As conservationists and campaigners thrash out wildlife trade rules, a debate rages over whether trophy hunting helps or hinders the protection of endangered species.
You'd probably expect a global conference to regulate trade in endangered species to be busy with conservationists and animal rights activists. But what about hunters?
"We're here first to defend the sustainable use principles of the convention and also trade and hunting trophies," said Joseph Goergen, a trophy-hunting advocate at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference in Geneva this week.
Goergen is conservation manager at the Safari Club International Foundation, a non-profit that "funds and manages programs dedicated to wildlife conservation."
It's also sister organization to Safari Club International (SCI), a US-based group that advocates for its 50,000 members — all of them hunters. Goergen himself grew up hunting deer and fishing in Wisconsin. Since then, his pursuit of game has taken him as far as Africa.
Every few years, the 182 countries (plus the European Union) signed up to the convention gather to decide which plants and animals will be protected by a ban, or restrictions, on their trade.
Hundreds of NGOs and interest groups turn up to the conference to advocate for their cause, too — even if that cause is the right to kill animals on safari and bring body parts like tusks and hides home as trophies.
SCI, and other hunting groups, like Conservation Force — whose president says he has successfully defended hunting rights at multiple summits — represented at the conference, say their passion is also a legitimate conservation strategy. But not everyone agrees.
The debate over whether trade in endangered animals helps or hinders their protection is one of the major fault lines in the CITES convention.
Killing animals to protect them
This year, the trophy-hunting advocates aren't entirely happy. They say the trend at CITES is toward tighter restrictions and more complete bans. Giraffes, for instance, are now CITES-listed and their bones, meat and hide can only be exported with permits.
"The general trend is for 'up-listing' instead of 'down-listing,' which we don't see as a conservation success," Goergen said.
Having to get permits to bring home trophies from big game trips in countries discourages hunters from paying for the pleasure of shooting a lion, giraffe or elephant. And that means less revenue for conservation programs.
Some 1.26 million trophies were imported to the United States between 2005 and 2014, mostly from Canada and South Africa, according to wildlife trade NGO Traffic. Zimbabwe is also high on its list.
Hunters pay up to $150,000 for hunting trips. Part of that money goes back to local communities, conservation and anti-poaching measures, says Emmanuel Fundira, president of Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, which works with SCIF.
"We welcome them [trophy hunters] with open arms because the money they're bringing in does help in putting that money towards conservation," said Fundira, who was disappointed that Zimbabwe's request to sell ivory stocks was shot down this week.
According to NGO Save the Rhino, after trophy hunting was allowed for white rhinos in 1968, the population of Southern white rhinos increased from 1,800 to around 18,000 in 2018. While the organization doesn't accept donations from the proceeds of trophy hunting, it acknowledges that the practice gives owners a financial interest in maintaining viable breeding populations.
Fundira says hunting also provides jobs, giving people a financial stake in protecting animals and habitats. That's important because Zimbabwe's robust population of 40,000 elephants doesn't always endear itself to local communities, trampling crops and even in some cases, people, Fundira says.
A conservation myth?
Daniela Freyer, German biologist and founder of animal advocacy group Pro Wildlife, is skeptical that those living alongside big game do well out of foreigners flying in to shoot it.
"Hunting groups often propagate that money would be distributed to communities, which it is, in fact, not," Freyer said, arguing that the supposed benefits to rural communities are "just a fig leaf" to defend the import of trophies like tusks and hides to Europe and US.
The finances are difficult to track, but Pro Wildlife aren't the only ones claiming these economic benefits are overstated.
"Analysis of literature on the economics of trophy hunting reveals ... that communities in the areas where hunting occurs derive very little benefit from this revenue," according to a 2013 report by sustainability group Economists at Large.
In some countries, up to 97% of hunting revenue stayed within the hunting industry, or went to corrupt governments and didn't trickle down to local communities, according to a 2019 report by the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting (CBTH).
Freyer thinks it's fine for trophy hunters to have a seat at the table but that "parties should clearly see them and their arguments for what they are."
"We believe it [trophy hunting] is often not sustainable, which it is portrayed to be," she said.
No trophy hunting on the horizon
CBTH also argues that trophy hunting can act as a cover for poaching, as parts of illegally poached animals can be shipped under the guise of trophy permits.
According to CBTH, wildlife populations — particularly of the rare species prized by hunters — are actually declining in hunting areas. And it doesn't help that groups like SCI offer prizes, including one for bagging the "Africa Big Five" — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo — four of which are endangered or vulnerable, CBTH says.
For hunting to be sustainable it must be strictly controlled, some conservationists argue, and populations need to be strong. When it comes to rarer species, the data doesn't back the conservation argument, they say.
"If trophy hunting happens, it must be well managed," said Philip Muruthi, vice president of the African Wildlife Foundation. "There are very few places where we have data demonstrating proper management of trophy hunting of elephants or any other wildlife."
Still, he concedes, for now, hunting isn't about to stop and it's better to engage with hunters to minimize the damage. Beyond that, if the international community does want to make hunting history, it must put its money where its mouth is.
"We know that keeping elephants in their countries is really expensive," said Muruthi, "so the international community needs to come to support."