Opinion

Trophy hunters are on their last legs

“One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall then have discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them.”

     —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let’s set the record straight once and for all. Sometime in January 2040 or 2050, the last wild lions and tigers and polar bears could vanish. And with them much of the world. And children the world over will look up at their parents and say, “Mommy, Daddy, what happened to the lion kings?” And parents will have to think hard for the answer. But secretly they will know that it was mankind’s treachery that did them in. Something in the human character will have to give if these great beings are going to survive. When the Inuit hunted polar bear, it was for sheer survival. Tell that to the average Texas trophy hunter or Chinese businessman. 

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson


Cherry Keaton wrote in his book “In the Land of the Lion,” “civilization and the lion do not agree.” There are certain individuals one has to thank for the taste modern man has accrued for displaying and chasing down innocent animals for decoration, trophies and fashion. British taxidermist Rowland Ward’s company cultivated the taste in Victorian England for animal body parts — antlers, tusks, feathers, feet and skins. He opened his first taxidermy store in 1857 and wildlife has shuddered ever since. The Queen even gave him a Royal warrant in 1870. It would have been startling then to see what Africans thought of stuffing their unique fauna for the amusement of European man.

But then a Frenchmen went one step further and brought back the body of an African warrior for display. Or the five Bushmen heads found in boxes in the British Museum in 1996. `The flesh of each head has been preserved, the skin of the neck cut and wrapped under the jaw, their hair disguises the stitches at the back of the scalp which was cut apart to remove and clean the skull. Glass eyes were inserted between the lids in the sockets, though now, most of the eyes have been lost and those remaining have the appearance of owls’ eyes, too small to fill the cavities,” says artist Pippa Skotnes who found the skulls while doing research on the Khoisan people. The body parts were preserved using taxidermy techniques. It was the gallantry of hunting down innocent animals or people in some cases which constitutes some of the defining characteristics of Western Civilization. The problem is the natural world can’t take it anymore.

Ward’s big game narratives of hunting in the bush became a heroin of sorts for those who became addicted to the fetishization of trophies. His “Records of Big Game,” started in 1892, now in its 29th edition, led the trophy mania with measurements of animals from all over the world, which at the height of the British Empire spanned a quarter of the planet. No wonder big game hunting took off on such a terrifying scale. Today bagging the biggest and best specimens is quite literally impairing the genetic pool of the very species meant to be safe guarded but who are also having to deal with the crippling, existential threat of climate upheaval. A catastrophe so large, it will one day of necessity upend the very idea of trophy hunting. In the context of the new world that climate deniers and trophy hunters have wrought — they are often one and the same — animal life on Earth is imperiled everywhere. 

The irony is that the great narratives of children’s stories from Lewis Carrol to Beatrix Potter also started up around this time. At some point in the not too distant future, someone braver than David Attenborough and Jane Goodall will have to explain to children how these great beings, those fellow creatures that gave childhood awe and wonder and the very curiosity to explore and be entranced by the organic world, could have been dealt such a hand, as those generations of adults who poisoned their planet irrevocably and who believed that putting a bullet through a lion or jaguar or polar bear or elephant or coyote or mountain lion or grizzly or wolf’s brain was done in the name of conservation. George Orwell would have understood the double speak. A confounded childhood will come to understand that the business elite who went on hunting escapades, the same merchants of the industrial complex did not take life seriously. They were above it. Their leisure time had to be spent in executing the irreplaceable while our elite scientists were looking for microbes on other planets. Are we insane or what? To defend the anti trophy faction, those who side with life, is to defend the Earth. Because nearly every time I have written a piece pleading for sanity for the elimination of trophies or a conservation group tries to argue against the assassination of big game in conservation terms, there are those who respond that killing has its place, that Africans benefit. Their continent is being plundered and drying up and logged mercilessly. 

They willfully ignore what one Samburu elder (among many others) who were raised with wildlife all around him once told me. He did not go around taking pictures. He was not an apologist for bloodletting. He was surrounded by some of the greatest contingent of animal life still roaming Africa. Wildlife that is trying to survive unbelievable droughts. And he honored them. I had the occasion to stay on several occasions in Kenya with an American guide who spoke fluent Maa, the language of the Samburu and Maasai. His best friend was Samburu and knew his people’s customs, stories and myths intimately. His tribe did not occupy their time just dabbling in wildlife or merely taking photos, they lived consumed by the land, its wildlife and its challenges on a daily basis. They breathed the landscape of the megafauna. They were not dabblers and would certainly never contemplate killing for fun. They would consider that barbaric. Ask the San Bushmen who have been on the ground for over 60,000 years and see what they say.

