RUVU MASAI, Tanzania – In October 2018, around 20 of Africa’s most respected wildlife research, management, and conservation experts quietly convened at a meeting in Johannesburg to discuss an urgent problem: trophy hunting. They were concerned not about the much-maligned industry’s continuation, but about its decline—specifically, about how the disappearance of trophy hunting might harm Africa’s wildlife.
This probably sounds illogical. Trophy hunting in Africa has been vilified on social media and in news outlets. It is the punching bag of numerous (mostly Western) celebrities, animal rights activists, and politicians. Many people feel disgusted when they see a photo of a privileged white hunter hulking over the corpse of a beautiful animal—and understandably so. “There’s a majestic, dead lion, there’s blood coming out of it, and there’s some leering idiot right behind it,” says Adam Hart, a biologist at the University of Gloucestershire. “You’ve got this unique, almost perfect storm of your victim and your villain. The framing of it doesn’t need any explanation.”
The problem, however, is that simplistic memes and incendiary headlines that condemn the practice obscure a more nuanced truth: Conservation is not free, and trophy hunting revenue preserves more wild land in Africa—and thus, more animals—than do areas with stricter protections, like national parks. “Work in conservation areas requires money,” says Victor Muposhi, a conservation biologist at the Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Trophy hunting has been a critical source of funding for that, and if it’s taken off the table, then the whole of Africa is going to suffer.”
More generally, many think decisions about wildlife management and conservation in Africa should be left to those who know the issues best and have a direct stake in their outcome. “We don’t decide for [Europe and the U.S.] how they should manage their resources,” says Moreangels Mbizah, founder of Wildlife Conservation Action, a non-profit group in Zimbabwe. “But when it comes to resources in Africa, we end up having people decide for us. The question is, why should it be different?”
The current accepted estimate is that designated wildlife hunting areas, often called conservancies, account for a whopping two-thirds of all of sub-Saharan Africa’s protected areas. Across some 23 countries, nearly 660,000 square miles of habitat—a total area more than twice the size of Texas—is set aside for hunting, as well as the conservation efforts that sustain it. This land plays a key role in connecting national parks and other preserves, preventing them from becoming isolated islands of nature.
In Tanzania, for example, the government has set aside 38 percent of the country’s land for conservation, and hunting areas account for around two-thirds of that. (To put this figure into perspective, the U.S. has set aside just 13 percent of its land for conservation.) “These [hunting] concessions are the glue that make up the majority of Africa’s big wildlife landscapes,” says Matthew Rice, co-founder and director of Conserve Global, a non-profit group dedicated to saving, securing, and restoring neglected and vulnerable conservation areas outside of national parks in Africa for nature and local people.
Trophy hunting is the economic justification for keeping Africa’s network of ecosystems in place, but that research-backed fact is being overlooked in favor of calls for hunting bans, says Maxi Pia Louis, director of the Namibian Association of Community Based Natural Resource Management Support Organizations, a non-profit group that helps rural communities manage their wildlife in a sustainable way.
“People don’t respect science anymore, and they’re making decisions without really having evidence,” Louis says. “People are just emotive, and that is my biggest concern.”
Indeed, trophy hunting’s counterintuitive role in supporting African wildlife was difficult at first for me to wrap my head around because I, too, had internalized the negative media messaging around the subject, as well as the suggestions of what appear to be simple alternatives. But the mainstream scientific and conservation establishment increasingly shares the view that the revenue trophy hunting generates is critical for conserving African wildlife. In the more than four years I’ve spent reporting this story, I’ve learned that there are, as yet, few reasonable alternatives to replace the economic lifeline the practice provides. Photographic tourism generally doesn’t thrive in harsher landscapes, especially ones with bountiful tsetse flies and a lack of stunning scenery and easy wildlife-viewing opportunities.
According to a 2021 report by the African Leadership University, between 2012 and 2014 trophy hunters spent between hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than $140 million annually in the countries they visit, which include places like the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, and Chad that see relatively few photographic tourists. On top of paying for things like anti-poaching patrols, when done well, the industry gives rural people a clear reason to tolerate, protect, and value animals—exemplifying the common phrase throughout Southern Africa, “If it pays it stays.”
This quid pro quo approach to nature may seem crass, but Africa is a continent of 1.3 billion people, projected to nearly double to 2.5 billion by 2050. Wildlife—especially wildlife that can kill you or take out an entire year’s crop overnight—will only have a future if it’s economically competitive with other forms of land use. “At the end of the day, one of the sad truths in Africa is in the absence of capital, you have very little incentive,” says Tim Tear, a senior scientist at the Biodiversity Research Institute, who has 40 years of experience in conservation on the continent. “The fate of these areas is left to the direction of capitalism, whether we like it or not.”
