Why do we hunt animals?

Throughout the history of mankind, starting with the ancient Sumerians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians to this day, there have always been people, many people from all sorts of social strata who have devoted themselves to hunting. From this point of view, hunting seems to be an activity that reaches gigantic proportions. I wonder, what is it, this hunting activity and hunting behaviour?


                                                                                                                              José Ortega y Gasset, Contemplation on hunting, 1943

    In the past 30,000 years, Homo sapiens has been a hunter and a top predator. For centuries, he hunted animals for food and clothes or in order to kill his competitors. Already in Pleistocene, only a relatively small number of Native Americans in North America were able to wipe out the largest mammals on the planet. Nowadays, people are not dependent on hunting anymore. We don’t need to eat wild animals, use theirs skins, grind their horns or curve decorations out of their teeth. Despite this, we are still doing it… Why? What is so attractive on hunting that there are tens of millions of hunters worldwide?
    Hunting animals for entertainment is a really controversial topic, raising aversion in many people. A part of people perceives this hunting as condemnable, another part as beneficial and normal. The discussion is very polarised – conservationists and animal protectors on one side, while hunters, hunting operators and companies living out of these activities on the other side. As usual, the truth is not black-and-white and finding a consensus is difficult, if not impossible.

A hunted African buffalo (Source: Adam Ihucha)

    Trophy hunting is not about food – it’s a hobby and entertainment. However, few people will say out loud they like to kill because other people would consider them strange. People are talking about love for nature and animals, caring for wildlife, fight between hunters and their prey. Modern human is a domesticated, quite lazy creature with numb senses so the “fight with prey” takes place from a distance – with the help of a gun and with minimum risk. The attractiveness of hunting comes from the fact that a human-hunter is not just an observer anymore, he feels power and adventure or he might feel he is an active component of nature. There is always a rational defend of hunting activities – maintaining the number of game, elimination of pests, killing old and “useless” individuals, using finance from hunting for sponsoring nature conservation, hunting as a protection of endangered species etc. The centuries-old proven method is also to raise fear of dangerous animals (“Little Red Riding Hood effect”).

Wolf trophies seized at the Václav Havel Airport in Prague (Source: The Customs Administration)
Trophy hunting industry

Hunting is a gigantic business with multi-billion turnovers. It is not just price of hunting licenses, but also trade in weapons, equipment, clothes, hunting safari, preparation and transport of trophies, manufacturing of jewellery and souvenirs etc.

   Arguments in favour of hunting resonate not only from hunters, but also from those who benefit from this activity although they themselves don’t hunt. There are approx. 45 million hunters registered worldwide, most of them are from Europe and USA (there are 22 million hunters in USA). To have a better idea: in 2005-2014, 1.26 million trophies were imported to the USA. Top trophy animal species are:

Cougar trophy (Source: Dominika Formanová)
Money is the cause of everything – but where does it actually go?

Hunting organizations claim that they significantly contribute to the economic prosperity of African countries. But let’s not believe everything they say… The actual share on the gross domestic product (GDP) doesn’t imply that this industry would be somehow extremely significant – commercial hunting brings the biggest benefit for Botswana where it is 0.13% of the GDP, in the rest of the countries including South Africa it is even less.

    So, for whom is hunting a contribution and gain? Of course, for owners of farms and companies living out of this industry. That means for a limited number of people plus foreign investors and companies. Do these people invest their profits from hunting back into the African nature conservation or do they support local communities, as is often claimed?

    Around 18,500 clients participate in hunting in Africa every year, and according to a study sponsored by The International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), they generate profit of around 200 million USD (around 40-60,000 clients participate in hunting in Eurasia but the profit is “only” around 39 million USD). Even organizations supporting the commercial hunting admit that only about 3% of the money eventually get to African people. So where does all the money go? The answer is easy – to farm owners, intermediary companies and into the pockets of governmental officers and politicians…

Trophies imported to the Czech Republic
(Source: The Customs Administration)

   Various statistical tricks are used to prove that hunting is financially more advantageous than tourism and thus it is a better strategy. Usually, the trick is that the gain is counted only locally and not in the context of the whole state. Hunting clients pay more than regular tourists (on average by 100%) but there are approximately 85 times more visitors of safari than hunters. Therefore, in total, ecotourism and photo-tourism bring higher gross profits for the country than trophy hunting and create also more job opportunities for local people. However, profits from tourism are sufficient only in areas with larger national parks with a lot of visitors. It thus depends on a locality – in areas unsuitable for ecotourism or photo-safari, in places with poorer infrastructure or in politically less stable countries, hunting farms might be an alternative. However, it is not a generally applicable solution.

