The Greatest Threat Facing Wildlife
The 6th great extinction in the world’s history is weighing heavily on the minds of citizens across the globe because scientists are warning us that we are driving species to extinction. Yet rather than care more and take more positive action for wildlife, I’m seeing a growing number of people losing hope in conservation and humanity’s abilities to save species. I see this loss of hope manifesting itself as anger in the public forums where non-hunters are lashing out at hunters, hunters are lashing back, and everyone is lashing out at scientists and politicians. Anger is rooted in fear: the fear of change and the fear of the uncertain future. Fear is making people paranoid, and this is preventing many folks from taking positive action for conservation. Fear is causing people to lose hope. There is no greater threat to wildlife than when people lose hope in conservation’s, science’s, and humanity’s ability to change the current trajectory. Humans may be the cause of global wildlife and other environmental problems, but humans are also the solution.
My concerns for the future of wildlife are amplified when I study trends on the Internet. If you accept people’s activity on the Internet as an indicator of people’s interests, beliefs and concerns, then you might share my concern, too. A Google search of the words “Wildlife Conservation” returned 2.68 million results in 0.76 seconds, but a Google search of the words “Trophy Hunting” returned 5.92 million results in the same time. Troubling? I think it is.
Are there more sites dedicated to trophy hunting than wildlife conservation? Are more people drawn to the topic or idea of trophy hunting than to wildlife conservation? Is the content on trophy hunting more controversial and interesting than wildlife conservation? You can do the research to answer these questions if you like, but for me, they are moot. My concern is whether people are caring more about trophy hunting, either for it or against it, than they are about wildlife conservation.
Google Trends is a nifty new tool to get glimpses of what people are looking at on the Internet. Without getting into how the trends are measured, just think of the graphs below as showing what people are searching for on the Internet. When I compared the search terms “Trophy Hunting” with “Wildlife Conservation” for the period 2004 to 2018, I found that more Canadians were searching for “Wildlife Conservation” than “Trophy Hunting” – up to about 2013. After 2013, people’s interest in trophy hunting started to climb. Two notable spikes in searches for trophy hunting occurred in August 2015 and Nov 2017, which are linked to the Cecil the Lion story (July 2015) and president Trump’s controversial announcement about the importation of elephant trophies into the USA (Nov 2017).
More troubling to me than these Google Trends from Canada is the worldwide trend over this same time period. While Canada and USA were global hotspots for people searching for “Wildlife Conservation,” there appears to be a worldwide decline in people’s interest in wildlife conservation to the point where people’s interest in conservation may be supplanted by their fascination with trophy hunting. What does this say about the future for wildlife?
The “T” Word
“Trophy Hunting” is an emotional trigger word. It gets used far too often to evoke emotions within people simply to create controversy, and that often detracts from the deep conservation story that needs to be told. There is no universal definition of trophy hunting, so in almost every conversation I listen in on or article that I read, people seem to use their own definition.
Which scenario is “Trophy Hunting” to you?
- A rich white American hunter shoots a lion so it can be mounted by a taxidermist and the meat is not utilized by anyone.
- An average income Canadian hunter saves for 10 years to hunt in Africa and shoots an African antelope so it can be mounted by a taxidermist and the meat is utilized by the locals.
- A local hunter in British Columbia chooses the largest antlered Bull Moose in the group of bulls so it can be mounted by a taxidermist and so he can also take home meat for his family.
- A hunter chooses the largest bodied Bull Moose because it gives him the most amount of meat to take home for his family.
- A young first time hunter shoots a small-antlered whitetail deer, gets the deer mounted by a taxidermist and proudly takes home the meat for his family.
- A waterfowl hunter shoots a duck and has it mounted by a taxidermist and eats the meat.
- A waterfowl hunter shoots a duck, has it mounted by a taxidermist and gives the meat to his neighbor who doesn’t hunt.
- An Indigenous hunter kills a rare, colourful tropical bird to use the feathers for traditional cultural/spiritual reasons.
- A hunter who is a single mother with three young children kills a black bear in Alaska for the meat and does not keep the head, hide or claws.
- A young male hunter shoots a black bear because he wants a bear skin rug.
- A hunter shoots a mountain lion for the fur and the meat but does not use dogs to track it.
- A hunter shoots a mountain lion for the fur and the meat but uses dogs to track it.
- A hunter shoots an elk and eats all the meat and hangs the antlers on his wall.
- A hunter using only a bow and arrow has unsuccessfully hunted elk for 10 years and finally selects one with massive antlers. She uses all the meat, which lasts her 2 years, and she has the hide tanned into a robe that she lays on her bed.
- A hunter shoots a coyote and sells the fur.
- A photographer hikes past all the small-horned bighorn rams, selects the one with the largest horns, stalks him and photographs just the largest-horned ram.
So what were your emotional reactions to these various scenarios? Did some elicit stronger negative feelings than others? Were you okay with some of these scenarios and not others? What was it about each scenario that elicited different emotions? Was there something about the hunter’s race, nationality, wealth status or gender that mattered to you? Did you have different emotions depending on what species of animal was hunted, how it was hunted or which continent it was hunted on? Did you feel differently when the hunter’s motive was for sustenance? What about when Indigenous people hunt for non-sustenance purposes? Is that trophy hunting, or is trophy hunting just a non-aboriginal form of hunting? What is your definition of trophy hunting? Where do you draw the line for your own morals?
