Reflections on Hunting and Conservation

Shane Mahoney is widely regarded as one of North America's most influential leaders in wildlife conservation. The research biologist, author, TV host, and filmmaker reflects on how hunting actually helps preserve wild species.

From the pages of Scout magazine.

Since our beginnings as a species, we have relied directly upon wild creatures for our survival. It was inescapable that, like all natural phenomena, human beings would engage directly in the life and death struggles that mark the essential and irreducible truth of existence to sustain our lives and communities. Perhaps the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell put it best when he was asked what he considered the most basic element of our existence to be. His reply? Flesh eats flesh! There can be no escaping this fundamental natural law. We may contrive and dream, obfuscate and deny, but in the end our entire lives will be a testament to this unalterable truth. Life is a death-dependent process.

So where in this complex modern world does hunting fit? Does the legal pursuit and killing of wild creatures by individual hunters for personal use have a role to play? Is it fair to regard hunting as a cruel anachronism, a frivolous activity that has no merit outside of personal gratification for the hunter? These are profound questions with wider implications for society than most of us realize. After all, we kill and consume vast numbers of domestic and wild creatures every year to feed human beings. This hunting issue, no matter how simplified some would like to make it, won't be anything less than a complex amalgam of social, cultural, economic, and political realities. It is not simple, neither in its origins nor its modern expression.

Interestingly, some of the most intense debates on hunting tend to center upon predators: the lion, leopard, wolf and bear for example. The hunting of these large and potentially dangerous animals is constantly being discussed in the media and the debate is at a boiling temperature almost all the time. This is intriguing given that such animals do not fit the innocent and vulnerable persona as portrayed for deer in Bambi for example. Predators are certainly beautiful and awe inspiring, but so are all wild creatures. Furthermore, predators frequently wound and kill human beings and are often significant as marauders of livestock, thereby visiting real hardship upon rural people, especially in various parts of the world. Thus one is left to ponder, are the lives and livelihoods of human beings of no concern to those who oppose hunting? Does concern for human dignity and sustenance fall below that of the lion and wolf?

This question, combined with hunting's unique record of conservation achievement and leadership, makes it both curious and difficult to understand the negative stereotyping directed at today's hunters. On the North American continent, hunting provides massive amounts of high quality, truly organic meat to tens of millions of people every year. It is also an activity that has been proven historically to have worked successfully for the conservation of wildlife and to have benefited a wide array of wild habitats and species, including many which are not hunted at all. Indeed, the role of hunting in conservation worldwide is recognized by some of our most prominent international conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (World Conservation Union) and in North America by highly regarded institutions like Ducks Unlimited. Hunting has also spawned a dizzying array of non-governmental organizations around the world, every one of which works to finance conservation in important ways.

Much of the bias against hunting stems from a lack of knowledge. It is easy to misrepresent and criticize what is not understood. Trophy hunting is probably the best example of this within the hunting world. More people when asked support hunting for meat compared to trophy hunting, where individuals travel abroad to engage in the hunting experience but do not necessarily pursue the hunt to procure the meat. They may return with some memento of the hunt such as the horns, antlers, or tusks. Trophy hunters are on the lowest rung of the ladder as far as anti-hunters are concerned, stereotyped as wealthy egotists killing wildlife frivolously and without contributing to either wildlife conservation or society.

What is not understood is that the fees paid by trophy hunters are what often enable large hunting tracts or concessions to be managed and safe-guarded by costly anti-poaching patrols. Without this hunting value placed on wild creatures, the lands they occupy would be broken up or turned to domestic livestock production. Wildlife will lose in either scenario. Obviously, the North American hunter who travels to Africa, for example, does not plan on shipping the meat from his kudu or wildebeest or elephant home. In the majority of cases, however, the meat from animals taken is provided free of charge directly to local villagers and local people are employed in support of the hunting activity. Thus, in every real sense, the trophy hunter is providing wildlife and community supportive activities, including land and wildlife protection, local employment, and food.

Hunting is not for everyone nor will it be possible to defend every aspect of it. Nevertheless, the facts are clear with respect to its overall impact on conservation. Deemed by some to be cruel, unnecessary and an institution long past its time, the fact remains that hunting is a vital force in the lives of millions of people and in the conservation programs of many countries. A concern for the lives and deaths of all animals is an incredibly important issue for modern society to debate and reconcile. It is inevitable that legal, fair-chase hunting should be a part of this debate in pursuit of a practical and reasoned position. Any fair evaluation, however, must be prepared to consider the complexities facing our world, the demands for food of our global human population, the search for sustainable resource use practices, and the means by which conservation funding and leadership can be secured. Animal death will inevitably surface in the context of these issues but oddly enough, hunting, man's oldest and most successful try at life, will surface as one positive means of achieving them all.

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