The “sport” or murdering of an animal for fun is a very recent activity brought to us by the same mindset that brought humanity WW1 and WW2. The Anglo Saxons were very good at tormenting innocent foxes and then finding their pastures too small, found favor in the fields of Africa with much bigger game, game which was being mowed down by the colonial powers and their incessant claptrap of superiority, both to animals and the people living alongside them. The Samburu elder I got to know understood the elephant only too well. One of their clans, the elephant clan, was sacred. They followed elephant migration patterns and followed their great totem to know when the rains would arrive. There was an inextricable bond with wildlife, we in the technological society could only dream of. We can’t and that is one reason we are so seduced by Artificial Intelligence, which will one day be our downfall. We will mourn the day we had to watch out for grizzlies in the boreal forest or lions in the Serengeti. Mark my words. I have walked among grizzlies and the senseless, berserker antics of the ransackers of the Capitol building on January 6th was many times more terrifying.

We witnessed the full-scale massacre of the elephants in the 1980s to the tune of 600,000 elephants and again just recently last decade of over 120,000 elephants. The majority of the greatest land mammals on Earth have been eliminated in our lifetime. Some 70 percent at the latest count. One Spanish trophy hunter complicit in reducing the overall number of elephants, took out over 1,000. For fun. The range where elephants were killed by poachers for the Chinese market last decade was synonymous with the territory where elephants had been killed for “sport,” just plain fun, for the thrill of it all. For the demented joy of hearing a bullet thwack flesh as Eduardo Goncalves has so convincingly described. The greatest such reserve is the Selous whose elephant population was reduced by over 60 percent in the last 115 years. Poachers knew where to go. And not coincidentally the vast majority of the Selous, 90 percent, was designated for trophy hunting. One kind of activity magnetized the other. The unparalleled poaching extravaganza and the greatest killing field in all of Africa, was exactly where trophy hunting was permitted. 

And 60,000 elephants in Tanzania have been lost forever in the feeding fever which is trophy hunting and its illegal consort poaching. To add to the spectacle of it all, Tanzania is planning a hydroelectric dam that will supply electricity to the country right where the vast majority of Tanzania’s elephants live. Trophy hunting is legal, so far, poaching is illegal, but the outcome is the same, the wholesale massacre of innocent beings, some of whom are on their last legs. There isn’t enough wildlife to make local Africans the beneficiaries of trophy hunting. As research fellow Muchazondida Mkono states, “Trophy hunters often claim that they kill animals because they love animals. They rationalize their choice, for instance, by arguing that trophy hunting allows broader animal populations to be conserved. The proponents of trophy hunting claim that there are no viable alternatives for Africa. If we stop trophy hunting, they say, wildlife will lose its economic value for local communities. Wildlife habitat will be lost to other land uses. The truth is that well managed, non-consumptive wildlife tourism is sufficient for funding and managing conservation. Botswana, for example, which in 2014 banned all commercial hunting in favor of photography, continues to thrive.” 

Africans never killed for fun. They could never afford to, nor did they endanger any game in historical time. That was the white man’s game. Killing was made into a business. They weren’t “harvested.” Lions, rhinos and elephants and buffalo are not fruit. In the past it was hard enough to survive let alone kill for fun. The Samburu elder and rangers who voiced their concern about foreigners treating their wildlife as if they were just targets, remarked that they spend precious time away from their families trying to save these ineffable creatures, putting their lives on the line, only to see the wildlife executed for “fun” or profit. Profanity indeed. 

And the euphemism of “harvesting” or “taking” to avoid the term killing underscores the psychological distance hunters need in order to vindicate their wanton behavior. Behavior every African we have ever talked to finds abhorrent. The Samburu elder we got to know said, “If we lose the wildlife, there will be nothing to return to. We will lose our minds. The only thing left will be to kill ourselves.” He should know. His people have spent generations with beings he respected until the mischievous game of Western Civilization did a number on Africa, only to be further pushed over the cliff of extinction by the Orient — China, Japan, Vietnam and other beneficiaries of the killing game.

Henry David Thoreau knew a few things about the unbelievable devastation Europeans and Americans inflicted on the whales of the world. Over the last 500 years entire populations were eliminated. To the tune of hundreds of thousands, which has affected the fertility of the oceans, for which we will suffer. He knew what the East Coast whalers were doing and he didn’t pretend profits from whale oil and scrimshaw would help the local American Indians. He would also have been aghast at the carving up of Africa for entertainment. “Why if a greater race of beings were to make flutes and buttons out of our bones?”

