Lion murderer Walt Palmer is an arsehole. But, he’s also an arsehole who’s contributed more money to animal conservation in Africa than pretty much anyone else. In fact, trophy hunters like him are a large part of the reason we still have animals like lions at all.
Hunting is one of those things that, if you don’t do it, probably flies in the face of your carefully curated 21st century morals. Everyone likes animals, so killing them is wrong, right? The fact is that there’s far more nuance to the argument than that.
There’s the hunting-for-food argument: The animals in question live full, natural lives eating healthy food, running free and fucking their brains out, then die instantaneously with a single, humane shot (at least that’s the idea). Conversely, the animals you buy in nice little packages at the supermarket have all been the subjects of industrialised torture. Grass-fed, free-range, GMO-free and organic? Those are just labels; wild-harvested meat is the real health food deal and its superior quality is so great that you can taste it.
There’s also the hunting for population control argument: You see, our own population is out of control. So much so that we’ve altered the natural world almost completely, to the point where it can’t exist without our intervention. Nearly every large animal is now the subject of a management plan, where its numbers need regular thinning to ensure the environment is able to support the population and to foster genetic diversity in that population. Sure, the US Department of Wildlife Services could just unceremoniously cull numbers (and it does, in vast quantities), but why spend tax money on that when hunters will actually pay to do the same? The number of hunting tags issues per-animal in each state and region is specifically pegged to population control and the fees from them contribute to conservation efforts.
And then there’s trophy hunting. Which, full disclosure: I think is dumb. But, because it attaches a large economic incentive to the continued presence of animals that often live in conflict with us humans, it contributes to, if not outright ensures their survival. Let’s look at why that is.
First, are there numbers that back this up? Can the link between high-pound trophy hunting of endangered species and their conservation be quantified? Conservation Magazine studied the issue and found:
“According to a 2005 paper by Nigel Leader-Williams and colleagues in the Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy the answer is yes. Leader-Williams describes how the legalisation of white rhinoceros hunting in South Africa motivated private landowners to reintroduce the species onto their lands. As a result, the country saw an increase in white rhinos from fewer than one hundred individuals to more than 11,000, even while a limited number were killed as trophies.”
What’s going on there is that a specific economic incentive was introduced that benefited the white rhino population. Yes, this resulted in some being killed and turned into the world’s most morbid umbrella stands or whatever, but by and large, the white rhino population was able recover from the brink of extinction specifically thanks to trophy hunting.
Your social media outrage didn’t save the white rhino in South Africa, arseholes like Walt Palmer did.
In fact, conservation and hunting have long gone hand in hand. Noted big game hunter Teddy Roosevelt is widely considered the originator of the modern conservation movement thanks to his acknowledgement that managed use for profit, rather than simply setting aside vast tracts of land for no purpose but preservation, was a viable model for protecting our natural heritage.
Teddy famously stated:
“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value. Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”
What he and conservationists found was that, to justify its existence in the harsh reality of the human world, nature needed to economically justify its existence.
Today, trophy hunting takes place in 23 sub-Saharan African nations, generating over £128 million and attracting over 18,000 clients each year. That’s money spent in the economies of multiple African nations directly pegged to the continuing presence of big game animals. It’s a large economic incentive for conservation of these species. And it’s growing.
This chart, from a study conducted by the University of Pretoria, demonstrates the increased economic value of trophy hunting in southern Africa. The explosive growth in South Africa is largely due to ranch land that had been dedicated to livestock being given over to game ranching. Elephants and lions are now worth more to landowners than cows and chickens.
Because a hunter like Walt Palmer is prepared to fly over and pay someone a large sum of money to kill a big, endangered critter, an economic opportunity attached to that critter is created. So, an enterprising individual will do anything from breeding to fostering to protecting and/or providing a habitat for a population of those critters. In order for that economic opportunity to last and for the investment to pay off, many more critters need to be added than the Walts of this world can ever kill. And because Walt and his pals want prime examples of that critter hanging on their trophy room walls, those critters need to be happy, healthy and wild. Yes, Walt will kill some of them, but many more will be able to go about their happy, healthy, wild lives as a result.
Yes, most of Walt’s spend does get pocketed by greedy capitalist types. But that’s the entire idea here. The greedy capitalist types are the ones earning a profit off the happy, healthy, wild population of critters. This isn’t some government boondoggle, it’s capitalism at its finest, creating employment and making the rich richer and all because they’ve got that happy, healthy population of critters.
How does the economic impact of hunting compare to tourism? After all, some tourists are paying to see animals, thereby giving them economic value too. In 2013, all tourism (not just people seeing animals) netted the South African economy £3.7 billion, which is a lot more money than hunting brings in.
But, that hunting is taking place in areas where tourists don’t often go. Game ranches have reached an equivalent total area to national parks in South Africa, effectively doubling the land on which large animals have to grow and roam.
Trophy hunting is also present in countries which do not otherwise have significant tourist economies, places like Ethiopia, Chad and the Central African Republic. Again providing economic incentive for the conservation of animals that otherwise might not exist in struggling economies and through political instability.
The average tourist in South Africa spends £41 a day on stuff like food and hotel rooms and transportation and maybe even tour of a national park. It costs a hunter up to £22,400 to kill a single lion in that country.
How does the economic benefit of hunting compare to money provided by charities? The World Wildlife Fund, for instance, spends £143 million a year, but that’s spread across the globe on programs inducing deforestation, habitat destruction and curbing carbon emissions. Some is spent on anti-poaching initiatives, but it does not equal the economic incentive for conservation in Africa that trophy hunting does.
Trophy hunting is also a powerful anti-poaching tool. If an animal is worth a large sum of money, the people invested in earning that money are motivated to prevent losses. This doesn’t help national parks, where hunting of any kind is forbidden, but it does prevent the illegal taking of protected species on private land.
Walt has been photographed with at least one lion kill, previous to the one that caused the current furor. It’s been reported that he paid up to £35,000 for this latest hunt. That’s at least £64,000 that he’s personally put into African economies, money that wouldn’t have been spent if there weren’t lions to hunt. That’s money which is a specific economic motivation for conservation. How much money have you and your Facebook friends contributed directly to big game conservation in Africa? I’m guessing that for most of you, it’s much, much less.
The 800lbs gorilla in the room here is obviously the allegedly illegal nature of Walt’s hunt. According to reports, the lion he killed was illegally lured out of a national park for the express purpose of the kill (without his knowledge, according to Walt) and the arsehole made a bad shot, wounding rather than killing the lion, leading to nearly two days of suffering before another hunter put it out of its misery. All that seriously sucks and just adds layers of arsehole to the already arsehole act of killing a lion. But, in all this talk of bad Yelp reviews and doxxing and closed dental practices, I figured there should at least be some discussion of the conservation benefits trophy hunting like this does, in fact, bring to animals. All hunters should not be tarred by Walt’s brush.
Maybe instead of just tweeting with a hashtag, this encourages you to actually do something substantial for animal conservation, just like Walt Palmer has.
This article originally appeared on Indefinitely Wild, Gizmodo's blog on adventure travel and the gear that gets us there