There’s a huge difference between killing an animal for sustenance or subsistence, and hunting it for a trophy or for ‘sport’ (show me the sportsperson who would willingly agree to any contest in which the odds are so obviously skewed to one side – in the ‘sport’ of hunting, there’s only ever one winner…).
The former is something humans have engaged in for tens of thousands of years. The latter, a much more recent phenomenon, has always been the privilege of a wealthy and powerful elite.
Many conservationists and environmentalists may be opposed to trophy hunting, even if it’s conducted ethically, but what if hunting is actually a natural human instinct, something we are meant to do. Some hunting enthusiasts will argue that humans have evolved to occupy the top of the global food chain and that by trophy hunting, they are in fact fulfilling an important ecological function.
These days this debate is normally couched in the language of ‘sustainable use’, the idea that, done responsibly, ‘sport’ hunting can not only happen indefinitely, but also plays an important role in maintaining the diversity and abundance of the targeted prey species.
How valid are these arguments? Two scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals during August shed some interesting light on the matter.
The first paper, published by researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark, asks what the worldwide distribution of mammals would have looked like if Homo sapiens had never existed.
They find that by driving environmental changes and initiating a mass extinction of species, humans have significantly contributed to a reduction in the diversity of mammals everywhere, much more so than non-human factors such as natural climate patterns.
Interestingly, the authors note that so far, sub-Saharan Africa has been least affected by this. “The reason that many safaris target Africa is not because the continent is naturally abnormally rich in species of mammals,” explains lead author Soren Faurby. “Instead it reflects that it’s one of the only places where human activities have not yet wiped out most of the large animals”.
The second paper, published in Science, assess the premise of ‘sustainable exploitation’ of animals by comparing the behaviour of contemporary human hunters (and fishers) to that of predatory animals in a global survey.
The authors conclude that human hunters act very differently from their animal counterparts, preferentially killing adult prey, “the reproductive capital of populations”, at a much greater rate – sometimes up to 14 times higher – than other predators, “with particularly intense exploitation of terrestrial carnivores and fishes”.
They argue that “humans function as an unsustainable “super predator,” which – unless additionally constrained by managers – will continue to alter ecological and evolutionary processes globally”.
The researchers suggest that the concept of sustainable exploitation needs to be reconsidered and redefined in a way “that focuses not on yields to humanity but rather emulates the behavior of other predators” and that “more aggressive reductions in exploitation are required to mimic nonhuman predators, which represent long-term models of sustainability”.
So is trophy hunting acceptable simply because we are indeed the pinnacle of God’s creation or nature’s evolution, “red in tooth and claw” (take your pick)?
Personally, I think that ‘sport’ hunters who consider their actions as beneficial to wildlife conservation and don’t see it for what it really is – the satisfaction of a lust for killing and an integral part of an ongoing human ‘project’ that is steadily wiping out other species – are deluding themselves.
Until fairly recently in our history, we may have had the excuse that we simply didn’t know what the long-term consequences of our actions are. That defence is no longer valid.
Never before have the impacts of our behaviour been as clear as they are today. The two papers quoted above are just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet, never before have we been in a position to use the faculty that makes us most human – the ability to recognise our mistakes and to change the way we do things – to greater effect.
If we don’t stop the unsustainable killing and destruction, we’ll soon discover that we’re not this planet’s top dog, but merely an unthinking parasite that kills its host in the quest for short-term gratification.