Those trophy hunters

Preamble regarding Cecil the lion;

The saddest thing about the whole sordid affair is not a hunter with highly questionable ethics, who reportedly has been on the wrong side of game laws before. It is not an outfitter willing to bend and break the law, nor a method of hunting (baiting) which is in the 21st century of debatable legitimacy. It isn’t the extent to which the conversation has centered on one of the least relevant aspects of a country which has in the last 15 years been a playground for the messiest, nastiest sides of the post-colonial global South.  It isn’t even the ways various businesses and other entities have used the furor to launch publicity campaigns whose contents will make no substantive difference whatsoever.

The saddest thing about Cecil the lion is the way in which it has epitomized the rise of the keyboard vigilante.  People with internet connections and inadequate leisure-time hobbies have taken a sudden and incomplete interest in something, done enough to make a real, negative difference in a few lives, and will shortly disappear without making any lasting or substantive impact.

They should all be ashamed of themselves.

IMG_1326Col Allison as pictured on the back dust jacket of his 1979 “The Trophy Hunters”, an anthology of hunting stories from around the globe.  Blued metal, ebony stock accents, plaid trousers, and porro prisms may have all gone mostly extinct in the 35 years since, but the issues the book (unintentionally) raises are as relevant as ever.

The Cecil incident has been something of a person nuisance in that I was obliged to explain the nuances of trophy hunting to my non-hunting colleagues, who are primarily, and as one would expect at a social services non-profit, liberals in the classical sense (as indeed am I).  Fortunately they are also smart folks and pretty much without exception thoughtful and open to new ideas.  Which is why I was able to explain that while the pure trophy hunter may be a robust stereotype, and one probably founded on a historical example, it would be exceedingly hard to find a living, breathing, perfect example.  Almost every hunter is a trophy hunter, and almost every hunter is a meat hunter.  Insofar as these two amorphous categories can encompass all hunting, every hunt and every particular hunt exists on a continuum between two poles.

IMG_1327The cover of said book, which I fortuitously found at a used book sale for 80 cents.  Interesting that with all the exotics (lion, cape buffalo, tahr, polar bear) discussed within a mule deer made the cover.

To stereotype for the sake of manageabley conversation, a trophy hunter is one who is interested only in a part of the animal killed (typically the head) as a token of the adventure gone past.  A meat hunter is one who wants to fill the freezer with wild game.  Walter Palmer hunting lions is a reasonable facsimile of the former, while the humble midwestern farmer who only hunts her or his own farm and shoots the first legal whitetails who come into range can represent the later.

As with most or all stereotypes, it takes little more than 10 seconds of investigation before the integrity and simplicity of the distinctions begin to break down.  In bowhunting for a lion I assume Mr. Palmer was not only interested in having the lion head, the trophy, itself, but in having the experience of having hunted lions with a bow, which even over bait and at night requires getting close to a large apex predator with a weapon conspicuously lacking in knock down power.  The trophy on the wall would be meaningless without the trophy experience behind it.  In this way a taxidermy-ed head is no different than a summit photo.

The real complicating factor is that I doubt any, any meat hunter is not also a trophy hunter in some way.  Anyone who pursues an activity with passion relishes eventual mastery with no small amount of nostalgia, and wishes to hold on to the hard won intimacy and at the same time bring back the challenge and novelty of the early days by doing the loved pursuit in a new place and in a new way.  So to it is with hunting, and our venison-seeking farmer may begin to pursue rarer (bigger) versions of the same critter, to hunt with a more demanding weapon, and/or pursue new animals in new places.  Even if the animals thus killed are far from the strictly sized-based definition of trophy record books, they are trophies nonetheless because of the central value of the experience and the way it was cultivated.  Again, no different than summit photos (though these photos are in winter, with skis, etc).

IMG_1330My New Zealand trophy wall from this hunt back in January.  Worthy of a central display in our apartment not only because of the dead animals, but because of the way I did the hunt and who was with me.