Many don’t like it, or at least don’t recognize it. Over the past decade, anti-hunting sentiment in Western countries has taken a serious toll. Many hunting operators have cut back or closed shop entirely, leaving the wilderness they formerly looked after unprotected. Continent-wide numbers do not exist for the hunting industry’s downward spiral, but individual nations are seeing anywhere from 20 percent to more than 50 percent vacancy in their hunting areas. Tanzania, where the government owns the land and leases it to professional hunting operators, offers a particularly telling example. In 2013, all 189 of the country’s hunting areas were occupied. Since then, the government has revoked the conservation status of many of those concessions, and of the 120 or so remaining areas, nearly 60 percent have been left unprotected because professional hunting outfitters haven’t renewed their leases. The Tanzanian government is ultimately responsible for managing these 29,000-square miles of wilderness, but in actuality, that usually doesn’t happen; its resources are just too limited.
These and other worrying statistics inspired the Johannesburg meeting. Its attendees convened in the hopes of getting a handle on the severity of the situation and to brainstorm solutions. “There was a consensus by everybody present in the room that the economic impact of this is a major crisis, if not the biggest crisis facing conservation on the African continent now,” recalls Parker. He was so alarmed by what he learned in the meeting that, the following year, he and Rice co-founded Conserve Global.
To be clear, trophy hunting is not a panacea. African conservation faces an uncertain future with or without it. But many scientists and wildlife managers agree that, at least for now, it would do significantly more harm than good to ban it. The future of the continent’s wildlife depends, in part, on broader recognition in countries outside Africa that trophy hunting is still a crucial tool in the conservation toolbox. It’s also a tool that Africans themselves are opting to use, to help buy time for wilderness as the world attempts to find new ways to finance long-term, sustainable support for the continent’s staggering natural wonder.
“There was a consensus by everybody present in the room that this is a major crisis, if not the biggest crisis facing conservation on the African continent now,”
— Andrew Parker, Conserve Global
There are two things to keep in mind when hunting Cape buffalo in the African bush. First, should one of those 1,800-pound animals charge, do not run. If you run, you divert attention to yourself from the professional hunter at the head of the line—your literal best shot at survival. And there’s no way you’re outrunning a charging buffalo, which can plow through branches and brambles like a freight train. Unless it changes its mind, it can be stopped only by a bullet to the brain or spine.
Second, you must understand that there is an element of danger that cannot be controlled, no matter how many precautions you take or how expert your guide. By entering the buffalo’s turf, you must accept, then, that there is a chance you will not come out.
These are Lorne Ramoni’s stern warnings. The Tanzania-born professional hunter is preparing me for a buffalo hunt in Ruvu Masai, a 930-square mile hunting concession located about 125-miles south of Arusha, hours from the nearest paved road and far from any typical tourist attraction. “There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded buffalo,” Ramoni tells me. “There are things that can go seriously, seriously wrong in there.”
With the safety disclaimers out of the way, Ramoni raises his hand to wordlessly signal the start of the hunt. “The cat and mouse game has begun,” whispers Scott, a 49-year-old Texas attorney who allowed me to shadow several days of hunts he undertook with Ramoni in July 2021. (Scott asked that only his first name be used, to protect him and his family from anti-hunting backlash.)
We push into the thick wall of vegetation that demarcates our world from the buffalo’s, walking in single-file with Metui Riket, a Datooga bushman, leading the way. My senses are on high alert; I scan the thick scrub for dark, glistening eyes and listen intently for an angry snort or stomp of a hoof. I know, though, that my chances of spotting a buffalo before he spots me are exactly zero. Moving silently is not possible. Every plant is sharp and snatches noisily at us as we duck through child-sized openings in the web of thorns. Scott, with his bulky six-foot-three frame, is having a particularly hard time.
Our guides, on the other hand, move with practiced, comfortable grace. Riket follows telltale signs (completely invisible to me) that a buffalo has recently been here. He beelines to a fresh pile of dung, removes his sandal and touches the soft material with a toe, gauging the temperature to estimate how recently the buffalo left it. Based on Riket and the other trackers’ confident strides, we seem to be homing in on our target. But gray clouds have been thickening overhead, and a light breeze picks up. It feels good to my sweating body, but by spreading our scent, it’s working against us.
