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The Market for Trophy Hunting
How killing rhinos can help the species
Two weeks ago I discussed the market for ivory (read the post here). To recap: in 1989 Richard Leakey, the head of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, burned 12 tons of ivory as a publicity stunt. Overnight the global demand for ivory decreased as millions of people learned about the poaching of elephants throughout Africa. Before the ivory burn the average citizen was generally unaware that buying ivory products was helping to lead to the extinction of a species. This illustrates how the most efficient way to crack down on an illegal market is to target demand rather than supply.
Related to the market for ivory is the market for trophy animals. It may sound surprising, but to this day it is legal to kill critically endangered animals under specific circumstances. Wealthy hunters, usually from America or Europe, pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to hunt elephants, jaguars, and even rhinos. Trophy hunting isn’t done for the meat or the ivory but for the story. Trophy hunters take proud photos of their kills and often have the heads mounted on the wall. This niche tourism industry flew largely under the radar until a dentist from Minnesota killed a famous Zimbabwean lion named Cecil in 2015. The internet erupted, as people were legitimately shocked that this could ever be legal.
Here’s Richard Leakey again on trophy hunting:
Listen to me, I think it's utterly ridiculous. If a father can't afford to pay school fees for his children, does he say to somebody, "You can rape my daughter so I can get the money to pay for her school fees?" I think we've got to set some standards in life. I think this is nonsense, what this argument is about. Killing wild animals so that they can be looked after absolutely sends the wrong message…Yes, you can afford to lose five rhinos from a breeding perspective, but does that send the right message?
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Putting aside the deliberately provocative analogy, Leakey is 100 percent wrong on this issue. Wild animals can be killed to preserve the species. But how can it be that the ivory trade should be banned while the market for trophy hunting allowed?
It is important to note that most advocates of trophy hunting agree that it should only be allowed under extremely limited circumstances. The first condition is a well-regulated trophy hunting program. Countries like Namibia, for example, have well-managed trophy hunting programs that have been around for decades. People are allowed to hunt rare animals but in a very restricted sense. Second, a hunter must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just for the right to hunt an animal. This money is put back into the local community and conservation programs. Third, someone with the right to kill one lion can’t just fly to a country and kill any lion. Instead, a specific animal is found that will be the target of the hunt. In the case of rhinos, “problem rhinos”, elderly males that are unable to breed and will occasionally kill other rhinos, are selected. Removing these rhinos from the wild does nothing to hurt the species in the long run; if anything, it helps other rhinos by removing a threat. Fourth, the hunter must be accompanied by proper authorities and only the problem rhino is allowed to be killed. This video does a great job explaining valid trophy hunting programs in detail.
If these conditions are met, then trophy hunting can benefit the hunter, the local government, and the species overall. It may sound counterintuitive, but these programs have had real success. People need to realize that living next to a lot of these animals is not great. A herd of elephants can easily destroy a farmer’s entire crop in one night. Animals occasionally attack and kill villagers. If these animals don’t give a positive value to anyone, they will be killed. By making them valuable, even if it’s just so they can be hunted later, the species can be preserved.
Why can’t the same argument be used in the ivory market? Could a country start a limited market for ivory where only fairly harvested ivory is sold on a restricted basis? The major difference has to do with how the two markets function. The market for ivory is like most markets in that there is a seller and a buyer, and the seller and buyer are usually separated by intermediaries. The person who ultimately buys the ivory has no idea where the ivory came from or how legitimate it is. In this way, the market for ivory is like the market for diamonds. People can claim to use only ethically sourced diamonds all they want, but the reality is that there are many steps between a mine and a jewelry store. Keeping track of any specific diamond as moves across the world and through many businesses is difficult, and there will be a great deal of fraud.
The market for trophy hunting doesn’t have these intermediaries, or even a buyer and a seller. The person who wants to have a rhino head on the wall is the person who kills the rhino. If someone sees a mounted head at the neighbors house, they don’t say, “Well I wish I had one of those, I should go buy one.” No one wants to buy the head of an animal - it would be such a lame story to talk about how you got a zebra head from the local mall. Instead, anyone who wants an animal head will also want to be the one who kills the animal.
Should that ever change, then trophy hunting programs will have to be reevaluated. If there comes a point where having a dead cheetah on your wall is in vogue, and poachers are killing cheetahs so they can sell their heads on the black market, then the market for trophy hunting will resemble the market for ivory and the trophy hunting market will likely need to be banned. Until that time, well-managed trophy hunting programs are a useful source of funds for conservation and help the overall health of endangered species.