Impacts of the United Kingdom’s proposed ban on importing hunting trophies

Wildlife
Wildlife

In December 2021, The UK government announced its intention to ban the importation of hunting trophies from some 7,000 wild species. At the same time, a private member’s bill was introduced in the UK Parliament, the ‘Importation of Hunting Trophies (Prohibition) Bill’, to impose a blanket ban on the importation of any hunting trophy and requiring the registration of all hunting trophies already in the UK.

The UK government’s proposals have since been included in the Animals Abroad Bill (2022), which may be tabled, in the next sitting of Parliament. The purported aim of these measures is to protect endangered wildlife but the likely outcome in Africa will be the opposite.

If these measures are enacted, we expect to see, in Africa, an acceleration in the rate of loss of wildlife, accelerated loss of biodiversity and yet more loss of wildlife habitat to unsustainable agricultural practices on marginal land. These proposals are ill judged and not well considered. The UK government has ignored both its own experience and the detailed submissions and reasoned arguments of the better informed. No African nation has the resources to offer off its citizens an adequate health or education service so it is hard to justify spending on conservation. Few people in the UK can have any conception of how harsh life is for the great majority of rural Africans. Even in Botswana where I live, one of the better-off African nations, there are many people struggling to exist on an income of less than P350 (=£25) a month. The cost of living is not that different from the UK. Rural Africa is impoverished by unfair trade practices by developed nations, poor domestic policy, inadequate infrastructure and poor health services and education.

As a generality, those areas, which are richest in wildlife resources, are the most economically marginalised. The UK has no legitimate interest in how African states choose to manage their wildlife resources. No one in the UK suffers hurt, harm or loss neither from the practice of trophy hunting in Africa nor from the importation of the resulting trophies. This proposal is, in fact, a blatant assault on the sovereign right of African nations and their citizens to manage their wildlife resources as they see fit. There is an element of hypocrisy here too because the British government is the largest provider of trophy hunting opportunities in the UK through the lease of deer stalking by the Forestry Commission and its devolved off-shoots. Trophy hunting for deer generates significant economic benefits in Highland Scotland. The IUCN supports trophy hunting as a viable conservation tool because it generates revenue, which can be spent on management and protection of natural resources, and because it puts legitimate ‘feet on the ground’, which is a powerful deterrent to poaching.


Much of the land of Africa is agriculturally marginal and its productive capacity is low. Such land can either be used for extensive livestock production, which is economically marginal and arguably ecologically unsustainable, or it can be used for wildlife, which is unquestionably sustainable. If the wildlife production/utilisation strategy includes trophy hunting then it can generate a large economic surplus. Without trophy hunting, returns are similar to extensive livestock production. Contrary to much expressed opinion, photographic or game-viewing tourism is not particularly profitable as operating costs are relatively high and it requires a significantly higher level of investment in infrastructure to be viable. In any case, most of rural Africa is not suitable for development for game-viewing/photographic tourism except for a few “hotspot” areas such as the Nairobi National Park, Ngorongoro, the Kasane – Victoria Falls hub or the environs of the Kruger National Park. In low rainfall areas, the density of animals is too low so animals are not seen frequently enough to satisfy the visitor while in high rainfall areas, the vegetation is too dense for animals to be easily or clearly seen. Neither of these conditions is a drawback for trophy hunting.

Off-take rates are low, rarely over two percent compared to a safe harvest rate of 10 – 15% for most species. The great majority of animals shot are post-mature males (i.e. in late middle age), which have passed their breeding prime. This level of off-take has no negative impact on the population as a whole.

Trophy hunting generates large revenues for relatively low initial investment and subsequent operating costs. The trophy hunting revenues, which accrue to African governments, contribute significantly to their expenditure on conservation. Without such revenue, resource starved governments would find it hard to justify diverting scarce revenues from other sources to conservation. Few national parks, in which the primary form of wildlife use is game-viewing/photographic tourism, generate sufficient revenue to cover their operating costs nor do most generate sufficient economic activity in other sectors to justify a level of subsidy to enable them to be managed properly. Consequently, most are starved of the funds, manpower and equipment they need to maintain their infrastructure and adequately protect their wildlife and plant resources. In many instances, the former inhabitants of what are now national parks were evicted in order to establish the national park in the first place. Understandably, they and/or their descendants are disgruntled by the loss of their land and hostile to the existence of the park.

Over the past 35 years or so, there has been a paradigm shift in the approach to wildlife conservation over much of southern and central Africa. The old “top down” paradigm where governments claim to ‘own’ wildlife and to be able to protect and manage it successfully has been shown to be false. A new paradigm, where the occupiers and users of the land are seen to be best able to protect and manage the wildlife on the land has arisen. It shows great promise and has led to substantial reversals of past losses of wildlife, habitats and biodiversity. In the most successful instances, where more rights to wildlife have been ceded to occupiers and users, wildlife numbers have increased substantially, the amount of land devoted to wildlife has increased greatly and biodiversity has increased.

