Trophy hunting has been under considerable scrutiny since the killing if Cecil the Lion in 2015. Supporters of trophy hunting say that the revenue it creates helps with conservation, and that hunting protects natural habitats from development. But those opposed to trophy hunting claim that the money it makes is not distributed fairly, say the trophy hunting industry is corrupt, question the ethics of the practice, and have various other complaints (see this post for a quick synopsis).
Now, a new study has found that trophy hunting may be more dangerous for wildlife than commonly supposed: especially when combined with the effects of climate change.
Being genetically fit (meaning animals have a diverse and healthy gene pool) is an important component of a species’ ability to adapt to changing conditions. As climate change progresses, genetic fitness is going to become even more important. However, a common practice among trophy hunters is to target the most impressive-looking males. As this article from National Geographic points out, this includes the lions with the biggest manes and the elephants with the biggest tusks. This has important implications.
The most impressive-looking animals tend to have the best genes. By choosing to kill these individuals, trophy hunters can reduce a species’ adaptability, thereby increasing its risk of extinction. According to the original article, removing as little as 5 percent of the fittest males from a population can substantially increase its vulnerability to extinction.
However, the study’s authors do not call for a ban on trophy hunting. They instead suggest more stringent regulations, such as setting stricter age limits on which animals are allowed to be killed.
I am skeptical about this recommendation. In a webinar hosted by National Geographic last year, Dr. Craig Packer said that current age limits for lions are often not enforced; trophy hunters frequently kill much younger animals than they are allowed to. He referred to this phenomenon as the, “slaughter of the innocents.” If current laws are not respected, what good will it do to raise age limits?
In addition, I previously wrote that multiple studies have found that sport hunting disrupts the social systems of mountain lions (Puma concolor) in ways that can intensify conflicts with people. Once again, this happens because hunters preferentially target the biggest, most impressive males in a population. A lack of mature males produces a higher density of younger, more conflict-prone males than would naturally occur. I wonder if this is true for African lions as well?
Of course, poaching is a more grave threat than trophy hunting. Still, the more I learn about trophy hunting, the more I question its utility for big cat conservation.