The killers of the innocent, just as the Kunming Biodiversity Summit is about to convene in China, should reset their sights to where the world will be in 50 years. A world without polar bears, as Canada allows hundreds to be shot every year, polar bears which end up stuffed on Beijing mantelpieces. A world without lions. Very probably a world without tigers and countless species most children will never even see or even dreamed existed. Childhood is in the process of being lost along with the wonder that gives it life, the animals who welcome children to the world, a world once teeming with life. Children will be given robots to play with and they will not dream of animals anymore. With climate change ravaging entire ecosystems, the hoped for trophy ban on imports in the U.K. will find support internationally before humanity loses all contact. As Indigenous people everywhere know, we are all living on borrowed time, especially if someone with a pained, arrogant, misplaced manhood is desperate to blow your brains out. 

The message of “Don’t Look Up” could be equally stated by members of the last great megafauna of the world, trying beyond all hope of just surviving another day, another year, another decade, as “Don’t Look Now But I think Someone has a Gun Pointed at Your Head.” At some point this century many of the most ineffable beings ever to have walked the Earth will disappear forever, never to be replaced. All of them, ourselves included, are having to deal with the crime of climate change induced by the follies of industrial humanity run amuck. A bullet well placed in the heart or brain or any of these scores of endangered beings, will be considered a crime. By that time, civilization will be on its last legs. 

Bill Clark, has worked with anti-poaching units, Interpol and East African rangers for 40 years, rangers who have dedicated their lives to stopping the ruthless killing of innocent animals. Those who kill for “fun” they find especially abhorrent. The following words are Bill’s. 

Most human mischief finds an apologist, and the trophy hunting fraternity have of late had many such apologists. There are those who will defend trophy hunting mostly on arguments motivated by crass greed. There are those who will say that it is good to kill wild animals for fun because this provides income to poor people. Never mind that there presently are many very poor people living in communities that allow trophy hunting; never mind that repeated studies verify that impoverished people receive only a very small fragment of funds generated by this dreadful industry, and many receive nothing at all. The big profits go to the owners of the hunting lodges, the professional hunters, and the bureaucrats that collect license fees. Poor people sometimes get a few pennies. Trophy hunting certainly is not a charity intent upon relieving human suffering.

A second theme trophy hunters advances is that trophy hunting is actually good for the species that are hunted. But this too is misleading. Certainly the individual animals that are shot don’t benefit. Nor do their species. Some go to great lengths justifying “canned” hunting, including those 12,000 semi-captive lions, whose numbers are used to inflate the populations of lions that live under truly natural conditions. But those 12,000 semi-captive lions, and so many other wild animals kept for canned hunting are “ecologically dead.” They have no function in a wild habitat; they do not contribute to the ecological dynamics of Nature. Even worse, most breeders acknowledge that they need “fresh blood” from time to time, animals taken from the wild so they can reinvigorate the genetics of the captive population and prevent the risks of in-breeding.

There are those who will find an argument for shooting 120 zebra stallions out of a population of 160 because he perceives these animals to be essentially useless. Obviously, there are those trophy hunters who have yet to read and understand Darwin. Yes, Nature does produce a surplus, and it is the constant struggle between conspecifics that demonstrates which particular animals are most “fit” at any particular time. Cropping wildlife populations – for trophy hunting or other frivolous reasons – undermines fundamental mechanisms of natural selection. 

There are those who will wag their fingers at Kenya for having suffered serious losses of some wildlife populations, and then insinuate the reason for this is that Kenya does not have trophy hunting (which, coincidentally, was banned in 1977). This is a disingenuous argument which tries to mislead the reader into concluding trophy hunting would solve Kenya’s wildlife conservation problems. This is not true. The decline in some populations of wildlife in some parts of Kenya is caused by anthropogenic factors such as the expansion of human communities and illegal hunting for bushmeat. Kenya Wildlife Service is conducting a valiant effort to address these difficulties, and, in most areas, it has been succeeding. The lack of trophy hunting in Kenya has nothing to do with this problem, and the restoration of this abominable activity would merely exacerbate the problem.

There are those trophy hunters who claim that “farmers can raise animals on demand” and would apply this concept to nearly all wildlife species, from giraffes to rhinoceroses. But this would become a human-manipulated type of artificial selection that would have long-term consequences for the species involved. Wild animals should be left to live freely in their native habitats, with minimal human interference. Evolution has not stopped. It is a continuing process that needs to be protected from the manipulations of certain humans who seek to profit from a sinister exploitation of Nature.

And then there’s the cruelty of it all. Who really knows how many hours Cecil lingered in agony after being wounded by an inept trophy hunter? How frequently does this scenario really occur? How many lion cubs are killed because their father was shot by a trophy hunter? So many other questions on the ethical shortcomings of this loathsome activity that deserves prompt and permanent prohibition. 

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.

WT Trailer cut 4 from Lightningwood on Vimeo.