The trackers seem less sure now. Another hour or so passes; it’s difficult to tell. A cloud of flies follows us like a buzzing thought bubble as we claw our way up and down steep ditches, racking up more cuts. Blood covers Scott’s exposed calves and darkens a torn shirt sleeve. It seems like we are going in circles—maybe we are—but I’ve lost my sense of direction. Finally, Ramoni calls off the hunt. The old buffalo has won this round.
I expect Scott to be disappointed; bagging a buffalo is high on his wish list for this trip. When I ask him how he feels, though, he surprises me with his answer: “If I never pull a trigger again, the experience is all that matters to me.”
I had arrived in Tanzania mentally prepared for the difficult emotional experience of seeing the hunters shoot what I assumed would be at least a handful of animals in the span of a few hours. What I get instead are 12- to 14-hour days primarily spent bouncing around the open back of a Land Cruiser with half a dozen men—trackers, skinners, a photographer, and a government observer required to be present on every excursion. People often assume that trophy hunters are “a bunch of rednecks driving around shooting shit from their trucks,” as Scott delicately puts it, but in Tanzania, shooting out of a vehicle is illegal; the actual hunt is done on foot. Stalks, however, are rare. We encounter few animals, and nearly all are female or young individuals, meaning they’re out of bounds and we have to drive on. Science-based hunting regulations are designed not to impact overall species populations, which means targeting only older males that are past their reproductive prime.
People who oppose trophy hunting also commonly think that cameras can simply replace guns—a message that animal rights advocates often promote. As the international animal advocacy non-profit Born Free states on its website, “Shooting an animal with a camera, rather than a gun will not only save that animal’s life, but enable it to continue to generate funds through photographic tourism for years to come.” Yet, while beautiful in its own way, Ruvu Masai is not somewhere I would fly halfway around the world to see if I wasn’t here for work. Monotonous scraggly trees and brownish-gray scrub obscure the view, giving the impression of an endless, overgrown lot and making it nearly impossible to see wildlife. For the several sunrise-to-sunset days I put in, I spot just a few herbivores, most of which are obscured by dense brush. Some claw marks on a tree and a paw print left in the dust are the closest I come to encountering leopards and lions.
Juxtapose this with the single day I spend in Serengeti National Park at the end of my trip. Before noon, I have seen both a leopard and cheetah mere feet from my private luxury vehicle, plus at least 100,000 wildebeest undertaking their epic, spectacularly photogenic annual migration. That evening, I’m driven straight to a pride of lions, then close out the day with a couple beers while watching the sun set behind a mother elephant and her adorable, floppy-trunked baby.
Ramoni, a fourth-generation hunter, and his family have made it their business and passion to protect the less spectacular but equally important landscapes of Tanzania. Their company, Tanzania Big Game Safaris, employs 240 full-time Tanzanian hunters and other staff, and another 250 seasonal local employees, to manage 7,200-square miles of wilderness across seven hunting concessions. It costs at least $400,000 annually to manage Ruvu Masai alone, which includes year-round anti-poaching patrols, 35 local staff, and community initiatives such as the construction of schools and roads.
Not all hunting groups provide local communities with benefits, but many do. And the tens of thousands of jobs the industry provides—usually concentrated in remote areas where people have few other legal options for income—is one of its most important contributions. Communities “want jobs and education,” says Peyton West, executive director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society – U.S. “Hunting offers that.”
Oftentimes, communities are also actively choosing to allow hunting on their land as a way to make a living, and “this is their choice to make, not ours,” West points out. That choice is enabled by clients who are willing to pay exorbitant sums to spend long days bumping around boring, difficult landscapes, with no guarantee of pulling a trigger. Scott’s trip ran close to a quarter of a million dollars for three adults and a child.
Scott is not a typical tourist, however, and the comfortable, eventful Serengeti experience is the African holiday most visitors prefer. Research and real-world experiments back this up. In a 2015 study of 50 communal conservancies in Namibia—places where the land is state-owned but wholly managed by the people living there—researchers from WWF predicted that, without hunting, 84 percent of conservancies would not be able to cover their operating costs. Without photographic or other non-hunting related tourism, just 41 percent would be pushed into the red.
In Botswana in 2014, people who depended on hunting for their livelihoods learned the hard way that zero concessions could survive without it, after the government imposed a hunting moratorium on state and tribal land and advised affected communities to transition to photographic tourism. None of the country’s 12 elephant concessions were able to make the switch, and some communities went from making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to nothing, with “no employment, no food, [and] zero support from government,” says Debbie Peake, a committee member of the Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, a group focused on the conservation and management of Botswana’s wildlife, including through sustainable hunting. With wildlife no longer paying for itself, poaching of elephants increased.