All this has happened at little or no cost to governments and has been funded mostly by revenues from trophy hunting. The development of Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) initiatives in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and elsewhere has enabled rural communities, mostly in remote and economically marginalised areas, to manage their own resources for their own benefit.

Such rural communities bear the brunt of the social and economic costs of living with wildlife, which are large. Under the old paradigm they got almost none of the benefits accruing from wildlife but suffered, often heavily, from crop and livestock losses as well as human deaths due to the depredations of wildlife. Under the CBNRM dispensation, communities are able to transform wildlife from a liability into a valuable resource whose protection they will invest in. In some instances, communities have foregone agricultural developments to make more land available for wildlife and limited their agricultural and livestock development ambitions due to the high returns from wildlife.

Most of these returns derive from trophy hunting by foreign visitors, British amongst them. Revenues have been invested by communities in education (building classrooms and hiring extra teachers), health care (building clinics & health posts and hiring extra nurses), rural transport services (mini-buses) and other developments, which the communities want but governments are unable or unwilling to provide. The most successful CBNRM operations have been able to make relatively large cash payments to residents.

All CBNRM operations have also generated substantial quantities of meat to be distributed to residents – a benefit which is greatly valued. The widely quoted claim that communities only get two percent of the revenues is simply not true. Successful CBNRM initiatives also strongly discourage poaching or poisoning of wildlife as they demonstrate tangibly the economic and nutritional value of sound wildlife management and ensure that rural communities enjoy direct benefits from their wildlife resources. Poaching is rife throughout rural Africa due to poverty, hunger (especially for protein) and lack of alternative options. Kwashiorkor (protein deficiency in childhood leading to stunted intellectual and physical development) is widespread and common over much of the continent.

The UK government, through DfID supported a number of successful CBNRM initiatives in the 1980s whose main source of revenue was from trophy hunting. In Botswana, DfID supplied an officer to revamp the controlled hunting area system and the lease of hunting concession areas, which was an essential pre-condition for the introduction of CBNRM.

This same officer also played a key role in establishing early CBNRM schemes. Consequently, the UK government is well aware of the benefits brought by trophy hunting in terms of poverty alleviation and community empowerment. If that were not enough, a number of people with serious knowledge of the issues involved made direct submissions on the issue to DEFRA, most notably Dr Brian Child who coordinated the introduction of CBNRM in Zimbabwe, which were either not read or were ignored.

For example, in Sankuyo a community of around 370 people on the eastern margin of the Okavango delta in Botswana, the community was able to transform itself over a 15-year period. What had been a typical poverty ridden semi subsistence economy dependent on remittances from outside became a self-sufficient community with a vibrant land-based economy funded by trophy hunting.

The community formed a community trust to obtain a ‘head lease’ on an 87,000 ha hunting area and a 6,000 ha photographic area. The trust leased out its hunting area to a safari operator for US$321,400 a year by 2011 and two camp sites in the photographic area to private operators for $112,280. The safari operator also provided a $15,000 fund for medical assistance to community members and delivered 70% of the meat from shot animals to the community. Community members gave the community a trophy hunting quota of 22 elephants and 98 other animals as well as a subsistence hunting quota of 28 animals for use. The total quota represented 0.4 percent of the assessed wildlife population. Poaching, which had been a significant element of the community’s livelihood strategy prior to the institution of the CBNRM project had virtually ceased by 2011.

By 2011, 67% of the community’s income came from trophy hunting, 24% from tourism in its own lease areas, three percent from other tourism and 10% from other sources. (The latter two being mostly remittances by relatives to residents.)

The safari operator and private tourism camp operators created 56 jobs for community members while the community trust itself created a further 63 jobs primarily using hunting income. The community trust spent 56% of its income on direct benefits to community members while 33% was spent on managing an office in Maun, which it was required to do. Among direct benefits paid to community members, the trust gave: − US$75 to every household each year until 2010, − A funeral grant of $825 to every bereaved family, − An annual pension of $33,000 to every resident over 55 years of age, − Sponsorship to the local football club, − Scholarships for worthy students from the community − Free transport to Maun (83km) three times a week. In addition, the trust implemented a number of community development projects including: − Water reticulation with a connection to every household, − Developing a community owned tourism campsite, which employed 15 people and was self financing, earning revenues of $85,000 a year, − Housing for destitute residents, − Installing a toilet in every household, and − An upmarket tourism lodge. The latter two were not completed at the time the hunting ban was implemented in 2013. In the aftermath of the implementation of the hunting ban in 2013, the community trust was bankrupted and virtually all the community benefits ceased. Average household income fell by 35%, development projects came to a standstill, the trust retrenched 30 employees and overall employment within the community fell by over 50%. In addition, there was widespread hunger due to loss of game meat from the safari operator and elephant damage to crops. The situation has not changed radically since then and game viewing and photographic tourism has failed to replace these losses. Similar scenarios were repeated all over Botswana in all CBNRM trusts and, in total, some 6,000 jobs were lost as a result of the hunting ban. These losses have not been made good to date and the damage to confidence and trust has been immeasurable.

