As 50 more lions are killed by Brits, a disturbing new book shows how close they are to extinction
The Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting’s (CBTH) Eduardo Gonçalves has released a new book called KILLING GAME: The Extinction Industry. In it, he reveals that since a trophy hunter killed Cecil the lion in 2015, Britons have bagged 50 more of them as ‘trophies’. 1 July marked the 5th anniversary of Cecil’s death. The 3rd anniversary of Xanda’s death – Cecil’s son – occurred just over a week later. A trophy hunter also killed Xanda.
As KILLING GAME documents, in all, trophy hunters have killed 6,000 lions since Cecil’s death. Given it’s estimated there are only between 13,000-20,000 wild lions left in the world, the rate of killing is alarming. But not all the lions killed by hunters were wild. Hunters kill a large number of lions on farms, however, where ‘canned hunting’ industry players breed them. But the effect that trophy hunting is having on lions’ genetics and their resilience to major threats, as detailed in the book, is equally disturbing. Elephants, meanwhile, are faring no better – nor are many other species.
The Extinction Industry may be a catchy title. But it’s not glib. Because trophy hunting does appear, along with the other massive threats faced by wildlife, to be putting many species on the road to extinction. And fast.
The value of hunting?
As The Canary has reported, Gonçalves’ book challenges some of the main claims made by trophy hunting advocates about the conservation benefits of the practice. The book, for example, takes on the assertion that communities co-existing with trophy-hunted species benefit from the trade and therefore are incentivised to conserve them. CBTH interviewed members of such communities who, far from confirming they benefited from hunting, claimed they receive nothing from the trade, even though they “see many animals being killed”.
Connected to this, there’s another common argument regarding hunting’s supposed unique value. As Dr Amy Dickman told The Canary in 2019, hunting is, in theory, providing a funding stream ‘that requires the presence of trophy hunted species’ and so ‘incentivizes conservation of their populations and habitat’. The argument is effectively that hunters require the presence of certain species in order to kill them, so this, perversely, protects the animals in question.
But conservation isn’t necessarily about saving individual lions, to take them as an example. It’s about how to conserve and bolster whole groups of them, entire species and subspecies. The size of their communities, the amount of different communities, and their genetic status matters when it comes to this. Essentially, conservation means ensuring their long-term viability and survival.
Gonçalves’ book looks at the specifics of the trophy hunting trade and its impact on such long-term viability of numerous species. In none of the species he documents does trophy hunting appear to enhance their long-term chance of survival. Quite the opposite, in fact.
In terms of the size of wildlife communities, for example, Gonçalves says a study that appeared in Science magazine “compared wildlife numbers in hunting zones with places where there was no hunting”. He writes:
It found that hunting had led to an extraordinary 83% reduction in wildlife numbers.
He claims that scientists have described the reduction in lion numbers as a result of the practice as “astonishing”. Meanwhile, killing a single lion can also lead to the deaths of numerous others. African conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert explain why:
killing a single dominant male lion in the wild can lead to a cascade of as many as 22 lion mortalities when challenger males move in to usurp the pride and in the process wipe out as many as 20 cubs plus the dead male’s coalition partner, usually his brother.
King of the jungle
In KILLING GAME, Gonçalves also asserts that:
The genetic diversity of today’s lion population has reduced by 15% since the modern-day trophy hunting industry took off, with some strands having vanished altogether.
The CBTH founder ties this to how the industry functions. Human trophy hunters generally want to kill the biggest of the other animals they’re targeting. Johannes Haasbroek, an ex-professional hunter, has confirmed this, saying:
When you hunt for a trophy, you look for the biggest and best animal you can find for your client… It is very likely to be an animal in his breeding prime.
This desire is reinforced by the industry itself, which Gonçalves says “encourages hunters to shoot the biggest individuals of each species” via rankings and record books. This, he asserts, serves as ‘artificial selection’:
by taking the biggest and ‘fittest’ animals, only the smaller and arguably weaker animals are left behind to breed and pass on their genes.
‘Manipulating the genetic stock’
Again, Haasbroek reinforces this, saying that trophy hunting “manipulates the genetic stock over time by eradicating the carriers of the largest horns and tusks”. Gonçalves also cites evolutionary ecologist Robert Knell on the risk to lions, who has warned that in certain circumstances:
removing even 5% of high-quality males risks wiping out the entire population for species under stress in a changing world… This demonstrates that trophy hunting can potentially push otherwise resilient populations to extinction when the environment changes.
The CBTH founder says this diminishing genetic strength is apparent in the industry’s record books too. One of the most influential trophy hunting advocacy groups is Safari Club International (SCI). In its Record Book for the 1980s, 35% of lions counted as ‘record’ lion trophies
Fast forward to 2010 onwards, and only 5% of the lions hunters killed merited the ‘record’ title. In short, as Gonçalves notes, lion trophies “have been getting progressively smaller over the years”.
