Hunters Say Trophy Hunting Helps Animals. Here's Why They're Wrong.
Ever since the death of Cecil the lion, the world's been looking at trophy hunting a bit more closely. While many people have condemned the practice as cruel, ardent big game hunters have stood up to defend it, arguing that it's a selfless act of conservation and that both animals and local people benefit from the hobby.
But with wildlife populations in Africa continuing to plummet - and with iconic species at risk of disappearing in our lifetime - these defenses don't hold up. Here's why.
"The money goes to local communities."
Big game hunters say they help support local communities and conservation efforts by paying for big game hunts. However, while hunters pay roughly $200 million each year for big game hunts in Africa, only around 3 percent of those funds go to local communities, and the amount dedicated to conservation efforts is nearly negligible. The overwhelming majority of hunting fees ends up lining the pockets of middlemen, large companies and local governments.
"Hunting helps wild populations."
Big game hunters argue that killing can help a species by removing older animals from the population, or say that they trust governments to set sustainable hunting quotas.
Unfortunately, in practice these arguments don't hold up. For one, some governments are more interested in how much a dead lion can bring them than in establishing sustainable hunting limits. For example, there are around 20,000 to 35,000 wild lions left in Africa, depending on whom you ask, and big game hunters legally kill around 600 each year. That's an annual population loss of 2 to 3 percent, which is entirely unsustainable, even if you don't add in deaths due to poaching and livestock protection.
And while nature likes to pick off the weakest members of a population, big game hunters target the largest, strongest members of a population. For lions, that means the male pride leader; for elephants, the oldest elephant with the biggest tusks. Killing these animals, who play a crucial role in their societies, puts the rest of their families at risk.
For example, killing a male lion with an impressive mane leaves his fellow pride leaders open to challenges from other males. If a new male does come in, they could kill an entire generation of cubs, which means that the permit for one lion hunt leads to the death of several animals.
And the loss of older elephants means leaving male or female youngsters without guidance - which can actually lead to so-called teenage delinquents who are more likely to have negative interactions with humans, and therefore be killed.
The loss of any animal also means the loss of any offspring they could have parented, a knock to conservation that goes far beyond taking just one animal out of the population. And while some proponents of big game hunting advocate for only killing animals who have already contributed their genes to the population, most animals will continue to propagate until they die.
Of course, the biggest rebuttal to the hunting-helps-populations argument is in the numbers. Lions have lost 95 percent of their population since the 1940s. The African elephant population has dropped from several million at the turn of the century to roughly 500,000 today. During the past century hunting has been the primary - if not only - method of conservation, but the perilously low numbers of these animals proves that hunting is ineffective as a conservation method.
And even with these reduced populations, trophy hunters still kill around 105,000 animals in Africa every year, including 600 elephants and 800 leopards, at a time when every individual is crucial to the survival of the species.
"Canned hunting helps repopulate animals."
Some hunters tout canned hunting - an unsportsmanlike practice in which lions and other animals are bred in captivity then released into pens where they can't escape so hunters can shoot them - as a sustainable alternative, arguing that canned hunting incentivizes captive breeding, which can be used to repopulate wild populations.
But animals bred at canned hunting facilities are completely unsuitable for release. Taken away from their mothers at just a few days old and raised by humans, the lions are incapable of surviving on their own. Many of them are inbred, which means breeding with wild lions could weaken the species' gene pool. And releasing a captive-bred lion into wild lions' territory could lead to fighting, upsetting the delicate balance - and the safety - of existing prides.
"Hunting helps protect locals."
Local communities often find themselves at odds with African wildlife. Elephants destroy crops; lions and other predators can target people or livestock. These animals are often killed - and tourism hunting is often encouraged - in the name of protecting humans from African wildlife.
But as human lands continue to increase, animals continue to be pushed into smaller and smaller territories. In many cases these negative interactions are the result of animals simply trying to survive. Iconic African wildlife is at risk of disappearing, and the solution is to learn to live with animals, not keep killing them.
"It's an industry that Africa couldn't do without."
While trophy hunting does bring in some capital to African countries, it makes up as little as 1.8 percent of tourism revenues. The majority of tourists come to see Africa's wildlife, not kill it. And if big game hunting continues to deplete that wildlife, it could take down the other 98 percent of Africa's tourism income.
An individual animal, particularly if it's a member of the more iconic species, is worth far more to a country alive over the course of his lifetime than dead. Need proof? Look at Botswana. Beginning in January 2014, the country banned almost all hunting after comparing the conservation cost of big game hunting with the income generated from photo tourism: The photo tourism season is longer, makes better use of animals and employs significantly more locals. In the first year of the ban, the country brought in around $344 million from nonlethal tourism.
Of course, changes can take getting used to, but in an age when iconic species are at risk of being lost forever, killing any individual animal for sheer pleasure - especially in the name of conservation - is highly counterproductive.
To find out more, watch Blood Lions on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 10 p.m. ET on MSNBC.
The views expressed here are The Dodo's and do not necessarily reflect those of MSNBC.