Allison’s book does provide a good example of the sort of trophy hunting most think of when they condemn the practice, and which might help hunting and hunters use the Cecil affair to make a better future for what Hemingway called one of the only true sports.

Roy Weatherby, famous rifle pioneer, contributed a story of polar bear hunting in Alaska, shortly before the practice was banned in the United States.  Weatherby and his party are guided out ofthe Kotzebue, Alaska area and hunt in late winter out of planes.  They spot bears from the air, land as close as possible, stalk, and shoot.  Weatherby details wounding a bear with a hasty shot, being unable to administer a good followup shot (grease lubricating the power ring on his scope was frozen), and chasing the bear down via multiple plane flights before it is killed.  He intimates, but does not explicitly state, that they left the carcass on the sea ice after taking hide and skull.

IMG_1328A fair, representative passage from Weatherby’s story.

The account is nauseating.  Non-hunters and folks how haven’t gotten too deep into hunting will object to no meat being used, and while there’s still a very good reason for game waste laws and any hunter who doesn’t eat lots of game should be regarded as suspect, I don’t think the “waste” argument holds as much water as it is traditionally given credit for.  To this day Alaska does not require that any meat from either black or Grizzly bears be taken from the field, and I am quite sure that the carcass of Mr. Weatherby’s bear was put to good use by birds, foxes, wolves, and other bears.  Instead, Weatherby was being an unethical hunter because he relied too heavily on technology and did not sufficiently immerse himself in the natural world and thus the hunt itself.

In talking with my non-hunting colleagues at work two curious factors always come up.  First, the moral right to hunt for meat is inviolate and unquestionable.  Second, they do not appreciate the extent to which hunting diverges in fundamental ways from other, “normal” outdoor activities such as hiking and backpacking. The world is shrinking, for a variety of reasons.   I try to say this with as little judgement as possible; hunting has for many people and for a long time not been an immersive pursuit.  And not just because midwestern deer don’t live within five hundred miles of Wilderness; Weatherby had the opportunity to take a trip into one of the deepest wildernesses left on earth to hunt polar bear, but instead choose to hunt in a way which skipped around the edges to the greatest extent possible, only dipping in as much as was absolutely necessary.  I think a lot of the hostility engendered by “trophy hunting” like Palmer’s lion hunt and Weatherby’s bear hunt comes down to the shallow, exploitive approach many people correctly intuit at their core.

If hunters can learn anything from the Cecil affair, it is that they need to hold each other to a higher standard.  Within hunting circles there’s a frequent refrain that criticism against the methods, styles, and choices of other hunters is beyond the pale, that all hunters need to band together due to the extent that hunting as such and the hunting lifestyle is under fire.  I think it would be better to look at the issue exactly backwards.  Hunting and hunters will get stronger and get more respect once house is cleaned.  20 years ago rock climbing did so, and marginalized those who viewed chipping and altering holds on routes as acceptable practice.  Today that debate has long been over, and anyone who is revealed as a chipper is publicly excoriated and marginalized.  A similar process going on today will hopefully result in helicopter accessed backcountry skiing being viewed as not-acceptable in most of the lower 48.  Hunters need to have more overt, explicit discussion of what is acceptable, one which makes only tangential reference to actual game laws and very direct reference to the long term impacts of ethical choices, both to hunters and to non-hunters.

What those conclusions might be is another subject for another time, but the bunker mentality which has grown so quickly in the wake of the Cecil affair is hardly more helpful than the uninformed criticism which led to graffiti on Mr. Palmer’s garage door.

21 responses to “Those trophy hunters”

  1. Some good thoughts here, Dave. How though are hunters to objectively determine which types of hunting and which hunters should be “publicly excoriated and marginalized?” Hunting ethics and culture can be very contextual. The First Nations in Canada’s north can’t imagine making the harvesting of game any harder that it needs to be for the sake of “sport” when there are mouths to feed. They are not hunting for sport, so chasing caribou or wolves down on snowmobile is simply a matter good stewardship in their mind. I can’t imagine paying someone to bait an animal for me in Africa (or anywhere) while I shoot from a vehicle, but it’s not weird at all for my wife to harvest her elk from the porch over a cup of tea. Shallow maybe, but why would I ask her to hike into the bush 10 miles and pack out an elk when they’re in the yard.