    Most importantly, hunting is an artificial selection of quality individuals which poses a risk to the gene pool of hunted species, although hunters claim something different. A hunter is not a natural predator that hunts ill or weak prey; he chooses a trophy animal – large and strong. New study of the Oxford University has proven a negative impact of trophy hunting on genetic quality of lion population. Monitored were lion packs in areas where trophy hunting is permitted.
It was found out that hunters prefer large strong males – leaders. A killed male is then replaced by another male, a weaker one. But in lions (and many other animals), a phenomenon called infanticide occurs where a newly-come male kills all the young of the previous male in order to reproduce as soon as possible and quickly spread his own genes. Therefore, even though a hunter shoots one lion, he causes killing of all the lion cubs in the pack. A weaker individual can reproduce and spread lower quality genes. But this is not all – after some time, another hunter will come and kill the new leader as well. There is a cycle of never-ending exchange of leaders and killing of cubs. A study has recorded a case where a lioness had cubs 6 times in a row but did not raise the young in a single case – a leader was always killed and a new male always killed the cubs…

    Not even a population dynamics is taken into account. Number of animals can change dramatically due to a different factor than hunting. There might be a disease epidemics outbreak, droughts or another nature disaster, escalation of poaching… Governmental agencies, legislation or even conservation organizations can never react quickly. As soon as somebody notices the change, relevant authorities prepare a strategy and rules get modified (while hunting continues for the whole time), it might be already late.

Hunting for trophies represents an artificial manipulation with natural structure of populations. Males are hunted more frequently as they have more pronounced trophy attributes (mane, antlers etc.). However, natural mortality of males in the wild is higher compared to females (for example in Derby eland, it is 18% in females and 73% in males). If trophy hunting adds, sex structure gets disturbed.

Lion infanticide
(Source: Internet)

    People go hunt to any places where the wild nature has been preserved – i.e. mainly to Africa, Russia, Canada… Currently, Africa is the most preferred and most lucrative area. Trophy hunting is permitted in 23 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and 1.394 million km2 are used for this purpose, which is several times more than the total area of all African protected areas combined.
    The biggest hunting industry is in South Africa where 88% of all hunters heading to Africa go (85% of global hunting trophies come from this country). South Africa is therefore the leader of the pro-hunting lobby, and it even uses a term “wildlife industry”. There are more than 1,000 hunting operators and more than 5,000 hunting farms in this country, occupying up to 13% of the country’s area (national parks only 4.6%). However, not all African countries agree with this approach, many have set off another path and banned commercial hunting. In east Africa, nostalgically perceived as African hunters’ home, hunting is permitted only in Tanzania, where the hunting industry is expanding and which reserves 26% of the country for hunting (only 14.1% for national parks).

    Basically, there are two approaches to exploiting living nature in Africa, and their application depends on a current political situation. An anti-hunting country is predominantly Kenya where commercial hunting has been forbidden since 1977 and nature preservation and “ecotourism” has been supported instead (same like in Uganda, for instance). Tourists bring a lot of money that is directly or indirectly invested in nature conservation. However, the negative side might be a lot of people and impacts of mass tourism on protected areas. Pro-hunting countries are South Africa and Namibia that prefer commercial hunting and orientation on wealthier clients. Most countries are trying to combine both approaches, which is usually difficult as they are mutually exclusive – “ecotourists” are mostly against hunting, whereas hunters don’t want to be disturbed by “ecotourists”.

