As 50 more lions are killed by Brits, a disturbing new book shows how close they are to extinction

A lion cub resting up against a tree
Tracy Keeling

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.

Conservation

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.

“Devastating”

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.

Moss says:

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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  • Show Comments
    1. Oh dear, Tracy. If you carry on like this, you will either be struck by lightning or grow a very, very long nose. How many misleading mouse-dirts can you put into one article?
      About this “book”. It is a largely fictional fundraiser written by Mr Goncalves for Mr Goncalves. He says he will generously donate the royalties to the CBTH. That’s nice. The CBTH is not a charity – it is a private company (Company No 12200178, sole director Siobhan Mitchell-Smith, the wife of Eduardo Goncalves). The “book” is published by Green Future Books Ltd, (Co Number 12337337). According to Companies House, it has one officer – a Mr. Eduardo Goncalves. We know what we are dealing with here.
      Lions. Only a few “wild” lions are hunted by trophy hunters because they are rarely available and expensive. Most of them are problem lions, born on reserves (where lions are protected) but, like Cecil, leave their reserve. Most reserves are surrounded by hunting grounds to prevent lions getting into farmland or populated areas, They are buffer zones, for safety.
      Most hunted lions are bred on lion farms and they are more affordable and often less mangy. These ranched lions are extra to the wild populations and don’t figure in the endangered lists because farmers can raise as many as hunters need. In South Africa, there are about 10,000 on the farms, with over 1000 already fully documented in DNA registers and stud books. They have superior genetics to the isolated wild populations.
      Lions across their range are declining due to habitat loss and people eating the lion’s food, so the lions go after farm animals and are killed. Lion numbers are NOT declining due to trophy hunting, and the bone trade has nothing to do with trophy hunting, either.
      I replied yesterday to the claim that corrupt authorities steal hunting fees from communities. In those countries,there is also little control over poaching, so none of it has anything to do with hunters – the criminal authorities steal hunting fees, tourist fees, licence fees, international grants, donations and everything else. Banning trophy hunting won’t affect it at all. In Namibia, where things are not corrupt, community conservancies (where communities own and can sell their wildlife to hunters) have been a great success.
      Dr Amy Dickman’s point is not theoretical. She is one of the world’s most experienced wildlife researchers, a senior research fellow in Conservation biology at Oxford, specialising in big cats and actually works in Africa on real and important projects. You, with respects, are a journalist and Mr Goncalves’ qualifications are in politics. We know where the unspun truth is.
      The argument that hunting preserves animals is not perverse. Without hunting, wild animals are either local food or pests and are wiped out. If hunters are prepared to pay to hunt them, the animals have value and people will tolerate them in the hope of selling them to raise cash. Its not rocket science.
      In South Africa, farmers can make more money raising wildlife for hunting and meat than raising crops or farm stock, so hunting (including the few trophy hunters) and meat has paid for forty MILLION acres of game farms, on which many millions of wild animals and plants thrive. No value? Fake news.
      The 83% reduction in wildlife numbers in the Science article (Benitz-Lopez et al, 2017) refers to “hunting” – predominantly hunting for food and the bushmeat trade, not trophy hunting. A trophy hunting ban would not affect that number, and the number is nothing to do with trophy hunting. Fake news.
      The killing of a male lion does disrupt lion prides, but since most killing is done by other lions, it is not the fault of trophy hunters, who hunt problem lions or ranched lions. More fake news.
      Lions are becoming extinct outside of reserves (and lion farms) because they are lions. That’s the cause of the loss of genetics, not trophy hunting. Fake news.
      Johannes Haasbroek is a conservationist with EHRA in Namibia, concerned with saving desert elephants. He is now a determined anti-hunter.
      Robert Knell is an ecologist who lives and works in the UK, specialising in bats and has never apparently worked with African wildlife.
      Safari Club’s declining lion record is also due to the disappearance of lions across Africa, not connected with trophy hunting. Fake news. The biggest and best lions now come from lion farms, but they are not accepted for records.
      Elephants in Mozambique and East Africa with smaller tusks are a result of the mass poaching that took place in the last twenty years, during the civil wars. Poachers killed hundreds of thousands of elephants for their ivory, so animals without tusks were left to breed. Nothing to do with trophy hunting. Fake news.
      Elephants are not evenly distributed – in the south, where they are hunted legally, there are probably 100,000 TOO MANY. They could shoot 100,000 and improve the lives of the others.
      Kenya banned hunting in 1977 and has LOST 70% of its wildlife outside the parks, to the bushmeat trade and poaching, because that’s the only value wild animals have – as food. The killing is unregulated where hunting is banned.
      Polar bears, leopards and cheetahs are only hunted under special circumstances, sustainably, under very close control. Most leopards are shot or poisoned by farmers. Rhinos, giraffes and zebras are farmed these days. Monkeys are agricultural pests and I have yet to see a puffin’s head on a trophy shield. All misleading, incomplete or fake news.
      The 2020 study (by Naude et al), found that leopards were confined because of “habitat fragmentation, killing to prevent livestock loss, poorly managed trophy hunting, poisoning, snaring, traditional medicine and cultural attire”. Not exactly due to trophy hunting, Tracy. Somewhat cherry-picked.
      I look forward to your next instalment of the great Goncalves scheme.

      1. Regardless of what you estimate Goncalves’s motives to be in publishing this, do you think wealthy westerners should be encouraged to regard killing of animals that are no threat to their standard of living, and are not necessary for food, as a reasonable activity? The idea that killing is a sport demostrates how vile the human species is. Let’s face it, we’re the only animal that rejoices in killing and torturing others, even its own kind, for amusement. If we stopped exploiting the environment for resources that are not necessary for our survival, nature would balance – of course, this would mean sacrifices of some of our comforts. If we didn’t breed like flies, with no natural predators apart from disease, the world wouldn’t be in such a dire state.

        1. Spoken like a well-fed Westerner.
          Africans have always made use of their wildlife. It is a resource that is important to them. In South Africa, they shoot 100,000 tons of wild animals for meat every year. These animals are raised on game farms, in natural bush, that brings an income to farmers and conserve the bush instead of being ploughed up and turned into conventional farms. It conserves millions of wild animals that wouldn’t be conserved otherwise.
          None of the animals hunted legally (and in the photos) are endangered, otherwise they would not be allowed to be hunted, not be allowed to import, and nobody would take a photo.
          All of the animals taken as trophies end up eaten or used. They would have been killed anyway. Better to raise some income from a trophy hunter than nothing.

      2. You must be a trophy hunter.
        Your reply is about death without a regard for the remaining lives of any creature as the killing has gone rampant. You dismiss as irrelevant what the article says for a concern about an ecosystem. On your way to bagging the Planet next?

        1. Hello loon,
          I’m not a trophy hunter. The extinction of wildlife in Africa has nothing to do with trophy hunting. It is because of human population expansion, loss of habitat and the bushmeat industry.
          The hunting grounds of South Africa have produced forty MILLION acres of wild animals where few existed before. This is because hunters pay to hunt wild animals and take about 70% of the increase in numbers every year. This means that the forty million acres are paid for by hunters (including trophy hunters) and that the wildlife numbers are INCREASING all the time. Nothing has gone rampant.
          It is all under the control of scientists, biologists, field officers, vets and many other professionals.

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