Ricky Gervais vs. Rebecca Francis: Does Trophy Hunting Benefit Conservation?

 Warning: Some images and content in this article may be disturbing to animal-lovers. Please continue with caution.

Everyone can agree that the illegal hunting of threatened species is a travesty that must be stopped, but what about the legal hunting of vulnerable species?

Trophy or “safari” hunting in Africa has gone largely unregulated through its centuries-long history. It wasn’t until the late 1800s, when species began to fall extinct from over-hunting, that people started to question its sustainability.

The bluebuck, or blue antelope, was among the first animals to go extinct due to excessive trophy hunting in Africa. Photo Credit: Eric Alibert via Mammals’ Planet

Today, some form of trophy hunting occurs in every country in Africa except Kenya, which banned the practice in 1977. Some countries, such as Botswana and Zambia, have limited the hunts to certain areas and species, while others have tried to use trophy hunting as a conservation tool — albeit not always with success.

Surely, the revenue generated from trophy hunting could have a significant impact on conservation if allocated properly, but the industry possesses a disturbing lack of regulation — especially regarding hunting quotas and wildlife census data — and is plagued by corruption, unethical “release-and-shoot” or “canned” hunting, revenue misappropriation, and overshooting.

Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed support for trophy hunting by issuing three import permits to two potential hunters of critically endangered black rhinos. The Service claims that hunting and removing older or genetically well-established individuals from the black rhino population may “potentially provid[e]… younger bulls with a greater opportunity to reproduce…”

Sportingly killing an animal under the guise of saving it is just fundamentally wrong, particularly when the killers use such unsportsmanlike practices.

Worse are the people who organize these hunts. Some professional hunters kill and help kill wildlife for profit by documenting hunts in books or on camera and selling the stories and videos for inflated prices. One hunter, Mark Sullivan (no relation) of Nitro Express Safaris has written two books and produced thirteen DVDs focused on trophy hunting. He sells the entire collection for the “discounted” price of $495.00 plus shipping.

Video clips on YouTube show hunter Mark Sullivan approaching wildlife, instigating an attack, and killing animals at close range with a high-powered rifle. Photo Credit: Mark Sullivan via YouTube

Sullivan demonstrates the sort of thrill-seeking mentality that many anti-hunters would find deplorable. He touts a philosophy of allowing his prey “the choice of how they are to die in battle,” though his promotional materials and product line are more representative of adrenaline-pumping, exploitative animal snuff films.

A report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that, in the eleven sub-Saharan countries surveyed, each trophy hunting zone averaged about half the income as protected areas, generating just $1.10 per hectare (10,000 square meters), with less than 10% going to surrounding communities, wherein front-line conservation primarily takes place.

Conversely, Kenya has seen a spike in conservation benefits since it banned trophy hunting nearly forty years ago. IUCN’s report found that Kenya’s wildlife population had nearly tripled (at the time of publication), and the country’s ecotourism industry had become “[forty] times more profitable than hunting.”

Other hunters, who claim that the “sport” of hunting is an act of conservation and ecosystemic balance, pose with recently killed animals and post snapshots on their websites and social media to promote themselves in the industry.

One such hunter, Rebecca Francis, has achieved internet infamy after comedian Ricky Gervais shared a photo of her posing next to a giraffe, which she had apparently hunted with a bow.

Francis posted the image to her website around the time she was competing in the “Extreme Huntress” competition, which she won in 2010. She subsequently co-hosted the NBC Sports show “Eye of Hunter,” and has contributed to a number of online hunting publications. Her stockpile of trophy photos, in which she consistently presents herself with gleeful affect, project an agenda more steeped in smug self-promotion than solemn conservation.

If these hunters truly cared about conservation, they would direct their tens of thousands of dollars toward saving and protecting animals, rather than spending huge sums of cash on the opportunity to kill an essentially helpless animal.

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Some studies suggest that, with proper attention to the social, economic, and ecological effects of trophy hunting, the practice may one day benefit conservation efforts if each region develops area-specific standards and principles. However, current standards across Africa in particular are conservatively insufficient, and editorially abysmal.

Trophy hunters’ most coveted target, and the most endangered, is the African lion — a species that may be on the brink of extinction. Estimates suggest that there are less than 35,000 individuals left in the wild, yet hunters continue to target breeding-age males in populations that desperately need them.

Via Fun for Less Tours
Via Fun for Less Tours

Despite widespread declines across all lion populations, and a clear need for protection, lions are not considered an endangered species by the IUCN. As long as they continue to be listed as “vulnerable,” hunters are free to take them as trophies.

The New York State Senate is currently reviewing legislation that could ban the import, transport, and possession of five of Africa’s most threatened species. If passed, this bill could have huge conservation benefits, as New York’s JFK airport is one of the leading importers of wildlife “trophies.”

Read the bill and track its progress here!

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