Conservationist explains why UK should reject the industry ‘capitalising on the death of the last of our natural heritage’

two elephants touching heads with each other
Tracy Keeling

CORRECTION: Two responses from Ross Harvey were updated at 9.30am on 19 February.

Trophy hunting is a hot topic in the UK right now. After many years of inaction, the government is considering bringing in a ban on the import of hunting trophies. It’s got the hunting lobby working overdrive to scupper any restrictions, while anti-hunting groups are obviously eager for a ban to be forthcoming. The practice is deeply unpopular among the British public.

Conservationists are, however, split on the issue. Some oppose a ban. Others, meanwhile, believe it’s a necessary move.

The Canary sat down with Ross Harvey, a South African economist and conservationist, who firmly belongs to the latter group. In a wide-ranging interview, we discussed the potential UK ban, the ecological importance of trophy-hunted animals, the communities who live alongside such animals, and much more.

Ecosystem engineers

Can you tell our readers a little about your background and how you came to be involved in the issue of trophy hunting and conservation?

I was born in Botswana in a copper-mining town called Selebi-Phikwe, so I literally grew up in the bush without a TV, tar roads or anything like that. We then moved quite a lot across southern Africa, so I was either in the desert, the mountains or in some nature reserve for a lot of my life. Because of that, I’ve always had an interest in wildlife and natural resource governance more broadly. I wrote my PhD thesis on the political economy of oil in Angola and Nigeria, but even that was birthed out of this question of why Africa’s resources are invariably extracted in a way that leaves little value behind even as it makes a handful of people extraordinarily wealthy.

What are the main positives that banning trophy hunting imports would yield in terms of wildlife conservation?

Banning trophy imports would force conservationists and business entrepreneurs to find viable alternative models to fund wild landscape preservation at scales that retain ecological functionality. Hunting revenue is the lazy option; it means governments and conservationists don’t think extensively enough about integrated land-use planning, so we think that bans would create opportunities for change – a transition period would be optimal but I think it has to be short, as hunting is just exacerbating the risk of species extinction.

You’ve written about the ecological importance of elephants as “irreplaceable ecosystem engineers”. Ecosystems are, of course, massively affected by the climate crisis. But nature also plays a key role in helping to combat the emergency. Overall, would an end to trophy hunting aid us in tackling the climate crisis?

Yes, elephants maintain optimal biodiversity in a landscape. These landscapes serve as invaluable carbon sinks, and while it seems ridiculous to say that an elephant has value as an ecosystem engineer in climate terms, the truth is that its Dollar contribution in terms of the true value of maintaining carbon sinks (as seed dispersers they keep tree-growth healthy and ensure patch heterogeneity [a mix of vegetation] if allowed to peruse migratory corridors) is extremely high, never mind the direct value that an elephant creates through being photographed over a full lifetime.

UK trophy import ban

What do you think is the likelihood of a ban coming into force in the UK? What are the barriers to it?

The hunting lobby is particularly strong, and the UK-based academic voices such as Amy Dickman, Dilys Roe, Adam Hart and Keith Somerville are concerned that the process is one-sided. I am convinced, however, that the Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) process will be rigorous and the government will probably decide in favour of a ban.

The barriers are largely to do with fear that African governments who still want the trophy hunting industry will criticise the UK government for not caring about local communities. But I think that the facts are clear, and the UK government can easily show, through the evidence amassed, that the money generated by trophy hunting hardly benefits local rural communities.

Besides, alleviating rural poverty is a development planning issue, and should hardly be left to the hunting fraternity. It’s simply a weak cover behind which to defend an industry capitalising on the death of the last of our natural heritage.

Given the UK is led by a party which has long been in favour of hunting within its own borders, do you think other countries will hold up any ban on imports it approves as a shining example or an act of hypocrisy?

There is a risk of hypocrisy… banning trophy imports simply says to the world that the UK isn’t going to allow its citizens to go and eliminate wildlife beyond its borders. Internally, it will have to follow another set of processes. But public opinion is shifting so fast against hunting that it would be hard to imagine them allowing it internally even a year from now.

Why are you arguing for a total ban on imports rather than a more limited one, such as banning the imports of the body parts of endangered species?

For two reasons. First, the economist in me is concerned about the risks and transaction costs of a partial ban… having to distinguish between legal and illegal products is very costly in terms of technology investment and manpower. There’s also a significant risk that parts from endangered species (such as ivory or rhino horn) will be laundered through legal channels. Consider, for instance, that ivory might be hidden inside buffalo horn.

