by Whit Gibbons

May 20, 2012

The following questions were sent to me by a U.S. journalist on assignment in Capetown, South Africa. Some of the questions are relevant only to that region but most have a more universal applicability.

Q. What is your opinion about big game hunting in places like South Africa? It is legal to hunt leopards and elephants there, which are on the endangered species list.

A. Shooting an elephant or a leopard has never appealed to me, but big game hunting is a personal choice akin to using a cell phone in a restaurant, being a vegetarian, or smoking cigarettes. Some people decry anyone who takes a position different from their own; others consider personal behavior, well, personal and no one else's business. Big game hunters presumably have their own justifications for killing such animals, as do hunters off lesser game. Meanwhile, any country has a responsibility to monitor the hunting and killing of all game species and determine that hunting programs are sustainable in the long term.

Q. Can big game hunting be considered good for the environment?

A. Hunting is good for the environment only when conducted in a sustainable fashion so that population sizes of game animals are stable over time. This requires keeping a diversity of natural habitats unpolluted and undisturbed, which is in itself good for the environment and for hunters and nonhunters alike. Hunting programs that lead to population declines from which a game species cannot recover are bad not only for the species but also for the environment since most game species are integral parts of the ecosystem.

In many countries, sustainable hunting programs persist because hunters make a positive environmental impact, contributing to habitat improvement and protection through taxation and other fees. In the United States, licenses, guns, ammunition, and access to hunting areas generate revenue for federal and state governments. Proceeds from hunting expenditures are used to enhance wildlife habitats and to manage and maintain parks and wildlife refuges. Some funds are directed toward conducting surveys and research to determine the population status of game species and sometimes even nongame species. So, hunters can definitely benefit natural environments. In South Africa, safari hunts provide revenue for a variety of enterprises, including hunting guides, outfitters, lodges, taxidermists, and travel agents. Such expenditures boost local economies and can lead to public support of programs that maintain healthy habitats.

Q. What kind of conservation efforts are common in the international hunting community?

A. The most obvious wildlife management effort that affects the hunting community in any country is tracking population status of game animals to determine acceptable hunting quotas for each species each year. In addition, habitats in a given area are usually managed in a way that will help ensure positive impacts on the majority of native species, game as well as nongame. Another wildlife management component that applies to many big game species is that habitat conservation can be greatly enhanced by organizations that focus on selected species and collect funds to manage habitats in order to protect hunting sites, which can involve vast natural areas.

Q. Do you find validity in antihunting arguments about leaving nature alone?

A. "Leaving nature alone" is a concept that would be dead on arrival in most parts of today's world. We may not like it, but virtually every habitat on the planet has been affected by human activity. A hands-off-nature approach may be feasible for preserving a reasonably intact ecosystem, but most antihunting arguments focus on individual animal rights and not the broader issues of population stability, species persistence, or habitat quality. Some animal rights advocates even support letting a species go extinct rather than having populations maintained primarily for hunting. The paradoxical reality in America is that funding for maintenance of ecosystem integrity often comes from hunters. Similar positive environmental returns can result from big game hunting when the host country strives to maintain populations at sustainable levels and to keep native habitats intact.

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