    1. Linked in 2nd paragraph.

  2. Dave, comparing stereotypical trophy hunting to chipping holds on a climbing route is hardly analogous. In the end, no one, especially a quickly diminishing predator is left dead when an inconsequential area the size of a penny is chipped off a rock in the middle of nowhere. Growing up in Michigan, everyone I know hunts, I simply don’t have the patience for it but I do appreciate it and those who do. Taking a trophy from a hunt and going out to hunt for the trophy, leaving behind a mostly-whole corpse to rot are two completely different actions and intentions as well as outcomes.

    Most cultures teach their young to have a certain amount of reverence for life. Hunting up until the last century was necessary to feed one’s self and one’s family. Due to social and environmental conditions, things change. What hasn’t changed is most peoples disgust with wonton waste of life. The world we live in now is different than when Teddy Roosevelt went to Africa with his small traveling munitions factory. That world is gone. Blame industrialization and the astronomical population explosion.

    In today’s world every elementary school-aged kid knows that the great wild areas of the world are under fire due to rampant population growth and wildlife and wild areas are the victim. We teach our kids that ideas change with time and usually for the better. Attitudes that were acceptable then simply aren’t today. Try justifying trophy hunting to a kid. Tell them it’s all about the experience and that the lion’s, tiger’s or panda’s head hanging on your wall is simply a reminder of that experience. What the hunter’s intentions were or how he went about killing his prey are simply inconsequential. Today’s kids are smarter than that. They will easily understand the removal of the confederate flag and that the guy who paid 100K to kill a black rhino is still a douche bag no matter what his intentions or justifications were.

    Trophy hunting in the stereotypical sense is more akin to Himalayan guided mountain climbing. People spending tens of thousands of dollars to travel to foreign land, putting the local people in danger and pollute the immediate environment so they can climb the tallest mountain in the world.

    Blame, an over-populated world and changing attitudes when it concerns the disdain that most people have for trophy hunters. As far as the hunting population coming together to improve their overall PR to the hostile anti-hunter crowd… good luck. That will happen when Obama and Ted Nugent get together for the holidays.

    As far as Ben’s wife taking an elk from the front porch, with tea in hand… awesome! You are fortunate to live where elk roam.

    1. Rog, I suggest you do more research into Knowlton’s hunt.

      1. From what I have read Knowlton and those hunts are still very contested for merit beyond fundraising. Many of his comments are exactly the type of bunker mentality you condemn in this piece.

        I would argue, as I think you have elsewhere about similar fundraising tactics in the US, that those type of hunts are a detriment in the long run. At best the optics are horrible and at worst they actually use questionable ecological concepts to prioritize money over long term wildlife conservation.

        Generically speaking I think we have long outlived the benefit of using tags, permits and auctions to pay for wildlife conservation and need to move to a more diffuse funding structure. I think without doing so we are going to continue to see the most selfish behaviors of hunters outshine the more sustainable and utilitarian aspects of tradition and community. I think that is a principle lesson we need to learn from both the Cecil issue and the black rhino auction.

      2. Dave, I understand the situation I’m just not buying it… it was a PR stunt gone awry. So you understand, I fully appreciate and agree with conservation being a more realistic approach than preservation for most situations and I fully support one’s right to hunt. I hope I don’t come across as antagonistic, just playing devil’s advocate.

