Polar bear auctions and declining elephant numbers: the trophy hunting industry’s latest scandals

A polar bear and two African elephants
Support us and go ad-free

The trophy hunting lobby group Safari Club International (SCI) attracted media attention in January. This was for auctioning off killing trips for a polar bear and numerous other wild animals at its Las Vegas convention. The coverage was based on a report by the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting. It noted that some of the funds raised from the sales will go towards fighting an impending UK ban on the import of body parts from slain wild animals.

A government consultation in recent years overwhelmingly confirmed support among the public for a comprehensive ban on imports. It’s hard to imagine that SCI’s bloody auction will help the industry’s efforts to win over the UK public’s minds. In fact, the optics are terrible. But the industry started the year reeling from another blow dealt by an investigative report focused on elephants.

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free
Undercover investigation

As The Canary has extensively reported, proponents of trophy hunting argue that it’s a ‘conservation tool’. These proponents include a number of conservationists. But there’s little consensus on trophy hunting’s conservation value among the sector as a whole.

Proponents argue that the practice protects species by providing an income to communities which co-exist with them. It supposedly incentivises people to preserve wild animals and the wild spaces in which they live. However, an investigative report released towards the end of 2021 challenges this claim.

Its findings are based on a two-month-long undercover investigation in Namibia. This country is arguably the poster child for so-called ‘sustainable use‘. This approach to conservation promotes people’s use of wildlife in a continual but theoretically sustainable way. It includes practices like trophy hunting, trading wild species and wildlife tourism.

The elephant in the dogma

Journalists Adam Cruise and Izzy Sasada undertook the investigation. Its purpose was to explore the effectiveness of Namibia’s Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) model – particularly in relation to African elephants.

In the CBNRM model, communities manage nature within their designated areas, known as conservancies. This community management is “guided by policy directives of the government” and involves the use of nature to provide benefits for people. Trophy killing, wildlife tourism, and trading in wildlife all feature in the model.

The investigation focused on elephants due to their centrality, both in “an ecological sense” and in relation to the CBNRM model. Elephants are a keystone species, which means they’re a species that’s pivotal to the health and stability of an ecosystem. They’re of high-value within the Namibian system, both in terms of their draw as a tourist attraction and what others will pay to kill them. Elephants can also create problems – for instance by raiding crops – which can make them costly to co-exist with.

“A fabrication rather than a fact”

Cruise and Sasada spoke with multiple stakeholders in 29 out of the 86 conservancies within the CBNRM system. This included community members, hunting operators, and conservancy officials. They also crunched the numbers in terms of wildlife statistics and conservancy income. Based on all these sources and their on-the-ground experience, the report concluded that:

the perceived success of wildlife conservation and concomitant economic benefits for previously disadvantaged rural communities in Namibia is found to be predominantly a fabrication rather than a fact

The report asserted that the majority of people in conservancy communities within the three regions the investigators visited – Kunene, Otjozondjupa, and Zambezi – remain “as impoverished as ever, in many cases, more so”. It also cited the exploitation of minority groups as an issue, both by other ethnic groups and the government. San communities, for example, complained of unimpeded encroachment on their lands by other groups. They said this inhibits their ability to hunt for food or grow and harvest their own crops or wild-grown vegetation. The San are indigenous peoples of southern Africa. 

In a conversation following the report’s publication, Cruise told The Canary that the conservancies are predominantly situated in areas where marginalised or minority groups reside. He also asserted that among marginalised people, women are faring worst and “really taking the brunt of this mess”.

Overall, the report presented a picture of a system that generally works for the few, but not the many. Propped up by international funding, the system maintains itself, looks after conservancy officials and staff like wildlife guards, and takes care of the core organisations engaged in advising and assisting conservancies. In terms of providing meaningful income and support to the wider conservancy members, however, the report suggests that the system is lacking.

Wildlife decline

The investigators also said that wildlife populations are declining sharply in the Kunene region of Namibia. The species here are adapted to its dry, desert conditions. They include elephants, lions, Hartmann’s mountain zebras, giraffes, black rhinos, and oryxes. According to the report, the annual wildlife counts show that:

most species have steadily declined in the past five years, with some species, like the oryx, now down to critically low levels.

It further warns that “the entire elephant population in the Kunene could be on the verge of collapse”, with its “extremely low numbers of breeding bulls and high infant mortality rate”. The report asserted that overall “wildlife numbers are declining” in the country.

Pushback

The report has attracted significant pushback. The Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT), members of the Namibian Chamber of Environment, and the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations (NACSO) wrote a scathing response to it. NACSO’s purpose is to connect “the communities and organisations that manage and conserve Namibia’s natural resources”. It’s deeply involved in the implementation of the CBNRM model. The association counts NGOs like WWF in Namibia among its members and many trophy hunting outfits among its partners.

In their response, these entities accused the report’s authors of using it to “attack trophy hunting”. They questioned the report’s “methodology” and its funding by wildlife- and animal rights-focused organisations. They also criticised the report’s presentation of data. And they further questioned how the investigators had selected people to speak to and whether they’d obtained “free, prior and informed consent” from interviewees. Essentially, they characterised the report as being scientifically unsound. Additionally, they asserted that the authors conducted the research illegally without permits or clearance to do so.

Further critiques came from conservancy officials. They said the report misrepresented their comments and presented their conservancies in a distorted way.

Negative impacts

Cruise, however, says that some of the criticism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the undertaking. It was, he said, a journalistic undercover investigation, not a scientific research project. He explained that he and Sasada “spoke to everybody that we came across”. And all those approached who weren’t part of or connected to conversancy management tended to “feel like they weren’t benefiting very well”. He also said the wealth disparity between individuals linked to management and those who aren’t is ‘palpable’.

The report acknowledged the money that trophy killing brings in for conservancies. It also noted which conservancies supported an open letter against trophy hunting import bans. Moreover, it highlighted a lack of objections to the practice among community members interviewed, such as the Ju/’hoansi San. But it spotlighted the apparently small proportion of this money that filtered down to people on a household or individual level. Indeed, the report’s critics drew attention to “relevant statistics” that they suggested countered the report’s findings. These statistics, however, show that overall trophy killing provides significantly less cash income to households through employment than tourism. The benefits that the practice provides to community members appear to be mainly in relation to meat they receive from the dead animals and support or resources for education, training, and other costs like funerals.

The report found that unequal meat distribution was an issue in some conservancies. It also looked into other aspects of the practice, such as the social impact it has. It found that in some cases the practice “enhances social inequalities and has negative impacts on the lived experience” of communities. This is due to, for example, poor treatment of community members by largely white hunting operators who have the balance of power.

An existential threat

Desert Lions Human Relations Aid (DeLHRA), a Namibian organisation, has responded to criticism of the report on social media. Its chair Izak Smit also told The Canary that the criticism amounts to the “same old authors doing damage control to their image”. He explained that for entities like NACSO the report is an “existential threat”. This is because its funding and donations are intimately connected to the CBNRM conservancies.

Last year, Smit spoke to The Canary about the dire situation for desert-adapted lions and other wildlife in the Kunene region. He described a catalogue of apparent policy failures over the years. This involved the sanctioned over-utilisation of species for commercial meat sales and unimpeded human encroachment of areas meant to be set aside for wildlife in conservancies. Smit said that trophy killing had also significantly skewed the gender ratio among the lions. And this had “impacted severely on the Lion population growth”. Trophy hunters most commonly target males.

Positive developments

In the recent discussion, Smit said that there have been some positive developments. He asserted that MEFT has “to an extent stepped up to the plate”. And efforts are underway to re-establish a wildlife corridor between the Etosha National Park and the Kunene region, along with other improvements. Such a corridor would offer mobility for lions, and other wildlife, to find food and mates.

DeLHRA has also engaged the Kunene regional councillor to form a committee. It aims to secure agreement among all the relevant conservancies on formally designating the wildlife areas as protected areas. If successful, this could lead to tourism-related investment and the reintroduction of depleted species. Ultimately, Smit hopes that protected areas in the Kunene region could become part of a vast cross-boundary area of protected lands from Namibia’s Skeleton Coast National Park to Angola’s Iona Park, overseen by an entity like African Parks.

In terms of the desert lions, Smit says it will take “nothing short of a miracle” for them to bounce back from their current situation. DeLHRA has now revised their numbers down to 45-55 individuals. Estimates stood at 85 a couple of years ago, and 150 in 2016.

Echoing findings

Smit’s assertions about the situation for Kunene’s wildlife reflect those in Cruise’s and Sasada’s report, as well as the findings of others. In 2019, investigative journalist John Grobler visited Nyae Nyae, Namibia’s “first and most successful conservancy”. He reported his findings in Mongabay. Grobler found poverty and dissatisfaction among community members and a notable lack of wild animals.

Christiaan Bakkes, meanwhile, worked in Namibia on wildlife conservation for over 20 years. He wrote of drastic declines in wildlife linked to the country’s sustainable use policies in a 2015 article titled End of the game.

Bakkes’ book, Plundered Desert, builds on this. As an article by Melissa Reitz featured on the Conservation Action Trust website explained, the book exposes:

outrageous instances of rhino and elephant slaughter; unregulated trophy hunting; excessive hunting by anti-poaching patrols; contentious meat sales from community-run conservancies and declining wildlife numbers

Far-reaching impact

Evidence of the negative impacts of trophy killing on wildlife, such as over-exploitation and gender imbalances, isn’t reserved to Namibia. Ex-president of Botswana Ian Khama has made similar complaints about such impacts in that country prior to the institution of a trophy killing ban there. He has also asserted human-wildlife conflict increased there due to targeted species consequently viewing humans as a threat. The ban in Botswana was reversed by the president that followed Khama.

