Why Good Hunters are Also Conservationists

Kendall Jones is a nineteen year old student at Texas Tech University who has recently undergone major scrutiny for her Facebook page, which featured multiple photos of her with her kills from big game hunting in Africa (that is, until Facebook took the pictures down).  Let me first say that the pictures unsettle me too, so I certainly understand the emotional recoil from seeing the deceased animals with their huntress.  But there are many aspects that are just plain wrong with the way the public is reacting to the situation, not the least of which is the fact that people are sending death threats to a 19-year-old girl who legally goes hunting with her dad.  Seriously? Death threats?  There’s also the fact that people have been misidentifying the species of the animals in her pictures, and misinterpreting a picture of her with a rhino that was actually darted to receive veterinary care and was not killed.

But one thing that wasn’t addressed very well until lately is her claim that what she’s doing supports conservation efforts.  There are countless comments from people declaring that Kendall clearly does not understand conservation, as how could killing an animal support conservation?  To which I shake my head at their complete misunderstanding, because Kendall knows way more about conservation than they even know there is to know.

First of all, let’s consider the entire concept of hunting.  In order for hunters to hunt, there must be animals for them to hunt.  In order for there to be animals to hunt, the animals must be able to reproduce, thereby making more animals.  This concept is the basis of hunting regulations, which restrict the seasons in which you can hunt, the size of the animals you can kill, the number of animals you can kill in a given time period, and the types of animals you can hunt (only these species, not mothers with young, etc).  A good, responsible hunter understands these concepts and follows the rules because s/he understands that the restrictions are in place so that there will be hunting available again the next year and the year after that, etc.

I will also mention that there is a huge financial impact of hunting.  Money spent on hunting licenses and access to land for hunting contributes the majority of revenue for wildlife management.  It’s been estimated that Kendall’s hunting excursions bring $700,000 into the region every time she comes to hunt, and a lot of that goes to support the conservation programs.  In fact, they wouldn’t be able to function without money from foreign hunters.  But this aspect has also been noted by Kendall’s supporters.  The central fact that people seem to be missing, and I will admit it seems counter-intuitive, is that conservation is NOT about saving every individual.  Conservation is about saving a species, and in that fight there is no individual animal that is worth more than the whole population.

There’s a lot more that goes into saving a species than most people realize.  As an example, there are currently more than 500 species of animals that are part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program.  Each species with a plan in the program has its very own Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), which is responsible for knowing where the members of that species are located and the details of their genetic background.  Every single breeding decision for the species has to be approved by the SSP.  If you have two individuals from an endangered species and you’d like to breed them, but the SSP says no, you do not breed them.  When you’re dealing with a limited genetic pool from which to pull, you want to maximize your genetic diversity as greatly as you can.  Inbreeding causes very real health problems for a population, one of which, for example, is infertility.  Carelessness with decisions on who’s breeding whom can mean that you get a litter now but that you won’t have any in three generations.  The SSP also includes information about which institutions have room for another animal or two, and which are wielding “No vacancy” signs.  If there’s a genetically favorable breeding pair but there’s nowhere for their offspring to go, the breeding won’t be allowed.  The SSP is not in the business of making animals without a place to go.

And so this brings me back to Kendall Jones.  Ultimately, conservation is about population management.  In particular, many of the big game animals that she’s hunting are considered nuisance animals and would be killed anyway by local farmers.  If the animal is going to be killed anyway, and if you’re choosing between bringing in $700,000 or not, doesn’t it make sense to take the money so you can use it to help the rest of the population?  Again, no individual is more valuable than preserving the entire species.

Now, I will say that I wish there was another way.  But for this point I will refer to the TEDx Copenhagen talk by Mikkel Legarth.  You should certainly watch him explain in his own words if you have time, but I’ve summarized it here as well.  Basically, the talk describes how commercial hunting for lions was legal in Botswana until 2000, when the government made it illegal.  However, they could not make it illegal for local farmers to kill the lions, as the lions would kill beef cattle and were therefore considered nuisance animals.  When commercial hunting was legal, the farmers tolerated the presence of the lions because they knew they would get paid well by foreign commercial hunters who wanted to hunt for the lions on their land.  But after commercial hunting became illegal, there was no incentive for the farmers to tolerate the lions anymore, and their population plummeted.  I don’t particularly want the big game animals of Africa to be hunted, but right now it looks like that’s the population’s best chance for survival.

Conservation applies to populations, not individuals.  True, the population is composed of individuals, so obviously the two are related.  But the killing of one individual does not exclude conservation of the population.  Indeed, population management always involves the death of some individuals due to limitations on resources.  Good hunters understand this.  I would venture to guess that good hunters understand this better than their non-hunting counterparts, because it is central to the continuation of the sport they enjoy.  Good hunters are also conservationists, and people would do well to analyze the facts before responding with emotion.

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