Maybe you were not concerned with who the hunter was or what his/her motives for hunting were, but you wanted to know more about the status of the animals being hunted. Are the populations doing okay? Can they handle some moderate level of human hunting or are they being over hunted? Were you more curious about whether the hunts were being managed properly? Were you more concerned about the overall impact of hunting or just what one individual hunter was doing?
If you are a non-hunter, I suspect your negative emotional reactions were focused on the hunters whose primary motives were not about sustenance. I believe most, not all, non-hunters view hunting as morally permissible as long it meets 3 criteria:
- The motive of the hunter is for sustenance,
- The character of the hunter is such that he/she abides by the law and ethical and humane methods of hunting in addition to being skilled, competent and knowledgeable, and,
- The emotions of the hunter are appropriate. He/she demonstrates reverence, respect and humility for the animal they have killed and for other people around them.
These criteria are not mutually exclusive. If a hunter fails to meet all 3 criteria, most non-hunters, I believe, will object to hunting. It’s all or nothing. Is this why so many people react negatively towards trophy hunting? Because it violates one or all three of these criteria?
Journalists, Where Do You Fit In?
Not all, but many mainstream media outlets today are driven by an obsession to report bad news, sensationalized stories and controversy. Eric Weinstein’s Four Quadrant Model demonstrates beautifully the patterns of behavior exhibited by some mainstream media folks by showing how they skew stories and manipulate people being interviewed. I’ll let you read up on Eric’s model to understand these patterns and his terms, but it’s very obvious that the more dubious media outlets like to make hunters into the “Troglodytes” (“bad, evil, immoral people”) that Eric describes. Using the term “Trophy Hunting” is a tactic that elicits negative emotions and reinforces the basic pattern of polarizing a debate. However, it’s in the mature nuanced discussions where consumers of media make up their own minds without being manipulated. Media and journalist who use “Trophy Hunting” shock stories for self-gain in a competitive news environment are part of the problem for wildlife conservationists. The media is often the conduit between science, citizens and policy makers, and its role confers a great responsibility in our society today. In early 2018, 2500 top scientists issued their second warning to humanity, which warns of the collision course between humanity and the natural world. As long as media outlets are sensualizing trophy hunting and ignoring nuanced discussions about where hunting does or does not fit into the scientists’ warnings, they are doing humanity a massive disservice. Rather than hunting troglodytes, journalist should be hunting for truth that can be used to empower citizens and policy makers to take immediate action to prevent wildlife extinctions. Driving positive change for humanity and the natural world should be the highest purpose of media.
Wildlife Scientists, Where Do You Fit into All of This?
I have been seeing the term “Trophy Hunting” creeping into the language of far too many wildlife scientists lately, especially ones trying to build a brand on social media. As objective and unbiased as scientists are supposed to be, they are humans with opinions and emotions. Their personal emotions about moral topics like trophy hunting do, however, creep into their professional work. Everyone is entitled to their own personal opinion and to let their emotions drive their actions. Most scientists do engage in much more nuanced discussions even on the topic of hunting than most hunters and non-hunters. However, when wildlife scientists are promoting their credentials and bring a moral topic like trophy hunting into their realm of scientific expertise, we need to question the impact this has on citizens and policy makers. Trophy hunting, as a motive of the hunter, is a real thing but it is a purely a moral topic. Unless scientists discussing hunter’s motives are social scientists, the moral aspects of a hunter’s motives should not be entering the realm of discussion in wildlife science. I think it’s fair to say that society expects wildlife scientists who are studying wildlife or the impact of hunting on wildlife to just focus on the specific aspects of hunting that impact wildlife and not pass judgment on whether that specific type of hunting is trophy hunting or not.
Hunter, author and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote that hunting is what one species does to take possession of another. Hunting is hunting. The individual’s purposes or motives for hunting do not define hunting. Qualifying hunting as trophy hunting is a judgment about the motive of the hunter, and this really should not be what wildlife scientists are discussing or publishing. If a species should not be hunted because of a conservation concern, then it shouldn’t be hunted. If hunting is causing a conservation concern, then we should address it and find a solution. But recognize that when a scientist’s emotions creep into his/her work by slipping “trophy hunting” into a wildlife science paper or statement, they are fueling the media’s hunt for troglodytes, and that is essentially derailing wildlife science’s highest purpose, which is to prevent species extinction. Society looks to wildlife scientists for their objective prognosis of what’s best for wildlife not their judgments on human morality. That should be left up to the philosophers and patrons at the corner pub.
Hunters and Non-Hunters, Where Do You Fit In?
We are in a time in human history where you need to decide what positive role you want to play in helping wildlife. Satisfying one’s need to feel important by anger, egregious public behavior or un-empathetic attitudes, wishing others would go away and die a cruel horrible death because they have different perspectives, and slamming scientists might make some people feel significant in the moment, but that does nothing to make this world better for wildlife. Educating oneself about the most important issues facing wildlife and calling out the media, politicians and scientists for derailing wildlife conservation with moral debates is your duty regardless of whether you are hunter or non-hunter. If you care for wildlife and its future, stand up against those who are undermining the big picture issues that wildlife is faced with. I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t discuss the morality of trophy hunting because I believe we should be having a collective social discussion about it. But the conversation about the “morality” of hunting should not continue to divert the average global citizen’s interest away from wildlife conservation. If we asked the wildlife, it would tell us to stop talking about human problems and halt extinctions.