from dehydration, hunger, predation, age, weakness, infirmity etc.

Taken by many to mean Dr. Dickman saying “hunting is good” what I believe she is actually arguing is that habitat loss, conversion of land-use and the inevitable human-wildlife conflict is a much more pressing issue. That banning hunting does not always equate to conservation ‘success’ where that success is determined as maintaing healthy, stable populations in well-protected, wild ecosystems. (Credit: Dr. Amy Dickman via Twitter)

Between 2005-2014, according to a Humane Society International report, around 52,000 wildebeest trophies were imported into the US (one of the prime locations for trophy hunters). Around one fifth as many as die by ‘natural causes’.

It is also an estimate as to how many wildebeest were killed in Botswana in 1983 when, thanks to a couple of harsh drought years, efforts were made to stop the wildebeest reaching water sources that were instead fenced off for use by humans and human-adjacent livestock.

This is a point that I think conservation scientists like Dr. Amy Dickman are trying to make! In one year, one human measure of wildlife control to support local human activity led to as many deaths in wildebeest as trophy hunters in the US claimed in a decade!

On the ground the picture is often very different to the clean-and-easy narrative presented in the Global North, in your newspapers and on BBC fucking breakfast! Reality, now that’s a lot crueller.

The aspect of neo-colonialism on the part of activists is also something to consider. A bunch of relatively affluent people in ‘the west’ telling African nations how best to manage their wildlife is all very well and good until they have zero consideration for the reality of living with that wildlife.

In Britain, the worst you have to deal with is a fox screaming at night or a seagull tearing open your bins. In Africa you have to worry about lions killing your cattle that you depend on for milk, meat and/or hides, leopards eating your kids on the way home from school or elephants trampling your village! We might see these species as beautiful and majestic but the reality is people and animals are dying because of these conflicts bred in white-dominated discussions in the UK, Europe and the United States.

Down on the ground it’s all fences, guns, poison and snare traps! Where wildlife, particularly harmful wildlife, encroaches on human activity both the people and the wildlife suffer. The kinds of measures that killed those 50,000 wildebeest in 1983 come back into play.

Who takes priority?

Do we protect the people or the wildlife?

To what end?

A lion that had been caught in a snare trap in South Africa. Snares are a common, and brutal, means of control of predators and problem wildlife by local communities across Africa. The wound on his foot is the result of him having tried to chew the snare off. This is a mild image of what snares, or attempts to control the wildlife, can do. Large predators like this can affect the local communities they co-habit with physically (by killing them), financially (by harming their livestock or crops) or even psychologically (how would you deal with a lion pride hanging around your back garden?). This is the danger! If hunting reserves have that land use changed to settlement and agriculture, more and more lions will suffer this fates similar to this or, given that this lion is alive and sedated, a lot worse. (Credit: Louise Joubert CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This is where it’s a wicked problem. It has no consensus, nobody truly knows what they’re doing, or what the end result will be, but we have to try. What we certainly have to do is put some faith in the people on the ground, the ecologists, biologists, conservation scientists and the local communities they painstakingly work with. They want what we want and have seen, first hand, the incredible complexities of these situations. If it was a clear-cut issue, we wouldn’t be having such intense debate about it!

What I know is there are people out there willing to devote their lives to these slow, difficult solutions. They are willing to see the suffering, suffering many people couldn’t tolerate witnessing, in order to understand it and figure out ways to prevent it. These people don’t like trophy hunting either, but they’ve seen the alternative.

The alternative is thousands of animals being persecuted, displaced, poisoned, starved of prey species or even just shot, speared or beaten with sticks or rocks by local pastoralists. The alternative is huge swathes of land currently managed to maintain wildlife to be shot being turned into farms, decimating the landscape and bringing its wildlife into conflict with the farmers. In this case, the non-hunting alternative could cause a bigger problem than the problem we are attempting to solve.

Poisoning is a particularly bad problem as that impacts the ecosystem of carrion feeders. Many of the large predators of Africa are known to feed on carrion, as well as vulture species that, as my article on them explains, are vital ‘cleaners’ in their ecosystems. Vulture guts are where botulism, tuburculosis and even anthrax go to die! Declines in vulture numbers in Africa and Asia have been linked to deliberate, or accidental, poisoning in carrion. This has a significant impact on ecosystem health, as well as the public health of the local populations!

An African white-backed vulture eating an elephant leg in Zimbabwe. Part of nature’s cleaners, helping protect the local ecosystems from many harmful pathogens, this species is now critically endangered with poisoning as the main culprit for their demise. Find out more here. (Credit:
Charles J. Sharp CC-BY-SA 4.0)

‘The road to hell…’ and all that!

There are many initiatives, in many places, that have worked but ‘location, location, location’. Whilst photo-tourism may be viable in some areas in others there may not be the requisite infrastructure to handle the number of tourists you’d need to sustain it. Hunting is a cash-crop! It’s obviously an affluent pursuit and the price-per-trophy is significantly higher, meaning you can often run a hunting reserve with minimum requirements for accommodation, infrastructure and comfort. Can the same be said of wildlife photo-tourism? Do people expect a different ‘experience’? These are things that MUST be considered.