“The ban was a disaster,” says Muposhi from the Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “It was not informed by any scientific facts or figures, but was more of a political decision with some hidden business motives as well.”
Recent history at Ruvu Masai likewise shows just how quickly poaching can begin after trophy hunters depart. In 2018, Tanganyika Wildlife Safaris, the previously largest hunting operator in Tanzania, went out of business and abandoned all of their hunting blocks, including Ruvu Masai, after the U.S. imposed import restrictions on certain trophies, including from lions and elephants. When Tanzania Big Game Safaris took over shortly after, Ramoni says, they found that illegal mining camps and farms had already popped up, and poaching was rampant. Now, after several years of intense work—including catching 55 poachers and confiscating 26 motorcycles that they used to illegally run down wildlife at night—their efforts are starting to bear fruit. Animals are on the rebound, Ramoni says, including a lion population that has grown from zero to at least four prides and six lone males.
Western hunters were not the first to collect and proudly display African wildlife trophies. Louis at the Namibian Association points out that prior to colonization, African chiefs also kept such trophies and presented them as gifts. “For me, trophy hunting has always been part of Africa,” she says.
What changed with the advent of European colonizers, though, was the commercialization of the trophy hunting into an industry. That industry traces its origins to 19th century white hunters, who flocked to colonial Africa for the thrill of shooting lions, elephants, and other exotic creatures. For some Western men, African hunts became the stuff of legend, popularized and romanticized by writers like Ernest Hemingway and movies like Hatari!, starring John Wayne. Black Africans, meanwhile, were frequently labeled as poachers if they hunted wildlife for their own subsistence in areas designated for paying patrons.
The creation of this new industry necessitated setting aside large swaths of land for wildlife—a conservation model that was originally developed by hunters in the U.S. and was exported to other places, including Africa. Rather than do away with this colonial tradition following independence, most African governments readily embraced hunting as a business because it was something they knew could “generate a lot of revenue, and a lot of that revenue could go to elites,” Tear says.
Although commercialized trophy hunting was originally introduced by colonizers, Louis rejects the argument that it is therefore somehow tainted for Africans. “There has been a global intermingling in general in terms of embracing each other’s cultures,” she points out. Singling out trophy hunting for its colonial roots ignores the fact that “the clothes we wear, the agricultural methods we use, the food we eat—everything is colonial,” Louis says. “Should we now throw everything away? Should I go naked because my clothes are Western?”
The bottom line, she says, is that Africans continue to pursue trophy hunting “because we want it.”
Another common misunderstanding is that trophy hunting and poaching are synonymous, but this is not accurate. Poaching is any hunting that takes place outside of what is permitted by law, and it’s a major cause of species declines around the world. People often resort to poaching when they have limited options for other income and for food. And with high-value animals like rhinos, elephants, and pangolins, international crime syndicates often get involved. Trophy hunting, on the other hand, is an industry sanctioned and supported by governments and law. As long as hunters and outfitters follow national laws and science-based quotas, the practice does not impact species’ survival. If done well, in fact, it can help grow populations. Numerous studies show that by paying for conservation and management, the hunting industry has significantly boosted the numbers of white and black rhinos, savannah elephants, lions, and many types of ungulates.
The U.S. has a rich hunting tradition, and up to 70 percent of hunters that visit Africa today are American. But Americans’ love of the practice has begun to wane both at home and abroad. Urbanization has contributed to a national decline in hunting, as has the rise of devices that keep people glued to screens instead of the outdoors. In 1982, nearly 17 million Americans purchased hunting licenses. Today, that number hovers around 15 million, and fewer Americans are booking hunting safaris in Africa. The industry’s downturn presents a major challenge to conservation in the U.S., just as it does in many African countries: American state wildlife agencies derive up to 80 percent of their funding from hunting- and fishing-related fees and sales.
But there’s an additional factor that’s simultaneously hammering the industry in Africa: vehement Western public opposition to hunting on the continent. According to Peyton West at the Frankfurt Zoological Society – U.S., the rise of social media is at least partly to blame. While trophy hunting has always been a “heated” topic, she says, pictures shared online of hunters posing with dead animals has made the subject “much more accessible to people, visually.”