        When it comes to anything regarding a government I am skeptical at best. Knowlton paid $350 K to shoot a Black Rhino that a Conservation/park officer could have done without the fanfare. Everyone on the planet knows black rhinos are endangered. Yes, he paid for the permit to kill the animal that was going to be killed anyway but how much of the $350K is really going toward conservation. All in all, it was a publicity stunt put on by the Namibians that further put hunting and conservation in a bad light. Unfortunately, if your trying to persuade the general non-hunting public about conservation vs preservation the last person you want to put on a podium giving the lecture is a hunter. It comes across biased, if not defensive or self-righteous.

        I have no problem that Knowlton pulled the trigger, it was gonna happen anyway, what I find incredulous, was the fact that he was delusional enough to invite CNN along to record the hunt and then try to spin the kill to the general public as a good thing and think he was gonna come off as the voice of conservation. The entire situation was tactless at best and almost entirely without any long-lasting educational merit at worst. Trying to spin the PR after the kill is almost always laughable. Timing is everything.

  3. FOr much of this blog post, I agree.

    One small quip:

    “If hunters can learn anything from the Cecil affair, it is that they need to hold each other to a higher standard. Within hunting circles there’s a frequent refrain that criticism against the methods, styles, and choices of other hunters is beyond the pale, that all hunters need to band together due to the extent that hunting as such and the hunting lifestyle is under fire. I think it would be better to look at the issue exactly backwards. Hunting and hunters will get stronger and get more respect once house is cleaned.”

    Problem is that hunting is international, and every time I discuss a topic with foreign hunters, it becomes obvious there is no real standard. Oftentimes, hunters look down upon each others. For instance, Finnish hunters I befriended a few years ago thought calling moose and other large game animals is unethical. Whereas North American hunters are baffled Europeans and Russians allow dogs to chase game.

    We are having some really interesting discussions in my local hunting group; but whenever I check the British hunting groups, obviously they disagreed with many of the points. So, I am not really sure how hunters are supposed to band together to promote a better standard when the media frenzy is often over a few foreign hunts, and different nationalities disagree on what is proper. Sure, as a nation, we can get all hunters aboard on the same subject, but what about internationally?

    I am still waiting for Michaelka Fialova to arouse anger in the non-hunting audience. It really going to hit the fan when that happens because Czechs have a different view of hunting than we do. And yet, I am sure the anti-hunting lobby will paint everyone the same.

  4. Dave and Ben, any good discussion of this stuff will have to be very contextual. Which is why I don’t put forth many/any specifics, I don’t know enough yet to do so.

    Example would be places like northern Canada and AK where genuine subsistence hunting still takes places. Alaska has different rules for that, which may in their current inclination be problematic, but the idea to make a distinction is a good one.

    1. The one uniform conscious I see with hunters worldwide is the mechanization of hunting.

      Russians and Canadians get bashed quite frequently by European hunters for their conducts, but in those circles, even Russian and Canadian hunters are concerned about the increasing dependence on amphibious vehicles, high-powered calibres (the kinds associated with long distance shooting in excess of 600 meters) and use of GPS units. In one of the Finnish hunting group that I belong to, some of them are concerned about the growing relevance of GPS collars amongst dog owners and questioning if following the screen is fair for the moose or grouse which the practice did not exist in the ’80s or ’90s. So, at least there is a growing international conscious in that manner.

      1. Sorry, prevalence not relevance. Not sure how my phone auto-corrected that.

      2. Actually, mechanization ties into Weatherby’s story. He chose to use a bush-plane to find and track the polar bear, when he could had hired the local indigenous peoples as his guide and use sled-dogs which would still fall under the category of fair chase in a vast, empty wilderness. The technique wasn’t unknown either since the early polar explorers described the method of hunting well into 1920s and 1940s during the Golden Era of Exploration.

        And trophy hunts of polar bears using sled dogs are still ongoing in Nunavut and Northwest Territories when the Inuit receive their quota and sell their rights to recreational hunters. The practice still continues in Greenland as well.

        So, it bothers me that Weatherby chose to use an aerial craft instead of mushing. The vastness of the Arctic is understandable, but considering the alternatives available at the time, it’s telling that fair chase ethic wasn’t yet well-developed at the time.