Second, and morally, we shouldn’t be encouraging the elimination of wild animals and should rather find alternative ways of financing wilderness landscapes and giving local communities a serious share in the stewardship thereof.

Connected to this is the scientific evidence that it can take up to 12 years for a species to be included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list and then protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) on Appendix I. We can’t afford the risks. Every species now needs maximum protection. More effort needs to go into creating optimal space for elephants to migrate as naturally as possible. They are ecosystem leaders, so a lot else will fall into place if you create the necessary space for elephants.

Hunting advocacy

Often hunting enthusiasts refer to themselves as conservationists, and a number of hunting advocacy groups brand themselves as conservation organisations. Many have gained a seat at the top conservation tables (IUCN, CITES, UN). So they are influencing policy at a governmental and institutional level.

Are you aware of any initiatives or acts these pro-hunting organisations / individuals have undertaken within these international bodies that enhance wildlife conservation (aside from ensuring hunting continues, which they argue helps conservation)?

There have been a few initiatives where hunting money has clearly preserved a landscape. I’m just not convinced that we couldn’t have found a different model in those instances. The hunting lobby is extremely good at PR and side payments to get things done that they want to see happen. If Zakouma in Chad can work as a significant conservation success story without hunting, then there’s no reason to have hunting anywhere in the world.

Conservationists who support hunting

Why is there such a stark divergence of opinion on trophy hunting in the conservation community?

I think academics who suggest that they deplore hunting but still support it on ‘scientific’ grounds are overly concerned about worse conservation outcomes occurring in the absence of hunting. They fear that the land will revert to livestock or other agriculture. But again, if Zakouma can stand as a conservation success story without hunting, then there’s no reason why alternative models can’t be implemented. Or, at the very least, conservation areas that are currently under pressure can be funded through subsidisation from the extremely wealthy photographic corporates, but this must be accompanied by proper land-use planning, which takes hard work.

This is why I believe that hunting is a short-term non-solution, as it kills the very animals that are critical to herd health and to ecological functionality, both of which are the foundations of future ecotourism. Hunting is not sustainable, largely because of its genetic selective effects, but also because it is inherently subject to a free-rider problem. In other words, it’s extremely difficult to govern well, as every hunter has an incentive to over-shoot their allotted quota.

Conservationists who welcome hunters’ input on the conservation of animals say they also listen to anti-hunting groups / individuals – so they effectively argue that they solicit all views, consider them and make decisions based on the evidence. What’s your response to that?

The ‘evidence’ in favour of trophy hunting appears to me to be thoroughly embedded in a consequentialist assumption that without hunting, the land would automatically revert to livestock agriculture or some other destructive practice. But this is untested, and a transitional phasing out of hunting while bringing in alternatives would be the right conservation approach. It’s often more political will that’s lacking rather than good evidence against hunting.

Pro-hunting conservationists claim that hunting needs reform rather than removal. What efforts are being made to reform trophy hunting?

I think that hunting in open systems is inimical to reform. We’ve been speaking about reforming hunting for a very long time. Nigel Leader-Williams wrote a great chapter back in 2009 about corruption in the industry. We’re still talking about that. So one has to ask why. And I believe that it’s just too easy for hunters to over-exploit their quotas and for unscrupulous operators to simply buy their way into owning concessions without giving anything back to the local communities or towards anti-poaching efforts.

The transaction costs of policing hunting properly are high. And the system by which licences are allocated is invariably arbitrary. So here we have no science and no governance. I see no reason to think that it can be plausibly reformed.

Colonialism and affected communities

Hunting advocates and conservationists who endorse the practice often suggest that affected communities support hunting, so any import ban would be ignoring / opposing their views. In your experience, do affected communities support hunting?

In my experience, there’s often a disjunct between and within communities. Some communities reject hunting outright (like the community in Botswana’s NG3 that voiced objection at having not been consulted over whether they wanted hunting). Some communities express (at community board level) that they want hunting back, or at least want the same benefits that they enjoyed before the moratorium [in Botswana]. And Mucha Mkono’s research from Zimbabwe suggests that local community members do not believe that trophy hunting is optimal but they’ll accept it in the absence of nothing.

So the need for alternatives to be tested couldn’t be more urgent. They tend not to get tested, though, because hunting is simply so dominant. You’ll see, for instance, that the Campfire managers were part of the ‘communities’ that wrote a letter to Science saying that all communities desire hunting. But Campfire itself has been reduced to a joke. No one knows where the money has gone. It’s hardly a guiding light for the argument that hunting benefits communities.

