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Hunting - yes or no, when and how?

Whitetail deer, Cape buffalo, wild boar, and African leopard

Whitetail deer, Cape buffalo, wild boar, and African leopard

For most people, the pictures in the left panel above, are completely different from those in the right panel. For some, they are equally horrible. And for some, they are equally okay.

I used to belong to the first category.

Even though I flirted a little with animal rights ideology - such as becoming vegetarian for a time, believing/saying some pretty outrageous things about the slaughter industry (most of which I would still stand by, but not all), wanting large parrots to be licensed for private owners, being anti-”extreme” exotics for private owners, being anti-cetacean captivity, I have never been against zoos, and I have never been against hunting, in itself.

Why would people be against the two pictures to the left, of a deer and a boar being hunted and killed?

Most likely they were killed to fill a freezer with meat, and no one can argue with the fact that it is far more humane to shoot an animal that has lived its life in the wild, than buy grocery store meat, which has most likely (especially chickens and pigs) only seen a life of deprivation and suffering.

Homesteading and raising meat yourself is not an option everyone can take, as it takes land to farm.

There is also the philosophical argument that if you can’t kill or at least gut and clean the animal yourself, you have no business eating meat, period (something I actually hold to, seriously). That animal gave you its life, at least show it the respect that you're not grossed out by its dead body.

Vegans exist of course, and many of them call people like those on the left pictures “murderers”, and “serial killers”. But I’m not insulting this conversation enough to take them seriously, screeching children that they are, so let’s ignore them for now and stick with the adults in the room. Another time, another discussion.

The majority of people would then agree that dispatching clearly non-threatened species quickly and humanely to fill the freezer with wild meat is acceptable, even if they would never do it themselves.

Where we differ (and this includes hunters) is on scenarios like on the pictures to the right. Exotic species, sometimes predators like this leopard, being hunted, gunned down and stuffed as a trophy or made into a rug, sends a foul taste in the mouth of many, perhaps most western people.

Like I said, even hunters of common game like deer, sometimes despise exotic trophy hunting.

Common eland hunted in Namibia

Common eland hunted in Namibia

Why, typically, do people despise “trophy” hunting or hunting of “exotic” animals?

  1. The animal is endangered - killing it means hurting the species and its chance of survival, you selfish [bleep]!
  2. Only kill what you eat. No one eats leopard, lion or elephant!
  3. We should just leave animals ALONE in the wild!
  4. White hunters came to Africa and Asia and decimated wild animal populations. Therefore hunting today must be just as bad!
  5. All trophy hunting is an [insert insults regarding physical appearance and/or financial status] American who knows nothing about real hunting and tracking, has a ranger drive up to a perfectly tame animal and shoots it up close, like shooting a cow in a pasture!
  6. These hunters must hate animals, as they show some terrible disrespect to nature, feeling the need to oppress and dominate it by taking something wild and beautiful, killing it, and showing it off to show what a “big guy” they are!
  7. These people must have some serious mental problems and they display similar traits to serial killers, keeping body parts of their kills around the house as trophies!

^ These are the words I see repeated frequently by those who oppose trophy hunting, they are not my words.

The level of disgust people feel typically coincides with how “majestic” they feel the dead animal is, and this usually depends on factors such as size (bigger being more “majestic”), proximity to the common westerner (animals that we only see on TV are “more important” than those found nearby), popularity (media exposure making people love that species, which makes them more angry to see it being killed), physical appearance (prettier animals are “worth more” than uglier ones), and perceived conservation status (oh how many people I have encountered who seem to think literally every animal in Africa, or in warmer parts of the world overall, is “endangered”).

Did you know that not one of these animals is classified as “endangered”?

Did you know that not one of these animals is classified as “endangered”?

1. I wrote a short article clearing out the meaning of “endangered animals”, here.

“It is wrong to hunt endangered animals!” you will hear all the time when discussing this.

While in fact, of the animals taken by sports hunters in Africa, virtually none are classified as endangered. Of this list of over forty species, only one is “endangered” (the mountain reedbuck), six are “vulnerable” (lion, leopard, elephant, hippo, giraffe and mountain zebra), a handful “near-threatened”, and the rest are all “least concern”.

Yes, that’s right.

