Opinion: Hunters’ Demand for Elephant Trophies Should Not Take Precedence Over Government Accountability

By Katarzyna Nowak

While positive steps have been taken by governments to protect elephants and their ecosystems, private hunting companies are working hard to undermine the potential gains.

Recent regulatory controls include a U.S. ban on the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe. These two African elephant range states (the former officially in the “Gang of 19”) are still largely characterized by elephant population declines, poor (but improving) adherence to CITES directives, and corruption in the hunting sector (see below on “Hunting Violations”), as well as among government authorities who implement wildlife regulations (see recent article by WCS’s Elizabeth Bennett; also, recent findings by WildLeaks).

Texas-based Hunting Club Bucks U.S. Government

Tanzania’s Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, Lazaro Nyalandu, recently visited Texas at the invitation (and presumably on the bill) of the Dallas Safari Club (DSC), which then released the following statement: “Tanzania’s top wildlife official…says that the U.S. ban on importing ivory would not curb illicit trafficking…but instead benefit poachers.”

It is worrying that the U.S.-based club is lobbying foreign governmental officials to fight back against regulations imposed by its own government administration.

Fight back on what grounds? How can balanced observers not suspect self-serving politicking to benefit short-term financial interests?

And what does the DSC not grasp about Obama’s “whole of government approach” toward tackling wildlife trafficking, which requires national and international cooperation and partnership?

According to the U.S. Judge’s 12-page decision to uphold the ban, “The agency’s announcement did not prohibit anyone from hunting African elephants in Zimbabwe or Tanzania or anywhere else; it did not bar plaintiff or its members from organizing elephant hunts or earning income by providing services to hunting enthusiasts; and it did not restrict anyone’s ability to support the conservation of elephants.”

In the meantime, The Humane Society is advocating that the ban be broadened to include all African countries that allow elephant hunting. 

“If American trophy hunters were sincere, they could invest their wealth directly to fight illegal killing,” wrote Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, in a CNN opinion piece in June 2014. “Against tremendous pressure from a small cadre of hunters and others who want to trade in ivory, including the folks at Safari Club International [SCI], the United States has taken strong steps against the trade in ivory goods.”

Sport Hunting of Little Benefit to Local Communities

Last year, Economists at Large released a report that rippled through conservation circles and thoroughly refuted claims that sport hunting is a large industry that benefits local communities and national economies.

Tanzania and Zimbabwe featured in their analysis, which found that hunting revenue in these two countries expressed as a percentage of tourism revenue was a mere 2.3 percent (Tanzania) and 3.2 percent (Zimbabwe), with non-consumptive tourism (in other words, game viewing, with animals neither caught nor killed) making up the balance.

And these were the top two countries of the nine included in the analysis that are benefiting from non-consumptive tourism. If tourism revenue is expressed as a percentage of GDP, Tanzania’s equals 6.1 percent, and Zimbabwe’s, 6.4 percent.

Interestingly, the country with the highest gain from hunting at the time of the report was Botswana, at 11.7 percent (hunting revenue as percentage of tourism revenue). Despite having relatively more to lose, Botswana banned trophy hunting last year after concluding that “The shooting of wild game for sport and trophies is no longer compatible with our commitment to preserve local fauna.”

Tanzania’s New Hunting Rule

Before the ban, CITES permitted Botswana to export 800 pieces of trophy ivory a year (essentially, tusks from 400 elephants).

Zimbabwe’s CITES quota is 1,000 pieces (tusks from 500 elephants). Tanzania’s quota is 400 pieces (tusks from 200 elephants), but this June, Minister Nyalandu made strides by halving Tanzania’s elephant hunting quota to 100 elephants. 

Controlled hunting helps restore habitats too. “Ecological theory suggests that large areas of tropical forests will tend to return to their original structure and species composition wherever hunting can be controlled,” wrote a group of authors in 2007 in Biotropica. They were detailing the cascading, negative effects of hunting on the integrity of forests. Hunting of large vertebrates reduces the movement of animal-dispersed seeds, with resulting degradation of plant communities. The role of elephants in seed dispersal is well-documented.

The authors also pointed out that “several obstacles unique to the tropics must be overcome before hunting can become a sustainable activity.” These obstacles include “individual poverty, weak governance, the workforce and infrastructure required to enforce hunting laws effectively, and lack of knowledge of hunted species’ density.”

Hunting Violations

In Tanzania and Zimbabwe, that list of obstacles remains apparent. An example is the recent incidence of egregious violations of permitted hunting practices by the Tanzania-based Green Mile Safari Co. Ltd, captured on video.

After Minister Nyalandu revoked the company’s hunting license, a representative of the company told the Motherboard staff writer who covered the story that the video had been planned by their business rivals, the Dallas Safari Club.

At the same time, the numbers released from the Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania, last year suggest an 80 percent reduction, in just the last six years, of once the world’s largest elephant population in one of Africa’s largest protected areas. The 2013 population was estimated at 13 084, down from 55 000 in 2007 and more than 109,000 in the late 1970s.

It is in hunters’ concessions (for instance, in the Selous Game Reserve and in Ugalla Game Reserve) that elephant populations in Tanzania have precipitously declined, rather than in national parks, where hunting and other forms of exploitation are not allowed. Clearly, this suggests that hunting does little for elephant protection by improving enforcement and incentivizing local communities to protect wildlife.

In January 2013, Zambia enacted a ban on hunting. Since then, SCI has apparently lobbied the country to reverse its policy, and on August 21, 2014, Zambia lifted the 20-month ban.

SCI Foundation President Joe Hosmer is quoted to praise the decision: “Like most range states, Zambia relies on hunting revenue for most of their conservation funding. Maintaining sustainable hunting is crucial to wildlife survival.”

Adri Kitshoff, chief executive of the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA) chimed in: “We hope that Botswana, which stopped issuing hunting permits on public land earlier this year, will follow Zambia’s example.” PHASA reported Zambia’s Minister of Tourism and Arts, Jean Kapata, to have said, “The Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) has lost a huge amount of money as a result of the ban.”

The report by Economists at Large reveals instead that Zambia’s hunting revenue as a percentage of its total tourism revenue was merely 5.6 percent.

Government-decreed Bans Can Help

Top-down policies, such as hunting bans, can do a lot of good. According to a recent piece in The Economist (conventionally not a forum in which bans of any sort are championed), top-down bans were reported as the “most effective forest policies,” especially given political will, employment of available technology such as satellites for monitoring and enforcement, and last but not least democratization.

As the article noted, “democratization” is not intuitively associated with bans, which are instead often erroneously linked to authoritarian regimes. In the case of natural resource management and protection, the benefits of a democratic state are obvious: Opposition leaders have a voice, and a strong NGO presence and a free press preside over good governance and community-based conservation efforts.

The Economist summed up democratization’s role in a single word: accountability, or answerability in governance.

Accountability is much needed if elephants and their natural habitats are to be protected.

DSC and SFI should not stand in the way of accountability. Hunting laws must be adaptive in the face of challenges, and hunting companies must be willing to cooperate with government-led efforts in their own and foreign countries when the survival of species is at stake.

The hunting fraternity should also hold in greater esteem the overwhelming voices of scientists from NGOs, zoos and academia who are urging the administration to stay firm on new controls that the U.S. has set on commercial trade in elephant ivory.

Given all that elephants and those working to protect them are up against, hunting bans enacted by African leaders and strong U.S. laws banning domestic trade in ivory and import of elephant trophies from countries that need to strengthen their legislation, enforcement, and efforts to reduce corruption must be supported. They must not be undermined, if Africa’s remaining elephants are to be saved.

Dr. Katarzyna Nowak is a research fellow in anthropology at Durham University (UK) and a research associate in zoology at the University of the Free State Qwaqwa (RSA). She works on primates and elephants in Tanzania and South Africa. Follow her on twitter @katzyna.

She thanks Keith Lindsay for helpful improvements to this post. 

Further relevant reading:

Elephants Killed for Sport Can’t Be Imported to the U.S. Anymore

The Poisoning of Africa’s Vultures

Why Sport Hunting is Cruel and Unnecessary

Opinion: Why Are We Still Hunting Lions?

Changing Planet

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Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist affiliated with the Zoology Department at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, South Africa. She has spent fifteen years researching and writing about the behavior and conservation of wild monkeys and elephants, and human-wildlife interactions. She helped establish and advises the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. She's currently based in Colorado's Front Range. Photo credit: Trevor Jones