This issue came to a head in 2015, in what conservationists and scientists have come to refer to as “the Cecil incident,” when Walter Palmer, an American dentist, shot a 13-year old male lion named Cecil outside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Palmer did not break any laws, and neither was Cecil’s death out of the ordinary, but the lion made headlines after Jimmy Kimmel passionately condemned the killing on his talk show. From there, the story metastasized on social media, with inaccuracies peppered in as it grew. Palmer’s vacation home was vandalized, his workplace overrun with protesters, and his wife and daughter threatened. At the height of the furor, Cecil was mentioned nearly 90,000 times in a single day on social media. Corporations and politicians took note. Certain airlines announced that they would stop transporting hunting trophies and some countries enacted new restrictions or bans on their import.
While not all hunters care about bringing home a trophy, the majority do, and many canceled upcoming trips to Africa. Others, seeing what happened to Palmer, decided that a safari in Africa wasn’t worth the risk. It became difficult to impossible for numerous hunting outfitters to maintain their operations. “During that year of Cecil, the bottom fell out for us,” says Mike Angelides, president of the African Professional Hunters Association. In Tanzania, this, combined with other factors, drove a 56 percent decline in hunting revenue between 2015 and 2020. “We still have not recovered,” Angelides says.
Legislative pressure has also continued. In December 2021, the U.K. announced an impending import ban—which is currently progressing through Parliament—on trophies from thousands of threatened or endangered species, citing a need for “long-term species conservation” and protection of “some of the world’s most endangered and threatened animals.” Proposed legislation called the CECIL Act in the U.S. would likewise ban trophy imports of various species.
While it might sound like a no-brainer to stop trophy hunters from killing threatened and endangered species, the reality is more nuanced. Species are imperiled for a variety of reasons, but legal hunting is typically not one of them. Instead, habitat loss and poaching are the leading causes of wildlife declines in Africa. As Hart from the University of Gloucestershire points out, some of Africa’s most threatened species have in fact experienced population gains thanks to the protections afforded by trophy hunting. “Words like ‘threatened’ and ‘endangered’ are thrown around liberally” by Western governments, media, and activists, he says. But rather than get hung up on labels, the key, he emphasizes, is to consider why a species is listed as threatened or endangered in the first place.
Percentage of trophy hunters visting Africa that are American
Matthew Boguslawski, an attorney in San Antonio who specializes in hunting issues, adds that bans like the ones proposed in the U.K. and U.S., if passed, would be “a financial death sentence” for conservation in many places, because the small numbers of expensive hunts sold for threatened species like lions and elephants represent a huge portion of the overall funds generated by the trophy hunting industry—and those funds are often directed toward the protection of the animals and their habitats.
Most anti-hunting advocates, on the other hand, are calling for bans that go even further and put an end to all sport hunting, regardless of a species’ conservation status. The Born Free Foundation, for example, “is ethically opposed to hunting and killing wildlife for pleasure,” says Mark Jones, the group’s head of policy. Jones points to new discoveries, for example, that are regularly being made about the depths of animal sentience, the intricacies of their intra-species relationships, and the complex ecological roles each creature plays. When certain individual animals are removed—including old males that have already bred—there are effects on natural communities, including things we probably have yet to understand, he says. “As we learn more about these animals and their social lives and interrelationships, we learn that we can’t just take out a cohort and expect not to see some kind of impact—and those impacts can be extremely negative.”
By “selectively and artificially” removing animals from nature, trophy hunters are contributing to “as extractive an industry as oil, mining, and gas,” adds Iris Ho, head of campaigns and policy at the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, a conservation and animal welfare coalition primarily dedicated to the protection of Africa’s primates. “As long as we put a bounty on the heads of individual animals, that is counterproductive to promoting their protection.”
There are also instances of poorly managed trophy hunting causing serious local population declines of particular species—lions and leopards, in particular. As in any industry, there are those who break rules pertaining to things like which animals can be shot and where—sometimes to a startling and despicable extent. That doesn’t mean, though, that the entire industry should be punished, Louis says. “Just like any other industry, we have challenges, but when you have challenges, do you just ban things? Or do you say, what is the way we can address these gaps?”
Some experts argue, too, that even having less-than-perfect hunting in place is better than having no protections at all for wild land—which in many cases is the alternative. In a study published last year, for example, researchers found that lions, African wild dogs, spotted hyenas, and leopards living in Tanzania’s 17,400-square mile Ruaha-Rungwa landscape fared better in actively managed trophy-hunting areas than in those that had been left vacant because no trophy hunting outfitter had leased them. “Once blocks were vacant, there was more illegal use, which is exactly the kind of thing we have been warning about,” says the study’s lead author Amy Dickman, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford. She and her colleagues also found that carnivores were equally likely to be in areas used primarily for photographic tourism as in those used for hunting, suggesting that trophy hunting wasn’t causing declines.
