Can trophy hunting actually help conservation?

Can trophy hunting ever be a useful tool in the conservationist’s toolbox? On the surface, the answer would appear obvious. It seems as if the killing of an animal – especially an endangered one – for sport is directly contradictory to the goal of ensuring the survival of a species. The question has been asked again following the auction last Saturday night of the right to hunt an endangered black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in Namibia. And the answer, as usual, is more complicated.

The permit was sold for $350,000, well above the previous high bid for a permit in that country, $223,000. While the Dallas Safari Club had the dubious distinction of being the first organization to hold such an auction outside of Namibia itself, it’s fairly unremarkable and actually quite common for an African nation to sell permits for trophy hunting, even for endangered species. Indeed, both Namibia and South Africa are legally permitted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to sell five permits for the hunting of adult male black rhinos each year.

And it’s not just rhinos. For example, a 2000 report from TRAFFIC, an organization that works with the WWF, IUCN, and CITES to track the international trade of wildlife, describes how Namibia alone was the site of almost 16,000 trophy hunts that year. Those 16,000 animals represent a wide variety of species – birds, reptiles, mammals, and even primates – both endangered and not. They include four of the so-called “big five” popular African game: lion, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. (Only the elephant was missing.) The hunters brought eleven million US dollars with them to spend in the Namibian economy. And that doesn’t include revenue from non-trophy recreational hunting activities, which are limited to four species classified as of “least concern” by the IUCN: Greater Kudu, Gemsbok, Springbok and Warthog.

The issues here are complex and highly politicized. There are several questions that science can’t help address, primary of which is whether or not the money raised from the sale of hunting permits is used for conservation, something often promised by hunting tour operators. But empirical research can help to elucidate several other questions, such as whether hunting can ever help drive conservation efforts.

In 2006, researcher Peter A. Lindsey of Kenya’s Mpala Research Centre and colleagues interviewed 150 people who either had already hunted in Africa, or who planned to do so within the following three years. Their findings were published in the journal Animal Conservation. A majority of hunters – eighty-six percent! – told the researchers they preferred hunting in an area where they knew that a portion of the proceeds went back into local communities. Nearly half of the hunters they interviewed also indicated that they’d be willing to pay an equivalent price for a poorer trophy if it was a problem animal that would have had to be killed anyway.

Lindsey’s team also discovered that hunters were more sensitive to conservation concerns than was perhaps expected. For example, they were less willing to hunt in areas where wild dogs or cheetahs are illegally shot, in countries that intentionally surpass their quotas, or with operators who practice “put-and-take hunting,” which is where trophy animals are released onto a fenced-in property just before a hunt. Together this suggests that hunters were willing to place economic pressure on countries and tour companies to operate in as ethical a manner as possible. Approximately nine out of every ten hunters said they’d be willing to hunt in places that were poor for wildlife viewing or which lacked attractive scenery. That is, they said that they were willing to hunt in areas that would not have otherwise been able to reap an economic benefit from ecotourism.

It’s encouraging that trophy hunters seem willing to take conservation-related issues into consideration when choosing a tour operator, but it is possible that they were simply providing the researchers with the answers that would cast them in the best light. That’s a typical concern for assessments that rely on self-report. Better evidence would come from proof that hunting can be consistent with actual, measurable conservation-related benefits for a species.

Is there such evidence? According to a 2005 paper by Nigel Leader-Williams and colleagues in the Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy the answer is yes. Leader-Williams describes how the legalization of white rhinoceros hunting in South Africa motivated private landowners to reintroduce the species onto their lands. As a result, the country saw an increase in white rhinos from fewer than one hundred individuals to more than 11,000, even while a limited number were killed as trophies.

In a 2011 letter to Science magazine, Leader-Williams also pointed out that the implementation of controlled, legalized hunting was also beneficial for Zimbabwe’s elephants. “Implementing trophy hunting has doubled the area of the country under wildlife management relative to the 13% in state protected areas,” thanks to the inclusion of private lands, he says. “As a result, the area of suitable land available to elephants and other wildlife has increased, reversing the problem of habitat loss and helping to maintain a sustained population increase in Zimbabwe’s already large elephant population.” It is important to note, however, that the removal of mature elephant males can have other, detrimental consequences on the psychological development of younger males. And rhinos and elephants are very different animals, with different needs and behaviors.

Still, the elephants of Zimbabwe and the white rhinos of South Africa seem to suggest that it is possible for conservation and trophy hunting to coexist, at least in principle. It is indeed a tricky, but not impossible, balance to strike.