American black bear trophy at the Vaclav Havel Airport Prague (Source: The Customs Administration)

    It is apparent that the most hunted animals are those with exceptional physical attributes such as tusks and horns, and large or dangerous animals. So-called “Big Five” is an elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo and leopard. Hunters always claim that the most important to them is the experience and they don’t care about trophies. However, the price for hunting increases with the trophy size. Why does killing an elephant with giant tusks cost more than killing an elephant with small tusks? Is it a worse hunting experience?
Hunting of bears in Slovakia is of much less hunters’ interest compared to hunting in Canada – bears are smaller in Slovakia. Nobody will go to hunt wolves to the Balkans but to Siberia or Alaska where wolves are larger (this is an example of the so-called “Bergmann’s rule” describing a body size increase to the north). Very interesting is also the sociological point of view – vast majority of hunters are men, only few hunters are women. Isn’t it a resemblance of the ancient “man-hunter and woman-collector” division of society? Or why do hunters create “trophy rooms” or even “trophy houses” where they display the stuffed animals they have killed? Isn’t it rather a self-presentation, demonstration of success and power? Ego booster? It is not easy to answer. Anyway, the fact is that there are a lot of hunters and they are one of the most powerful lobby groups in the world. However, hunting definitely cannot be considered a public interest that would deserve support, although the pro-hunting lobby is still trying to persuade us about the opposite.

Less-known impacts of trophy hunting

   Hunters often say they shoot only very old males who have already spread their genes and are useless for the population. This is a wrong argument. First, even females and young are killed (there is not enough old animals) and second, this argument doesn’t reflect biology, ethology and social behaviour in animals. Even though fertility of males decreases with age, unlike females, the males can reproduce till an old age (for example Charlie Chaplin had a baby when he was 70).Most importantly, however, there are social bonds among animals, older individuals hand down their experience to younger ones ¬– they know migration paths, water sources… In elephants, old females-aunts are known, old elephant males teach young elephants how to behave. Young males fight with old males for their place in hierarchy and learn ways of fight and tactics.

    Harmlessness of removing old individuals of a population is one of the most dangerous myths spread by the pro-hunting lobby groups.

    Many states have set quotas for trophy hunting. At the first glance, quotas might seem to be a solution. However, the problem is who and how sets these quotas and based on what. In most species, only a part of population reproduces (sometimes only 10% of individuals), thus even a seemingly large population can get in troubles if the quota is too high. Generally speaking, the quota should make up at most 2% of the total population size. But there are usually no exact data on current population sizes. Popular counting from an airplane works only in case of large and visible animals, such as elephants, ungulates etc. Predators and smaller animals can’t be counted this way. Some animals can’t be counted at all (for example sperm whale population size is estimated to 250 thousand – 1.5 million – that is a gigantic dispersion). Computer models use perfect methods, yet they don’t have enough entry data. Setting quotas is thus rather a simple divination from a crystal ball. Owners of hunting concessions usually estimate number of animals on their farms as higher and they also often lobby for increasing the quotas as trophies “make money”.

Trophy hunting as a tool for nature conservation – truth, or lie?

Very conflicting topic… Problems connected with commercial hunting are numerous and they are definitely not banal or negligible. It is not just an emotive discussion about whether killing animals is humane or not. It is a critically important discussion about whether commercial hunting is an acceptable way of animal conservation or just a special entertainment of rich people and a method of making money. Still more people realize these problems and general public has stopped to perceive hunters as animal lovers and protectors.
    However, hunters have certain undeniable merits and trophy hunting cannot be just rejected. At the beginning of the 20th century, hunters were the first ones who initiated establishment of protected areas in Africa and who participated on conservation of African nature. Also in Europe, a lot of reserves came from original hunting areas. During 80s and 90s, it was showed in some countries that well-organized trophy hunting can have a positive impact on animal population growth in the area. The reasoning is clear – to have animals for hunting, it is necessary to maintain the animal population. Under certain circumstances, hunting can thus be a sustainable form of management of animals and can also mean a benefit for conservation of wild populations (private hunting farms sometimes even financially participate in reintroduction programs, e.g. reintroduction of mountain zebra in South Africa). However, it is showing, that this “management” works more or less only in case of herds of ungulates. Management of predators is not so easy. However, animals most offered for hunting are buffalo, lion, elephant and leopard (again, we are at the “Big Five”). And when money is in the game, situation often gets out of hand and a sustainable can become unsustainable…

    Hunting activities are associated with many problems and negative phenomena, and the total conservation impact is at least controversial. The truth is that there are no reliable data confirming an effect (either positive or negative) of trophy hunting on wildlife conservation. One of the first reliable studies is the above-mentioned study of the Oxford University. Any other relevant data are missing. Most data come from so-called “grey literature”, from discussions in media or from opinions of individuals. Therefore, it is not possible to accept argumentation of pro-hunting activists saying that without trophy hunting, wild animals would disappear from Africa and only livestock would remain… As long as there is money behind any human activity, which is undoubtable in the case of commercial trophy hunting, it is necessary to be very careful when assessing its real benefit.

