The relevance of trophy hunting as a conservation tool in Africa came under the spotlight yet again as American and European trophy hunters flocked to the Dallas Safari Clubs annual convention in preparation for their visits to Africa to shoot rhinos, elephants, lions and other endangered animals.

This was highlighted last week when Texan billionaire, Lacy Harber, paid R3,4 million (€227 000) at the Dallas Safari Club annual auction for a permit to hunt a critically endangered Black rhino in Namibia.

Black rhinos are categorised as Critically Endangered, just one category up from Extinct according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the global assessor of the conservation status of endangered species. Black rhinos have declined by an estimated 97.6% since 1960 with fewer than 5,000 animals left in the wild.

Also on auction for hunters to shoot in Africa are endangered species such as cheetah and Hartmann’s mountain zebra, both species with declining populations, and many others totalling into hundreds of animals.

However, the Dallas Safari Club justified its auction when it told Fox News last week that money raised from hunting went toward efforts to conserve wildlife and to fight poaching.

“We fund projects for needed research to better understand life requisites of certain species so that they can be more sustainably managed and conserved,” said Corey Mason, Dallas Safari Club (DSC) Executive Director.

No Need to Hunt Animals to Conserve Them

But Dan Ashe, former director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and current President and CEO of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), says things need to change: “The argument that we need to hunt endangered animals, to conserve them, is old and tired” he said in a blog posted on January 4.

Ashe pointed out that endangered species were not hunted in the United States as the law prevented it. “If elephants were native to the US they would not be hunted,” said Ashe. “And neither would lions, rhinos, or leopards.”

“It’s time to ask an inconvenient question” he said, “If hunting is not a conservation tool for US endangered species, with the world’s best regulatory framework, why would we expect it to be so in countries, like Zimbabwe, where the record is muddled, at best?” 

“Ideally, we shouldn’t be talking about elephant trophy imports,” he said. “Elephants are being driven toward extinction by habitat loss, and industrial-scale poaching and ivory trafficking. We can conserve elephants without hunting them.” Ashe noted that Botswana had more elephants than any other nation, almost 40% of the total African population. Botswana does not allow elephant hunting. 

 Ashe was director of USFWS in 2014 when the US imposed bans on importing elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania due to over-exploitative trophy hunting. The decision, he says was based on “independent, objective, scientific and professional” assessments “by career experts implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)”.

The Trump administration’s initial willingness last year to lift the ban was countered by the President himself who called elephant hunting “a horror show”.

Currently, USFWS also bans imports of trophies of captive-bred lions from South Africa while wild lion trophies from Namibia, Mozambique and Tanzania are under review.

However, permits are still granted for elephants and lions elsewhere in Africa as are permits for Black rhino from Namibia, even though they have been listed as ‘Critically Endangered’.

Many Hunters from the European Union

It’s not only the unsustainable practices of hunters from the US that are under the spotlight. The EU has also come under fire for putting endangered animals at risk. After the US, the EU is the biggest importer of hunting trophies of endangered species, according to the CITES Trade database.

Last year, the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) issued 615 import permits for hunting trophies of endangered animals including 24 permits for lions, 26 for leopards, 15 for elephants, and five for cheetahs. The Red List shows that all populations of these four species is decreasing.

"It is absurd that quite a lot of trophies can be imported from strictly protected animals," Steffi Lemke, Parliamentary Director of the Green Party told Der Spiegel: "Many of the animals are threatened with extinction by poaching and the loss of habitat. In view of the dramatic situation with the species shrinkage Germany and Europe should rethink and stop the practice of trophy hunting.”

Germany, however, adheres to the EU laws on importing trophy hunting species.

Generally, all EU Member States, before they may issue import permits, ‘are required to ensure that the specimens were obtained legally, that the import is not detrimental to the conservation of the species concerned’ and, in the case of species such as rhino, elephant and lions, that the import will result in ‘significant and tangible conservation benefits’.

Conservationists and NGOs in Europe, though, are concerned that in practice these requirements are often not fulfilled and import permits continue to be issued for trophies to the detriment of the populations of wild animals. 

One example is Tanzania’s elephant and lion populations, which have suffered devastating declines in recent years – elephants by 60% in the last five years and lions more than 60% between 1993 and 2014. The IUCN Red List notes that trophy hunting is one of the concerns for the dramatic decline in lions. 

But unlike the US, the EU’s Scientific Review Group (SRG) authorised Member States in June last year to issue permits allowing the import of both elephant and lion trophies from Tanzania into the European Union. 

The EU SRG’s decision to import trophies from Tanzania caused an international outcry. In a letter addressed to the European Commission and the Member State CITES Management Authority in November 2017, a number of conservation and welfare organisations urged the SRG to reconsider its policy “at the earliest opportunity” on hunting trophy imports from Tanzania into the European Union.

“But the EU continues to issue import permits for trophies from elephants, leopards, lions and many other species from Africa, even for populations that are in heavy decline,” says biologist Daniela Freyer and co-founder of ProWildlife, a German-based organisation that works to strengthen international wildlife regulations and implementation. “This,” she says, “is contrary to the precautionary principle, which is enshrined in EU laws, and the requirement that imports need to produce ‘significant and tangible conservation benefits’.”