Alarm over trophy hunters taking aim at Amboseli’s ‘iconic giants’

Apr 10, 2024 | Commentary

By Tracy Keeling & Adam Cruise

Trophy hunters in Tanzania have killed individuals believed to be from a cross-border group of elephants, causing deep disquiet.

Trophy hunters reportedly killed three elephants in northern Tanzania between September 2023 and February this year. The events have caused alarm as the elephants are believed to have been members of a cross-border group that inhabits Kenya and Tanzania – known as the Amboseli elephants – whose targeting has apparently been off the table for decades.

The governor of Kenya’s Kajiado County, which is on course to take over management of the Amboseli National Park, expressed concern over the developments on 29 March. In a statement, H.E. Joseph Ole Lenku urged the government and pertinent institutions to “swiftly take action to halt the continued devastation of these iconic African giants.” He also called on relevant parties in Tanzania to consider the “long-term implications of such actions and to join us in preserving our shared natural heritage for future generations.”

Formalize the moratorium

Like many wild animals, elephants are a migratory species. Hundreds of the Amboseli elephants travel between parts of Kenya and Tanzania. They are one of the most closely studied groups in the world, through the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP).

Kenya doesn’t permit trophy hunting. Tanzania does allow it, including the hunting of elephants whose tusks are over a certain weight or size, which essentially makes it illegal to target younger individuals. But following an uproar over the killing of some AERP subjects in 1994, Tanzania banned the hunting of elephants in the relevant border areas. This moratorium has apparently been informally upheld since then.

As Africa Geographic reported, however, hunters killed a large-tusked male elephant in Tanzania’s Enduimet Wildlife Management Area in September 2023. The Amboseli Trust for Elephants identified this individual as a 35-year-old elephant named Gilgil who it said was “just entering his reproductive years.” A second killing occurred in a neighbouring area of land in November. This too was reportedly a male with large tusks. February brought news of a third death in the Enduimet region. All hunts are believed to have taken place legally, according to Big Life Foundation.

In response to the killings, conservationist Paula Kahumbu and around 50 other individuals – many of them representing wildlife-focused organisations – launched a petition calling on the Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu Hassan to formalize a ban on the trophy hunting of elephants within relevant areas of the Amboseli group’s range.

We approached Tanzanian and Kenyan wildlife authorities for comment but none was received by the time of publication.Subscribe

Good survival genes

The petition stressed that hunters target large-tusked elephants, referred to as super-tuskers if any one of their tusks weighs over 100lb. Africa Geographic reported that at least two of the slain elephants are believed to have been super-tuskers. There are only around 10 of them remaining in the Amboseli ecosystem, according to Big Life Foundation.

The Amboseli group’s large-tusked elephants are “critical for maintaining the population’s genetic propensity” for this particular trait, the petition said.

Super-tuskers are rare individuals. In 2019, Elephants Alive director Michelle Henley called for the protection of large-tusked elephants, warning that they are in decline.

Biologist Keith Lindsay, who has decades of experience in elephant conservation and research, explains that large tusks give males an advantage in competitions with other males for females. “So passing on those genes will mean more males with large tusks, which may also be a linked characteristic indicating strength and longevity, i.e. better survival,” he says.

“There would be an overall gain for the population if these good survival genes are spread through the offspring of their matings,” according to Lindsay.

Africa’s savannah and forest elephants are endangered and critically endangered, respectively. As such, the presence of genes in their populations that offer any advantages in this precarious situation are crucial.

Research has pointed to the particular importance of such genes amid rising climate change risks. A 2017 paper warned that selective killing of animals with the largest “secondary sexual traits” like large tusks, antlers, manes, or horns, amid “directional” environmental change risks population-level extinctions. This is because the traits are an indicator of the individual’s ability to adapt to the changing environment and pass those genes on.

The research suggested that where environmental change itself had even a low likelihood of eliminating a population, “selective harvest makes extinction a near-certainty.” However, it found that age restrictions on the killing of animals with such traits – so they can breed beforehand – “are effective at reducing the impact of selective harvest on adapting populations.”

Image via Benh LIEU SONG / Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Trophy hunters target these traits because they prize these animals for the same attributes that conservationists do. For instance, the trophy, when it comes to elephants, is the size of the tusks. The bigger the tusks the better the trophy, which is why super-tuskers top the list.

This points to one of the problems with trophy hunting, namely that it reverses the natural selection. Lions with the biggest manes, buffalo with the biggest horns and elephants with the heaviest tusks are one of nature’s ways of ensuring the survival of species. By targeting them, trophy hunting completely upends that.

The psychology behind their targeting of animals is often about winning a competition. Trophy hunters refer to themselves as sportsmen and women. The rule of the game is simple – the one who bags the biggest, the best, the most or the rarest wins. Hunting clubs organize competitions and give awards to hunters who achieve these goals. As a result, important genes are targeted and the survival of the species can be compromised.

Dwindling wildlife populations

Writing on X, Kahumbu dismissed the idea that hunting an elephant amounts to any kind of achievement, particularly given the high-tech nature of most modern hunts. She concluded:

It’s time to call out the cowardice of big game hunting for what it is: a shameful exercise in ego-stroking, and a disgusting display of dominion over nature that has no place in a world struggling to conserve its dwindling wildlife populations.

