Must We Really Kill Endangered Rhinos and Elephants to Save Them?

Researchers say trophy hunting in places such as Ethiopia generates desperately needed cash to preserve habitats being destroyed by agriculture.

Ethiopia's mountain nyala. (Photo: Gabrielle and Michel Therin-Weise/Getty Images)

Mar 27, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Over the past quarter century, Ethiopia has lost 90 percent of its elephants. Of its other large mammals, at least six species—the black rhinoceros, the African wild ass, the Ethiopian wolf, the mountain nyala, the Walia ibex, and the Grévy’s zebra—are slinking toward oblivion. Could trophy hunting be one way to turn this grim decline around? That is, could killing endangered animals help to save them? That’s what a new study, published earlier this month in the journal Conservation Biology, suggests.

Let’s acknowledge up front that big game hunting, especially in Africa, arouses strong emotions. When Melissa Bachman, host of a hunting show on cable television, grinned for the camera a few years ago beside a lion she had just killed, the photo didn’t just go viral: It also garnered nearly 500,000 signatures on a petition to ban her from South Africa. When Namibia auctioned off the right to shoot a trophy black rhino last year, the winning bidder harvested a boatload of death threats.

But for many African countries, big game hunts generate millions of dollars in revenue every year, both from trophy fees and from the money hunters spend on their multi-week trips. “Hunters spend 10 to 25 times more than regular tourists,” Alexander Songorwa, director of wildlife for the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, wrote in a 2013 New York Times op-ed.

He was arguing against a proposal that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service list the lion as an endangered species, which would have effectively ended trophy hunting. “The millions of dollars that hunters spend to go on safari here each year,” he said, “help finance the game reserves, wildlife management areas and conservation efforts in our rapidly growing country.”

Trophy hunting revenue in Ethiopia amounts to only about $1 million to $2 million a year, nothing like the cash generated in South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, and other countries. Even so, that revenue “plays a substantial role in rural economies” near Ethiopia’s 40 or so controlled hunting areas, according to the new study, and that can lead to greater protection of wildlife areas.

When some of that revenue gets properly distributed to provide jobs, schools, water wells, and other community benefits, it gives people an incentive to leave wild areas more or less intact. Otherwise, land is rapidly being swallowed up for agriculture and other human needs. The new study suggests that big game hunters are not only aware of the close connection between protecting wildlife habitat and supporting local communities but also willing to pay thousands of dollars extra to strengthen that connection.

For the study, Anke Fischer, of the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, and her coauthors surveyed 224 big game hunters, most of them with experience hunting in Africa. The goal was to understand what they value in a hunting area and what might encourage them to come to Ethiopia. The survey calculated these attitudes in terms of what it called WTP: “willingness to pay.” The hunters said, on average, that they would pay up to $3,900 more if they could be assured that 10 percent of their total hunting fees would go to local communities—and $2,000 less if that share ended up with the central government. Hunting in areas where domestic livestock was also grazing reduced the value of the trip by $2,000 on average. The potential to see lots of wildlife, including non–target species, caused a spike in WTP.

“Many prospective hunters were worried about the future of wildlife in Ethiopia,” the study concluded, “and would like trophy hunting to further conservation aims.” Fischer, who is not a hunter, said she was struck by the “passion for wildlife conservation” shown by the hunters in their comments and responses. “Ethiopia is a strikingly beautiful country with great potential but dwindling wildlife resources,” one hunter remarked.

Can attitudes expressed in a survey make any real difference on the ground? Consider, for instance, the mountain nyala, an antelope with huge, elegantly curving horns and double white stripes on its face. The Ethiopian government issues up to 40 permits a year to kill these endangered animals, which are found nowhere else in the world. The trophy fee is $15,000 per animal. A photo of a trophy hunter posing beside the corpse of such an animal is an easy target for environmental outrage.

But the major threat to survival of the mountain nyala comes from habitat loss due to agriculture and livestock overgrazing, more than from hunting, said Nils Bunnefeld, a conservation scientist at Scotland’s University of Stirling, who has studied the nyala but was not involved in the recent research. “If these pressures on the population can be removed,” by increased protection of controlled hunting areas, for example, “the population can increase,” he said, allowing for the sustainable hunting of some nyala. But it’s essential to monitor wildlife populations to ensure that hunting quotas are set at the correct levels.

Sharing revenue fairly also matters, said Fischer. “Any land that you can’t use for agriculture, because it’s being used for hunting, is land that doesn’t benefit the local population at that moment,” she said. The only way to reduce resentment and ensure acceptance of that set-aside is for the local community to get a share of hunting revenue, and for that share to be distributed in ways that make a visible difference to people’s lives.

The unspoken driver in this dynamic is human population growth. Ethiopia now has 97 million people, up from 89 million in 2011. The national government has recognized that it cannot sustain that growth rate, and new programs have dramatically increased contraceptive use. Meanwhile, the only hope for protecting wildlife is to make it valuable to this growing human community. You may not like trophy hunting, but it is the fastest way to accomplish that. As one hunter put it in his survey response, developing and properly managing the hunting industry now “represents the best and perhaps last chance for Ethiopian wildlife.”