Banning trophy hunting amid COVID-19 threatens African wildlife and livelihoods

Hunting African lions is controversial but legal in Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Mozambique.

Griffith University scientists have revealed the devastating effects a trophy hunting ban will have on wildlife conservation and livelihoods in Africa.

Although controversial, their research published in Conservation Science and Practice indicates that the practice of trophy hunting conserves land that wouldn’t otherwise be protected.

Dr Duan Biggs, leader of the Resilient Conservation Research Group at the Environmental Futures Research Institute

Dr Duan Biggs, leader of the Resilient Conservation Research Group at the Environmental Futures Research Institute worked with a group of international collaborators to investigate the effect a trophy hunting ban would have on South African landowners, who hold the majority of the hunting market in Africa.

In an article published this week in The Conversation, the researchers stress the timeliness and importance of their findings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated the African tourism economy.

“Trophy hunting is facing increasing pressure due to perceptions as being grotesque and morally reprehensible, with many groups calling for a complete ban,” Dr Biggs said.

Hunters from the USA, Russia, Spain and other global locations travel across the continent to hunt animals from the size of small antelope to 200kg male lions.

Dr Biggs and colleagues’ research suggests that, despite its negative perception, trophy hunting conserves broad swathes of land not otherwise be protected. These areas contribute about USD$ 200 million annually to African economies, supporting millions of livelihoods.

“Our study explored how private landowners would respond to a legislative hunting ban being lobbied for by several NGO’s and international governments,” said Dr Hayley Clements, a member the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at the University of Stellenbosch.

A wide variety of large mammals are hunted for sport in Africa including lions, buffalo, leopards and even adult African elephants. Former bans of elephant hunting were recently lifted in Botswana. Image: Alex Braczkowski

“Private conservation land, where trophy hunting occurs, comprise about 14-17% of South Africa, that’s more conservation land than in national parks,” said Dr Alta De Vos from Rhodes University, who co-led the study.

“This hunting land is critically important as it provides linkages between private and public conservation areas, and funds further conservation efforts.”

“It turns out that about two thirds of landowners in South Africa would move away from a wildlife-based land use if trophy hunting is banned,” Dr Biggs said.

Dr Biggs and his colleagues then asked whether ecotourism could be a viable alternative to trophy hunting.

Their study of South African private conservation landowners found a switch to photographic tourism wasn’t feasible for the majority, due to the financial constraints related to entering and competing in an already saturated tourism market.

“High-end photographic safaris are often touted as an alternative solution to trophy hunting, but only one third of our 22 respondents said that they would switch to photo safaris or intensify the wildlife viewing they already have”, said Kim Parker, co-lead researcher from Rhodes University.

Photographic tourism for rare species like this shoebill stork has all but dried up continent-wide in Africa since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Alex Braczkowski

“Evidence shows that hunters will travel to politically unstable and risky destinations to hunt, and severing limited funding in an already strained system would be catastrophic for both wildlife conservation and livelihoods in many parts of Africa,” said Dr Biggs.

“Advocacy groups and the policy makers they’re pressuring to end all trophy hunting need to consider these potential ramifications of hunting bans, especially in the current COVID-19 climate.

“Alternative revenue streams and transition plans must be developed with landholders and communities where hunting is a key source of income to sustain both conservation land use and livelihoods before the implementation of any ban.”