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Leopards are not endangered.
Lions are not endangered.
Giraffes are not endangered.
Elephants are not endangered!
Even the white rhino is not endangered!

One might say this is silly fighting about semantics, “endangered, vulnerable, it’s the same thing!”. Well, when people seem to think that there are only three conservation statuses; “absolutely not threatened in any way whatsoever”, “endangered” and “gone from planet Earth forever”, we need more education on the topic.

Clearly, the most controversial animals to hunt are the lion, elephant and rhino (tigers are not legal to hunt anywhere). And aside from the critically endangered black rhino (which is very rarely hunted), not one of them is classified as “endangered”.

They are however seen as “majestic, regal, intelligent”, and of course, lions and leopards bring the mind to The Lion King, or even our pet cat at home. And for that reason - some westerner’s subjective view on an exotic species - they must never be killed.

2. And yes, people do eat elephant, rhino, even lion and leopard.

The hunters themselves may taste it, but it’s true that they aren’t shooting these animals to feed themselves. They are doing it for the experience and the trophy.

The meat does however not go to waste, as it is given to the locals. In that way, a trophy hunter is a bit similar to a professional butcher. The butcher isn’t killing the animal to feed himself, he’s doing it for money, and then lets others eat the meat.

The locals in Africa however are given free food, and see that the animals are being managed, nuisance animals are being taken out, and money for the hunt goes back into their community.

This makes them far less likely to take up poaching, and this is in addition to the anti-poaching efforts, which the legal hunting also funds.

You can have one old bull elephant well past his prime being taken legally by a bullet in the heart (and upwards of $50 000 paid by the hunter to shoot a single animal), or you can have entire herds of elephants being wiped out, killed slowly with poison darts, by poachers who leave the meat to rot.

Unfortunately, with the state of the world today, you have to choose.

3. It would be so nice if we could just “leave the wild animals be”, wouldn’t it? But whether we like it or not, today, we have a human planet, and people and wildlife clash everywhere.

Where people live in Africa, elephants and other large herbivores compete with their livestock. Lions, leopards and other predators eat their livestock, and sometimes even kill and eat people - we have no situation like this in Europe or North America to emphathize with the Africans.

Sheep herders may have their business hurt by wolves, but they don’t actually risk starvation. A bear may kill a hiker or two, but no one has to actually fear big cats breaking into their house and killing their children.

It is so easy to watch The Lion King and anthropomorphize animals, watch nature documentaries and awe before the “purity and majesty of nature”, or go on a safari and watch lions and elephants stroll by from the relative safety of a car. Completely different to live with them your entire life.

When hunters take out problem animals like a bull elephant raiding crops, or a leopard going after someone’s goats, the people are grateful and get both money and meat from the animal.

When westerners who love animals far more than people they’ve never seen demand to ban hunting, it is completely alienating to these people, who are sometimes even told their lives are worth less than a lion’s or elephant’s.

Imagine someone from India coming to America and telling you that your life is worth less than a cow’s. It makes no sense, and won’t make you respect their message, or love cows more.

Indiscriminate hunting by Europeans certainly did a lot to decimate exotic wildlife in the 19th-early 20th century (photo from 1899, Somaliland)

Indiscriminate hunting by Europeans certainly did a lot to decimate exotic wildlife in the 19th-early 20th century (photo from 1899, Somaliland)

4. It is true that Europeans came over to conquer Africa and Southeast Asia in the 19th century, and with them, came the wealthy “gentleman sports hunter”, who shot pretty much everything they saw.

Animal populations that were already being pushed out by a growing population in Asia were overwhelmed, and some, like the Bali and Java tigers in Indonesia, and the Bluebuck and Quagga in Africa, were completely wiped out.

That is not what is happening today.

Despite having become very liberty-minded and opposed to most forms of government intervention in recent years, one place where I have to agree that governments play a role, is in protecting wildlife.

With the sheer numbers of people today, we unfortunately can’t trust the public anywhere to “only take as much as they need”, or follow guidelines set by NGOs that monitor animal populations.

Laws need to exist to protect animal species from over-exploitation, or many more would go extinct (we can have the discussion on how many species have been killed or made endangered by government action another time).

And they do. 19th to early 20th century hunting was a slaughterfest. Modern, regulated hunting has not turned a single species extinct, or threatened a population (some exceptions, more below).

