Yes, the situation is pretty bleak and scary; lions have now declined in many parts of Africa and a recent study in PLoSOne showed that lions only occupy 25% of their historic range. BBC reports “Lions facing extinction in West Africa” with similar headlines in The Independent and the Daily Mail. It is worth pointing out that the PloSOne paper found that the total operating budget and budget per km2 of a protected area was positively correlated to lion persistence, indicating that shortage of money is a major problem for protected areas in Africa. Most people would probably agree that it would be good to provide more money for conservation of charismatic mega-fauna and biodiversity as a whole.
And yet it seems as if such stories happen in isolation and are not part of the same challenge. Recently, there was much protest and outrage about an auction in Texas that raised $350,000 (£214,000) to hunt a black rhino in Namibia. For example, the BBC, The Independent and National Geographic now report that the person who won the licence has received death threats. However, there are also other voices and the one I personally liked most because it was clear and rationale was a statement by Dr Bob Smith, a senior research fellow at the Durrell Institute of Wildlife and Ecology (Dice), University of Kent who said on wired.co.uk that it was “perfectly reasonable” to sell rhino trophies as part of raising funds for conservation projects and that “countries like South Africa and Namibia have been incredibly successful at conserving their rhino populations by following exactly this policy.” On many occasions, the Namibian government has clarified that the annual quota is three rhinos and these are chosen to be of non-productive age. Black rhino numbers have increased from 2,400 in 1995 to 5,000 today, mostly in Namibia and South Africa according to wired.co.uk.
At the same time as we can ask the question whether we should allow trophy hunting of endangered species from a moral and ethical point of view and whether we need the money for conservation, I believe we should ask whether we actually have the tools and knowledge to implement and include trophy hunting of endangered species into a sustainable conservation and management programme.
It is worth pointing out that conservation science has been developing into a scientific discipline that can contribute to answering some of the sustainable use challenges. For example, our recent paper in PNAS (and covered at the Smithsonian.com), where we developed a new model to set sustainable lion trophy hunting quotas when population size is unknown, will hopefully be implemented across Africa and contribute to sustainable conservation and management not only for lions but for their prey and overall biodiversity. The idea behind our method is that the time it takes to find and kill a male lion is related to lion abundance in a given area. We also confirm earlier studies that it is more sustainable to kill old males (6 years and older), but show that our method is robust to some degree of uncertainty of estimating the age of a male lion in the field. This may also have direct links to the rhino case where the aim is to take old males that are beyond their reproductive age.
Conservationists, managers and scientists often call for more and better data and that no action can be taken or allowed until we have this extensive and high quality data. However, more research is needed into using the data that we already have available or that is easy and relatively inexpensive to collect. For example, time to find and kill a lion is most likely available or relatively inexpensive to collect from the length of hunting trips/visits by clients. These records are already kept or can be collected in most places that have lion hunting.
Next to the moral and ethical discussion that is much needed, there is also a need to invest more into research and scientific approaches that can help stakeholders, managers and conservationists to make informed and evidence based decisions. For this we need to develop approaches that can use data that is inexpensive and feasible to collect where funds are limited.
Clearly there is a need for moral and ethical discussion in public life, and at times it may be appropriate to extend it to scientific matters, but I always feel my hackles rising when I hear purely moral and ethical arguments in a case such as the trophy hunting of large carnivores (and I know that you are only mentioning it, Nils – this is not targeted at you!).
Some clarity is required before any such proposal is considered, by which I mean, we need to agree on what sort of solution we are seeking. In the case of lions or black rhinos, it seems fairly obvious that the only real solution is ‘more lions, more black rhinos’. Possibly the issue is faintly more nuanced (for example, we might want more lions of a certain age, in a certain place, with a certain habitat and prey base, etc., etc.), but let’s at least acknowledge that the desired outcome is rather straightforward and unambiguous.
Once this is established, the process by which we decide how to evaluate a possible solution should be is this: With respect to our objective (more lions), what happens if we do [proposal x] and what happens if we don’t?
If the answer is, ‘we get more lions’, then moral and ethical considerations are irrelevant.
Or are they? We can conceive of an extreme situation whereby trophy hunting, for example, is so wildly distasteful to everyone that the public response to news of its implementation does actually have an effect on the number of lions. Maybe safari revenue goes down in countries where trophy hunting is permitted. In this case, the simple question [what happens if we do, and what happens if we don’t?] needs to take into account the ethical and moral angle. The positive effect of more money from hunters must be balanced against the negative effect of less money from non-hunters. The sums might be hard to do, but it would be appropriate to try.
But aside from the fact that this is a wildly extreme and unlikely scenario, is this actually a consideration of moral and ethical arguments? No, it’s a consideration of moral and ethical outrage without investigating whether or not the outrage is justified or appropriate. Moral and ethical arguments often materially affect nothing other than the palatability of a proposed action, and palatability here is an entirely human concept. If this hypothetical outrage has no effect on lions, then the only effect is on humans. Maybe we as conservationists will find it hard to eat our lunch when we think about shooting lions, but this doesn’t affect lions, it affects us. When we add our distaste to the question [What happens if we do; what happens if we don’t], nothing changes.
Of course, there might be some moral and ethical considerations that cause us to question the validity of our objective in the first place. For example, do we want more lions if the only way of getting more lions is by inflicting cruelty on a certain number of them? This does seem to be a valid topic for discussion, but again, we must be wary. Are we defining cruelty in an objective manner, or can ‘cruel’ be replaced by ‘unpalatable’? A slow death is cruel, and I’m not going to engage much with anyone who thinks otherwise. But we must be prepared to think straight. For an old lion, a quick death from a bullet must be judged against a potentially slower one from disease, predation or starvation. Shooting per se might always be unpalatable to some, but it might not always be cruel.
We stray into woolly thinking whenever we start to question the motives of the hunter, because they are entirely irrelevant to the lion. Too often we, as conservationists (and therefore, usually, animal lovers), focus on the more indistinct notion of what’s ‘proper’ – and very particularly, what humans ought to be enjoying. Most liberal westerners cannot understand what pleasure might be afforded by shooting a lion. I’m one of them. But if you are willing to accept that being shot in old age is not a terribly bad way for a lion to go, and that more trophies = more lions, then personal bewilderment at the motivations of hunters becomes a very poor reason for questioning the policy of trophy hunting. In this case, the moral or ethical consideration is one that has nothing to do with lions, and more to do with whether or not we can eat our lunch in peace, secure in the knowledge that bad people aren’t getting any kicks. Lions won’t thank us for spoiling the fun of over-monied rednecks.
If you’re a conservation scientist and you find yourself brimming over with disgust at the very thought of someone wanting to kill a lion, just step back and ask that question: What happens to the number of lions if trophy hunting continues, and what happens if it doesn’t?
Notice that I’m not trying to tell you what the answer is (it might be “fewer lions”) – I’m just calling for clarity of purpose and a willingness to acknowledge that the palatability of a solution may have nothing to do with its efficacy.
Doubtless Dr Bob Smith did that rather better…