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  • Writer's pictureProfessor Amy Dickman and Dr Alayne Cotterill, Joint CEOs Lion landscapes

Communities, conservation and colonialism

Why the House of Lords should carefully examine the evidence around trophy hunting

On 7th July 2023, The Canary published an article by a British anthropologist, Sian Sullivan, fearing that malign forces – such as, apparently, conservation scientists and African representatives – were aiming to ‘thwart’ a proposed UK ban on the importation of hunting trophies, by providing an evidence-based report to the House of Lords. Trophy hunting is a contentious topic, but at Lion Landscapes we believe that evidence is vital for effective decision-making in conservation, and we have presented evidence on the risks of an import ban to the UK Government. Here, we outline why we feel Sullivan’s article was at best overblown, and at worst misleading and arrogant.

Sullivan starts – perhaps unsurprisingly – with a mischaracterisation. She suggests the report pushes against the influence of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) to Ban Trophy Hunting simply because their Secretariat was a lobby group. That is untrue - lobbying is a valuable part of the political process. The issue comes (as highlighted by Parliament itself) when APPGs enable lobbyists to gain improper influence and access to parliamentarians. That is particularly concerning when lobbyists share demonstrable misinformation, as the campaign to ban trophy hunting imports has repeatedly done.

Oddly, Sullivan seems to take particular offence that the report was supported by Resource Africa and Jamma International. Both organisations are clearly committed to community-based conservation, including sustainable use. Indeed, Resource Africa ‘promotes people-centred conservation for thriving, resilient livelihoods. We advocate for people’s rights to sustainably use their natural resources, respecting their cultures, worldviews, and knowledge systems. Our interventions are science-based.’ They have close links with the Community Leaders Network (CLN), which represents millions of people who would be directly affected by the UK’s proposed ban. Unsurprisingly, all these groups are against external, misinformed actions which would undermine community-based conservation, and have spoken out repeatedly against blanket trophy hunting bans. CLN’s website states: ‘We are the custodians of our natural resources and the key to its sustainability. Our voices matter’. It is unclear why Sullivan appears to disagree.

After dismissing groups which advocate for community rights, Sullivan moves on to dismissing the weight of scientific evidence around trophy hunting. She worries that the fact that trophy hunting doesn’t threaten a single species is not evidenced in the report. She will doubtless have been relieved to see a pre-print of a scientific paper released in June 2023 (the same month as the report), providing just that evidence. She worries (rightly) that data are often incomplete and out of date. But most scientists are used to dealing with imperfect realities. From climate science to COVID, scientists make predictions based on the best evidence available to them. In this case, what is clear is that the major threats to biodiversity are habitat loss and poaching. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, trophy hunting revenue has supported the conservation of more wild habitat than National Parks, and helped combat poaching. It has also had demonstrably positive conservation benefits for several hunted species, including endangered ones such as the black rhino, as documented in a recent paper by leading rhino experts.

Meanwhile, there is little or no evidence that the kind of ban sought by the UK would positively impact conservation or livelihoods. Since Kenya banned trophy hunting in 1977, its wildlife populations have crashed, with ‘policy, institutional and market failures’ identified as the fundamental cause. A trophy hunting ban in Botswana led to increased human-wildlife conflict and harmed local livelihoods. Import restrictions on polar bear trophy hunts harmed Inuit communities. Similar import restrictions have put pressure on Tanzanian hunting operators, leading to half the country’s hunting blocks being handed back to the Government. This has reduced active management, leading to increased illegal use and an emerging threat to wildlife, as no better alternatives are being implemented.

While targeted, short-term restrictions can effectively tackle trophy hunting where it is unsustainable, blanket bans such as the one being proposed for the UK are likely to do more harm than good. Sullivan is either unaware of the lack of evidence supporting bans, or chooses to ignore that glaring omission.