Meanwhile, the lion conservationist Craig Packer has spoken out about unsustainable lion killing in Tanzania, which he says contributed to reduced populations there. The killing included the slaughter of young lions before they had the chance to breed. Packer told Africa Geographic in 2020 that he hasn’t seen clear evidence of the practice helping to maintain or increase lion populations outside of two conservancies in Zimbabwe.

Trophy killing in a changed world

Those who argue for continued trophy hunting offer examples to support their claims that if “well-managed”, it can assist conservation. Namibia often features in such examples. Moreover, critics of Cruise and Sasada’s report said that the authors implicated sustainable use in issues that were attributable to other causes. Namely, the years-long drought that Namibia has experienced of late.

However, extreme weather events such as drought are likely to become more frequent as the climate crisis progresses. So these other causes are not separate from considerations about what ‘use’ of wildlife can be considered sustainable. A 2017 study warned, for example, that trophy hunting could cause species extinction in our changing world. Science Daily explained that’s because people who engage in it tend to target individuals with distinct traits – large manes, tusks, and antlers, for example – that make them “evolutionarily fit”. This removes the “best genes” from their populations – the genes that could mean the difference between species survival and extinction in altered environmental conditions.

Silencing critics

In short, the issues surrounding sustainable use, and trophy killing in particular, appear to be many, varied, and evolving as new conditions present themselves. People are raising concerns about this approach to conservation. But attempts to silence or discredit their findings abound when they do. Bakkes and Packer say they were respectively ousted from Namibia and Tanzania.

Critiques and analysis are essential in determining what’s best for people, other animals, and the planet. So we need to hear more, not less, of these dissenting cries from the wilderness.

Featured image of polar bear via Gaiter/Flickr, cropped to 360×403 pixels, licensed under CC BY 2.0, Featured image of elephants and additional embedded images via Adam Cruise

Support us and go ad-free

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us
  • Show Comments
    1. You do somersaults with facts so well, you should be in the Olympic team, Tracy.

      In South Africa alone, private owners and farmers raise forty million acres of wild animals in their natural habitat for sustainable hunting and meat simply because it is more profitable than raising cattle or crops in such a dry climate – only 13% of the country is suitable for rain fed crops.

      Namibia is even worse off, but communities in the North own and sell their wild animals sustainably to buyers and hunters for the same reason. It is good common sense. The “undercover survey” (ooh-er) by Cruise and Sasada, two journalists, not trained ecologists, has already been discredited by the Namibians as a poorly-conducted, unbalanced exercise designed for the same market that you write for, Tracy.

      The most important thing is that local people control their own wildlife. They do it under the oversight of an army of qualified government scientists, ecologists, vets, statisticians, community leaders and others who know more about it than journos writing for foreign dreamers. Let’s face it – the “survey” chose elephants because they are charismatic and attract media attention.

      There are not even enough eco-tourists to fund South Africa’s many national reserves – only two out of more than twenty do better than break even. Where are you going to find millions more? Despite your best somersaults, there are no alternatives to hunting and meat (and sales of mineral specimens, ethnobotanicals, etc) in remote places. “Fortress conservation” is hopeless as a national policy, as Kenya is proving, and moves by major international NGO’s to take over vast swathes of Africa are nothing less than neo-colonialism. Sadly, they can be bad, too – see Survival International’s website.

      The reality is that you hate hunting. I get it. The answer is, don’t go hunting. Go to places that cater for photo-tourists and enjoy the wildlife there. Don’t keep chundering on about hunters, because the wildlife and more importantly, rural Africa, needs both – photo-tourists and hunters. Life is hard enough there without you making it harder.

      And there are not many polar bears in Namibia…..

      1. Obviously, you didn’t read the entire article, yourself.

        One of the links states that Craig Parker, a respected lion biologist in Tanzania, was essentially ousted out of the country *solely because* he criticized the industry there over malpractice in the first place, and yet praised conservancies in Zimbabwe for doing it right.

        As much as you hunters bitch about everybody else bitching about you, the truth is we have every right to.

        According to Mr. Parker’s testimony, he stated that the trophy hunting of lions in the country *was indeed* unsustainable; that’s just a fact that can’t be resolved with a bullet and a high-powered rifle.

        The truth is that if you don’t call out bullshit in your own industry, especially one in which one (or in this case multiple) screw-ups can essentially cause major biodiversity-loss, especially when we’re in a time of major biodiversity-loss right now, than you’re no better off than all those “animal-justice warriors” that constantly bitch about you.

        Get a grip.

    Leave a Reply

    Join the conversation

    Please read our comment moderation policy here.