Trophy Hunting as a Conservation Tool

In January 2014, The Dallas Safari Club auctioned off a special hunting permit that would allow the holder to hunt a Black Rhinoceros in Namibia for $350,000. The species is endangered with only around 5,000 left in the world and the winner of that auction, Corey Knowlton, received death threats and widespread public condemnation for his pursuit of the endangered animal. Just over five months later, despite the strong criticism of his activity, Knowlton legally hunted and killed an endangered Black Rhinoceros. The hunt was deemed by the book, the trophy was brought back to the States, and the world continued as if nothing happened.

However, regardless of the legality of the practice, the whole ordeal begs the question: what is going on here? Why was Knowlton allowed to kill any endangered animal, with or without a permit?

The answer, according to Mr. Knowlton, is that by creating a market for these endangered species–where hunters like him can demonstrate their willingness to pay for the endangered animal–an economic incentive is born for locals to keep these animals alive. This creates a counter balance to the economic incentive of poachers to hunt and harvest the animal without regard the long-term survival of the species. Legal and controlled hunting of endangered species for sport, or trophy hunting, offers a “realistic” tool for conservation, one that uses the power of individual self-interest to realize a conservation goal, rather than relying on a population’s altruistic qualities. This favorable position towards trophy hunting is shared by such organizations as The National Wildlife Federation, American Forests, and the Wildlife Management Institute.

And, according to general economic theory, he’s correct. In the status quo, endangered animals such as African lions, rhinoceroses, or elephants have a neutral, or sometimes even negative, value to local villages and farmers. At best these animals are of no real use to locals, and at worst they are obstacles in everyday life, as elephants compete for the same food as cattle and goats, lions represent a threat to livestock, and rhinoceroses are known to be unpredictably aggressive, particularly as they age. In this model, there is no incentive to put forth any extra effort in keeping these animals alive and away from poaching operations, and a direct incentive to eliminate them if they pose the slightest of threats.

The introduction of trophy hunting changes these incentives. Now, with the willingness of hunters to pay big money for the “right” to a particular animal, these species have unambiguously positive value. Whereas before, a local lion may have represented no more than a threat to one’s livestock, it is now worth a huge sum of money—if one can keep it alive. Theoretically, this game changing shift in incentives would direct the actions of local populations to more altruistic aims of conservation and active protection against poaching operations, as they would benefit privately from doing so. Hence, in this “positive value” model, trophy hunting acts as a legitimate tool for successful conservation of endangered species.

And according to a considerable amount of empirical evidence, the positive value model is sound. Leader-Williams et. Al (2005) found that sustainable hunting license allocation “played a key role” in accelerating the recovery of the southern white rhinoceros in South Africa, where populations have recovered to a threatened, but not endangered, level. Similarly, Packer et. Al (2011) noted that “trophy hunting has been considered essential for providing economic incentives to conserve large carnivores,” so long as “hunting harvests not exceed sustainable levels,” with reference to Tanzania’s legal trophy hunting practices and steadying population of lions. Lindsey et. Al (2006) adds that economic incentives created by trophy hunting “effectively more than double the land area that is used for wildlife conservation” compared to that of state parks alone.

Even so, the model does possess a few major flaws. For one, the trophy hunting market is quite small, never claiming more than 0.27% of an African country’s GDP (Namibia). In addition, the growth potential of the trophy hunting market, if it is to remain sustainable and contribute to an overall increase in the population of endangered animals, is limited to the population growth of a given species, which is obviously quite low for endangered species. While not challenging the theory directly, this observation does undermine the ability for trophy hunting to claim to be a tool for dramatic population surges of endangered species, or even to grow populations quickly enough to outpace periodic losses as a result of natural disasters.

In addition, while regulation of this market may be key in limiting its growth to sustainable kill rates, regulators are subject to economic pressures as well. A 2013 report noted that “hunting companies contribute only 3% of their revenue to communities living in hunting areas” and that the vast majority of their expenditureaccrues “to firms, government agencies, and individuals located internationally or in national capitals.”

While not particularly surprising or inherently immoral, this observation changes the game. While the farmer will likely be a farmer for the foreseeable future and thus theoretically cares about future revenue realized from trophy hunting, the regulator cannot know how long they will hold their position, meaning that logically they will prioritize present rewards over future ones to a much higher degree than the farmer. This undermines the idea that regulators will, on their own, sell a sustainable number of hunting permits per year, which threatens to unravel the “trophy hunting for conservation’s sake” narrative.

However, even if we assume benevolent regulators and long-term focused firms, the positive value theory still holds a fundamental oversight: the biological externalities associated with a given hunt. With some endangered species there are externalities involved in the trophy hunt, as the loss of that animal can damage the evolutionary and biological processes that contribute to an endangered animal’s long-term conservation.

