Trophy Hunting: Deconstructing a Dying Sport

Updated: Aug 4, 2018

by Elizabeth Jordan, Science Writer

Elephant with extended trunk
Photo by Avel Chuklanov

Society is increasingly aware of the dire circumstances facing our wildlife, particularly flagship megafauna like lions, rhinos, and elephants. Growing concern for their well-being has prompted many to become informed and engaged in humanitarian, non-consumptive conservation efforts.

In recent years, social media shined a spotlight on trophy hunting which had previously been known mostly in niche circles. Conservation circles generally agree that hunters mostly hail from the United States, though the official numbers on this vary widely. Photos of such activity are now widely circulated on social media and are usually met with harsh criticism as, according to a 2015 Marist poll, 86% of Americans do not support killing these animals in any capacity, even in the name of conservation. However, those promoting the sport argue that hunting these animals helps the preservation of the species as a whole.

The argument for trophy hunting generally follows the following structure:

Revenue from hunting goes either to African landowners and local stakeholders, providing sustainable value to the wildlife around them, or to local nonprofits working on hunting-related conservation efforts.

Also that killing certain individuals in a herd or culling overpopulated areas is productive for the overall conservation of the species. Ben Carter, the head of the Dallas Safari Club, has been an active supporter of this method.

“By removing counterproductive individuals from a herd," said Carter, "[populations] can actually grow."

Lion and lioness lounge in the sun
Photo by Wade Lambert

The Population Control Argument

Carter suggests that trophy hunters serve the same purpose as top predators or other population controls, which weed out the weak, sick, and elderly. Hunters, however, often seek dramatic body parts such as long tusks, a large mane or most impressive antlers, which usually belong to alpha males and the most productive and healthy members of a population. Therefore, hunting guides and organizations are likely to be incentivized to permit the hunting of such individuals rather than the weak, sick and elderly.

A recent study examined the effects of selecting such traits for hunted individuals and the resulting impact on population phenotypes. The study found that hunting individuals with certain traits reduces those traits in the populations. As a result, tusks get shorter, antlers less impressive, and other dramatic, identifying characteristics are lowered.

Despite Carter’s statements, no scientific literature has conclusively proven any method to successfully identify an individual that is a detriment to the population within a geographically localized area. As such, the hunter’s arguments appear to be a speculative approach that carries no certainty that a hunter would pick out a ‘counterproductive’ individual over a ‘productive’ one.

A recent comprehensive analysis of IUCN data concludes that trophy hunting harms elephant, rhino, leopard, cheetah and lion populations in countries that use trophy hunting as a conservation tool. For example, In countries where hunting density is highest, lion populations face the sharpest decline. Tanzania, a country that allows hunting on public land, suffered a 60% elephant loss in 5 years.

Jeeps travel through Kruger National Park, Hazyview, South Africa
Photo by AnnaKate Auten

The Revenue Argument

According to an IUCN report, hunting does not provide significant assistance to the communities in which hunting occurs.

It's estimated that 3-5% of the money goes back into the communities, making up a marginal .27% of the GDP. Some studies suggest these funds constitute only 1.8% of all tourism revenue in nine African countries and do not provide substantial employment opportunities for the local communities.

On the other hand, UNTWO reported that non-consumptive tourism such as wildlife viewing increases total tourism revenue by 80%.

Another study concluded that trophy hunting deepens an uneven and unfair distribution of wealth between workers and land owners, deepening economic fissures in the community.

The cost of relocating animals within these hunting areas is often equal to the cost of hunting them. In the case of endangered species, the money would be better spent transferring individuals from overpopulated geographic localities to areas short in that species rather than culling individuals in over-populated areas and thus reducing the low global population figures as a whole.

Herd of giraffe at sunset.
Photo by Martin Fennema


Landowners who auction animal life and host hunts also have a possible conflict of interest. When large sums of money are at stake, corruption is a typical risk factor. While they may never want a species to succumb to extinction, a healthy animal population size can sometimes run counter to a landowner's best interest, as the rarer an animal is, the more money landowners can charge for a hunt.

A comprehensive analytical report of the CITES trade database concludes that there is a strong link between hunting and poaching and that trophy hunting fuels corruption. Records from The US Fish and Wildlife show that there have been a reported 2,963 cases of sport trophy violations since 2010, and roughly 50% of these cases violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In information obtained from U.S. Fish and Wildlife through FOIA requests, of the people granted import permits between the dates of 1/1/2015 and 1/1/2018, a total of 518 were in violation of some U.S. or International Law, with the majority in violation of the Endangered Species Act or Lacey Act; This is roughly 30% of all people importing wildlife trophies.

Research has concluded that legal hunts of carnivores increase, not decrease, poaching.

Wildlife and environmental crimes such as this are hard to quantify because the perpetrators do not readily disclose evidence of their activities. Though government sanctioned hunts may result in a positive correlation between hunting and poaching, corrupt guides and governments could be tempted to allow questionable and fraudulent licensing or allow a hunt to continue past legal quotas to bring in a higher profit. In these cases, there is no clear boundary between hunting and poaching.  

The Ethical Concerns

For some, the argument about if trophy hunting is a useful conservation tool, while for others, it is an irrelevant debate. The practice is perceived as unethical and one that allows a select few hunters to kill species revered the world over.

Furthermore, the trophy hunters’ contradictory conservation claims don't go unnoticed as people wonder how someone can claim to care about animals while also taking their lives. Those who share this mindset argue that the merits of killing an animal for the sake of its protection appear grotesque and counterintuitive.

Mother elephant and calf in the bush with passing deer.
Photo by Sander Wehkamp

A Distraction

Trophy hunting distracts from other more successful and humane conservation efforts. Some countries like Botswana have banned hunting on public lands and have seen an increase in populations and a boost in their economy through eco-tourism. Though many factors contribute to this result, the ban on hunting does play a role in the change.

As concerns for dwindling wildlife increase and other conservation efforts prove successful, trophy hunting will likely continue to decrease in the court of public opinion.

If the hunters do indeed seek to save these animals, their money would be better spent on park rangers who risk their lives to protect the animals or to relocate individual animals from overpopulated geographic localities to lesser populated areas and thus reduce the detrimental effects of high concentrated populations while not decreasing the global community of an endangered species.


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