UK conservationists must stop spreading deceptive trophy hunting narratives

Sep 10, 2023 | Commentary

By Jared Kukura – The Canary

The debate over trophy hunting has been raging in the UK again. As Sian Sullivan previously wrote for the Canarypro-trophy hunting lobbyists turned their sights on the House of Lords when it was debating a ban on hunting imports. Afterwards, Sullivan faced a backlash from some pro-hunting conservation groups. However, this was unsurprising given the interests at play, and the tactics pro-trophy hunting groups are known to use.

Trophy hunting’s large-scale PR ops

In short, the trophy hunting industry conducts large-scale public relations campaigns to defeat proposed regulations like the UK’s Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill. The industry has sometimes used misleading and false narratives that a small-but-vocal contingent of UK conservationists spread in opinion articles and interviews.

For example, UK conservationists critical of the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill claim there is no evidence bans help wildlife. This claim is false. Researchers in Zambia published a paper that showed immense biological benefits for lions in the years following a ban.

An issue with the evaluation of trophy hunting is separating negative biological consequences from positive economic benefits. Pro-trophy hunting conservationists accuse anti-hunting groups of understating the economic benefits to African communities. However, as Mongabay reported on the subject:

  • Namibia is often cited as a case study to make arguments for trophy hunting, a morally contentious practice that has been adapted into a conservation strategy there by various stakeholders including community-based conservancies.
  • But a 2016 study of the total revenue generated by trophy hunting revealed that 92% went to ‘freehold’ landowners, over 70% of whom are white, while less than 8% went to communal conservancies.

The majority of any benefits trickle up – not down. A leaked audit report from the Tcheku Community Trust revealed that the 627 households in communities near the Okavango Delta hardly benefitted from trophy hunting. Most benefits went directly into the pockets of the hunting operator, co-owned by one of Botswana’s wealthiest men and a few local elites.

he hunting operator only paid the trust $98,700 of the $179,500 it owed for hunting access to Botswana’s NG13 region in 2022. About a third of the payment went to trust employees’ exorbitant salaries. Jobs intended for the communities went to trust board members.

Misleading narratives

The UK’s pro-trophy hunting conservationists also spread the narrative that African communities want trophy hunting, and that it’s Western animal rights groups who want to ban it. This narrative is also misleading.

For example, researchers in Namibia published a paper about a survey that showed community members supported the industry and opposed bans. However, the researchers had potential conflicts of interest that were reflected in the biases of their survey. For example, a research paper form 2018 tried to assert that:not one of the respondents raised any ethical concerns about hunting for sports by wealthy individuals who mostly come from a much wealthier background in the West.However, a later paper listing problems with the earlier study stated that:

The example survey provided in the paper, however, suggests that this particular issue was not included in the questions asked.

Meanwhile, researchers in Botswana published a paper that showed local communities approved of trophy hunting. However, the research was conducted by American hunting group Safari Club International Foundation’s (SCIF’s) partners at the Okavango Research Institute.

Opposition in Africa

The lead researcher was part of a team that requested SCIF funding in 2019 for a project called Assessing the Impacts of Safari Hunting and Implications of a Hunting Ban in Botswana, Namibia, and the greater Kavango- Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. It sought to:

provide support for the importance of safari hunting for wildlife management and rural communities in Botswana and Namibia.

There is a long history of African communities opposing colonial practices like trophy hunting. Hidden away in the industry’s 1996 Strategic Plan for Africa is a series of admissions about African communities’ negative views about trophy hunting. The document noted that an anti-hunting movement was “near crisis situation in Botswana”. It also said there was:

strong evidence to indicate that high level people within DWNP [Department of Wildlife and National Parks] are anti-hunting and wish to phase trophy hunting out over 20 years.

Industry representatives were concerned that the chief of Nagamiland, “who oversees one of the major hunting areas in Botswana, the Okavango Delta,” was “anti-hunting.”

The strategic plan also stated that the:

anti-hunting movement in Tanzania is mainly a grass-roots movement. Because people see no benefits from hunting or wildlife, they see hunters as people who are shooting out the game with no benefits to them. The Parliamentarian from Maasailand has openly stated that he will request that all hunting in his jurisdiction be closed. The message is out that “trophy hunting is destructive.

Lobbyists’ disinformation

Furthermore, pro-hunting lobbyists have also introduced potential disinformation into the trophy hunting debate.

American groups conducted a $2m disinformation campaign that intentionally deceived social media users to shape “a positive global narrative around hunting and sustainable use”, according to a 2019 SCIF grant request I obtained. The campaign published content criticising the UK’s desire to ban hunting trophies imports.

The American-led SCIF disinformation campaign attacked and helped overturn Botswana’s hunting ban – specifically, a 2014 ban centered on elephants. The industry’s disinformation agents said they reached millions of Botswana citizens and:

deployed a dual track communications strategy to educate Botswanans, NGO, hunting and grassroots communities with a top down bottom up narrative designed to educate the elites and decision makers, while simultaneously reinforcing that education with an organic grassroots echo.

And, as I previously wrote on Wild Things Initiative:

It is not surprising Botswana’s President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, lifted the elephant hunting moratorium in May 2019 and was subsequently invited to accept the International Legislator of the Year Award at the 2020 Safari Club International Convention in Reno, Nevada.

Overall, the UK contingent of pro-trophy hunting conservationists must stop spreading deceptive narratives. They risk cementing conservation as a tool for the wealthy to exploit wild animals and impoverished communities.

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