It is noteworthy that the Leader-Williams’ 2005 paper recommended that legal trophy hunting for black rhinos be focused mainly on older, non-breeding males, or on younger males who have already contributed sufficient genetic material to their breeding groups. They further suggested that revenues from the sale of permits be reinvested into conservation efforts, and that revenues could be maximized by selling permits through international auctions. Namibia’s own hunting policy, it turns out, is remarkably consistent with scientific recommendations.

Even so, some have expressed concern regarding what the larger message of sanctioned trophy hunts might be. Could the possible negative consequences from a PR perspective outweigh the possible benefits from hunting? Can the message that an auction for the hunting of an endangered species like the black rhino brings possibly be reconciled with the competing message that the species requires saving? This question is probably not one that science can adequately address.

However, it might just be worth having a quick look at some numbers. 745 rhinos were killed due to illegal poaching in 2012 in Africa, which amounts to approximately two rhinos each day, mostly for their horns. In South Africa alone, 461 rhinos were killed in just the first half of 2013. Rhino horns are valued for their medicinal uses and for their supposed cancer-curing powers. Of course, rhino horns have no pharmacological value at all, making their harvest even more tragic. The five non-breeding rhinos that Namibia allows to be hunted each year seem paltry in comparison, especially since they are older males who can no longer contribute to population growth.

I don’t understand the desire to kill a magnificent animal for sport, even if the individual is an older non-breeding male. The sale of the right to kill an animal for a trophy surely reflects the value that animal lives hold in at least some corners of our society: that killing an animal for fun isn’t wrong, as long as you can afford it. It is right to worry about the sort of message that sends.

But if an endangered species as charismatic as the black rhinoceros is under such extreme threat from poaching, then perhaps the message that the species needs saving has a larger problem to address than the relatively limited loss of animals to wealthy hunters. The real tragedy here is that the one rhino that will be killed as a result of Saturday’s auction has received a disproportionate amount of media attention compared to the hundreds of rhinos lost to poaching each year, which remain largely invisible. And while there remains at least a possibility that sanctioned trophy hunts can benefit the black rhino as they have for the white rhino, there is only one possible consequence of continued poaching. It’s one that conservationists and hunters alike will lament. – Jason G. Goldman | 15 January 2014

Sources: Leader-Williams N., Milledge S., Adcock K., Brooks M., Conway A., Knight M., Mainka S., Martin E.B. & Teferi T. (2005). Trophy Hunting of Black Rhino: Proposals to Ensure Its Future Sustainability, Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 8 (1) 1-11. DOI:

Lindsey P.A., Alexander R., Frank L.G., Mathieson A. & Romanach S.S. (2006). Potential of trophy hunting to create incentives for wildlife conservation in Africa where alternative wildlife-based land uses may not be viable, Animal Conservation, 9 (3) 283-291. DOI:

Leader-Williams N. Elephant Hunting and Conservation, Science, 293 (5538) 2203b-2204. DOI:

Photo: Male black rhino and calf, Karl Stromayer/USFWS. Public domain.




  • Garry Rogers January 16, 2014 at 11:28 am

    Thank you for the discussion. I pinned, tweeted and scooped it (see the scoop at


  • Carter & Olivia Ries January 16, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    Using old animal conservation methods for a critically endangered species is just wrong. We need to look at these instances differently if we want to try and keep the species for future generations to enjoy.

    The $350,000.00 spent for the right to kill the rhino could be better spent to actually save the species without having to pull the trigger. It is sad that the auction went through and that we did not get more people to stand up and realize that rhinos will literally become extinct in our lifetime unless we all try to help. Pulling the trigger on any rhino at this stage is just foolish.

    Before anyone lashes out against our comments, please understand that the issue here has nothing to do with any anti-hunting mentality, we are merely concerned about finding a way to save the species for at least One More Generation… and beyond.

    Our two young founders actually have had contact with the person who won the bid and we are trying to set up a face to face so we can explain our thoughts and try to understand why anyone would want to contributor to the decline of such a rare animal.


    • Sean Saville July 15, 2014 at 3:59 pm

      Hi Carter & Olivia,

      I hope you do not think I am lashing out and I will try not let any emotion come into this reply.

      Just logically thinking about what you have said and wondering where the $350,000.00 would be coming from, that is to be better spent? The way I see it is that, as some people have said in the comments, hunters don’t really care about the conservation of the animals they are hunting but they are the only ones willing to spend $350,000.00 for the right to kill one. So ‘logically’ wouldn’t it be better to have the $350,000.00 to protect a herd of Rhino for the sake of one animal, apposed to no money contributed, therefore no monetary reason for private game farms to exist, causing less conservation efforts, and the loss of the whole herd!