The discussions around trophy hunting – particularly concerning the communities involved – is often quite colonial in nature. i.e. Largely white people plunder the resources of Africa and offer a small reward in exchange (which the same white people tell us Africans are grateful for and couldn’t survive without).

But there’s also a lack of consideration for affected communities among the general public who don’t agree with hunting. They don’t often think about what challenges come with co-existing with animals like this.

Hunting is essentially a colonial activity. Its proponents argue that it’s no different from tourism, but this misses the fundamental point that hunters are extracting an African animal’s body part as a ‘trophy’ for repatriation and display in some foreign home. It was, after all, colonial hunting that brought many species to the brink of extinction. The same mentality that created the problem is hardly likely to be its solution.

Yes, it is true that many opponents of hunting give no thought to affected communities. But it frankly shouldn’t be their issue. Local governments are responsible for development planning, not people in Europe who detest hunting.

Positive change

What is the non-colonial vision of a world without hunting? What does it look like for an African person living alongside these animals?

It’s a conservation revenue model that is built on extremely good land-use planning. In other words, a strong variety of non-consumptive and non-invasive tourism initiatives are strategically positioned across the landscape. Areas that are less amenable to large revenue generation than others should be subsidised through a global biodiversity tax and / or government coffers (where states make a lot of money from photographic safaris, for instance).

Incentives also need to be designed to ensure owner-run businesses. The foreign shareholder model in ecotourism is a problem because local operators don’t have enough skin in the game to look after the ecologies of the concessions in which they operate and so forth. And the bottom line is about the shareholders rather than the animals or the local communities. But again, the local communities have to take responsibility as well, and with land-use planners, be integrated into tourism value chains.

Where possible, the agricultural models have to become more conservation-compatible. In ideal circumstances, cash crops with higher yields per hectare can simultaneously supply tourism and be used for deterring elephants in a non-lethal way (such as bees and / or chillies).

But direct cash payments to community members through well-governed trusts is also critical. Current models are woefully inadequate in this respect. When a local board has decision-making authority over how community revenue gets spent, the fights are endless and often can’t be resolved.

In a recent report, you suggested bad governance and a lack of transparency in some areas where hunting currently occurs means it’s impossible to know how much money from the practice is ending up in local communities. How can a system be built that ensures the same doesn’t happen with any alternatives?

I’ve written about this here and here. Governance is difficult, and an enormous amount of support is necessary to ensure that community trusts operate proficiently. I’m in favour of private-sector partnerships, but there has to be real skin-in-the-game for both parties.

Building better alternatives

Can hunting alternatives be developed / scaled while hunting continues? Or is hunting itself detrimental to the advancement of these alternatives?

Hunting is detrimental. The sheer lobbying effort and prevalence of hunting in places like Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Tanzania mean that there’s no room for alternatives. Why would the dominant party (hunters) make space for activities that directly threaten and / or undermine their monopoly? In Botswana, alternatives didn’t take off after the hunting moratorium because the government made it extremely difficult to diversify tourism offerings or to subsidise hunting areas that couldn’t switch to photographic [tourism].

How eco-friendly can these alternatives be, given there’s a big focus on non-lethal tourism, which comes with its own environmental footprint due to air travel, etc?

The ecological footprint of photographic tourism is high. This has to be addressed. In sensitive areas, the onus has to be on photographic operators to reduce the impact on the landscape. Solar powered boats and lodges are critical, along with longer stays in one area.

However, the idea that the ecological footprint of non-consumptive tourism is higher than that of hunting does not make any sense. While hunters may leave little immediate impact, the fact that they remove the biggest and best animals has a highly destructive sociological and ecological impact, especially for elephants and apex predators. Hunting revenue may be much higher per capita than tourism, but the long-term ecological damage of removing big tuskers, in carbon terms alone, is not worth the cost.

The role of the global community

What role can governments – in both trophy exporting and importing countries – play in making sure a world without trophy hunting is ecologically beneficial?

All countries need to put skin in the game. We have one planet, and the protection of its biodiversity is not only an obligation we have to future generations but also to ourselves if we want to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. So there has to at least be a global biodiversity tax that every country contributes towards.