  Discussions are usually very stormy, even the approach of international conservation institutions is different (unfortunately, it is often adjusted to political pressures). The CITES Convention promotes “sustainable exploitation of living nature”, which means that it should not be taken more from the wild than can be naturally renewed. But how do we know how much it is? This should be guaranteed by CITES permits but it does not work perfectly in reality.

    The biggest clash was caused by the International Union on Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which is currently strongly pro-lobby orientated. In 2012, it published Guiding Principles on Trophy Hunting as a Tool for Creating Conservation Incentives which initiated a massive wave of criticism of experts, and to show their protest, 15 conservation organizations left IUCN. Nature conservation can benefit from hunting only in countries that are politically stable and where government works. In many countries, the situation is rather chaotic, control is lacking, and people with no knowledge, information or people not interested enough are in charge. In countries with poverty, rebels or civil war, the approach definitely does not work.

    So, does the hunting help save endangered species, or not? There is no clear answer. Sometimes it can help, sometimes it is harmful – it depends on when and where, what species, how organized the hunting is and whether it is under control. Too many unknown variables. We could imagine it is like a medicine. If there is a medicine that sometimes helps but sometimes hurts or kills the patient, it will hardly be included among generally accepted and prescribed medicine… Therefore, trophy hunting should not be generally considered a way of conservation of endangered species.

Hunter, or „just a killer“?

What kind of people are hunters? Historically, they were always an elite, hunting was an exclusive experience for privileged people. Formerly, hunting was for kings, but nowadays, hunting is simply for anyone. A few years ago, an interesting sociological research focused on hunters going to hunting safaris was conducted in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia:

  • 60% of hunters are at the age of 30-50, secondary school education with graduation is predominant
  • 70% are members of a gamekeeper association but are inactive or don’t help or participate in any non-paid work for the associations
  • 81% leave an organisation of their hunting to an agency
  • 87% don’t care about the price of the trip
  • on average, hunters usually go to 6-10 hunting trips within 2 years
  • only 25% have an idea about an existence of legislation on conservation of endangered species, and only 17% know it applies to them as well…
Having something special OR design animals

In Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, it is obligatory to have a hunting area fenced. It happens that fences farms are overcrowded with animals which causes an ecological degradation of the area. In attempt to maintain numbers of their expensively purchased game animals, ranchers eliminate predators such as wild dogs or cheetahs. They introduce non-native species to increase the game diversity so that the clients have the most varied experiences (nowadays, it is possible to come across tiger hunting in Africa). Intentionally, individuals with strange body characters are chosen and further crossbred with the aim of creating unique trophies (e.g. red wildebeest). Price for hunting these “design animals” can be astronomical – for example in South Africa, a hybrid of nyala and kudu was sold for around 8 million CZK (i.e. approximately 363,000 USD).
    Some farms offer their clients a possibility of shooting from a car, crossbow hunting, hunting with a bow, hunting with dogs or night hunting with reflectors. In Africa, obtaining a concession is often conditioned by corruption and protectionism, and so professionalism or moral credit can’t always be expected.

Do not stroke the kittens OR hunting in a can

How many people have visited a “lion park”, stroked lion cubs or have taken a selfie with them during their holidays? How many others have paid for a walk with young lions in the bush? A life experience…However, have you ever wondered what happens after that? These facilities often claim to tourists that the lions are cared for in a way that they can be later released to the wild. But that is not true.

   Predators born and raised in captivity can’t be released back to the wild so easily: they can’t hunt their prey, they are used to people and are not afraid of them. For this reason, they are very dangerous not only for tourists, but also for local people. At the same time, they become victims of their own wild relatives who only rarely accept them in their group.

     Young lions at first serve as a tourist attraction. Visitors can see their enclosure, touch them, take a photo with them and go for a walk with them. People pay for the visit usually without knowing that by their money, they are supporting future hunting of the lions. Life of lion cubs is not idyllic. They are taken away from their mothers at the age of only 3 days. So, females can get pregnant again immediately after giving birth and have another litter, they are misused as “birth machines” and face constant trauma of losing their young. In the wild, lionesses give birth to young approximately once in 2 years, while in lion parks, they give birth even 5 times in 2 years and die from a total exhaustion.