Very large tracts of privately held land in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe and smaller areas in Botswana and Zambia have been re-wilded and transformed from marginal or loss-making cattle ranches (many of which were arguably ecologically unsustainable) into viable, ecologically sustainable operations with improving biodiversity. A parallel process occurred in the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century. Uneconomic and ecologically unsustainable sheep walks were converted to deer forests, driven by high stalking rentals and low returns to sheep farming due to competition from Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. This process could usefully restart today. Harvesting wildlife for meat is marginally profitable but the initial capital and subsequent running costs are both higher than for trophy hunting, while the revenues are much lower. Capital and running costs are also higher than for cattle ranching so neither conversion of cattle ranches to game-meat ranches nor initial development of the land as a game-meat ranch are attractive. The return to invested capital is too low.

The total area converted to wildlife use in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe greatly exceeds the total area of National Parks, Game Reserves and other ‘official’ conservation areas in these countries. This process is driven by the high revenues derived from trophy hunting and represents an enormous conservation gain. These areas are not only protecting the more common and huntable species but also rare and endangered species such as Black and White Rhinoceros. In some cases, these species have been removed from state land, where they are vulnerable to poaching, to private game areas where they are safer due to better security. Limitations on trophy hunting e.g. by banning the importation of trophies, is likely to put these desirable changes into reverse. This happened in Botswana between 2013 and 2019 when former President Ian Khama banned all hunting. Virtually all the CBNRM trusts went bankrupt, several thousand rural jobs were lost by people who lack skills in the 'modern' sector and are almost unemployable in the rest of the economy and all the improvements in the lives of residents of the community areas went into reverse.

Furthermore, there was a marked and immediate upsurge in poaching allied to a notable increase in harmful practices, e.g. the poisoning of elephant carcasses so vultures don't give poachers away and an apparent increase in overall off take from a number of populations. In addition, several private landowners who had started converting their cattle ranches into game ranches put the process into reverse until the ban on hunting in private land (but not tribal or state land) was rescinded. Overall, there was a general and widespread decline in support for conservation. The damage done and losses incurred in that period have not been made good yet. Kenya banned all legal hunting in 1977, primarily to shield the widespread ivory and rhino horn poaching operations of its political elite from public gaze. The consequences have been disastrous. Between 1970 and 2015, 17 of the larger wildlife species in Kenya experienced a combined decline in numbers of 72%, ranging from a 30% decline for Zebra to 94% for waterbuck. Over the same period the sheep and goat population increased by 79%, the donkey population increased by 70% and the camel population by11%.

However the cattle population declined by 25% over this period. These figures indicate two things, firstly that domestic livestock has largely displaced wildlife over most of Kenya while, secondly, and the decline in the cattle population indicates an overall decline in ecological conditions.

The country has witnessed a continuing decline in bio diversity and all wildlife populations since the mid 1970’s and also the widespread poisoning of carnivores as well as elephants and other large herbivores, which damage crops. The reason is simple, wild animals have no value for rural Kenyans and are seen by them as nothing but a nuisance and a danger to life. To my mind, these proposals to ban the importation of hunting trophies are cynical, hypocritical, wrong-headed and the worst kind of gutter politics – pandering to a noisy and ill-informed minority who have no knowledge of the hard realities of conservation in Africa nor of the harshness of the daily lives of most rural Africans - and appear to care less. Put bluntly, the proponents of this measure appear to care more about African animals than they do about African people.

If the UK government is genuinely concerned about the management of trophy hunting in Africa, there is a better way to tackle any issues that arise. The UK government could offer assistance to improve current practices where there may be a problem and encourage and assist practitioners to learn from best practice elsewhere. Indeed, many Scottish deer forests are very poorly managed and their owners and managers could learn a lot from best practice in southern Africa. Here in Botswana, our government needs to team up with the governments of other like-minded countries (Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa) to put diplomatic pressure on the UK government to can this proposal. For a start our own President Masisi should pick up the ‘phone to Boris Johnson to tell him about the realities of proper conservation. He did it at that meeting in the USA about elephants so he can do so again.

* Richard Whyte is a consultant and practitioner in wildlife management and rural development)

Editor's Comment
A step in the right direction

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