  5. I disagree on the trophy aspect. If it is a spectrum its based on a two or three dimensional axis that separates many hunters in noticeable ways. I definitely agree the style of hunt that allows waste of meat but collection for taxidermy purposes is different than the totems hunters like you collect. That said, there are hunters like me who will not collect anything beyond meat except what the law requires. I have to carry out the spike horns from any successful I hunt have this year but it will likely end up back in the forest after the hunt ends; it definitely will not be used a totem or hung in our house. I have also decided that kill photos are problematic and I will not be posing with any animal I successful hunt. Not only do those actions not fit in with my personal ethic and values but I also think they are a principle component of how society at large sees hunters in such problematic ways. I think the hunting community would benefit from re-evaulating our bunker mentality but I think that also requires us to understand how even our trophy behaviors, from small totems to fully mounted quarry, might be harming the future of our community (I hate the implications and generally the word sport when applied to stalking and killing any animal).

  6. And to be fair, though I tend to think the internet can facilitate an empty and ineffective form of “activism”, within 4 days the research facility that was tracking Cecil and working on conservation received more than $500,000 in donations from those outraged by the incident. Thats a significant impact to wildlife conservation on the continent of Africa.

    1. The problem is that the Internet outrage is temporary, and the donations are a one-time thing. The funds only foster research programs and anti-poaching efforts and does nothing for the locals. $500 000 is not that much in the long run, and is actually a pitiful amount over several decades. One would need to figure out a 5-years, 10-years and 15-years plan for long-term viability.

      The vast majority of hunting in Africa is done on private lands or cattle-farming public lands, and landowner-relations are complicated. The complications of land ownership issues are discussed in Economic and conservation significance of the trophy hunting industry in sub-Saharan Africa by P.A. Lindsey et al. And the topic is covered again in Potential of Trophy Hunting to Create Incentives For Wildlife Conservation in Africa Where Alternative Wildlife-Based Land Uses May Not Be Viable by the same research group.

      With ecotourism, only 7% of the money contributed stays within the economy (the resorts) and the rest are sent overseas. And only the wildlife preserves get to reap the benefit of what remains. Photographic tourism seldom occurs on private lands.

      With trophy-hunting, 75% of the money stays circulating in the economy. Plus, the money is divided between the outfitter, the landowner(s) and the locals. That’s why even though ecotourism is a 200 million dollars industry in Zimbabwe, it is not enough to protect the lion. The 20 million dollars hunting industry is sufficient enough for the landowners to tolerate the presence of lions on their properties.

      The fragile relations between lions and farmers are also documented in The Trophy Hunting of African Lions: Scale, Current Management Practices and Factors Undermining Sustainability by Lindsey. All these PDFs can be found easily from organizations such as WWF or Lion Aid for free.

      If the academic publications are a bit nuanced, then reading Monsters of God by David Quammen. Should be easily accessible from the local public library. In it, he discussed about how farmers and ranchers are unable to tolerate apex predators and presented several different solutions to these issues by using case studies (Romanian Brown Bears, Asiatic Lions of the Gir Forest, Australian Freshwater Crocodiles, Siberian Tigers of Russia). He bounces around a lot, so people might be frustrated with his writing style.

      If video media is more one’s style, then there is this presentation “How Ban on LIon Hunting Killed the LIons” by a former anti-hunter on TEDTalk which summarizes why wildlife populations are crashing in Zambia, Kenya and Botswana. Remember, farmers are even killing elephants to protect their croplands, so the issue is far more complex than just lions.

      I am not a fan of TED since it lends itself to pseudoscience, but it’s difficult to find a lecture which explains the situation in a way non-hunters can relate to it. Most of the others have a pro-hunting tone, and their public relations skills are not that sharp. Steven Rinella is the only public figure in the hunting community I know of that can connect with non-hunters. Most of the others just go over people’s heads.