   This breeding is not about conservation nor management of surplus lions, as is also sometimes claimed – it is an intentional commercial overproduction of lions that serve as an attraction for tourists and that are then destined for becoming trophies.
    In the good faith that they work for lion conservation, volunteers from all over the world work in these facilities as well. They too often pay a lot of money to spend six weeks helping in so-called rescue centres or wildlife reserves.
    At the age of 4-7 years, lions are old enough to become a trophy and are transported to another farm – a hunting one. There, they are kept in overfilled enclosures and wait until their time comes. Before the hunt, they are usually released into a large enclosure imitating the real bush to provide a hunter with the right hunting experience. Totally disorientated and stressed animals, that have never been in an open space before, are then “tracked down” and successfully hunted. Have a look at the Blood Lions website and their new documentary www.bloodlions.org.

    This way of hunting is called “canned hunting” and it doesn’t require a hunter to have any preparation or knowledge, or even any shooting skill. It is a modern trend responding the demand of people with no experience who only want to shoot on a live target.
     Animals are killed in a fence area without any chance for escape, sometimes they are even sedated. There are 160 farms in South Africa keeping 8,000 lions for the purpose of “canned hunting”. 2-3 lions are shot on these farms every day.

    One might say: “These farms satisfy the demand and the wild lion population is preserved, so it is alright, isn’t it?” Unfortunately, it isn’t so. These farms don’t saturate the demand, they generate it instead… “Canned hunting” is cheap and easy – it is a 99% probability of killing a lion within a few hours. However, for this reason, even those people who would not otherwise dare or would not have enough money or physical strength start to hunt, and advertisements entice also those who would not even think about it. Consequently, hundreds and thousands of new “hunters” are arising, and a part of them doesn’t get satisfied with a lion in an enclosure anymore after some time. They want “the better one” – from the wild.

The “Cecil Effect” OR a public opinion

Attitude of world public to hunting has radically changed in the past years. After an American dentist Walter Palmer killed a famous lion named Cecil, who apart from his popularity had also been a part of a scientific research, in the Hwange Park in Zimbabwe in 2015, it caused such a public resentment that the dentist was threatened with a lynch and had to flee from his home (interestingly, he had already been prosecuted for illegal hunting before). This launched a global avalanche of various campaigns that initiated changes now called the “Cecil Effect”.

    Probably the most significant consequence is the ban imposed by some countries on import of lion trophies – it is for example Australia. There was an interesting reaction of the South African Minister of Environment who sent a diplomatic letter to the Australian Minister, sharply asking him to withdraw the ban as the lion trophy import is important to South Africa.
     Admirably, the Australian Minister resisted the pressure and did not withdraw the ban. In 2015, also the EU limited import of lion trophies. Additionally, there were quick reactions from some airlines which banned transport of hunting trophies on-board their aircraft. For a while, it looked like start of a domino effect. However, the situation calmed down after some time, and when another American hunter shot Cecil’s son Xandu in 2007, reactions of public were not as stormy as before.

To enforce more significant changes regarding trophy hunting is not easy. People with influence on conservation of endangered species are interconnected with hunters, same like mafia cells grow through state administration. A lot of politicians go hunting to Africa – among trophy hunters is for example the Spanish king, former U.S. president, son of the current U.S. president, members of the British royal family etc. However, hunting does not seem to be “sexy” to the young generation anymore.

Collection of hunting trophies
(Source: David Chancellor)
  • American black bear
  • buffalo
  • lion
  • elephant
  • leopard.

Leopard skin (Source: Pavla Říhová)
Rhino hunting is a typical example of a situation change
(Source: Internet)
An older female elephant helping a young (Source: Pavla Říhová)
Leopard is a popular trophy (Source: Ecuja Safari)
Lion trophy imported to the Czech Republic
(Source: The Customs Administration
Bear trophy at the Karlovy Vary Airport (Source: The Customs Administration)
Although cuddling with lion cubs is an exciting experience, few people realize what happens with the lions later and what the paid entrance fee is used for… 
(Source: Internet)
Lions in enclosures waiting for being shot
(Source: Oxpeckers)
Canned hunting (Source: Internet)
Delta, United, American Airlines and other airlines banned transport of game hunting trophies (Source: IFAW)