5. About canned hunting.

I too, until recently, thought all lion hunting was canned hunting.

It is a practice where lions are bred in close quarters, often being relatively tame (and I do not mean circus animal tame, but used to human presence), often having been used in cub petting events for tourists as a cub, and then years later, it is shot in a relatively small, prepared area for a “hunter” who didn’t do any real work. What I was told in the Cecil case, was that the skinned body was left behind to rot, although I don’t know if that is true.

Not all lion hunting is canned hunting. Just like these scenarios exist, there are “real” hunters who stalk their prey - a specially selected animal, typically a very old male who has been thrown out of his pride by a younger male, and would naturally die a long, drawn-out death from starvation or disease, or be killed by other lions - for days across the bush, until they finally get the kill. The meat is all eaten by locals.

Some may see these as morally equivalent - I do not - but whatever your opinion, they are two different things.

6. Hunters do not hate animals. They are outdoors people who love nature, and seem very proud of their alleged positive effect on conservation and the ecosystem. See point 4 again, modern regulated hunting has nothing to do with shooting everything you see, or “conquering the wild”.

In order to hunt honestly (not all forms are like this), you need to become a part of the wild, invisible, unable to be heard or smelled. You need to know each animal species’ behavior and life cycle, and their role in the landscape.

Beyond that, many hunters describe the moment where they get close to the dead animal as a combination of relief, awe, and grief. Many of us - perhaps especially city dwellers - may find it a very strange idea, that you can love and respect something that you kill. I do not find it strange, but that is also a topic for another time.

7. This goes in the category of the screeching vegans mentioned earlier, so I won’t even lower myself to reply to this childish mindset. (And I have to add, I am very much aware that not all vegans or animal rights activists act like this.)

Wolf hunt in Russia

Wolf hunt in Russia

Now, I have mentioned “exceptions” a few times. And that is because I have seen practices and ideas among hunters, that simply do not align with what the “better of the bunch” say.

I used to be against all hunting of predators, speaking of Europe and North America now. Prey species that you eat are one thing, but culling for example wolves and lynxes to “keep the numbers down”, I do not buy.

There is a very simple equation in nature - prey animals breed as much as they can, to make sure at least some of their very vulnerable babies reach adulthood. Mammal and bird predators however, take much more care and if food is scarce, may not breed at all (see R/K selection theory for more).

Furthermore, large predators like wolves maintain very strict territorial borders, and will kill rivals. In fact, one of the leading causes of death in wolves, is being killed by other wolves. Top predators also help keep down the population of other smaller predators, like coyotes and foxes, which go after different prey from the top predator.

To over-simplify, with a top predator, nature balances out. It’s not pretty, it’s not beautiful, it’s full of death, gore and misery, but it’s nature’s balance. Animals without natural predators - either top predators themselves, or herbivores so large nothing can threaten them - “manage themselves”.

When you remove the predator, obviously, the prey species, which is adapted to very high predation pressure, will skyrocket in numbers, and destroy the land through overgrazing.

When the sea otter was nearly wiped out by the fur trade, sea urchins - their prey - boomed, and grazed the sea floor until it was nearly completely dead. When the sea otters came back, life to the sea floor came back, as they kept sea urchin numbers down.

So when humans have wiped out a natural predator, it is our job - if the natural predator can’t be reintroduced, for whatever reason - to keep the prey species population down. If not, they will overpopulate, overgraze, destroy the landscape and starve to death en masse. Horror all around.

The misunderstanding is that some hunters seem to think top predators (and other animals without a natural predator) work the same way. That they just spread across the land like a plague, killing everything in sight until there is no prey left, and when the prey is extinct, the predator starves, and the landscape is completely destroyed.

Now that literally never happens. With natural predators anyhow. There is no species on record, that has gone extinct from being over-hunted by its natural predator. Natural selection makes both predator and prey always stay about even.

They have been doing it for hundreds of millions of years. If we needed humans to “keep predator numbers down, or the prey will go extinct”, the world would have been a barren wasteland a hundred million years before we showed up.

Show me a species or population definitely killed off or nearly killed off by its natural predator, and I will take this back.

