Trophy hunting incentivises killing of endangered animals, warns Zambian environmentalist

May 17, 2022 | Commentary

By Tracy Keeling – The Canary

Germany has become the latest European country to announce a potential ban on the import of hunting trophies. The move comes as those who support the practice have increased pressure on European politicians to continue with the status quo. And they argue that ‘Africa isn’t being heard’ on the issue.

The Canary spoke with the co-founder of environmental NGO Mizu Eco-Care in Zambia to hear his thoughts on the subject. Timothy Kamuzu Phiri said he belongs to the school of thought that values wild animals while they’re alive, not dead, especially when it comes to endangered species. He argued that giving value to them after death is like putting “a ransom on their heads”.

Incentivising killing

A 2021 report from Human Society International (HSI) showed that the EU is the second largest importer of body parts from wild animals killed for sport. The US, meanwhile, is the largest importer. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, it brought in more than 700,000 trophies between 2016 and 2020.

Now, Germany has announced its intent to limit trophy hunting imports, as some other European countries have also done. The announcement follows the government receiving a letter on the issue from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Commission on Environmental Law Ethics Specialist Group (WCEL ESG). The group wrote a report in 2017 that concluded trophy hunting was inconsistent with the IUCN’s “general objectives”. And its conclusions flew in the face of staunch support for “well-managed” trophy hunting by the IUCN’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Group (SULi).

Professor Klaus Bosselmann, who was chair of the WCEL ESG at the time of the report, welcomed Germany’s announcement. He said:

Trophy hunting unnecessarily threatens the survival and genetic integrity of protected species in the midst of the current crisis of the sixth mass species extinction.

Phiri shares this sentiment. He told The Canary that placing a financial value on endangered species after death “puts them at risk, as it adds an incentive to have them killed”. As such, he doesn’t support trophy hunting or attempts by officials to sell off trophies, such as ivory, seized from poachers.

Not a threat

An event in Brussels on 26 April discussed the impact that hunting has on animals from a different angle. The pro-hunting European Parliament Intergroup on “Biodiversity Hunting Countryside” organised that session. It was titled “Is Africa being heard? Hunting, Conservation and Livelihoods“. Speakers included Namibia’s minister of environment, secretary-general of the global wildlife trade body, and IUCN SULi’s chair.

Trophy hunting plays a big part in Namibia’s model of conservation. Namibian minister Pohamba Shifeta said the model has “produced excellent results”. He argued that there’s more wildlife in the country now than “at any time in the last hundred years”. Others have asserted that wildlife populations have seen significant declines in parts of the country. Moreover, the government’s methodology for counting elephants in particular has faced scrutiny.

Meanwhile, IUCN SULi chair Dilys Roe said that “trophy hunting is not listed as a major threat to any species on the Red List”. The IUCN produces this Red List, which documents the status of threatened species. In its letter to the German government, however, WCEL ESG highlighted a 2019 report that listed direct exploitation of organisms – e.g. hunting – as the second largest driver of biodiversity loss. This global report was published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Community benefits

Speakers at the Brussels-based event argued that trophy hunting provides benefits to communities where it occurs in the form of income and meat. This is a core tenet of the ‘trophy hunting is conservation’ logic. As proponents say that such benefits incentivise people to conserve wildlife.

But Phiri suggested otherwise. Because engaging with local communities is a key part of Mizu Eco-Care‘s work. It aims to “be a leading platform for mindset change and a paradigm shift towards environmental sustainability”. Phiri founded the initiative in 2019 with his younger brother Innocent Kondwani Phiri after years working in science education and environmental education in a secondary school and the University of Zambia.

According to Phiri, based on what he knows “to be true on the ground”, trophy hunting benefits those in positions of privilege more than it does local communities. He highlighted that there’s a difference between the amount of money on paper that communities appear to receive from hunting and what happens in practice, saying:

We have to look at where that money goes. A percentage has to go to the chief. A percentage has to go to the community scouts. They are not paid by government, they are paid by the money that comes in through trophy hunting. After that’s put aside, how much of the money actually ends up with the people?

Where the money goes

These comments echo findings from a 2021 undercover investigation. It spotlighted Namibia’s Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) model. In this model, communities manage nature – including its exploitation – within their designated areas. The investigation presented the picture of a system whereby income from trophy hunting, and other uses of wildlife, benefits community officials and staff like wildlife guards. But in terms of providing meaningful income and support to the wider community, the investigation suggested the system was lacking.

