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From The Frontlines: Prize Winners Weigh in on Trophy Hunting

August 20, 2015

It’s almost impossible to have missed the internet exploding last month with outrage about the killing of a 13-year-old lion called Cecil in a national park in Northern Zimbabwe. Since then, the issue of trophy hunting has dominated the headlines, with those defending the practice speaking out just as loudly as those decrying Cecil’s death.

We spoke to Goldman Prize winners working to protect some of Southern Africa’s most endangered species to understand how this practice and the subsequent furor has affected their community conservation efforts:

Responding to the Cecil Uproar

2010 Goldman Prize winner Thuli Makama is the Executive Director of the Environmental Law Center in Swaziland. As an advocate for the inclusion of local people in environmental decision-making, she sees the incident as another way in which profit undermines conservation:

“Reading the story of Cecil confirms that trophy hunted animals can die cruel deaths and thus the whole exercise cannot be purely about their respect and conservation of endangered species. Trophy hunting emphasizes the unfortunate belief that conservation of wildlife is for the exclusive pleasure of those with big money. In this dichotomy, local communities are spectators at best and at worst victims. As immediate neighbors of these conservation sites, they have to deal with everyday sacrifices ranging from having to walk longer distances around park fences and losing access to non-animal resources that have been fenced in, such as water, food, medicinal and heritage sites.

The principle of conservation for life not profit is turned on its head by trophy hunting. Trophy hunting says if you have money, you are a hunter – but if you are poor and survive as a hunter and gatherer, you are a poacher.” [Tweet This]

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Makama talks to her community in Swaziland about their concerns. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

2011 Goldman Prize winner Raoul du Toit is the Director of the Lowveld Rhino Trust in Zimbabwe and has worked to support rhino conservation since 1986. He works around the large Lowveld reserves to monitor rhinos, address injuries, reinforce efforts to tackle poaching, and build community awareness of the need to protect rhinos. Du Toit has been growing increasingly concerned about the international outcry, which has led to a suspension by the Zimbabwean government of all hunting-related activities in the area where Cecil was killed, and what this means for the endangered black rhino:

“Our large rhino populations, while not hunted themselves [hunting of rhinos is not allowed in Zimbabwe], depend on safari hunting* to maintain the economic viability of the large conservancies in which they are protected. Therefore any reduction in the economic viability of these areas through a knee-jerk reaction to safari hunting would be of grave concern, and I have to juggle the views of some anti-hunting donors with the harsh realities on the ground.” [Tweet This]

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De Toit discusses anti-poaching tactics with his team in Zimbabwe. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

For Makama however, trophy hunting by foreigners paying large sums of money has unfortunate consequences when it comes to working with her community to work with, not against, their environment:

“It makes it difficult to get buy-in for conservation of wildlife from local communities who neighbor game parks and reserves. How do you explain why they should bear and internalize some of the everyday costs of game parks when all benefits are externalized?”

Addressing the Real Threat to Wildlife

Du Toit understandably does all he can to protect the numbers of an already dwindling species from further harm. This position has meant that his views may seem controversial, but are key to understanding what du Toit and other activists working in conservation have to deal with every day:

“Hunting can be a crucial land-use activity that maintains wild areas, especially in regions where tourism is limited and where agricultural options would soon displace wildlife unless the wildlife resources were generating income. Without the safari hunting, conservancies would not survive against other land-use pressures, so safari hunting has a crucial indirect, positive impact on the conservation of rhinos and many other rare species such as cheetahs.”

Hunting may indirectly be contributing to the conservation of other species, says Du Toit. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Du Toit is not alone. 1993 Goldman Prize [co-] winner Dr. Margaret Jacobson is a community conservation consultant and a board member of the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation Trust. She has lived and worked in Namibia for 30 years, and sees a benefit from trophy hunting for the local communities:

“Communities who share their land with dangerous and destructive wildlife (lions taking domestic stock, elephants breaking water points and damaging crops to name just a few issues) earn income from trophy hunting concessions. Thus living with and managing wildlife becomes worthwhile, and conservation of wildlife, done in an African way, becomes more sustainable.”