Wildlife populations are diminishing around the world for several reasons, including habitat loss, direct exploitation, climate change, pollution, and the presence of non-native species. Direct exploitation is the taking of wildlife – legally or illegally – for various uses and trade.

For African elephants in particular, the key threats presently are people illegally killing them for their ivory – generally referred to as poaching – and habitat loss, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Human-elephant conflict is also a significant threat, which is often related to the loss of habitat.

The role of older elephants

In hunters’ quest for targeting elephants with larger and heavier tusks, alongside understandable mandated restrictions on the killing of younger individuals, it means often older bulls are killed.

This is not without risk to the strength of elephant populations, for various reasons. For instance, a 2018 study found that male elephants intensify the effort they put into breeding as they get older. It also highlighted that “the reproductive success of a male elephant increases with age” due to certain factors.

In other words, both younger and older elephants have important roles in shoring up elephants’ threatened populations.

With older males being the target of both legal trophy hunting and illegal killing for their ivory, the researchers warned that “human-driven selection could drive fundamental changes to elephant reproductive tactics and life history, which could have lasting implications on elephant populations.”

Moreover, research by the University of Exeter, suggests that the removal of old male elephants could lead to increased human-wildlife conflict. The results found that with fewer old bull elephants around, elephants were more likely to be aggressive towards non-elephant targets such as vehicles, farmed animals and other species. The presence of more knowledgeable, older elephants in groups may play a key role in keeping the younger, less experienced males calm and lowering their perception of their current threat level, which means there’s less risk of aggression towards humans and other species.

On World Wildlife Day in March, Zimbabwe’s Centre for Natural Resource Governance – a civil society organisation that defends communities impacted by extractive industries – highlighted trophy hunting’s role in human-wildlife conflict when calling on its government to “ban trophy hunting and take leadership in campaigning against the practice on the African continent.”

Image via US Fish and Wildlife Service / Flickr, cropped to 1020×629, licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED

Proceed with caution

These research findings on elephants help to explain why trophy hunting of threatened species is coming under such scrutiny now. However, as Kenyan carnivore ecologist and conservation writer Mordecai Ogada has previously suggested, identifying negative conservation implications of certain types of animals being trophy hunted risks implying that other kinds might be ‘okay’ to kill.

For instance, when asked to provide scientific insights on the significance of dominant male lions being hunted, Ogada said the question “illustrates the danger posed by science to our sovereignty over our natural heritage.”

Answering it would be “to accept the ethical and scientific lie that calls sport hunting a conservation tool, with technical basis,” the ecologist added.

Still, several conservationists – and indeed trophy hunters – maintain that well-managed hunting is in the best interests of conservation.

Nonetheless, at a time of immense ecological upheaval for elephants and other wild species, others call for vigilance. As professor of environment and culture at Bath Spa University Sian Sullivan put it in a recent review of books on hunting, “The current pace of environmental and climate change warrants precaution in the hunting of animals globally.” 

News of the big tusker deaths emerged as some lawmakers in countries where international hunters hail from agreed to limit the import of trophies and others renewed efforts to move forward with such restrictions.

The killings also triggered pressure from the Pro Elephant Network on US authorities to ban imports of elephant trophies in particular. The US ultimately failed to do this but it has tightened the rules on imports.

Elephants’ immense value

In his statement, Kajiado governor Lenku expressed respect for the sovereignty of each nation but stressed the importance of collaboration in managing transboundary wildlife. Referring to the decades-long moratorium, he said the measure has been established due to the Amboseli elephants’ “immense value to global heritage, tourism promotion, and scientific research.”

The large-tusked elephants in the region are a significant draw for visitors. Lindsay says that in attracting ecotourists, the elephants bring money to wildlife agencies and local communities, through employment and any benefit sharing, along with the tourism industry and “its multiplier effects on suppliers.”

Such income matters to some community-owned conservancies in Kenya. It also matters to some community-owned management areas in Tanzania, as their income streams can include revenue from non-consumptive tourism or trophy hunting – sometimes both.

For instance, in Tanzania’s Enduimet Wildlife Management Area (WMA), where hunters reportedly killed the large-tusked elephant named Gilgil, photographic tourism and trophy hunting accounted for 55 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of its revenue in 2017-18, according to a 2019 report by the US Agency for International Development.

A 2016 paper highlighted that Enduimet WMA reduced its number of hunting areas in 2011. This happened amid a relative consensus among WMA members at that stage that “for the most part, trophy hunting represents more harm than good,” according to the paper.

Far-reaching impacts

Lenku also pointed to concerns that further hunting permits have been issued, which he said were exacerbating anxieties about “the future of these iconic creatures and the efficacy of conservation strategies.”

Further targeting could impact the elephants’ behaviour, which would have various ramifications. Lindsay says that a significant proportion of the Amboseli elephants spend time in the Enduiment area at present. He warns it is likely that “if the killing continues, the elephants in the part of the population using that area will become aware of the danger and will avoid it. This would limit their use of valuable foraging habitat and could push them back into Kenya, where there is growing potential for human-elephant conflict.”

Moreover, elephants are important keystone and umbrella species, alongside being ecosystem engineers. In sum, this means they help to shape landscapes and create conditions that other species benefit from. Accordingly, their loss from landscapes will be felt across ecosystems.

This post was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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