Can Hunting Help Save Endangered Species?

An African lion resting under a tree in the grass.
African lion. US Fish & Wildlife Service

Since there are no clear-cut solutions when it comes to saving endangered species, the concept of conservation is subject to interpretation. Of course, unconventional approaches are often met with criticism, and controversy ensues.

Case in point: the use of hunting as a tool for protecting endangered species from extinction.

Sounds counterintuitive, right?

Let's explore both sides of the argument so that you can decide which side of this divisive management scheme makes sense to you.

Shoot to Save?

The idea is simple: put a price on a rare species' head, and let hunters foot the bill for managing and sustaining the population. In theory, the practice of trophy hunting provides incentives for governments to protect animals from unrestrained poaching and preserve habitat to support the quarry.

As with any commodity, rarity seems to increase value. The same can be said for endangered species. On a broad scale, most people appreciate the beauty and fascination of a rare creature, and they feel concern about its impending disappearance from the earth. In the particular case of trophy hunters, the acquisition of a rare animal's head (or some such token) is worth a great deal of money. It's a basic principle of business. A diminishing supply augments demand, and suddenly a dwindling species is deemed financially desirable. Empathy for individual animals is not part of the equation, but the risk of extinction may drop with every dollar tagged to a species' hide.

Arguments in Favor of Hunting

According to Dr. Rolf D. Baldus, President of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation Tropical Game Commission, "Total protection of wildlife and hunting bans often achieve the opposite, as they remove the economic value of wildlife, and something without value is defenselessly doomed to decline and in final consequence to extinction."

Dr. Baldus' claim is supported by Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Namibia's Minister of Environment and Tourism who has been instrumental in conserving Namibia's wildlife through hunting tourism. Ms. Nandi-Ndaitwah boasts that Namibian wildlife has more than tripled in recent years, as hunting tourism encourages landowners to promote game on their farms and ranches, where many species were once considered a nuisance. Rural communities have also created conservancies through which proactive wildlife management helps support their livelihoods. In turn, game species are returning to areas where they had long been extirpated.

"The CIC is very concerned about the present effort of a coalition of anti-hunting and animal rights groups to list the African lion under the U.S. Endangered Species Act," reports Sports Afield. "All large cats, which have been formally protected for decades are indeed more and more endangered: the tiger, the snow leopard, and the jaguar. In Kenya, the lion has not been legally hunted for over 30 years and during that period, the lion population size has crashed to roughly about 10 percent of the neighboring Tanzanian lion population, which has been hunted all along the same period. Bans clearly not only do not work but accelerate the extinction of species."

"It's a complicated argument," admits Giraffe Conservation Foundation founder Dr. Julian Fennessey. "There are lots of factors. The loss of habitat and breaking up of populations by man-made constructions are the main factors threatening their numbers. In the countries where you can hunt legally, the populations are increasing but across Africa, the overall numbers are dropping alarmingly."

Arguments Against Hunting

Scientists who are studying the sustainability of hunting endangered species have proven that trophy hunters attribute a higher value to rare species. Upgrading the IUCN status of various African wildlife species has been linked to an increase in trophy prices, and it has been argued that this demand for rarity could lead to increased exploitation of animals already poised for extinction.

In response to a recent scholarly article in Nature suggesting "a market approach to saving the whales," Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare argued that "breathing new life and economic value into this [whaling] is a breathtakingly dumb idea."

Phil Kline of Greenpeace echoed Ramage's concern. "It would be safe to assume illegal whaling would flourish if a legal whaling trade was set up."

According to Zoe, a website created by Michael Mountain of Best Friends Animal Society, hunting as a conservation strategy "is completely at odds with current thinking about who other animals are and how we should treat them. The great danger of a scheme like this is that it actively legitimizes something that is fundamentally wrong rather than stopping it."

Leaning on economic evidence rather than pure sentiment, the League Against Cruel Sports cites a 2004 study by the University of Port Elizabeth which estimated that eco-tourism on private game reserves generated more than 15 times the income of livestock or game-rearing or overseas hunting.