The emotion and outrage at Cecil the lion's killing by an American hunter in Zimbabwe has ebbed in the last week. So I thought I would take an opportunity to add my two cents to the debate that has emerged over trophy hunting.
Everything that has been reported about Cecil's killing indicates it was not only illegal, but also ill conceived and poorly-executed, starting with the guides who lured the lion out of its preserve to the hunter who initially wounded the lion instead of achieving a fast and humane kill. Despite this, I find that I can’t join in the widespread condemnation of trophy hunting. The reason is I strongly suspect that most trophy hunters place great value on animals and the conservation of nature, perhaps even more than many "animal lovers" (myself included) who don't hunt. In fact, trophy hunting is arguably a component of effective conservation policy for some species and in many places around the world.
Here's a basic question: what is the value of animal or species? It's been the subject of much philosophizing since the early 1970s. As countries began extending legal protections to threatened animals and species, environmental ethicists tasked themselves with articulating and debating their source of moral value: Is it their rarity? Scientific interest? Aesthetic beauty? Ecological significance? Cuteness? Because they just….exist?
For most of the world this debate isn’t nearly so abstract. The value of an animal or species is utilitarian and related to survival: an animal that assists in survival is valuable; one that hurts survival or is simply inconsequential is less so. In these terms, if a lion kills the livestock of a farmer in Africa, it is not only a physical threat but threatens the livelihood (and safety) of their family and community. If the protection of a bird keeps local villagers out of the forest, it prevents them from extracting natural resources like timber, food, and medicine.
Consider the case of an extremely rare species of Tanzanian frog that became extinct in the wild due to a hydroelectric dam. The value of a Kihansi spray toad changes depending on whether you are an amphibian-lover halfway round the world, or a mother whose children will benefit from electricity generated by a new dam. Many complicated cases of endangered species today have this sort of ethical knot at their core. You could even say that the mass extinction we are currently facing had been driven by the individual humans’ prerogative for survival.
These moral scales shift, however, when a species has value for many people, even if the source of that value is different. For instance, mountain gorillas. Tourists spend millions of dollars in Rwanda for the experience of seeing these endangered animals in their natural habitat, which has in turn increased the species’ value for many local communities who have reaped the benefits of new schools, roads, and health centers as a result. The tourist values the gorilla for its awesomeness; the local Rwandan values it for the resources it brings.
The price that trophy hunters will pay to kill an animal can counter intuitively raise the value of a species and even achieve conservation goals. For example, as reported in Conservation Magazine, when white rhinoceros hunting was legalized in South Africa, the country’s population increased from around one hundred to more than 11,000. Hunting became an incentive for the species' preservation on private land. No one would argue that a similar policy would work for northern white rhinos, of which there are only five left today. But there is much evidence that in some cases, regulated, controlled hunting can be a tool in helping multiple stakeholders achieves goals whether those be survival, conservation, or sport.
When my own grandfather killed a polar bear with a bow and arrow in the Arctic, he paid tens of thousands of dollars for what he considered a great privilege. Much of the money he paid went to the Inuit community that had an annual quota to hunt the bears for subsistence. And when he went to Africa to hunt the Big Five, he shot a rhino with a tranquilizer that allowed a veterinarian to conduct an exam of the animal’s health. These are small examples of how trophy hunting, again, when legal and controlled, can support both local communities and conservation. These hunts are also some of my grandfather’s most-cherished memories because he deeply values animals and wilderness, and has sought direct experiences of them since he was a boy.
Even as we condemn the circumstances and illegality of Cecil’s killing in Zimbabwe, we might take this opportunity to ask some questions about our ethical convictions. What is the source of the moral value we extend to animals and species? Can we challenge ourselves to make room for other perspectives and a diversity of values in a complicated world? And can we find commonalities with one another in order to achieve a vision of broad, effective conservation for species all over?