She also does not consider modern trophy hunting to be the primary threat to many endangered species where she works:

“Trophy hunting is not why wildlife is declining in most African countries. [Tweet This] The real problem is not that small band of macho men and women who (for reasons that are beyond me) enjoy paying large sums to money to hunt wild animals but our modern life-styles and our ever-increasing population.”

The Bad Apples in the Business

Trophy hunting isn’t without its problems, and there’s work to do to make sure the industry cleans up its act. As du Toit warns:

“There are many bad apples in the business, and many unethical clients who are only too willing to be enticed into forms of hunting that undermine sustainable conservation and create the kind of international backlash against their sport that we are now seeing after Cecil the lion was killed.”

All over Southern Africa sadly, it’s a similar story:

“The previously poorly regulated trophy hunting of rhinos fed horns into illegal supply chains and helped stimulate the current upsurge in rhino poaching. This burned our rhino populations in Zimbabwe. Additionally, there is widespread ‘canned hunting’ in South Africa (where an animal is kept in a confined area, such as in a fenced-in area, increasing the likelihood of the hunter obtaining a kill) which does not constitute conservation and adds to the groundswell of public opinion against safari hunting.”

In Namibia, the practice can also lead to some problems with the local wildlife populations, as Dr. Jacobsohn describes:

“Trophy hunting is relatively well controlled, although there are problems with individual trophy hunters who abuse their contracts and have contributed to a skewed gender balance in a few areas and species.”

Making Conservation Effective, Sustainable, and Fair

Given the increased attention given to safari and trophy hunting over the past several weeks, we asked Makama, du Toit and Dr. Jacobsohn if there is anything individuals can do to meaningfully support wildlife conservation in the countries where they work:

“If we could harness all that energy against trophy hunting and use it for building community conservation initiatives, including changing unsustainable attitudes and appetites in the developed world. We need funding and people prepared to work in the field. We need campaigns to educate [people], just as we need to work positively with those countries whose citizens provide the mass market for rhino horn ivory and increasingly, lion parts, to halt the demand,” said Dr. Jacobsohn.

Du Toit cited external pressure as the best way for regulating the hunting industry:

“More oversight of the hunting industry is needed under international conservation conventions, requiring the objective gathering and scrutiny of data on the status of key species and the implementation of effective law enforcement.

Hunting clubs and agents need to do far more than they are at present to ensure that their members and clients are guided through a process of due diligence in deciding where and how to undertake safari hunts in Africa.”

He ended by saying that the money raised during the publicity over Cecil’s death should be prioritized toward the creation of hunting codes of conduct, which need to be rigorously enforced. More also needs to be done to research the land-use economics, boundary problems and human-wildlife conflict around reserves, and options to meaningfully boost community development.

Makama agrees that education is critical to her conservation efforts:

“People who join safaris and other conservation-related activities must concern themselves with local issues of equity, environmental and economic justice. Your holiday money must not subsidize unethical conservation initiatives. As a start, I support the campaign to make it difficult to transport trophies for hunters by international carriers like airlines and couriers.”

All of us are saddened by the death of a majestic creature like Cecil. Voices such as those of Makama, du Toit and Dr. Jacobsohn are key to understanding the complexity of an emotionally charged and highly politicized issue around trophy hunting. It’s during times like these that it’s important to think about the bigger picture, and hear the facts on the ground from activists who continue to dedicate their lives to protecting some of Southern Africa’s most endangered mammals from poachers – and are looking to community conservation to protect both people and wild animals.

*Safari hunters are usually tourists, accompanied by licensed and highly regulated professional hunters, local guides, skinners, and porters in more difficult terrains. Trophy hunting on the other hand is the selective hunting of wild game classified as game animals. The primary motivation is to seek the oldest, and most mature animal from a given population, which is typically a male with the largest body size or largest antlers or horns. Parts of the animal may be kept as a hunting trophy or memorial (usually the skin, antlers, horns and/or head). Source: Wikipedia.

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