Positive findings about trophy hunting don’t often find their way into popular discourse, though, in part because few experts dare speak up—hence, the secrecy of the Johannesburg meeting. As one respected scientist told me, “It’s highly risky to talk about this stuff. I could get into deep shit.” Some non-profit groups even forbid their employees from publicly acknowledging trophy hunting’s contribution to conservation, for fear of angering donors. WWF, for example, passed on being interviewed for this story. Instead, they quietly pointed me to a position statement on their website, recognizing that in some instances well-regulated trophy hunting “has been proven to be an effective conservation tool” and “can generate substantial economic benefits, community and political support, and have direct benefits for threatened species and biodiversity.”
Keeping mum on the trophy hunting issue, however, contributes to the problem, Dickman says. “I see people being cowed all the time, and it’s so depressing,” She considers the stakes to be too high not to speak out—even after being attacked for doing so.
In 2019, Dickman and 132 co-signers published a letter in the journal Science warning about the trophy hunting industry’s decline and arguing that conservation policy must be based on science rather than emotion. The backlash was swift and vitriolic, and as the lead author, Dickman—a vegetarian who finds the idea of shooting an animal morally repugnant—bore the brunt of it. “I became this crazy hate figure,” she says. She lost track of how many times she was called some version of a “sick, twisted, sadistic, murderous, lion-killing bitch,” she says, but probably the biggest sting of all was being berated by Jane Goodall, who described Dickman and her colleagues in an anti-hunting press release as “naive,” “so-called conservationists” who were “being manipulated” and “need to wake up.”
Mwita Philipo, 36, lives a few miles from the western border of Serengeti National Park, down an overgrown, rutted dirt path that becomes crowded with uniformed kids walking to and from school each morning and afternoon. When I arrive at Philipo’s home, I have to hold my breath and skirt around orange flames lapping at the bramble. He’s conducting a controlled burn to clear the land, he tells me, so no one in his family will ever be surprised by an elephant again.
In June 2021, Philipo’s 15-year-old daughter, Paulina, was fetching water with her 8-year-old sister, Regina, when an elephant burst out of the bush and charged the girls. Regina managed to escape, but Paulina did not. The massive animal knocked her down and drove its tusk into her back, killing her. Paulina, Philipo tells me, wanted to be a doctor. She was home visiting her sick brother, who passed away just days before she was killed.
Philipo’s story was by far the most heartbreaking I heard about conflict between humans and wildlife. But almost universally, elephants and lions are a net negative for people living in this area. In Nyanungu, a village not far from Philipo’s home, elephant dung litters agricultural fields that the animals have plundered, and cattle bear scars from lion attacks. A father of five tells me he had to scrap plans to build a house for his mother after lions killed three of his cows and elephants trampled and ate his entire year’s crop of maize; another man says he had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized after a lion killed five of his cattle.
“We’re afraid of elephants and lions because we know they can kill you,” says Mahiri Daniel Musongo, a mother of five whose farm has been ransacked by elephants. “[They] kill our livestock and damage our crops and leave us starving and hungry.”
Most residents say they don’t want lions and elephants to be killed and that they’d prefer for the government to drive the animals away. But there’s nowhere for the animals to go. When nothing is done, people sometimes take matters into their own hands. In 2019, someone in Nyanungu poisoned a pride of nine lions, condemning all of those animals to an excruciating death. “Communities are losing patience,” says Masegeri Rurai, a project leader at the Frankfurt Zoological Society. “They’re now starting to retaliate and really harm wildlife.”
Tanzania is home to 37 percent of Africa’s lions, making it the most important country for the big cats’ conservation. But as human populations increase, so do revenge killings. Unlike hunters, disgruntled villagers don’t discriminate between lions, and may even kill pregnant and lactating females. Or they poison a carcass or water hole, causing countless other animals to die as well. Dickman and her colleagues found that lions around some villages are killed at levels 50 to 100 times higher than what would be legally permitted in a trophy hunting area. When that happens, there’s no additional benefit in terms of revenue coming in for local communities, Dickman says. “And also, the deaths of those individual animals are so awful.”
“One of our biggest challenges is, how do you increase the value of a leopard to be more than a chicken in the eyes of communities? How can we protect lions by giving them more value than a goat?” adds Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation, one of the continent’s largest and oldest conservation organizations. “If we fail, then there’s no security for lions unless you want to build walls and have helicopters and guns.”
