Quite a few people like to shoot unsuspecting animals dead with powerful rifles from a safe distance and then pose for selfies with the animals’ remains. And if we are to believe the Trump administration in the US, the dubious practice of trophy hunting does us all a service by serving as a valuable conservationist tool.
By culling high-status individuals, one argument by proponents of trophy hunting goes, hunters help lower-status individuals gain easier access to sparse resources and breeding mates, which can benefit a species. Trophy hunters can also keep the number of animals in check within wildlife habitats with limited resources. In addition, goes another argument, money earned from trophy hunting (which tends not to come cheap for hobbyists) can be reused in conservation efforts in cash-strapped nations with wildlife ranges.
The trouble is, says a team of researchers, that trophy hunters can drive entire species extinct. By targeting high-quality males because of their prominent ornaments like large horns or antlers, trophy hunters can diminish the gene pools of wild populations. And that can pose a significant risk when environmental factors also play a part in putting pressures on a species.
“Trophy hunting can potentially push otherwise resilient populations to extinction,” says Rob Knell, a biologist at Queen Mary University of London who was part of a team that recently published a paper on the topic. “Because these high-quality males with large secondary sexual traits tend to father a high proportion of the offspring, their ‘good genes’ can spread rapidly, so populations of strongly sexually selected animals can adapt quickly to new environments,” he explains.
“Removing these males reverses this effect and could have serious and unintended consequences,” Knell goes on. “We found that ‘selective harvest’ has little effect when the environment is relatively constant, but environmental change is now a dangerous reality across the globe for considerable numbers of species.”
The researchers say that their findings underline the importance of ensuring that even licensed hunting is done only in line with strict conservationist guidelines.
Other experts, meanwhile, argue that no true conservationists would regard trophy hunting as a worthy form of wildlife conservationism. “People who consider themselves conservationists don’t consider trophy hunting conservation,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s an elite, bourgeois activity.”