In the trophy hunting ban debate, indigenous communities are denied a voice
On Friday 17 March, the House of Commons passed a bill that will prohibit imports of animal hunting trophies.
It’s a debate that has divided conservationists and wildlife experts. But its impact on communities in African nations has been a recent focal point.
Representatives of conservation projects across Africa have written to Andrew Mitchell, the UK minister of state for development and Africa, to challenge the bill. In the letter, they said that limiting trophy imports will have a devastating impact on community game hunting and tourism-derived livelihoods. They argued that it is an extension of colonialism, because it fails to consider people from the African countries the bill will largely impact.
However, the experience of marginalised indigenous communities suggests that these views might be in the minority. And there’s evidence that those who say that the trophy hunting ban is ‘colonial’ are those who actually benefit from employment within these reserves. Moreover, it is Global North conservation organisations who continue to dominate the pro-trophy hunting debate.
Global North organisations co-opting African voices
In June 2022, the Guardian published the perspective that game bans are neocolonial. ‘Community leader’ Maxi Pia Louis expressed this view. The article described Louis as a “Namibian representative for communities in nine southern African countries”.
However, the article failed to mention that Louis is director of the Namibian Association of Community Based Natural Resource Management Support Organisations (NACSO). Multiple international government aid agencies, joint funds, the World Bank, and even a gold mining company are funding partners to NACSO. There’s also one notable, large western conservation non-profit that funds its work.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) financially supports NACSO, while its Namibian branch acts as an associate member. The Canary has previously reported on WWF’s financial and technical support for the trophy hunting model. Notably, the late prince Philip co-founded the organisation, while Charles was president of its UK branch before his ascension to the throne. Of course, the royal family have a history of trophy hunting in Africa.
WWF and Global North funders might, therefore, be shaping this response to the trophy hunting ban.
Tourism and trophies for the rich
It isn’t the first time mainstream media outlets have invoked ‘colonialism’ against trophy import prohibition measures either. In January 2022, Forbes penned a piece criticising the since-dropped Animals Abroad Bill. This would also have banned the import of big game trophies.
The Forbes article warned of the “disastrous consequences” for communities and conservation should the bill pass, according to over 100 wildlife experts.
But these claims do not hold up to scrutiny. In an article for People and Nature, Benjamin Ghasemi explored how multiple studies have revealed that the revenue share of trophy hunting profits does not consistently reach communities. His article also stated that according to a report on Tanzania from 2010, less than 3% of the revenue went to community development. Moreover, the remainder went to tourism facilities, airlines, hunting operators, governments and others involved in the trophy hunting industry.
Meanwhile, a 2016 report by the US government’s Natural Resources Committee found that:
African trophy hunting fails to show consistent conservation benefits.
In this context, then, the claim that trophy hunting is a necessary conservation and community livelihood tool is questionable. Further to this, livelihood dependency on trophy tourism might not have occurred in the first place were it not for the violent evictions for ‘fortress conservation’.
Colonial origins of trophy conservation
WWF champions this ‘fortress conservation’ model. It supports the establishment of Protected Areas (PAs) throughout the Global South.
In 2016, the Rainforest Foundation UK produced a study on PAs in the Congo Basin. Out of 34 PAs it researched, 26 of these – an overwhelming majority of 76.4% – had resulted in the partial or full displacement of indigenous and local land-based communities. Using its research, the Canary identified that the WWF funded over a third of these projects.
In an article for Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Paul Munro from the University of South Wales said that colonial wildlife conservation like this was established in the 1800s by:
aristocratic European hunters who had a desire to preserve African game populations—ostensibly protecting them from settler and African populations—so that elite sports hunting could persevere on the continent.
In other words, trophy hunting conservation is rooted in the colonisers’ desire to retain control of land and commodify nature. Moreover, Munro stated that:
The framing of the problem was filtered through elitist and racist lenses: the “true sportsmanship” of the elite hunt was not the cause of wildlife decline, but rather the “reckless shooting” done by others.
Aby Sène, a professor in conservation area management from Clemson University in the US, echoed this sentiment. She has argued that the same is still true for African communities today. As a result of this lasting colonial rhetoric, governments and PA operators criminalise communities as poachers in their own ancestral lands.
Yet African men are criminalized, incarcerated and murdered at an alarming rate for hunting wildlife to escape the wretchedness of this life, especially with shoot to kill policies in the imperialists orchestrated war on poaching.
— Aby Sène (@AbySene9) January 31, 2023
Militarisation of conservation
NACSO’s website reflects this framing of poachers versus legalised ‘professional’ trophy hunters:
A clear distinction has to be made between legal and illegal hunting. Legal hunting is done according to quotas and regulation, and on conservancy land provides an income to communities. Illegal hunting is theft, whether it be poaching for the pot by locals, or the shooting of high value animals for elephant tusks, rhino horns or animal hides. Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are theft from the communities that conserve wildlife and benefit from its legal utilisation.
This rhetoric underpins a broader Global North trend towards the militarisation of conservation.
NACSO and Louis, in their capacity supporting the work of conservation projects, advocate on behalf of those employed in the sector. In 2020, with the help of WWF and other partners, the association secured a pandemic recovery fund for conservancies across Namibia. Chief among the fund’s primary aims was to “maintain salaries for game guards”.
The letter against the prohibition of trophy hunting imports also chimes with this concern. The conservation area representatives argued that:
With reduced revenue from trophy hunting, poaching will increase because there will be less funding to pay salaries to the community game guards for their anti-poaching patrols to deter poachers
However, there have been multiple reports of human rights violations by these ‘eco-guards’ in conservation projects.
Violence in the name of conservation and trophy hunting
WWF-funded eco-guards in the Congo Basin have reportedly deterred ‘poaching’ through violent beatings, torture, imprisonment and the murder of members from indigenous Baka, Bayaka and other tribes.
Meanwhile, a report by Humane Society International found that trophy hunting makes a marginal contribution to African economies and employs far fewer people than pro-hunting groups claim. Studying the impacts of trophy hunting across eight countries, the report revealed that the sector employs between 7,500 to 15,500 people in the industry.
Therefore, NACSO and the letter signees may well reflect the views of a limited minority employed by the sector. Instead, the experience and opinions of ordinary people from indigenous communities impacted by these projects are missing from the debate.
The exclusion of indigenous voices in Tanzania is a clear example of the consequences for these communities. In June 2022, the government began displacing Maasai pastoralists for a trophy hunting reserve. This could displace 70,000 Maasai people from their ancestral lands.
Nonetheless, organisations like the WWF and its partners claim trophy hunting by wealthy tourists is a legitimate conservation tool. In other words, while their voices dominate conservation rhetoric, poor and less influential indigenous communities will continue to suffer at their hands.
Feature image via Michelle Maria/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 770 by 403, licensed under CC BY 3.0
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