/ 23 March 2023

What is with man’s obsession with hunting animals?

On the hunt: Adri Kritzhoff, chief executive of the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa and professional hunter Tavi Fragoso at the Iwamanzi Game Reserve in Koster. Photo: Stefan Heunis/AFP

I often wonder why people hunt, be it trophy hunting or sport hunting for meat. I always thought it was the least sporty thing to do, standing far away and shooting a high-powered weapon at an innocent animal. 

For me, it reeked of toxic (read fragile) masculinity, unnecessary brutality and barbarism. I know this may be rich coming from me, a meat eater and lover of some chops at a braai. 

Trophy hunting has been around for an incredibly long time. Scientific American reported, “The slaughtering of large, dangerous animals as a spectacle dates back thousands of years, with records from the Assyrian empire (about 4 000 years ago to around 600 BC) describing kings that boasted of killing elephants, ibex, ostriches, wild bulls and lions,” referencing a study published in 2008 in the journal Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

I know it may sound like I’m sitting on some high horse, but I only consume halaal meat and that gives me a semblance of “this is okay” because the slaughtering is done ethically and in the kindest way possible to the animal, if there is such a thing when killing another species. 

To provide the context of dhabiha, the animals must be treated with utmost respect and have to be healthy, well-fed, watered and in good condition. When being slaughtered, the knife must be sharp and the cutting must be done quickly and effectively to ensure the animal does not suffer. The animal is not allowed to see the knife and other animals are not to see the slaughtering or the carcases. Also important to note is that the blood is drained from the animal leading to a cleaner, healthier product.

For the celebration of second Eid, slaughtering an animal is incumbent on those Muslims who can afford it. The slaughtered animal must be dispersed among families and the poor. Boy, do I not look forward to doing the slaughtering, but I do enjoy eating the meat and am happy to help feed the needy. 

This religious ceremony is a far cry from tracking, injuring, pursuing and eventually killing wild animals in the bush.

So why do people hunt?

There is a distinction between trophy hunting and hunting for sport according to Gum Log Plantation, a group that organises hunting tours for animals like wild boar in the US. Hunting purely for sport is usually done as a way for an individual or group to test their mettle against nature and the wild to kill an animal for its meat. 

Trophy hunting is a form of hunting for sport, with the important distinction that the prey includes rare and endangered species, with the goal being the head or skin as the trophy — the achievement for hunting the animal. The meat is generally taken by the hunters either for a braai, distribution to families or to communities living in the region where the hunt took place, a group wrote for Huntshack. Furthermore, trophy hunting is financially highly exclusive and only available to the super-rich.

Africa is widely known as the best place to go hunting. Famous people like Ernest Hemingway, William Charles Baldwin, Bror von Blixen-Finecke and Theodore Roosevelt all loved an African hunting safari, as Professor Peet van der Merwe at North-West University writes in “From Hemingway to Blixen”. 

Van der Merwe explained that based on the literature, there are four reasons why people participate in trophy hunting.

1. Adventure: There is a big challenge in stalking and hunting a species; it is really difficult and takes skill.

2. To hunt different species: Trophy hunting is about gathering trophies, so having a wide variety of species is an indicator of your success.

3. To learn about nature: You need to understand nature and the wildlife and landscape to hunt successfully. You need to know about the species and the terrain in which they live.

4. Socialisation: Trophy hunting provides opportunities to meet other hunters and join a community of like-minded people across the globe.

Let’s explore the psychology of it. Geoff Beattie, a Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University, has some ideas. He notes that it’s very likely an evolutionary need from way back when our ancestors needed to hunt to feed. Maybe that need just never left some people and is entrenched in their DNA.

He also theorised that “the dead prey was an easily visible display of skill and courage and therefore increased the fitness status and sexual advantage for members of the ancestral hunting group (a bit like the feathers of a peacock)”. Is it possible trophy hunters get the same feeling?

In his article, Beattie noted how researchers analysed hunting stories to better understand hunters’ feelings after a kill. 

“They found ‘achievement’ to be the most frequently reported, followed by ‘appreciation’ of the animals (including ‘love’ of the animals they kill) and ‘affiliation’, the sense of being part of a community of hunters and the resulting strengthening of social bonds.”

Beattie also noted a psychologically dark triad: sub-narcissism, sub-clinical psychopathy and Machiavellianism, or the ability to be manipulative and cunning. 

Narcissists have an “inflated sense of self” and want attention. They manipulate social situations with carefully crafted social media posts with the animal they killed, and like all psychopaths, they lack empathy for the suffering of others like the animal they just killed. These traits were specific to people who killed and tortured animals. The studies weren’t specifically aimed at trophy hunters, so to make the link with the dark triad is tenuous and tangential in my view. 

Some more reasons

I needed to understand more, so I asked acquaintances who frequently hunt why they do it. “It’s the closest you can get to nature”, was the first response I got from a family member. They described it as feeling one with the animals and the bush, you get to experience nature first-hand.

My relative told me you also get the feeling that this is etched into our DNA, as a man, being a hunter is something we always have done so it is embedded into our genetics. 

Hunters also feel like the meat is genuinely organic. Once the animal is killed, it is cleaned, butchered and treated in front of them so they follow it at every step. “It is free-range, organic, clean and of good quality,” he said.

My notion of hunting being people standing from far and shooting was incorrect; hunters track, stalk, chase and shoot with deadly precision so the animal is killed quickly and does not suffer, I am told. 

Hunting relatives also told me that they donate a huge portion of the meat to charity and feed many people with it.

Final thoughts

Hunting is contentious, it always will be. There’s the argument made by hunters that the funds generated from hunting aids conservation, helps tourism and ensures a sustainable livelihood for communities. 

Dr Nkabeng Maruping-Mzileni, now at SanParks, wrote this for The Conversation. “Hunting can contribute to conservation efforts by facilitating the recovery of bontebok, black wildebeest, Cape mountain zebra and white rhinoceros. The money collected from the hunting of these species generated funds for breeding programmes, reintroduction, protection and management.”

Whatever my beliefs, I don’t think I could comfortably shoot an animal. I often think it’s better to let people enjoy things and watch them thrive while staying in my own lane.
The long-term ramifications of British MPs approving a ban on trophy hunting imports should be keenly monitored. It will shed a bit more light on whether trophy hunting does actually do good for animals and communities or was it harming or both.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.