    • Patrik December 14, 2014 at 8:30 am

      The article talks about it being an older non-breeding male. It is essential to remove these individuals, especially when it comes to endangered species. It’s something that you need to do for a new male to be able to establish dominance within a group. If you don’t, there is simply no breeding happening, or dramatically reduced breeding rates, and you quickly doom a species to extinction.

      So your alternatives are either sedating it and moving it somewhere like a zoo. Which is far more likely of being unsuccessful with the animal being as old as it is, and which is probably just going to have the result of being a costlier and less clean way of killing the animal. Or you can kill the animal outright. Which you can easily monetize like what was done in this instance, and you can put that money back into other aspects of conservation.

      If it wasn’t a hunting ticket being sold it’s very likely that it would just have been one of the people doing conservation work pulling the trigger.


  • Andrew Wyatt January 21, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    The point made in the final paragraph characterizes the entire issue in a nutshell. It is a travesty that so much attention and drama surround this one rhino and the DSC auction. Over 1000 Black rhinos lost their lives to poachers in 2013. Everything important that happens for an endangered animal happens at the species level. The life of a single “management” bull to potentially save hundreds of rhinos from poachers is a reasonable price to pay. This is about the pragmatics of real conservation in Africa. Great article!


  • Daniela BBarbr July 3, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Great article!


  • Lloyd July 3, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    You are building part of an assessment based upon asking hunters who already know they are involved in a sport that is criticized, what they would choose to do if given certain circumstances that would be better for the animals? You are asking these questions to people who are killing the animals for sport. What do expect them to say? No they don’t care. That’s like asking oil companies if they care about the environment. Some of the hunters are wealthy and it’s common place to justify actions in support of business decisions. It’s like water running off their backs. If they really cared, they would be giving a lot more funding towards conservation and not just paying the guide service and calling it good. They receive high intensity thrills by killing innocent animals and are willing to tell you what you want to hear in order to keep doing it. I cannot believe that a school of higher learning would actually provide a poll to a group of people that are quite aware that they need to protect their character and credibility. Please tell me that you are not a staff member of the University.


    • RJ July 9, 2014 at 9:23 am

      Did you read the article? Did you click on the Mpala link? It seems the poll was given by an organization unrelated to UW. The writer even says that the hunters might be answering dishonestly. Please tell me that you are not a person who doesn’t read things before rushing to judgment in the comment section.


  • Bianca July 16, 2014 at 11:50 am

    People find all sorts of excuses as to why its ok to take a life…”the meat is donated to the villagers…the money is given back to the community…they were old…conservation efforts…if it weren’t for hunters there’d be no animals.” How about donating directly to villagers, communities, actual conservation efforts? These animals are born to die by the hands of ignorance. They aren’t wild animals. They are forced to pro-create so the babies can be born and raised for humans to kill. Its disgusting and how in the world is that conservation of any kind?! Anyone who believes they’re doing a good thing has the veil of ignorance draped over their eyes. How can people not see that life is precious for all beings? That just because we have guns, we simply do not have the right to use them to take the life of an innocent being. Wake up, the world doesn’t have room for closed minds. Its the only planet we get, these are beings we should be proud to have on our planet, that we should keep safe. Excuses just aren’t good enough anymore. Also, if you make excuses for mankind to kill these animals, you’re only giving others the opportunity to do the same. Hence, the “lottery” for the rhino. Its just wrong. How about that? Its not even a consideration for those who are blind from conditioning. Live from your soul for a day and you’ll realize the travesties that happen which we are often part of. Its about changing and educating. Not giving people with too much money an opportunity to sell their souls to the nasty side of ego. Humanity needs to evolve.


    • Anne August 1, 2014 at 4:14 am

      Well said,

      I have seen many hunters make the comment “animals are here for our use” and I wonder what on earth you could do to make someone with that attitude see that they do not in fact have the moral right to slaughter animals no matter how much they have paid or which side of the law they are on.

      Regarding the honesty of replies, just try looking at the general mentality of those who post on facebook pages of hunters like Jim Shockey, Kendall Jones, Melissa Bachman, Eva Shockey etc etc if you want honesty. They simply do not care.


    • Jake December 2, 2014 at 12:49 pm

      You call people ignorant and heartless but have never looked at anything from their perspective. Try telling someone who lost a loved one to a bear or big cat that those animals are entitled to their own living just like we are. Try telling a farmer who has lost cows to wolves that they are majestic animals and shouldn’t be harmed. When animals interfere with human life, they need to be managed. That doesn’t mean all of them should be slaughtered, but would you give up your living so that a small group of animals could have what they want?