To complicate matters further we must look at the bigger picture, too.

As mentioned habitat loss and exploitation and human-wildlife conflicts are two of the biggest problems in conservation right now.

Consider it like the Titanic. The whole ship is sinking. There’s a massive gash in the side of the boat and water is coming in at an alarming rate. One of the attendants is frantically trying to get people to the lifeboats when they are interrupted by someone.

“Excuse me, the tap is on in my room and won’t shut off.” They say.

“Please, if you could make your way to the lifeboats! The ship is sinking!” The attendant replies.

“Well if you shut off the tap in my room the ship’ll sink slower!” The complainant responds.

In terms of global loss of biodiversity (the Titanic) we (humans) are the iceberg! We’ve carved a hole (habitat loss) in the hull and our ship (global biodiversity and species population numbers) is sinking. The attendants (conservation scientists, researchers etc.) are desperately trying to get people to understand the magnitude of the situation but every individual (e.g. the tap complainant) has their own perspective of what may, or may not, be a pressing concern.

A map showing global biodiversity loss across the globe. The single greatest pattern is the increase of human activity in the red areas. As populations grow and land use changes, we see huge reductions in wildlife populations. (Credit: Newbold et. al, 2016, Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment, Science Vol. 353, Issue 6296 – Used without permission.)

The only undeniable fact is the ship is sinking and the biggest concern is to move as much human and wildlife activity away from the problem areas to give us the most amount of time to deal with the problem.

As much as I dislike the practice on a moral and ethical level in the real circumstances in the world right now trophy hunting is the tap that won’t turn off on the Titanic!

The problem is it is also very emotive. People killing animals to protect their family, community or livestock we can understand. People killing stuff for fun, those of us who love animals, cannot understand.

High profile animal killings, like Cecil the Lion, make for huge, headline news stories but the thousands of lions per year that die because they make problems for the humans they co-habit with just don’t. We see one image of a smirking git with their ‘trophy’ and we lose our heads.

If we want to ensure we are investing in the correct path to ensure as sustainable as possible a protection of the world’s wildlife we need to accept and acknowledge that this is the exception. We’ll get around to it, we’ll deal with it. But, back to the Titanic metaphor, let’s get all the people and animals we can out of the really big harm’s way first before we think about going around turning off the taps!

I have not seen a single person in this discourse on trophy hunting labelled by activists as ‘pro-hunting’ or ‘shills’ ever express an opinion in support of trophy hunting. No conservationist supports the arbitrary killing of animals. What they are arguing is for a recognition of the true messiness, the wickedness, of this problem.

You can’t just cut off a source of income to an entire community. It may only account for 15,000 people in the whole population of the country but if it is the only industry in that particular region that basically like making an entire village in the UK unemployed. How do they pay for shelter, food, resources, healthcare, education etc.? What do they then do to make money? Well, again, the IUCN gives us some idea, with agriculture, farming, being the most profitable path to take.

More from the Maasai Mara in Kenya. A lion pride. I love cats, if these ladies decided to hunt me I’d feel blessed! But not everyone is a predatorphile like me! It’s easy to see these guys on TV, in the wild, running free and see them as harmless, beautiful and majestic but is that just because they don’t live on your doorstep? What if they did? What if they killed your children? What if they ate your livestock? What would you do? There are local communities at stake in these decisions too, and failure to acknowledge them is neo-colonial if not full-blown racist! (Credit:
The Lilac Breasted Roller CC-BY-2.0)

This would turn huge areas of land currently cultivated, protected and dedicated to wildlife as a valuable resource into over-exploited areas, where prey species would be driven out, predators put under pressure, and human-wildlife conflicts causing more deaths to humans and animals. What do you do?

I wish I had the answers, I really do. I don’t. Patience, understanding, data, recognition of complexity – that’s the only thing I can appeal for. There are excellent scientists, conservationists, hands-on people in the field working on the solutions. But it’s slow going trying to transform so complex an issue into a community-led, sustainable solution. It can only be done in small increments. Africa is a fucking big continent with huge and drastic differences in infrastructure, ecosystems and wildlife populations. What works in one spot may not work in another.

I am opposed to the UK legislating a ban on trophy hunting. I do not support trophy hunting. But I do not support communities being forced into slapdash decisions to counter it should they need a new income. I believe the results of human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss would come into play in some areas if this were to be the case, and I believe that would have a significant detriment to species numbers and global biodiversity.

It’s wicked problem, sorry about that. But if we recognise it as such we can work towards patience, consensus and understanding for each other’s viewpoints that can help mediate practical, sustainable solutions rather than turning off a tap on the Titanic to find the ship still sinking.

For a harrowing opinion on the problem I recommened this appeal from Dr. Amy Dickman [CONTENT WARNING: Contains images of persecuted animals you may find upsetting]

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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