Banning big game imports is not colonialism – trophy hunting is

Trophy hunting ban is not colonialism. A male lion in the Serengeti.
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The House of Commons has today passed a bill which would ban imports of hunting trophies from endangered and at-risk species.

Parliament debated The Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill Friday March 17. It considered a series of amendments to the proposed legislation.

It will prohibit trophy hunters from bringing animal parts into the UK from species listed with the highest level of protection in existing UK wildlife trading regulations. The Bill will now go on to the House of Lords for further debate. 

Right-wing and mainstream media outlets have reported that representatives of game conservation projects said that the plan “smacks of colonialism”.

However, a professor in parks and conservation area management, has argued instead that it is the big game conservation model itself which is colonial.

Colonial conservation and trophy hunting

The articles in the right-wing press refer to a letter signed by over 109 representatives from wildlife and game conservation areas across multiple African countries. They addressed the letter to Andrew Mitchell, the UK minister of state for development and Africa. In it they said that:

The British Government should be aware that this bill will negatively impact both the conservation of wildlife and the livelihoods of our communities.

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They explained that, in order to operate the conservation areas, they rely on the income from trophy hunting tourism activities. The lack of this revenue, they said, would adversely impact communities and increase human-wildlife conflict. Moreover, they felt that the bill is colonial in nature:

It is sad to mention that we feel this is another way of recolonising Africa, with all the consequences that had befallen our forefathers.

However, Professor Aby Sène from Clemson University in the US argued that the idea that fighting against trophy hunting is ‘colonialism’ is a fallacy. Sène is a passionate pan-Africanist, and has lived in and studied the impacts of conservation across several countries in Africa. She believes that the criticism comes from elite capitalists and an African political class that does not reflect the experience of everyday communities. Instead, she pointed out that reserves for trophy hunting have dispossessed Africans of their lands:

Fortress conservation

What Sène was referring to, indigenous rights campaigners call ‘fortress conservation’. These are conservation projects that have evicted existing indigenous and local inhabitants from their traditional lands, or otherwise restricted their access to crucial resources like food, fuel, and medicinal plants.

A 2017 study estimated that over 250,000 people had been evicted to make way for protected areas between 1990 and 2014. However, there are no precise statistics on the number of people who have been displaced for conservation projects. A separate study estimated that up to a million people could have been evicted for Protected Areas in India alone.

Indigenous rights campaign group Survival International have described how this type of colonial conservation rests on:

the racist misconception that indigenous people cannot be trusted to look after their own land and the animals that live there. Its proponents view the original custodians of the land as a “nuisance” to be “dealt with”, instead of as experts in local biodiversity and key partners in conservation.

Conversely, the letter from the representatives of the conservation groups argued that the loss of financial support through trophy hunting will:

Undermine the incentives for our rural farming communities to look after and sustainably manage wildlife.

They explained that the conservation areas, forests, and fishing reserves they represent are ‘Community Based Organisations’ (CBOs) where they have been given:

rights to manage and utilise our natural resources sustainably for the benefit of our community members and the wildlife.

But the rights and opportunities of some are coming at the expense of the rights of others. Tanzania is currently carrying out a violent eviction in the name of said ‘conservation’.

The Canary previously reported that the government is illegally excluding 70,000 Maasai pastoralists from their ancestral lands in the Ngorongoro district, east of Serengeti National Park. The Otterlo Business Corporation, owned by the Dubai royals, has been lobbying the Tanzanian government. They have called for the government to make the 1,500 square kilometres into a game reserve. Local authorities have been violently seizing the lands from these indigenous Maasai communities for the project.

African voices ignored 

Sène feels that conservationists that have argued for trophy hunting to continue have not centred the rights of indigenous communities. Rather, trophy hunting exists to ensure that rich, white Global Northerners can continue to exploit African lands for their touristic leisure:

Moreover, a majority of Africans on social media view trophy hunting as “neo-colonialist”. This is according to a study by Mucha Mkono in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism. Mkono analysed the social media comments of African posters to the Facebook accounts of three major news outlets in Africa.

Mkono sought to address a gap in the research surrounding the debates on trophy hunting in Africa. She felt that conversations on big game hunting have largely sidelined African views. Instead, Western discussions on the ethics of the activity were predominant.

To 70% of the participants in her data, the way trophy hunting gives control over iconic animal species is a continuation of colonial power. Mkono suggests that posters felt this especially in light of the fact that the hunting industry largely “economically excluded” Africans from the activity.

Furthermore, participants expressed frustration at the concern for the lives of non-human animals. They felt this was racist because Westerners were overlooking the lives of the people in Africa. One participant posted in reference to Cecil the Lion. American dentist Walter Palmer shot the iconic animal in Zimbabwe in 2015. In response to public outrage, politicians began to call for plans to prohibit trophy imports. The poster in Mkono’s study said of the Western public’s outcry over the killing of Cecil the Lion:

kids die everyday here in africa because of hunger but all you care about more are these “majestic” animals, i hear so much noise about these animals but hardly ever hear people protesting against poverty, what is wrong with this planet whats is so important about a 13yr old lion we got kids dying or pple starving and having no jobs and excess to proper healthcare but all you think of is a lion…

Agency over Africa’s conservation future

The Canary‘s Tracy Keeling has previously reported on the “deep rift” between conservationists and wildlife experts over the banning of trophy imports. She argued, however, that public opinion largely coming out against trophy hunting was signalling “the winds of change”. As a result, she said that the ban would cause the practice to eventually “grind to a halt”.

Keeling said that:

Under those circumstances, arguably the responsible thing to do is come up with alternatives, both for our planet’s magnificent megafauna and the communities that have to co-exist with it.

Indeed, the bill could help bring an end to these colonial conservation projects in Africa. Sène argued that the framing of the trophy hunting import ban as colonial is reducing the debate down to obfuscate the crucial alternative: land tenure rights.

This shows that, in order to support meaningful alternatives, the UK will need to listen to the voices of marginalised communities in Africa. Survival International argued that, contrary to colonial perceptions of conservation:

indigenous people understand and manage their environment better than anyone else.

A respondent in Mkono’s study echoed the view that Africans across the continent are the best custodians of their own lands:

In the not too distant past African people had a healthy respect for the natural world and were more careful about hunting. Now most African people have had at least 150 years of being told all of the old ways were backward, sub-intelligent, and proof of our lack of civilisation. Having been forced off the land and out of the old systems of land use and frailties—old understandings of society and the animal world so many are disconnected to those old ways, no longer valuing animals and helping careless people hunt them all to extinction.

Ultimately, the rights to land and nature in Africa should not be conditional on Western ideals of conservation. Crucially, people throughout Africa should be given agency over their own ecological future.

Featured image via PxHere, CC0 Public Domain, resized to 770*403 

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