Many people around the world were outraged at the recent killing of Cecil the Lion. Shot with a crossbow by an American dentist, Cecil was taken as part of a “trophy hunt”. Regardless of the legality of this specific hunt (and we should be careful not to jump to conclusions] such trophy hunting is a regular occurrence in Africa. Some of you have already learnt about the role that hunting plays in conservation on our annual South Africa field course, but briefly, the argument goes a bit like this.
One of the most successful animals in the world is the chicken. It will never go extinct because it has high value to us. We eat it and get eggs from it, and consequently there are an estimated 50 billion chickens in the world. Lions are iconic animals that we all profess to love. However, that “love” doesn’t save them from being killed in large numbers in Africa by snaring, poisoning and persecution because lions kill livestock and are perceived to threaten humans. We turn their habitat into towns and farms. Lions may be loved but they have no value. Consequently, unlike chickens there are fewer and fewer lions in Africa.
Trophy hunting puts a value on lions. People are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to hunt one. Suddenly it becomes valuable to have lots of lions, to conserve them and to provide game for them to eat. Land becomes more valuable for wildlife than for other uses and lions and other wildlife prosper. A similar argument holds for ecotourism and photo-tourism, but hunters go to remote sites that tourists have no desire to visit. Hunters also require almost no infrastructure so it benefits marginal areas away from the tourist circuit. These are the arguments for trophy hunting, and I’ve been commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to make a documentary exploring both sides of this difficult subject.
I can already tell it’s likely to be controversial. I’ve interviewed top conservationists, some of whom are dismayed that trophy hunting could be banned. That’s right – the very people that you might think would be calling for a ban are vocally supporting hunting. So why are so many people calling for a ban? The main reason seems to be that they don’t like animals being killed and they object to the glorification of killing that trophy hunting embodies. This is an idealistic and sentimental argument. It’s not based on evidence and practicality, and ultimately, it seems, might actually hasten the demise of the animals they want to save. At least, that what the pro-hunting people say. So, who’s right? That’s what I hope to uncover over the next couple of weeks.
I’ve already interviewed some of the big players in lion conservation “down the line”. This is where interviewer and interviewee both sit in a studio in their respective countries. However, to really get to grips with the topic I need to get to Africa and this is what I’m doing this week. I’m flying to South Africa to see some lions, talk to some hunters and interview scientists and practitioners conserving wildlife. It’s going to be a busy but very enjoyable week. I’ll try to keep you up to date via Twitter.
To understand the complexity of human-wildlife conflict and conservation requires us to take an unflinching and mature look at the natural world. That world is horribly complex and you can’t always distil arguments into a tweet. I’m not sure we’re going to able to distil this argument into 40 minutes of radio either, but we’ll try our very best.
The programme will air on BBC Radio 4 on September 1st. I’ll let you know the transmission time as soon as I know.