As conservation scientist Frown Becker pointed out in Mongabay, meanwhile, trophy hunting revenue in Namibia overwhelmingly flows to freehold farmers rather than CBNRMs. Becker highlighted a study that attributed 92% of revenue to freehold land in 2016, rather than community-run areas. According to a 2018 report, white people own over 70% of freehold land in the country.

Moreover, trophy hunting is a business. So part of the fees paid go to individuals and companies involved in the transaction. These include professional hunting guides and trophy hunting companies. A recent investigation by Botswana’s Sunday Standard, for example, alleged that the company Old Man’s Pan Propriety Limited “bullied” a community trust in the Okavango Delta to sell its elephant quota to it at a dramatically reduced rate. This means that the community will only receive around a third of what is the “going rate” for the targeted elephants.

An enduring colonialist structure

Phiri also spoke about the history of colonialism in Africa. During this time the colonisers – who engaged in excessive trophy hunting – excluded people from accessing land through the creation of national parks. He suggested that contemporary trophy hunting is part of an enduring colonialist structure. And many communities are still unable to hunt or have access themselves. They are “meant to be content” with a low percentage of income from fees paid and “some meat”, he said.

At the Brussels event, Roe said that the meat communities get from wild animals killed for trophies is a “really understated and underplayed benefit”. Phiri said that he personally finds this element of the pro-hunting argument “very insulting”. He commented:

What are people in a vulnerable position meant to do? People that are starving, people that don’t have the right to hunt anymore?

Phiri further stated that though communities may appear content with this setup, this is a “mentality that’s been inculcated [instilled] in them through the years”. He argued that when policies have been in place for decades, that influences how people feel and think. Moreover, he said many people may not be in a position to provide a fully-informed view on whether what’s happening is fair. That’s because they’re not “empowered enough about their rights” in relation to their country’s natural resources.

That’s not justice

Phiri himself believes that trophy hunting is not a fair conservation tool. He accepts that it’s part of Zambia’s landscape currently, as the country’s tourism sector is lagging behind neighbouring countries. But if tourism sector can ‘up its game’, he said, the country would no longer “have the excuse of having to depend on trophy hunting”.

He also insisted that the government could – and should – spend more on environmental protection. The Zambian government allocates less than one per cent of its budget to that end, Phiri asserted. This is “convenient” for private stakeholders, like trophy hunting enterprises, who can subsequently claim to be the only avenue for conservation funding. For them, it’s big business – a money-generating venture – he said. The Mizu Eco-Care co-founder stated:

Let’s realise how unfair this ‘conservation tool’ is, it’s skewed against communities in favour of those with money and connections. For me that’s not justice

Justice for Elle

Phiri’s concerns about justice aren’t exclusive to humans. In response to a highly controversial trophy hunt of a big tusker elephant in Botswana, he wrote a letter of apology to the elephant. To be a big tusker, elephants have to have at least one tusk weighing 100 pounds. Currently, there are only a few dozen left in the world. But in the space of a few weeks, people paid to kill two of them in BotswanaAfrica Geographic reported. According to the Sunday Standard, the professional hunter involved in one of those killings, Leon Kachelhoffer, is a shareholder in Old Man’s Pan Propriety Limited.

Phiri’s letter apologised to “Elle”. It pointed to the disconnect between people’s “fond bond” with Elle in youth, when he brought in a “handsome penny” through tourism, and old age. Once older, we “forgot you are a sentient being,” the letter said, and “sold you to the highest bidder”. “Forgive us”, Phiri wrote, for ‘betraying you like this’.

Justice for all

This speaks to the “mindset change” that Mizu Eco-Care wants to facilitate. Phiri told The Canary that there’s currently a “disconnected” relationship between people and the rest of the living world. This is because many people are facing extreme poverty and are “desperate for survival”. People have also embraced a new idea of success that’s largely based on attaining “unsustainable” material wealth, such as bigger houses and cars, he said.

Phiri believes that people “need to get back to being more connected to nature through embracing healthy aspects of their traditions”. He argued that we need “wisdom from the past” to move forward sustainably and “take care of nature”. Focusing on mindset change is an essential part of this. Phiri explained that empowering people with knowledge on why – not just what – things need to change makes a shift in mindset possible. He said:

If we truly renew the way people perceive themselves, their connection to nature, what is truly important, what is the true definition of success in life, as a people… not the superficial definition of success… if we go that path then we can reconnect with nature.

Clearly, for Mizu Eco-Care, that path forward doesn’t include trophy hunting. It is actively seeking a future where there’s justice for all.

Tracy Keeling is an environmental writer at The Canary, with a background in theatre and education. Determined to help build a safer, kinder world for creatures great and small.

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