By Jared Kukura – Wild Things Initiative
Botswana’s upcoming hunting season puts 272 elephants in the crosshairs of wealthy foreigners’ rifles. Trophy hunting’s proponents have attempted to shut down opposition by claiming the high ground in the science versus emotion debate. There is a pervasive idea in many conservation circles that the only thing more dangerous than wildlife is an emotional attachment to it.
But those 272 elephants represent more than just numbers on a spreadsheet. And while there is merit to preventing our emotions from skewing results of scientific studies, our refusal to recognize the emotions of other species is a major failure of wildlife conservation. In fact, the more science advances our understanding of elephants, the more we realize how the long-term psychological damage caused by hunting can negatively impact conservation efforts.
Science shows hunting bull elephants is connected with short-term elevated stress levels throughout the remaining elephant population. Bulls present in the area of a successful hunt experience the biggest changes in stress levels but aren’t the only ones affected. Bulls pass information of these events to cows, increasing their stress levels.
It can be argued the physiological stress response to hunting is only a short-term repercussion and, therefore, not enough to deem the practice unethical. However, the dissemination of information regarding traumatic events leads to long-term psychological effects that can negatively impact conservation goals.
Elephants in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park were heavily poached during the country’s civil war from 1977 and 1992. While the poaching threat has decreased, elephants are still wary and aggressivetowards humans. They are known to group together and charge vehicles, making them prime targets for lethal management techniques. After all, how many times have we heard the excuse we must hunt elephants to reduce human-elephant conflict?
Pilanesberg National Park’s elephant orphans also demonstrate the long-term impacts of traumatic conservation practices. The park’s elephants experienced culls and translocations in their past and performed poorly when distinguishing between calls from other individuals. In contrast, elephants in Amboseli National Park were not subject to past traumatic conservation practices and performed exceptionally on the test.
As well, a breakdown in elephant social structure can impact the survival of future generations due to poor recognition of predatory threats. Elephant herds with older matriarchs respond better to predatory threats than herds with younger matriarchs. When we step in with lethal management, we’re disrupting the lines of communication that have helped elephants survive in the wild.
It’s easy for us to only focus on the numbers when we try to justify hunting other species. Our lack of empathy has been promoted as a cornerstone of proper, scientific wildlife management. But empathy towards other species is exactly what science needs to progress.
This is especially true when we look at the issue of human-elephant conflict. Past management techniques have focused on our species’ concerns and failed to address the root of the problem. Scientists argue we can “do more by investigating elephant behavior, cognition and ecology at the level of the individual to prevent conflict from occurring in the first place.”
Botswana’s elephant hunting season falls in line with the lethal management techniques of old. But science has progressed enough to where it is no longer acceptable to promote elephant hunting due to the long-term psychological damage that inevitably ensues. It’s time to modernize wildlife conservation, it’s time to stop hunting elephants.