      • Carol Crunkhorn January 2, 2015 at 8:17 pm

        Animals follow the laws of nature and the earth is in balance, until the arrival of human animals. We do not behave like any other species, we are unique in our ability to upset the balance of nature and our “management” of it has caused irreversible damage. We are the only species that behaves as a virus behaves when it tries to destroy its host and so far we seem to be succeeding.

    • Andrew January 29, 2015 at 2:46 pm

      I would imagine you are a vegan and use no animal products of any type in your life to make a comment like that? No leather shoes or anything? Highly unlikely.

      And if you don’t , you are just as much of the problem for the greater demand of crops that ruin the habitat of these animals.

      Not to mention plants are also a life form. They communicate and have to consciousness on some level that we don’t fully understand. So you are killing life when you eat vegetables, and the vegetables are grown on land that used to belong to the animals and so they are being killed through removable of habitat for you to eat vegetables.

      The fact is in Africa the only way these animals will be saved is by making them more valuable and a desirable commodity. The poachers will kill all of these animals if there is not a battle to save them. The demand from the largely Asian culture which values the horn will keep them poached to extinction. This old rhino will die in a few years anyway, or will be killed for nothing or poached and have its horns cut off and the rest of it left to rot. It is a war over there and people in this country have no idea.

      Is a very complex argument and to judge others seems very narrow minded to me. The fact is here’s someone who understands this better than you or I and is willing to pay $350,000 that is going to save the species more than your judgmental words ever will


  • Leon Kachelhoffer January 23, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    In order for wildlife to survive, especially in wilderness areas, it has to benefit those whom actually live on the land and essentially own it. These are the rural African communities, they are on the front line.

    It is this group that determines the future of wildlife in the wilderness and protected areas.
    Simply put if they derive a tangible benefit from the wildlife, it will have a value and therefore will be protected.
    For them its a matter of survival. If wildlife doesn’t pay and in fact cost them. In the form of competition for space and damages to crops and livestock wildlife does not win. It looses every time.

    Rural communities do not see wildlife like we do. They see as food and a competition/menace. Elephants raid their precious crops, predators kill livestock and people. Their lives and livelihoods are at stake. How would we react if something or someone threatens that?? If we were in their shoes we’d react EXACTLY the same.

    These areas in which the rural communities live are the buffer zones between protected areas and developed land. These are not area generally suited to Ecotourism as the area settled and this niche market has come to view wildlife and wilderness not people mixed into the bush.

    In order for the animals to survive in these areas they have to have a value to the inhabitants. Controlled trophy hunting fits this bill and led to many areas been protected and even rehabilitated.

    Controlled Trophy hunting achieves two main objectives. Firstly, It generates revenue for these rural communities which, in most places are the only funds for development of basic/essential services – Education, health and water.
    Secondly – The selective hunting of a few animals and targeted “problem animals” goes along way to appease rural people.

    When and where the rural people realize a tangible benefit from sharing the land with wildlife it survives and thrives. Where wildlife does not it is depleted.
    There are many examples. It is a matter of human nature and survival.
    Who are we, as outsiders, to tell the people living on the land what to do with the land or wildlife?? What we can do is provide alternatives means of survival.


  • Andrew Baldry January 23, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    In Zambia all hunting is done on communal lands that buffer our National Parks and these lands are available for non consumptive activities but seemingly few others want to invest in wildlife and rural communities therefore it is left to us hunters to provide that protective umbrella over many thousands of miles of wilderness.


  • Pierre February 7, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    Very well written. Unbiased and factual despite the author’s personal dislike in hunting.
    That’s being professional.


  • I2Year Old February 17, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    I believe that hunting is bad for sport because the more species we eradicate the deeper we are putting ourselves in a hole. Inside this hole there will be no more hunting of anything unless we fix our game and stop this by no longer hunting for big endangered animals. We have eradicated more then 7% of all animals (meaning the went extinct) by having father daughter hunts. where the father kills a lion by cold blooded murdering the lion and then putting the blame on the daughter by having her take a selfie and then posting it on face book.


  • Cathy dye February 27, 2015 at 8:35 am

    Read the article. I really can read and understand pseudo scientific articles. I am and a always be anti hunting. True if you need it for food I can see that but to hang an animals head over the fireplace seems rather ghoulish and not really artistically pleasing. Is in spite of all the reasons people hunt I say bullshit. People hunt because they enjoy killing plain and simple. So please if you are a hunter just admit you enjoy shooting big guns and watching animals die.


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