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June 08, 2007

Trophy Hunting Is Not Conservation

I hope you have been following the exchanges in the Talk Back posts, where we are posting a sampler of reader comments (if you’d like to join the conversation, offer a comment below). Thus far, I have stayed an arm’s length away and let the dialogue develop between readers. But Fred’s comments prompt a response from me.

Fred trots out the party line from the trophy hunting lobby. The adherents cannot readily admit that they kill polar bears and other megafauna to showcase the heads of the animals in their dens or living rooms, or to be recognized within the trophy hunting pantheon for a variety of "hunting achievement awards." Instead, they latch on to a more altruistic purpose: the money from hunting licenses funds conservation.

281x144_polar_bear_faceIt's a common mantra from the Safari Club International, a politically active organization whose members compete to achieve awards granted by the organization. In fact, there are 40 hunting achievement awards, including "Bears of the World"—which requires a hunter to kill four of the eight species of bears in the world.

It was SCI that led the fight in 1994 to punch a hole in the Marine Mammal Protection Act and to allow American trophy hunters to import the heads and hides of the polar bears they kill in Canada. It is SCI that supports hunting of the endangered cheetah and critically endangered black rhino, of which fewer than 4,000 remain in the wild. SCI even went so far as to go to federal court to defend the canned hunting of endangered antelope species trapped behind fences. The group remains very active on Capitol Hill, and has a large political action committee.

I have asked my colleague, Dr. Naomi Rose, to give some additional details to counter Fred's contentions that hunting is necessary for polar bear conservation. Dr. Rose is a marine mammal biologist. Her perspective follows:

Regarding the statement that trophy hunters do a lot for conservation, it's true that some portion of some hunters' fees goes to conservation in some countries, but it's rarely the major source of conservation funding. Usually middlemen—commercial outfitters—take the lion's share of sport hunting proceeds and local communities and conservation and management agencies get the dregs.

Certainly, in the case of polar bears, we have yet to see what portion of the amount a hunter pays for an excursion (typically about $30,000) actually goes to conservation programs. An August 2005 article in the Nunatsiaq News, a Canadian newspaper serving the Nunavut territory, concluded, “most of the [financial benefits from sport hunts] never reach Inuit hands, and when they do, those earnings vary substantially from community to community.”

281x144_polar_bear
© Don Getty

I would challenge this constituent and the organizations of which he is a member to produce evidence for the polar bear. It is apples and oranges to show how another species' hunting fees go to that species' conservation. Other countries have polar bears and do not allow sport hunting—the United States, Russia and Norway, and up until recently Greenland (Denmark)—and their conservation programs make do perfectly well without sport hunters' fees.

In Canada, the management authorities might gain about $3 million annually from sport hunting fees (assuming they are about $30,000 per hunt and that there are about 100 sport hunts a year). And that's being generous—we have no concrete information regarding what portion of the fees goes to management and conservation, what portion goes to local communities, and what portion stays with commercial outfitters as profit. Given that Canada holds more than half of all the polar bears in the world, it's truly alarming to think this relatively small amount of money makes or breaks their management programs!

Even with sport hunters’ fees going to polar bear conservation programs (again, for which we’ve seen no concrete evidence), polar bears in several populations in Canada are depleted and/or in decline.

At least two populations, in M'Clintock Channel and Western Hudson Bay, have recently declined precipitously as a result of over-hunting. Let’s look at this another way: Sport hunters' fees put economic pressure on managers to inflate hunting quotas beyond sustainable levels. This is apparently what happened in these two populations. Despite what science and common sense said, the quotas were increased and the bears declined. Hardly good conservation.

281x144_polar_bear_on_ice_2 In addition, the Nunavut territory, home to several polar bear populations, has recently increased its hunting quotas by 29 percent, against scientific recommendations. Territorial authorities claim there are more bears because locals are noticing more near villages. But these sightings do not mean there are more bears; merely that the bears are shifting their distribution. In fact, scientists think these are hunger-stressed bears—who are losing seal hunting opportunities due to early ice break-up—who are seeking out the garbage dumps that go along with human habitation. The increased sightings are more likely a sign that quotas should be reduced, yet the opposite happened. Again, hardly good conservation and certainly not precautionary management.

As for the statement that "all wildlife must be managed," on our shrinking planet this may or may not be true, but this isn’t the same as saying all wildlife must be hunted! Again, the only country that has polar bear sport hunts is Canada (recently Greenland decided to start a sport hunt, but it is unclear if any bears have yet been killed under this new program). The bear populations in other countries are being "managed" without sport hunting playing any role. In fact, historically, before the passage of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, sport hunting was identified as the primary or sole cause of polar bear population declines in places such as Alaska.

The concept that wildlife needs to be killed to be saved has never made sense and, in the 21st century, we should finally put it to rest.

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