      African trophy hunting is not pretty, and it reeks of elitism, but considering locals’ intolerance for wildlife, it’s the lesser of the two evils.

      1. Thanks for the links/reads. I actually enjoy reading the language of academic journals and will have them on my kindle for this weekends scouting trip.

        I agree on the limited and singular nature of the donation but I think it does show that there are some benefits to the short term blow ups of these events. There are no doubt a ton of “slactavist” who have no long term interest or commitment to the issue but I also believe what happened with Cecil tapped into a lot more than just the lazy ethics of a few internet and media trolls.

        Definitely a complex issue and there are no doubt economic benefits and incentives to trophy hunting. Look forward to reading even more on the subject.

        1. The whole topic of wildlife conflicts in Africa is analogous to the plights of bisons, elks and wolves in the United States. Not in the sense that hunters want to protect the elks from wolves, but rather ranchers demand all three species to be culled or cleared from the grazing lands. At least that’s the closest examples to what we have here at home.

      2. Well, I would like to know were the figure of 75% comes from — I can actually find a meagre 3% from lion trophy hunting (please note I mentioned *lion* not trophy hunting in general), in the document linked below. Personally I believe *some forms* of trophy hunting can benefit conservation. Until I bothered to do my research I though that lion trophy hunting was actually positive in lion conservation, but I have to admit I was wrong in this specific case.

        Click to access Ecolarge-2013-200m-question.pdf

        1. The figures would be from Lindsey’s research team, the same ones Economists at Large cite. What’s being disputed in the PDF is not how much currency stays within the economy, but the cliché trophy hunting benefit the community. Booth (2010) shows otherwise.

          This is where hunters are delusional. They know how much money goes into the economy, and they have the sources to back up those assertions, but they don’t really follow up on where the money goes. Most of it goes toward operating expenses and taxations. Ecotourism naturally ensures more money goes toward the development of schools and money due to the structure of the business model. That’s just common sense.

          But note Booth (2010) said 24% goes toward operating costs, 22% goes toward wildlife divisions, 11% toward wages and welfare, 9% resorts and charters, 6% the professional hunters, 2% to administrative and rest to taxes and royalties. How much of the trophy money stays in the economy is not being questioned, but whether or not the villagers (mainly the landless ones) are benefiting from the trickle-down effect.

          We already know that trickle-down economics, while sound in theory, does not work in the real world since the glass magically gets bigger. Those from above gets greedier and greedier. There is where discussion about government corruptions is important. As a conscious, African wildlife biologists support trophy-hunting, but they are very concerned about where the money is going.

          But this is where sportsmen should step down from the podium and let conservation biologists do the talking. Or at least other non-hunters. Non-hunters understand the outrages, and they understand the languages of the masses. Anything hunters say come off as biased and selfish. 

        2. Sorry, ” … development of schools and homes due to the … “

  7. Dave- thanks for bringing up this topic and with it the lively discussion! In my 25 year career as a game warden I got to see the best and worst “hunting” had to offer. I wholeheartedly agree that a bunker mentality is not going to be overly successful. There are “hunters” that without any shadow of doubt need to be thinned (culled?) from the ranks. We (wardens) do our best to facilitate that with life long hunting bans, high fines and even prison sentences, but after that many years and that many crooks, I sadly see that analogous to the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. It’s going to take hunters (no quotes) to make the difference and turn things around.

    I see way too much commercialization associated with hunting these days. Too much emphasis on trophies and numbers. Just watch the many (many) hunting shows and advertisers to see where the emphasis lies. A show about Uncle Bob taking his two nephews out for a doe hunt and how to properly remove and prepare the tenderloins would be laughed at.

    I know there are lots of good hunters (no quotes), I’ve met lots of them. They are the ones that will have to steer the future of hunting in the right direction. They are the ones that will have to raise the next generation of hunters and help steer them in the right direction.

    I’m hoping this same discussion is being held in all corners of our small hunting community.


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