Trophy hunting is not a perfect solution for human-wildlife conflict, and it cannot prevent a tragedy like the one Philipo’s family suffered. What it can do is provide monetary incentive to conserve dangerous animals in significant numbers, something “very, very few” other types of land uses can offer, Dickman says. This includes photographic tourism, which does not require maintaining large populations of the most threatening species, or specifically provide incentives for doing so. Hunting, on the other hand, does.
In Namibia, for example, the $5.41 million in fees that hunting operators paid between 2011 and 2013 to conservancies was used, among other things, to compensate people for losses incurred from wild animals, and also to train them to avoid conflict in the first place. Through such efforts Namibia has worked for years to build up tolerance for living alongside wildlife, says Louis of the Namibian Association. But without the incentives generated through trophy hunting, “that tolerance will disappear.”
“People see their children being killed by lions or elephants, their livestock eaten by lions, and elephants destroying their homes or their crops,” she says. “The income from hunting keeps those elephants and lions alive” because otherwise—as was the case in Botswana—people “will kill the things that are destroying their livelihoods.”
In the best cases, hunting operators build “a relationship and dialogue with communities, and that dialogue continues over time so as conflicts arise, they are addressed,” says Tear of the Biodiversity Research Institute. In Ruvu Masai, for example, Ramoni pays people directly for losses incurred by predators. He also works with communities to identify individual animals that are more likely to prey on livestock, which often turn out to be older male leopards that are too feeble to hunt wild game anymore, and that local people would otherwise kill themselves. It was such a leopard that Scott had been targeting. He didn’t get it, but had he been successful, the $4,500 game fee he would have paid would have gone to the government to be reinvested in conservation projects.
Economics aside, many say there’s also an element of racism in Westerners trying to override the right of Africans to decide how to manage their own wildlife. Europe, the U.K., and North America have vastly reduced or locally extirpated populations of most of their large predators and some of their large herbivores. And many people in those places, especially in rural areas, are wary or downright hostile toward the idea of having wolves, bears, and mountain lions in their own backyards. Yet by being implicitly opposed to trophy hunting in Africa, some of those same individuals want Africans to live with lions, leopards, and elephants. Louis considers such thinking to be “the ultimate hypocrisy.”
“We feel very patronized by these people,” she says. “Why do they think they have the authority to tell us what to do?”
Africans are increasingly speaking out about this. In 2020, more than 50 community leaders from seven African countries published an open letter addressed to Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Ed Sheeran, and other Western celebrities who publicly oppose trophy hunting, urging them to stop undermining Africans’ conservation efforts and basic human rights. They received no response. “You have very rich celebrities making decisions for poor people who don’t even have a phone to go on social media to respond in the first place,” says Louis, who helped to organize the letter. “And even when rural people do try to make their voices heard, regardless of what they say, it’s ignored.”
In 2021, the community leaders escalated, filing an official complaint to the Charity Commission for England and Wales against the Born Free Foundation for “waging a campaign of disinformation” that trophy hunting does not support local communities or conservation. Born Free rejects those accusations, Jones says, and stands by its position that all trophy hunting should be banned.
As the debate between non-profit groups rages on, some are trying to effect change at the political level. Sebunya, for example, has been meeting with African and Western leaders to discuss the need for Africans to own the discussion on hunting and other conservation issues. As he tells them, “The primary responsibility to African wildlife is with African people.”
Hart and his colleagues have suggested that Western governments wishing to take a stand on problematic trophy hunting could issue “smart bans,” or regulations that prohibit the import of trophies from operators who break rules or fail to reinvest any of the money they make back into conservation and communities. This approach would avoid punishing an entire industry for the transgressions of a few bad actors and encourage best practices. African governments could also help set the industry up for success by granting long-term leases—perhaps as long as 10 years—to trusted hunting outfitters, encouraging their sustained commitment to and investment in the areas they help manage. The current lack of these assurances is “a major problem across the industry,” Tear says. “Capitalism breeds cutting corners, which is not good for wildlife or conservation.”
Industry fixes aside, people on both sides of the hunting debate agree that much more will be needed in the long run if we are to ensure a future for African wildlife and wild places. One option is for wealthier countries to pay African governments to protect their natural resources. These resources “are public goods,” Dickman says, “and therefore there needs to be payment for those goods.”
Yet another sustainable solution could be carbon financing, a strategy that involves companies and countries paying for land to be preserved in order to keep its carbon locked into soil and vegetation. “Carbon projects don’t care about remoteness, and they don’t require people to do more tourism in places that have already shown they don’t support tourism,” Tear says.
