27th January 2014
Shocking images, like the one above, are circulating again through social media. They are part of a grassroots campaign to draw attention to trophy hunting, the business of hunting African animals for sport.
The image above is particularly powerful. It depicts a happy family crouched in front of a dead elephant, which is still chewing his last mouthful of food. The image is real and available in the gallery of Frikkie du Toit Safaris website.
My first reaction on seeing this image was to condemn this family as cruel and barbaric. I struggle to understand what possible enjoyment one could derive from shooting an elephant.
Then I wanted to understand why anybody would pay for this gruesome experience.
After a basic web search, I started to find some answers. Social media has identified the hunter in the photograph as Gregory S. Willis, a doctor who works in Philadelphia, USA. This led me to a blog post that Dr Willis had written to describe his experience:
I raised my.470 Nitro Express, aimed for his brain and squeezed the trigger. Just before I pulled the trigger, he slightly turned his nose up. The big slug hit him just below the brain. He turned and then, as if I had been doing this forever, remembering Frikkie’s instruction, I smashed his hip with the second barrel. Frikkie also shot as I requested him to do if the bull did not drop from the first shot. His shot centered the heart. Man! Can Frikkie shoot! I reloaded and ran with my PH to the bull’s side and quickly put another 500-grain Hornady solid into his brain. I never felt the double’s substantial recoil.
The Cheeky One By Gregory S. Willis, DO
According to the website that hosts his photographs, Dr Willis probably paid more than $30,000 for his adventure. The full price list for trophy hunting experiences is available here.
Not long after finding the image of Dr Willis, I came across another. This time it was of NSW Shooters Party MP Robert Borsak, showing him with an elephant that he had shot in Zimbabwe.
Mr Borsak also wrote about his adventure on a blog post entitled Bulls in the Rain.
Not being a hunter, I find it hard to understand how anybody could shoot animals for sport, let alone write what to me are gruesome stories describing the event. So, rather than meekly expressing my outrage by simply retweeting the images, I realised I needed to know more about the issue, and set about finding some answers.
I started by emailing both Dr Willis and Mr Borsak for their comments about their African hunting experiences.
Both men responded to my email.
Dr Willis provided a short statement that said: “I will respectfully refer you to contact organizations such as Safari Club International, Dallas Safari Club and the various nature conservation governmental agencies and legal/law enforcement authorities of all countries involved in your research.”
Mr Borsak was even more helpful and provided a considerable amount of material that helped me put this image in its wider context.
Although social media might like to portray both men as cold-blooded thrill-seekers, after reading through the information they suggested, I’m surprised to find there is much more to this story.
Trophy hunting is a legitimate legal business in South Africa and many African countries. It aims to create revenue and economic incentives for management, conservation of wildlife, and provide support for local communities. Advocates for trophy hunting argue that the hunt operators are ‘conservationists first and hunters second’. Through creating an economic incentive for conservation, trophy hunting can encourage local communities to recognise the value of the wildlife thereby aligning the interests of conservationists and locals.
Glen Martin, author of Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife, argues that Kenya, which banned hunting in 1977, has seen a 70 percent decrease in wildlife in the past 25 years. Eco-tourism appears not to have delivered the economic or conservation benefits that were promised and illegal killing of wildlife continues regardless. Mr Martin contrasts the approach taken by Kenya with that of Namibia and argues that Namibia’s use of trophy hunting has successfully delivered economic and conversation benefits. Audio from Mr Martin’s interview on Radio National in 2012 is available here and is well worth downloading.
Importantly, where trophy hunting is managed poorly, it can have significant negative ecological effects. These include altering the age and sex balances within populations, social disruption, deleterious genetic effects and population decline. It can also be difficult to ensure that financial benefits from hunting go towards conservation activities.
The League Against Cruel Sports argues that less than 5 percent of the fees go back to the government in these cases. Even if the government had the resources for appropriate monitoring, corruption and incompetence make the quotas almost impossible to enforce.
The moral question against trophy hunting is raised by American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard, Michael Sandel. He argues that the problem is not that we operate a market economy, the problem is that we are becoming a market society. The idea that everything can be ‘for sale’ is becoming entrenched into our social values.
Markets are not moral; just because we can sell something doesn’t mean we should. We consider it morally repugnant to buy or sell something which devalues the product or service being brought or sold. For example, we cannot sell our bodily organs; a market in organs might induce people to consider the homeless, vulnerable or the sick to be ‘worth’ no more than the value of their harvested organs. This leads to a devaluation in human life. Similarly, it is illegal to buy and sell our votes because that market would corrupt our basic democratic processes.
Does a market in killing wildlife ultimately lead to the wildlife itself being devalued? Or does the evidence show that killing a small number of animals actually supports the overall objective of animal conservation? This is a complicated question that requires data and evidence to answer.
It was significant that both D. Willis and Mr Borsak mentioned conservation in their responses. They genuinely believe they have contributed to the preservation of wildlife. Strangely enough, both ‘sides’ of this discussion appear to want the same thing!
Admittedly, I still find these images very disturbing; I simply cannot understand the enjoyment that comes through hunting. However, I believe that sharing graphic images on Twitter or Facebook and demonising hunters does nothing to deliver real outcomes for conservation in Africa. It focuses anger and hatred towards those who may, paradoxically, be actually contributing to conserve wildlife.
I don’t know the answer, but it is clear this is a complicated issue in a world in which our wildlife is rapidly disappearing. An objective assessment of the evidence may find that trophy hunting is, indeed, the only practical way that wildlife can be preserved, for now. In the longer term, the solution may also require raising the standard of living in Africa, enforcing stronger penalties against poaching and seriously discussing the vexed issue of population growth.
This is not an issue that can be understood on a Facebook status update or a 140-character message on Twitter. Sharing a gruesome image is easy: understanding the underlying issues takes time and commitment to an enormous and heartbreaking issue.
Well-intentioned efforts on social media might actually be having the the opposite effect. By focussing on graphic images and not on the facts, we lose sight of the problem that we’re trying to solve. The battle against trophy hunting might be won, but the war against wildlife extinction might be lost.
Nobody, not least the trophy hunters, wants to see that happen.
|Chalton McCallum Safaris|
|Elephant Conservation Hunting|
|Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife|