By Mike Whittlesey
The fifth and final installment of Dave Stueve’s narrative about his recent safari experience in South Africa is published this week as the sport of trophy hunting in Africa remains under fire following the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe last month.
I am not a hunter. My enjoyment of the great outdoors is devoted primarily to riding a bicycle on the abundance of nature trails our little corner of the world has to offer. The last arrow I shot was probably in a junior high physical education class and I’ve since been pardoned for the arrow that somehow wound up on the roof. With the exception of my dad’s air rifle some 35 years ago, I’ve never shot a gun and have no desire to own one.
When Dave Stueve opened Double Lung Archery in La Porte City in 2007, he quickly developed a full-service Archery Pro Shop with a loyal following of customers who willingly come from near and far to support a business that caters to hunters. And make no mistake, hunting is big business in Iowa. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources estimates the economic impact hunters, anglers and wildlife viewers amounts to $1.5 billion each year, supporting more than 17,800 jobs statewide.
Though not a hunter myself, a large portion of The Progress Review’s readers actively participate in outdoor related activities and have an interest in reading about the exploits of their fellow hunters. It is also important to acknowledge that hunter-generated revenue makes it possible for non-hunters like myself to enjoy the bike trails and state parks funded by the hunting industry. Not only do hunters account for $100 million in state and federal taxes annually, they also help fund the state’s fisheries, law enforcement activities related to wildlife, habitat/wetland restoration, as well as outdoor education and safety training. Without these dollars, many of the outdoor recreational activities enjoyed by non-hunters would not exist as they do in their present form.
Having said that, luring a lion out of its protected sanctuary for the purpose of killing it and cutting off its head cannot be explained away as animal conservation. That Cecil’s tracking collar went missing after the kill was made suggests the hunting party knew their actions were unethical, even if the subsequent investigation determines the hunt was not illegal. As this issue of The Progress Review goes to press, the investigation surrounding the hunter, his guide and the Zimbabwe landowner has not yet been completed.
In the meantime, the moral indignation expressed by those who have vandalized the property of the hunter responsible for the deed does nothing to address the problem of protecting endangered wildlife. While spewing pigs’ feet on the grounds of a hunter’s vacation home may make for dramatic television, it certainly is not a convincing statement about the sanctity of animal life. I can think of at least one pig who would have objected to such an argument.
Those morally opposed to hunting certainly deserve to express their feelings and have their voices heard. To label all trophy hunters as evil, though, is an oversimplification of the issue and does a disservice to the legitimate conservation efforts many hunters passionately pursue. As the debate rages on, many outdoor enthusiasts make the claim that banning hunting in Africa is actually more harmful to the animals there. Hard to believe, yes. The historical numbers, though, would seem to support such a claim.
In a 2006 research piece published in Conservation Biology entitled “Trophy Hunting and Conservation in Africa: Problems and One Potential Solution, the authors state, “The greatest threat to the sustainability of trophy hunting on communal land is the failure of governments and hunting operators to devolve adequate benefits to local communities, which reduces incentives for rural people to conserve wildlife.”
In other words, when the hunters and the money they spend in Africa disappears, so to does the natives’ motivation to maintain conservation efforts that previously protected the wildlife there.
In a 2011 research piece published in Environment, author Nicolas Jordan Deere noted that following the ban of trophy hunting in Kenya (1977), Tanzania (1973–78) and Zambia (2000-03), there was an accelerated loss of wildlife in each of those countries.
Kenya, for example, has lost some 60%-70% of its wildlife after initiating a ban on hunting. Faced with the prospect of literally starving to death as African wildlife consume the vegetation dirt-poor resident farmers ordinarily feed their livestock, it should not be surprising that poaching remains rampant in Kenya. Food on the table will trump animal conservation every time these conditions are in conflict.
The low socioeconomic conditions present in many African countries, coupled with hunters who are willing to pay five figures for the opportunity to hunt in Africa, places some African governments in the difficult position of publicly condemning an activity they routinely accept big dollars to allow. A recent news report from Zimbabwe noted that local officials were hopeful the furor over Cecil’s death would soon dissipate so the business of legal hunting could resume.
How long the topic of trophy hunting in Africa remains a top story in the news remains to be seen. Instead of Africa, it’s an issue that could just as easily be focused on our very own backyard. For many years, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has issued permits to conduct deer management hunts at designated times during the year. Designed to thin the excess deer population, these hunts address concerns related to the damage deer inflict on crops and ornamental gardens, as well as the number of motor vehicle accidents involving deer. Over a 25 year period, managing the deer population in this manner has become accepted practice, much like trophy hunting is today in many African countries. If Iowans and their state government view large numbers of deer as a nuisance and a danger, is it surprising that African landowners view the excess number of giraffes threatening the food supply of other animals much in the same way?
The ethical treatment of animals, regardless their country of origin, is not a high contrast, black and white problem. As we navigate the muddy waters of this complex social issue, let us hope that civil public discourse will be the rule of the day. Without it, we lack the clarity needed to help find the answers we seek.