Wolves hunting elk in Yellowstone

Wolves hunting elk in Yellowstone

They bemoan the decline of the elk in Yellowstone after the wolf came back. Well, that was the exact point of the reintroduction. Elk was horribly overpopulated in the park. Same with the red deer in Scotland. Even while being hunted today by humans, they are vastly overpopulated. Every new tree that tries to grow in the highlands, is found and eaten.

Then, we have to admit that the reason we are culling predator numbers is for human comfort.

"Too many foxes breaking into the hen house, we’ll shoot a few. More will of course move in later, but we’re good for now."

"Even if we are allowed to go after select wolves killing our sheep, that is not enough. We need to go out where the wolf is minding its own business, eating elk, because they are eating too much of OUR elk!"

It's a bit odd to brag about "saving elk lives" when shooting wolves, but then need to shoot elk yourself to prevent overpopulation.

It's a bit odd to brag about "saving elk lives" when shooting wolves, but then need to shoot elk yourself to prevent overpopulation.

And apparently, in the late 1970s, eight were “too many wolves” for Sweden. Today, 300 is “too many” (while much smaller states in America do fine with thousands).

The governments of Sweden, Norway and Finland will not allow more than a couple of hundred wolves (Sweden and Finland) or a few dozen (Norway). That is the only case that I know of, where hunting based on politics and people's feelings keeps a species from being allowed to thrive.

You can see where I get frustrated with a lot of talk of “predator control”. I have written about it on my blog for years.

Even where I check posts by hunters who otherwise speak so highly of any wild game they shoot - as soon as it comes to the wolf, and only the wolf, I see an attitude of “I just saved the lives of 20 elk this year!” or the horrific “smoke a pack a day” and “the only good wolf is a dead wolf”.

I’m not saying all of them think that way, but I see it most of the time when people post pictures of their dead wolves, while with any other predator species, like lion, bear, fox, what have you, the story is different.

I can’t categorically be against killing wolves - or predators overall. I would be a real hypocrite if I did. I have tried for years to urge others, and myself, to not treat animal species different because they are “prettier” or “cooler”.

Wolves are possibly the only animal that it is nearly impossible to talk about like an animal, like any other. On the one side are the “wolf huggers”, who think wolves are some sacred spirit of the forest, or that for some reason, they have inherently more value than a bear, fox, or deer.

On the other side are the “wolf haters”, who will go after and kill wolves specifically because they are wolves, say awful things like I quoted above, celebrate the killing of pregnant wolves (”Yay! More died!”), call them things like “the Devil’s pet” or “a cancer on the land”.

When we have two sides like this, the reasonable people are completely lost in the noise of irrationality.

Unlike the “wolf huggers”, I would be perfectly okay with treating wolves like any other game species. Have them in the thousands, and shoot them seasonally like deer, pigs, or bears. I am not attracted to the idea of shooting a wolf myself, but neither would I want to eat dolphin or dog - but it is not my place or right to tell other people that they can’t do what I personally don’t like.

Where I have a problem with wolf hunting, is where it’s not thought of as a normal animal, but actually out of a wish to exterminate them, or out of a deep hate for the species. And I know those people exist, they aren’t exactly shy about their feelings.

In conclusion

Modern, legal, regulated hunting is not threatening wildlife.

On the contrary, they have proven again and again to help wild animal populations, because when people are willing to pay big money to hunt, the wild animals that would otherwise be "in the way" of industries and "progress", are given a value, and land is reserved specifically for letting wild animal populations thrive.

Unfortunately, we can't solve any big problem in the world unless we can find a way for people to make lots of money off it. That is true for conservation as well.

Even in Africa, hunting in countries like Namibia and South Africa has been a vast success, ensuring the surival of wildlife that further north has been nearly or completely wiped out.

Closer to home, hunting animals like deer and pigs are a far more morally defensible way to put meat on the table than buying it in the grocery store.

And since we can't really justify judging animal species different because of how "pretty" or "interesting" they are, hunters should be allowed to shoot anything they want, as long as they do it legally, ethically, and sustainably (and that's where all the mountains of regulations regarding hunting come in, to ensure it remains ethical and sustainable).

We may not always like it, but it is not my or anyone else's place to demand legislation or action based on our subjective feelings.


Dean Murray from Cornwall on September 03, 2020:

Great Read :)

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