For instance, the removal of elder male elephants from herds has documented effects on the psychology of younger males. Though not as a result of trophy hunting explicitly, when young males were removed from the elder bulls in Kruger national park in South Africa in 1992 and placed in a new park, they turned extremely aggressive and violent, chasing down and stomping more than 40 local White Rhinoceroses to death over 5 years for seemingly no apparent reason. After a time of confusion, it was proposed that the lack of elder role models present to curb violent behavior in adolescent males was to blame, a hypothesis that was confirmed when the introduction of 6 elder bulls coincided with an abrupt halt to elephant violence in the park.

As in the case of these elephants (as well as similar issues with externalities concerning pride takeover dynamics among lions), the true impact of trophy hunting cannot always be tied up in the direct implications of a given hunt, and that sustainable trophy hunting cannot be expressed via a simple accounting model in which the number of permits sold is less than the number of newborn animals. This, again, undermines the theoretic model of trophy hunting, which makes no reference to any incentive toward maintaining a balanced biological makeup of a species.

In fact, we see again and again in this analysis that the nuances of trophy hunting as played out in the real world undermine the theoretical model at multiple turns, suggesting that the model either incorrect, or severely over-simplified and reliant on untrue assumptions. And yet, the evidence suggests that the model, or at least the basic inputs and outputs of the model, is correct. What’s happening?

One theory is that the special comeback stories commonly attributed to trophy hunting  are actually simply due to covariation with other newer conservation practices. By far the widest reaching of these, and most certainly to be the main culprit of any covariation that may be occurring, is the development of ecotourism as a business model. Like trophy hunting, ecotourism places positive value on endangered species, as tourists will pay considerable sums of money to witness rare animals in the wild. This offers an economic incentive to keep these animals alive in the wild in order for them to be available to “sell” to tourists. In short, ecotourism follows the same positive value model as trophy hunting, capturing a similar effect in overall conservation, but while also addressing many of its key weaknesses.

In addition, ecotourism is a much larger market than trophy hunting, as the same animal can be “sold” multiple times, and its comparatively lower price point is better positioned to take advantage of such a highly elastic market such as tourism. This opens up the market to more buyers, and allows firms and individuals to profit off of the existence of an endangered animal more than once, tying the growth potential of the market to the longevity of the animal’s life. Indeed, Sims-Castley et. Al (2004) found that “non-lethal” ecotourism in private preserves yielded “more than 15 times the income of…overseas hunting,” meaning simply that, as it stands, ecotourism is a far more lucrative business than trophy hunting.

However, the downside of the large growth potential of the ecotourism model is that it brings animals in direct contact with humans at a constant, perhaps even daily, rate. While this does succeed in providing an incentive to keep the animal alive, it also can desensitize them to the presence of humans, changing their behavior and potential turning thoroughly wild animals into pseudo protected animals. This desensitization to presence of humans can theoretically also leave animals more vulnerable to poaching, suggesting that ecotourism may have a negative impact on conservation if handled improperly. In addition, large-scale operations threaten to degrade local habitats over time, even in protected areas and national parks.

Of course, despite these weaknesses affiliated with ecotourism specifically, at the very least it does appear that a combination of lethal and non-lethal positive value conservation strategies has contributed to the overall increase in the numbers of some endangered species. This indicates that the positive value model is sound, in both lethal and non-lethal forms.

And in retrospect, the diametric strengths and weaknesses of trophy hunting and ecotourism based conservation strategies complement each other quite well. Where the limited market size and adverse effects of adult male removal limit trophy hunting’s conservation ability, ecotourism offers a larger market size and lack of animal death. Similarly, where environmental degradation and  the desensitizing of animals to the presence of humans hampers ecotourism, trophy hunting offers limited animal-human interaction.

Unfortunately, this potentially complementary relationship is rather under researched. While there is a good amount of research concerning the economic and environmental impacts of trophy hunting and ecotourism respectively, there is very little academic comment on the comparative merits of the two strategies concerning conservation. What’s more, the possible covariant nature of the two strategies concerning their mutual effect on endangered wildlife conservation has attracted almost no academic attention, leaving it unclear as to which strategy is doing the heavy lifting in reference to recent conservation successes.

As it stands, Corey Knowlton and the various wildlife and hunting institutions that support his positive value model of conservation are likely correct. Trophy hunting is a useful tool for the effective conservation of endangered species, and deserves a space in that effort. However, that space is quite small, and may be better thought of as a supplemental tactic to a bigger, non-lethal strategy such as ecotourism, which is ultimately more profitable and offers the protection of endangered species without harming them on a larger scale. The question that remains however is whether the effectiveness of trophy hunting is worth the moral ambiguities inherent to the practice, and it is a question that I will leave to the careful consideration of the reader.

Samuel Woods is a student in the College of Arts & Sciences class of 2017. He can be contacted at

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.