Sullivan then moves on to some confused assertions. She appears to think the risks to Namibian conservancies of removing trophy hunting have been overstated, just because it may not be their primary source of income. That doesn’t mean trophy hunting revenue is unimportant – the very report Sullivan cites shows that of NS$91 million of cash and benefits, over a third came from trophy hunting. That may not seem important to Sullivan, in the comfort of the UK’s leafy Bath, but is likely less easily dismissed by those receiving such benefits. She also then criticises Namibian conservancies for not reducing their hunting offtakes in a drought period – while sharing a table which appears to demonstrate that that’s precisely what they did.

Perhaps the most worrying and demeaning part of Sullivan’s piece is her dismissal of how the UK ban is perceived by many as being neocolonial and insulting. To be clear, this is not a ‘cynical claim made in the document’, but the direct words of over 100 African representatives, including High Commissioners, who stated clearly ‘It is sad to mention that we feel this is another way of recolonising Africa’. Most people would think that Africans are better placed to judge what feels neocolonial to them, rather than any of us white Britons. There is no doubt that both trophy hunting and photo-tourism areas often have a dark colonial history. But that should be even more of a reason to actually listen to the people who have suffered from colonialism, and ensure we don’t undermine their rights and voices in the present day.

Then Sullivan moves on to what she terms ‘meagre benefits’ from trophy hunting. However, it is unclear if he has actually read the paper she uses to evidence that claim, as it states: ‘Conservancies in the Zambezi region receive 13% of their direct income from joint venture [photo-tourism] lodges….while 81% is earned from hunting concessions.’ It also highlights that local operators capture 29% of the revenue from trophy hunting, but only 4% from photo-tourism, and concludes that ‘hunting tourism makes a considerable contribution to revenues in peripheral regions of southern Africa’. Even if Sullivan wishes to dismiss the income, jobs, meat and other benefits from trophy hunting as ‘meagre benefits’, her judgement should count far less than the views of affected community members, particularly in places like Namibia, Takijistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Turkey, where most of the benefit demonstrably goes to local communities.

Sullivan then adds insult to injury, by ignoring well-founded fears of aid dependence, apparently because many communities using trophy hunting also receive aid money. It is baffling that an anthropologist needs this explaining, but here goes. Imagine a single parent, working two jobs to bring up their children. Occasionally, a distant, rich, overbearing uncle sends them $100 in an envelope. It would likely be gratefully received. Now imagine the rich overbearing uncle demands the parent give up their job and wait for the occasional envelope. That would suddenly be demeaning. It’s exactly the same here – aid may be valuable, but should not replace the sustainable use of a country’s own natural resources, especially at the whim of misinformed campaigners. Such campaigns are even more galling when the UK seems content with using extensive trophy hunting at home, and when affected countries have a far better conservation record than the UK does.

The headline of Sullivan’s piece drums up fears of the Bill being ‘thwarted’. That is unfounded – the report she criticises clearly recommends a ‘smart ban’ approach with a conservation amendment, as supported by over 200 scientists and conservation experts. Given this Bill was purportedly about conservation, any such amendment would strengthen, not thwart, the conservation impacts of the legislation.

Ultimately, and depressingly, Sullivan’s piece could be interpreted as a call to ‘ignore informed scientists, ignore the weight of conservation evidence, and ignore the voices of those most affected’. Unfortunately, it has been through exactly those tactics that the Bill has progressed so far. No wonder so many campaigners are fearful of the greater scrutiny that the Bill should receive in the Lords. It is also striking that nowhere in her article – and nowhere in the entire campaign to ban trophy imports – does it explain how blanket bans will improve outcomes for people or wildlife. That clear omission has a simple explanation – because they won’t.

We, and many other conservation scientists and practitioners who understand the true risks of removing trophy hunting with no better options on the table, hope that peers will indeed weigh carefully the information laid before them. We urge them to consider where the true risks lie, and do their job of improving this Bill so that it delivers conservation gains without harming wildlife or disempowering vulnerable communities.


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