Recent days have seen an outpouring of invectives against game hunters on social media. Much of this outrage misses some vital points about conservation. Sometimes, sport hunting generates significant conservation benefits. The reason is that sport hunting isn’t a wild west of killer-shooters ranged against helpless endangered wildlife. Rather it is often a tightly regulated business that creates benefits for both the wildlife and the local communities that live amongst them.
As a qualification, I should point I am not a hunter. I’m a vegetarian guy, who likes to take photos of wildlife. The point here is to think about the issue more deeply. And the issue is that sport hunting has resulted in increases in populations of endangered wildlife. It may seem perverse, but there are good reasons.
The example I’m going to employ is the Torghar markhor (Capra falconeri) – a type of wild goat- and its population in Northern Pakistan. The picture below is of the more common flare-horned subspecies, whereas the Torghar population is the straight-horned subspecies (C. falconeri megaceros).
Basically these animals live in mountain regions that are difficult to access. The environment has low productivity, which discourages crop growing but also keeps markhor population growth rates low. The fragmented populations of the species means that each has important genetic diversity for the species as a whole.
Habitat loss, competition with domestic stock, low reproductive rates and illegal hunting caused ongoing declines in the 1970s. It was listed on Appendix I of CITES in 1975 when the population estimate was under 2000 animals. The US followed in the same year listing it with the US Endangered Species Act. This prohibited the export of trophies from Pakistan.
Nonetheless, by the mid 1980s, the torghar population was estimated to be less than 100 individuals- 56 in fact in 1985. This led to a new plan. Mountain hunters were hired as local game guards and paid salaries, and hunting fees were increased for the (largely) European hunters. Hunting was permitted for 1-2 markhor from 1989 and is limited to a post-reproductive male. Hunting fees in the first 10 years generated $US460,000 from 20 urial and 14 markhor trophy hunts.
There was 20 fold increase in the number of markhor in the first 12 years. By 1999, the population was estimated to be 1680 animals. That represented a significant increase over the 56 animals of the mid 1980s. Almost all of this increase came about by the elimination of illegal hunting of the animals under the new incentives facing tribal authorities.
A number of important points come out of this.
- Banning hunting or trade doesn’t stop hunting. It can shift it from a regulated form, to an unregulated and far more deleterious form.
- Locals will acquiesce to illegal hunting when the wildlife creates no benefits to them or is a nuisance or competes with their own farm stock.
- Hunters go to places ecotourists don’t. Northern Pakistan is not a magnet for ecotourists. Mountainous areas in conflict zones are not particularly accessible.
- Trophy hunting generates a lot of conservation on the ground. Game hunters don’t get a free pass. The fact is that a lot of countries like game hunters because they have a low ecological footprint and spend a lot of money on the wildlife. Much more than the moral outrage of distant anti-hunters supplies.
- The selection of post-reproductive males for trophy hunting minimizes the population impact of hunting.