While these forward-looking strategies are promising, Tear and other experts warn that they are nowhere near ready to be scaled up to the level needed to replace hunting across the continent. That will likely require at least five to 10 years of scientific, legal, logistical, and economic preparation. “In Africa, what terrifies me is there’s this pressure to put in hunting bans before an alternative has been planned,” says Josep Oriol, a managing partner at Okavango Capital Partners and a founding board member of BioCarbon Partners, groups at the forefront of efforts to build sustainable funding streams for African conservation. “So far, bans seem to come empty-handed, and that can quickly spell tragedy for wildlife and habitat.”
Anti-hunting advocates could make up for the funding shortfall by paying for lost protections and livelihoods, says Parker at Conserve Global. But that has yet to happen. Unless that changes, he says, then those calling for immediate hunting bans are “truly throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
“People see their children being killed by lions or elephants, their livestock eaten by lions, and elephants destroying their homes or their crops. The income from hunting keeps those elephants and lions alive,”
— Maxi Pia Louis, NACSO
It’s another overcast morning at Ruvu Masai as I climb into the back of the Land Cruiser for one final hunt. We bounce along the now-familiar trails, searching for game. Ramoni soon brings us to a stop—not to stalk an animal, but to look at some trees.
The day before, the clearing in front of us had been a shade-filled grove of around 20 acacias, some probably a century old. Now, all of the trees lie on their sides. Someone chopped them down overnight.
Webster Kapaliswa, a Tanzanian professional hunter who has worked with the Ramonis since 1988, has already reported the incident to the wildlife authorities. But for the environment, the damage is done. “We talk about how bad poaching of animals is,” Ramoni sighs, surveying the scene. “But what people don’t realize is deforestation and the destruction of habitat is far worse, because wildlife can’t thrive without a habitat.”
With or without hunting, African conservation faces a dire future. A 2018 study of 282 protected areas across the continent found that 94 percent are underfunded, many of them grossly so. Societies across the world need to profoundly and quickly change the way they value and pay for nature, the authors warn. Otherwise it’s only a matter of time before much of Africa’s wilderness is lost. “At the core of addressing challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss are the Indigenous communities and local people,” Louis says. “We need to support them so they can look after the world’s resources.”
In a perfect world, we would not be in this predicament to begin with. Humans and wildlife could coexist, with enough space and resources for everyone, and conservation would not depend on the whims of the wealthy, or come at the expense of the cash poor. Unfortunately, that is not the world we currently live in. Conservation does require money, and that money must come from somewhere. For now, trophy hunting—as imperfect as it is—is at least helping to keep habitat and wildlife in place. It is also a tool of choice for many African governments and communities, and may remain so even after non-extractive, alternative revenue streams become available. “As long as it’s applied ethically and sustainably, then we need to respect that,” Rice says.
The Ramonis, for their part, have no plans to retire, as difficult as business may be. “We’ll keep pushing for as long as we can,” Ramoni says. “No matter what the cost is, we’re going to keep going because we know what we’re doing is making a huge difference.”
Percentage of protected areas that are underfunded based on a study of nearly 300 sites across Africa
Scott and his family will also continue to support such efforts. Scott began hunting at age six in rural Georgia with his grandfather and father, and now, he’s passing the tradition on to Liam, his 12-year-old stepson who came along on the trip to Ruvu Masai. Liam—whose name has been changed to protect his identity—had been out on hunts in Africa with Scott before, but until now, he hadn’t been old enough to pull the trigger himself.
On that last morning, though, two shots break the still air, and an old male impala collapses. Liam has shot the animal through the heart. It is difficult to tell who’s prouder, Scott or Ramoni. “Perfect, Liam, for your first animal, for your first go, that was incredible—well done,” Ramoni congratulates the beaming boy.
The team of trackers and skinners launch into action, chopping at the grass with their machetes to clear a space for photos. Riket, the Datooga bushman, hunches over the impala and quietly thanks it, as he does every animal that nature provides him. He dips his finger into the impala’s fresh blood and turns to Liam.
“Don’t be afraid, Liam,” Ramoni says. “This is just part of tradition.”
Riket smears the blood on Liam’s forehead as a mark of celebration. The young man doesn’t flinch, even as a drop of the warm liquid runs down the bridge of his nose. As photos wrap up and the trackers pack the impala, Scott turns to Liam. “You wanna wipe that blood off?” he asks quietly.
“No,” the boy confidently replies.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Fund for Environmental Journalism.
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