/ 29 March 2023

The economics of trophy hunting

Trophy Hunting
Some argue trophy hunting helps conservation and communities, others believe it is a ‘hobby for the rich that benefits the rich’ and is detrimental to both. (Photo by Martin Schutt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“At best, trophy hunting supports an estimated 15 000 jobs in South Africa, whereas non-consumptive tourism supports at least 90 000 estimated jobs.” 

Dr Ross Harvey

Last week, the UK saw trophy hunting imports banned when a bill was passed in the House of Commons. In essence, it is designed to prevent the country’s trophy hunters from bringing the body parts of some species into Britain.

In last week’s column, I grappled with man’s hunting obsession. This week I want to bring balance and various perspectives to the economic debate. Does trophy hunting actually make economic sense or does it not? 

I asked people working in the industry who have extensive experience in trophy hunting, and wildlife conservation, as well as read on the topic, to help me understand how the money works.

A Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora  (Cites) report described the process as landowners and hunting operators negotiating with hunters for who can hunt on their land. They agree on a fee that both parties are happy with. That fee is for the operators, the helpers (the community working with the operators) and for a licence or permit from the government.

Let’s start with Dr Nkabeng Maruping-Mzileni, an ecologist with a PhD in nature conservation. Writing for The Conversation, she described the economics of hunting as follows: “The relevant government bodies issue hunting licences and permits. These costs are included in the trophy/hunting fee. This fee is determined according to staff wages — professional hunters, trackers, camp set-up, accommodation, field staff — and the government levy. The government levy varies from country to country.”

But does this actually work out well for communities and the conservation of animals? Let’s find out.

A viable business

Maruping-Mzileni believes hunting has been a viable business for many years, with a growing business model and ripple effect.

“It is not just a matter of paying money to shoot an animal, there are numerous entities involved either directly or indirectly. There is the hunting lodge (cooks, cleaners, people who look after the veld and the wildlife, the professional hunter and other employment); taxidermist (business owners and employment); local tourism (business owners and employment); butchery (business owner and employment).”

But Maruping-Mzileni urges caution when discussing the benefits of hunting and direct profit sharing. She explained it by saying that when a mall opens in a town, the obvious benefit-sharing is employment. The community does not benefit from the developer’s profit directly.

Likewise for hunting, when a hunting establishment has clients, the community benefits from employment and meat, depending on the animal. An example of this is a lion hunt. When there is no meat, the business benefits the most. 

Maruping-Mzileni explained how the money would generally be used. 

“The money generated either goes back towards the business, such as property maintenance, fences, water points, introducing new game for genetic viability, employing field rangers to maintain the area, etc.

“In some cases the profit goes back to species conservation, such as introducing new game for genetic viability; veterinary services; expanding a protected area’s footprint; research and monitoring the best way to manage the species in fenced areas or under changing climatic conditions or population dynamics,” she said.

Some are not convinced

Aside from vociferous celebrities who believe trophy hunting is problematic, there are others.

Dr Ross Harvey is a natural resource economist and policy analyst at Good Governance Africa. He has staunch views on the subject and played a role in getting the UK bill to where it is, having contributed to the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

In the paper he submitted to the department, he notes that trophy hunting does very little to support conservation in South Africa. He believes the evidence that it does is very limited. 

“At best, trophy hunting supports an estimated 15 000 jobs in South Africa, whereas non-consumptive tourism supports at least 90 000 estimated jobs.” 

Harvey believes the research shows that a tiny volume of overall trophy hunting revenue goes to local low-income households. He finds the practice an “economically extractive and ecologically harmful hobby for the rich that benefits the rich”.

Harvey also believes the financial benefits very rarely trickle down to communities and that the jobs they get from trophy hunting further entrench inequality. In his paper, he writes: “The quality of hunting jobs is highly questionable, and the evidence suggests that South Africa’s conversion of agricultural land to game ranching has worsened job security and deepened inequalities.”

Melanie Flynn, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Huddersfield in the UK,  wrote that trophy hunting does show financial benefits “but it remains unclear in exactly what circumstances trophy hunting produces a valuable conservation benefit. We cannot assume a scheme that works in one country, targeting one species, under a specific set of circumstances, is applicable to all other species and locations.”

Flynn noted how these benefits rely on sustainable management, investment of profits and community involvement. She also shared corruption concerns.

“But given the levels of perceived corruption and lack of effective governance in some of the countries where trophy hunting is carried out, one wonders how likely it is these conditions can be met. And if trophy hunting is really so lucrative, there is every chance the profits will instead be used to line the pockets of rich (possibly foreign) operators and officials.”

Let’s look elsewhere

Another Cites study in 2022 looked into the issue of trophy hunting in Zimbabwe.

It found that it had increased “food and livelihood security of rural people, as well as playing a role in mitigating human-wildlife conflict”.

Its data showed that: 

⋅ Between 2010 and 2018 the hunting sector in Community Areas Management

Programme for Indigenous Resources districts earned approximately $17 million;

⋅ Of this amount, trophy fees contributed approximately $12 million of which elephant trophy fees contributed approximately $7.6 million (63%) and

⋅ Under the benefit sharing guidelines, the Rural District Councils received approximately 56% (range 23% to 66%) or $1.05million/year and the Wards received 46% (range 26% to 77%) or $830 000/year.

The study also said that the revenue did not go to individual households. Instead, it went to community infrastructure projects such as schools, clinics, water piping and storage. Direct cash to people only happened in special circumstances. 

Journalist Emmanuel Koro looked into the issue in Botswana. 

“International hunting supports hunting communities’ diverse socio-economic needs. Therefore, if international hunting is banned, communities will lose revenue streams, jobs, and wildlife poaching and revenge killings on wildlife will increase, while poverty gaps will also increase,” he said. 

Rebecca Banika, the head of the Pandamatenga hunting community, said international hunting bolstered socio-economic development and conservation in her area. 

“We are also given game meat of the hunted wildlife,” she said. “We use some of the funds to sponsor schoolchildren who fail their high school exams so that they can pass and become employed and then look after themselves and their families.

“We also use the hunting revenue to support local farmers by purchasing farming equipment such as the community tractor we recently bought. For the 2023 hunting season that starts next month, we have been paid 6.5 million pula [about R9 million] in advance. The British parliamentarians should not ban trophy hunting imports to the United Kingdom, but rather be our advocates.”

Britain’s decision will facilitate wider conversation. Whether or not that impacts communities and wildlife in the long run, remains to be seen. The trophy hunting debate is incredibly nuanced and it’s easy to see both sides of the argument.