Beyond that, every government has to see the benefit of putting an end to a highly extractive industry that is hardly irreplaceable. It’s not as if the world needs hunting revenue, given the sheer cost of the activity to biodiversity sustainability. Exporting and importing countries should place complete bans on hunting trophies. Possibly through climate finance, then, countries can put their money directly into the hands of poor rural communities who live on the frontlines of conservation in places like Botswana.

But they must also all play a role in establishing the right governance mechanisms for revenues to reach community members.

What part can international bodies, such as the UN, the IUCN and CITES play in this?

The UN needs to broker a global deal that complements CITES. A lot of people employ the narrative that CITES is meant to be pro-trade, but I disagree. If you look at the founding treaty, it is explicitly about protecting our natural heritage. It probably does require massive reconceptualisation and probably has to start from a point that nothing can be traded unless one can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it will have positive conservation value to do so.

The IUCN has to resolve the conflicts between its SULi group (that generally advocates hunting) and its Ethics committee that (I think, rightly) wants to ensure that hunters and hunting organisations are excluded as members. It then has to become serious about supporting a ‘reverse-listing’ approach to CITES – i.e. we don’t wait for a species to become endangered before we protect it; we protect it and then only trade if you can prove only positive conservation value.

Homo sapiens’ relationship with other animals

Do you think we’re capable as a species of evolving past ‘othering’ or objectifying life other than our own? What would you like to see our relationship with the living world evolve into?

My personal view is that we’re unlikely to stop ‘othering’ and objectifying nature, reducing it to a mere commodity, unless we re-establish our connection with the natural world.

I’d love to see a realisation that our ultimate wellbeing is integrally connected to the wellbeing of our natural systems. I hope that we haven’t pushed our planetary boundaries beyond their fragile limits already. But change will require each of us to have a deep look inside and make a concerted effort to change our own patterns of production and consumption.

If we could evolve to a minimal-waste economic order that costed pollution properly and incentivised true sustainability, I’d be very happy. Ultimately, our economic models and accounting systems must better reflect the true value of the natural world. Reducing it to a mere form of ‘capital’ misses the point and poses a risk that we won’t value biodiversity intrinsically, but if we are going to treat it as capital, we’d better make damn sure that we put a realistic $ value on it.

A global opportunity

The relationship we have with the living world – and the majestic animals within it – is fundamental to the debate over trophy hunting. So too is how to ensure that the elimination of trophy hunting leads to a better situation for animals, and the humans who co-exist with them, than what we have now.

In short, ending trophy hunting gives the global community an opportunity to imagine our world anew: to work together for the betterment of all life on Earth and, indeed, the Earth itself.

Featured image via YouTube – BBC Earth

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  • Show Comments
    1. Another wonderful piece of rubbish from Tracy.
      If Ross Harvey is an economist, he must be the world’s worst. He claims that hunting contributes little to the economy of countries, yet in his own country, South Africa (SA), there are some 300,000 hunters whose fees support game farms covering 40 million acres and contain millions upon millions of animals bred for hunting and meat. The game industry reportedly produces over 100,000 TONS of venison a year, about a fifth of red meat eaten in South Africa. Of the 1.2 million animals shot every year, trophies are taken from about 0.02%, bringing the game farmers some extra cash.
      The SA government wants to make another 10 million acres available to emerging black farmers so that they can get a foothold in the economy. They will rely on hunters and especially trophy hunters’ fees. Mr Harvey would doom them.
      Mr Harvey says there are alternatives to hunting, but he knows there aren’t…there are not enough eco-tourists to go round, and every other scheme would require funding in a country that is skint.
      This piece is written for ill-informed foreign consumption, and Mr Harvey is a paid anti-hunting activist. The reality is that the re-wilding of millions of acres of SA, supported by hunting, is a major eco success, unlike the Amazon or the oil plantations of the Far East.

      1. Starting a comment by calling the article “piece of rubbish” does nothing to prove your point. It’s an interview and Mr. Ross presents his point of view backed by some good arguments.

        In SA, according to stats, there are yearly around 8,500 hunters bringing in around R 1 Billion, which compared to 9.5 million tourists bringing in R 323 Billion doesn’t look very significant.

        So, yes there are enough tourists but hunting is a big money for a few individuals which I guess is the main motive to push hunting as a non-replaceable conservation method.

        Yes, hunting also brings some funds to conservation, however, conservation that is based on collecting money from individuals that get their kicks out of killing living beings for sport doesn’t belong to the 21st century.

        There are always alternatives but, as Ross pointed out, these are rarely given a fair chance.

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