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Trophy hunting: the scale of the killing


I’ve never understood the appeal of trophy hunting. You love wild animals so much that you want to kill them, stuff them, pop glass marbles into their eye sockets and display them above the lounge mantelpiece? You’re trying to impress others with your sharp-shooting prowess by installing a macabre menagerie of the fearsome beasts you’ve “bagged” in your pool house?  I don’t get it.

I guess I could come up with a plausible pop-psychology explanation. Something to do with a primordial killer instinct dating back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our innate pseudo-religious or pseudo-Darwinian need to dominate nature, or just the satisfaction that comes from collecting lots of pretty things. Perhaps some people derive a certain dark satisfaction from being able to legally put a bullet through another living creature’s heart and seeing the life seep out of it in a trickle of blood.

Alternatively, I guess, we could simply dismiss this bloody pastime as a distraction for the seriously rich who lack the imagination to find other things to do with their time and money. But how big a hobby is trophy hunting actually? How many animals get shot for the express purpose of being turned into supposedly decorative display pieces? And what role does South Africa play in this business?

The answers may shock you even if you’re not particularly squeamish about the idea of killing animals for sport.

Earlier this month, the International Fund for Animal Welfare published a report, titled ‘Killing for Trophies’, in which the global wild animal trophy trade between 2004 and 2014 is analysed on the basis of data collected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

During that decade around 1.7 million hunting trophies were traded between over 100 different countries. Of these, at least 200 000 came from threatened animal species. All of this, by the way, is perfectly legal and in line with CITES regulations. The size of the black market in animal trophies is unknown.

US citizens are the keenest trophy hunters on the planet. Twenty countries account for 97% of all trophy imports, with a massive 71% (over 150,000 trophies) going to the USA. Germany and Spain occupy a distant second/third position at 5% each, while South Africa is fourth with 6460 imported trophies.

The highest ranking trophy exporting country is Canada, with a 35% share of the global trade (68,899 trophies, most of them American black bears going to the USA). South Africa comes in second (23% or 44 700 trophies) and Namibia third (11% or 22 394 trophies).

Of the top 20 trophy exporting nations, half are in Africa.

African elephants and leopards are among the top six most traded trophies from threatened animal species (more than 10 000 trophies each), but the greatest increase has occurred in the trading of African lion trophies (at least 11 000 between 2004 and 2013). No doubt this is chiefly the result of South Africa’s large industry of breeding lions in captivity specifically for the trophy hunting market.

The report confirms South Africa as by far and away the biggest exporter of trophies ‘harvested’ from captive-bred animals – a total of 7663, which is a huge number when compared to the next highest, that for the USA at only 327. The South African figure includes predominantly lions (5 253), but also other rare species, such as Lechwe (1 099).

There can be little doubt that trophy hunting is almost exclusively a pursuit of the super-rich. The report notes that in South Africa, hunters pay between US$15,000 and 35,000 for shooting a leopard, $8,500 – 50 000 for a lion and $25 000 – 60 000 for an elephant. Walter Palmer, the American dentist who infamously killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe last year reportedly paid $54,000 for the privilege.

Trophy hunters will claim that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this, that it’s simple market economics and that their activities provide much needed money for wildlife conservation. In essence, they argue that you need to sacrifice a few prime animals to the bullets of the wealthy in order to save the rest from extinction.

That’s some pretty warped logic as far as I’m concerned. If we truly value indigenous animals and want to make sure that they’ll be around for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to see in the wild, we’ll find funding that doesn’t require us to turn them into ghoulish stuffed displays for the creepy pleasure of a tiny minority.

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