This isn’t only bad news for lions, either, as they are “an apex species”. As the Jouberts explain:
They are the most vital centre point in many ecosystems. If we lose them we can anticipate eventual collapse of whole environments, right down to the water systems, as prey shifts or migrations stop, and species overgraze and destroy the integrity of important vegetation, especially along rivers.
“Weaken their chances of survival”
Gonçalves’ description of how African elephants are faring is no more optimistic. He says their population numbered more than 1 million in the 1980s, but now “it is less than half that number”. Figures calculated by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) in 2017 give an idea of what part hunting specifically has played in this dramatic decline. AWF says that 81,572 African Bush elephant hunting trophies were exported from the continent between 2001 and 2015.
According to Dr Michelle Henley, co-founder of the conservation group Elephants Alive, Africa is experiencing “a continental decline in elephant numbers of approximately 3%”. As Gonçalves clarifies, that means “far more elephants are dying each year than are born”.
In terms of the genetic impacts of hunting, and indeed poaching, on elephants, this is mainly apparent in their diminishing tusk sizes. Many, in fact, now have no tusks at all. Gonçalves writes:
In Mozambique over half of elephants aged 25 years or older are now tuskless. In South Africa, 98 percent of the 174 females in Addo Elephant National Park are reportedly tuskless as are more than 70% in the Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape. In the Kruger National Park where hunting is prohibited, just 3% of elephant are tuskless.
This matters because, as Africa Geographic reported, elephants use their tusks for securing food and water and for fending off attacks. So elephants without tusks “weaken their chances of survival”. This is particularly true amid the climate crisis and its increased droughts and heatwaves. Without long tusks to dig for the scarce water that’s around, elephants are at risk. As the CBTH founder says:
There have been growing reports of large numbers of elephants and other animals succumbing to drought in recent years.
On the record
Again, Gonçalves says this genetic change is reflected in the SCI’s record books. The “average size of tusks from elephants shot by their members has been steadily falling in recent decades”, he writes:
If we include the record from the 1950s, then tusk sizes recorded by SCI today are fully 25% smaller than they were just half a century ago
In terms of the SCI’s ‘record’ elephant listings, hunters killed 27% in the Top 100 in the 1980s. Only 1% of the elephants killed since 2010 merit a place on the list.
As with lions, however, although SCI’s Record Book system places little value on many of the elephants killed, the loss of these elephants to their own communities is immense. Vicki Fishlock, a scientist at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, says the loss of older male elephants is extremely disruptive because they’ve:
been parts of social networks for 5 or 6 decades and have accumulated social and ecological experience that younger animals learn from.
Meanwhile, Cynthia Moss, who runs the Amboseli Trust, says the killing of female elephants is “probably more devastating” because “they live in tight knit families”. Although many hunters target larger males, female elephants also find themselves staring down the barrel of hunters’ guns. One such killing is detailed in the book. After shooting a female twice in order to kill her, a hunter recalled:
Her calf would not leave her for a long time. Twice it got its fore quarters on its dead mother’s back.
At last it cleared out.
If a mother of a young calf is shot by a hunter, the likelihood is that the calf itself will also die.
If a hunter kills the herd matriarch, Moss adds, it “will have ramifications for years”. Kenya, however, banned trophy hunting in 1977 and the trust is currently enjoying a baby boom. Moss recently told Kenya’s the Star:
It seems baby elephants are falling out of the sky, 138 bouncing baby jumbos so far.
“A priceless artefact”
These are just two of the species Gonçalves details in the book. The situation for polar bears, rhinos, cheetahs, leopards, giraffes, and zebras is also discussed. Monkeys and puffins feature too. They all share, to varying degrees, the same sorry story of depleted populations, artificial selection, and increasingly poor prospects for survival. Inter-breeding is a further debilitating consequence. As Gonçalves notes regarding leopards:
A 2020 study found that trophy hunting and persecution has driven many young males to stop dispersing and settling new territories. Instead, they have started to inter-breed with their family members – with predictable outcomes for the species’ gene pool.
The picture he paints of human hunters’ impact on other animals is deeply concerning. It is perhaps surprisingly best summed up with a quote from a hunter, which is shared in the book. The hunter is referring to rhinos and wrote it in the late 19th Century. But given the biodiversity crisis of our modern age, and the dire prospects for long-term survival of many hunters’ preferred trophy animals, it reflects the current situation:
With the passing of each one, I have a terrible, hollow feeling of having smashed a priceless artefact… Today he’s like an arthritic, old soldier, a one-too-many-fight boxer who is losing his battle for survival.
Many of the world’s animals are losing their battle for survival. There are numerous reasons for this, the vast majority of them human-related. Gonçalves’ book explores what part trophy hunting specifically is playing in their demise. It also examines why. This is perhaps best illustrated by the words of a hunter, who after killing a lion, walks up to his dead body and says “I’m sorry, but I wanted you”.
Featured image via Cynthia Mack/YouTube
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