By Jared Kukura – Wild Things Initiative
Despite the best efforts of powerful pro-hunting organizations, perception will never outweigh facts. Trophy hunting was, and continues to be, a sport built upon Western countries exploiting African wildlife and people.
Many Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs), like Humane Society International (HSI), lobby against trophy hunting in Africa on the basis of science and morality. However, proponents of trophy hunting counter those arguments on the basis African countries want the practice continued. They claim economic and conservation benefits contradicting most recent studies.
Its one thing to argue about perceived benefits of a destructive process and the interpretation of scientific studies and another to argue trophy hunting is an “African” practice. To many hunting groups and lobbyists, anyone who disagrees with trophy hunting is trying to enforce their radical views on countries who don’t want them.
In other words, if foreign groups think African countries should ban trophy hunting, they are enforcing a new form of colonialism. But the reality is the opposite. Those proposing trophy hunting are the ones promoting colonialist attitudes.
Anyone looking at the history of trophy hunting in Africa will agree there were strong colonial undertones. The British rule over present-day Kenya serves as a perfect backdrop for the story of trophy hunting’s beginnings on the continent.
Towards the end of the 1800s, Europe’s first wave of hunters were groups of explorers and traders bent on killing huge sums of wildlife. Adventurers needed meat to feed themselves and their exploration teams while traders sought to benefit from the ivory industry. All types of European hunters during this time saw wildlife as resource for exploitation is some form or another.
There was a shift in the type of European hunter after the turn of the century. The early 1900s saw an increase in white settlers in Kenya. White settlers sought to eliminate wildlife and clear out competition for land and resources.
Wildlife numbers continued to be decimated through direct hunting but also thanks to habitat destruction and the introduction of fences. Hunting was no longer about sustaining oneself or profiting off the ivory trade. Hunting was now about eliminating competitors for land.
Wildlife species, such as rhinos or elephants, were routinely killed if they ventured onto private lands or if they were seen as a nuisance.
The influx of foreign hunters during this time were of considerable wealth. It was still difficult and expensive to travel to East Africa. Very few were allowed the privilege to hunt wildlife in this part of the world.
Theodore Roosevelt ventured to the continent in 1909 a few weeks after his presidency ended in the United States. Funded by the Smithsonian, Roosevelt and team brought back over 11,000 specimens for the museum. Roosevelt was personally responsible for hundreds of kills, according to his diaries.
While it is true Kenyans were hunting wildlife at high numbers before the British arrived, there was a distinct change after they arrived. Being under colonial rule, many native Africans became subservient in some regards.
Legal restrictions and high costs prevented many Africans from obtaining the weapons needed to join Europeans in their hunting prowess. Africans went from being the primary hunters to skinners, cooks, porters, and trackers supporting hunters.
Wildlife continued to be a source of exploitation but now served to stroke the egos of wealthy powerful foreigners. Where hunters were previously ardent explorers toughing out a living at the expense of wildlife, the new era of hunters relied on their wealth to prove their worth.
Roosevelt, in particular, spent much of his life attempting to prove his manliness. Growing up in a wealthy family and suffering from asthma, Roosevelt yearned for a more wild life. He succeeded in becoming one of America’s most influential naturalists but his hunting escapades in Africa were a result of his wealth and social stature.
Hunters, during the time, could afford all the comforts of home. Teams of guides, porters, and cooks catered to their every whim. Hunters could expect to start the day with coffee in bed and a full breakfast waiting for them. After a few hours of hunting they would come back for an afternoon siesta with food and drinks before leaving for another couple hours of hunting before sunset.
If African trophy hunting during the early 1900s was steeped in colonial attitudes, what’s changed in the last century? Unfortunately, not much.
It’s true many hunting business owners and professional hunters are now native Africans. However, most of those individuals are simply descendants from the original generation of expatriates. It is a case of wealthy expatriates setting up their future generations for success on the continent.
Thanks to the high levels of poaching and increased chance of extinction, hunting is off limits for many Africans who are too poor to afford the high fees associated with hunting. Many Africans are still limited to subservient positions of cooks and trackers with a few now becoming professional hunters and an even smaller amount of hunting business owners.
Similar to the past, species like elephants are still hunted to reduce conflict with farmers. A large part of the industry is built on foreigners coming to protect innocent locals by killing pesky wildlife.
The trophy hunters are still mainly foreigners just now with Americans being the gross majority. The United States imported more than 1.26 million wildlife trophies from 2005 to 2014. And when it comes to vulnerable and endangered animals, no country comes close to matching the United States’ prowess. Over 500,000 trophies from CITES-listed mammals were imported to the United States from 2011 to 2015. China was the next largest importer with less than 100,000 trophies.
Five of the ten most imported trophies come from African species like impala and wildebeest. South Africa and Namibia are two of the three countries of origin for American hunters’ trophies. The simple facts are Americans are driving the demand for the sport.
Descendants of expatriates are making money off wealthy Western foreigners exploiting wildlife so how is trophy hunting argued as an “African” practice?
All that money hunters pay for a trophy kill doesn’t solely go back to conservation, despite what the industry wants the public to think. A lot of the money goes directly into the pockets of powerful hunting organizations.
Groups like Dallas Safari Club, sister organization Safari Club International (Arizona-based), and Conservation Force (Lousiana-based) are powerful lobbyists. Conservation Force is a member of the IUCN, an observer for CITES, and has consultative status with the United Nations.
The Conservation Force’s goal is to promote the “positive perception and perceived relevance of the hunting and angling conservation community.”
The money and power they hold allow them to accomplish their goal of promoting a positive perception with many of the unassuming public.
And part of Conservation Force’s attempts at promoting a positive perception comes from the negative perception wealthy industry leaders promote about organizations like HSI. Trophy hunting advocates are essentially the child caught in a lie telling an adult they’re lying.
Colonial trophy hunting in the early 1900s benefitted wealthy foreigners and exploited both native wildlife and people. Trophy hunting, today, continues the tradition of exploiting native wildlife and people. European countries and the United States need to take initiative and distance themselves from organizations like the Safari Club and Conservation Force.
Photo credit: Jared Kukura