Trophy hunting could cause extinction in stressed populations – new research

Stephen Wiggins Article, Studies 2 Comments

Banner image: ‘The mane attraction’ – Shutterstock

An interesting article published by Rob Knell (Evolutionary Ecology, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London) – “Trophy hunting could cause extinction in stressed populations – new research,” The Conversation, 29 November 2017. The ‘science’ and modelling behind the article highlights how important it is to base a hunting quota of any given “stressed” species upon sound and enforceable limits – such as age restrictions upon trophy hunted male lions. But it’s questionable how enforceable, or how likely such age limits are to be adhered to in the field by trophy hunters and/or how scientific (and not excessive) the setting of any hunting quota is in the first place.


by Rob Knell

People are now the most important predators for many animal populations on the planet, but people are rather different from “ordinary” predators. While a lion or an eagle is just trying to get dinner, human predators can be motivated by other aspects of an animal than simply how much meat it can provide.

Trophy hunters obsessively target animals with the largest horns, antlers or manes. Poachers focus on elephants with the largest tusks – and there is a subset of insect collectors who will pay premium prices for stag or rhinoceros beetle specimens with really huge horns or mandibles.

All of these focus their predation on what biologists call “sexually selected” traits. These evolve because they give the (usually male) animal that carries the trait an advantage in competition for mates, either by allowing him to dominate and exclude rival males – think of red deer stags – or because females of his species actively prefer to mate with males with large, loud or bright sexually selected traits, as in the case of birds of paradise.

How these sexually selected traits evolve is a question that has been a difficult issue for biologists for some years: why should females prefer males with a long tail or with especially bright colours – and what is it about stags with large antlers that allows them to win contests and dominate groups of females?

An increasing body of evidence now supports the idea that the expression of these traits is linked in some way to the genetic “quality” of a male. Males who have lost the genetic lottery and who are carrying more than their share of genes that are detrimental to health do not have the resources to grow a big tail or a large set of antlers. Conversely, those lucky males who happen to have a particularly good set of genes can afford the handicap of carrying around a super-sized rack of antlers or set of horns, or will be able to grow extra long and brightly coloured feathery plumes.

Selective harvest

This is useful for our understanding of animal behaviour, but it also has wider implications for the evolution of these species. Researchers have recently found that strongly sexually selected species can evolve faster in response to environmental challenges than species where mating is more random.

One of the stag party. Shutterstock

Because males with higher genetic quality gain the majority of matings in these species, their “good genes” can spread through a population much faster than they would if mating were random. This means that strong sexual selection can allow a population to adapt faster to a changing environment, and in some scenarios these species can avoid extinction when the environment changes because of this fast evolutionary response.

In our newly-published research, we asked the question of how this might change when those highest-quality males are removed by “selective harvest.” It’s prohibitively difficult to test these ideas with real hunted populations, so we developed a computer simulation which allowed us to examine what happens when you take these animals out of a population.

Our results are clear – and worrying. If the environment is relatively stable, then even quite severe harvesting of high-quality males is sustainable. But if the population is already stressed by a changing environment, then removing even a small percentage of the best males can lead to extinction. The trouble is, almost all animal populations today are facing increasing stress from changing environments.

This goes against the conventional wisdom. Since there is usually little paternal care of offspring in these animals – and because it seems reasonable to assume that females will not have problems getting fertilised if we remove, say, 15% of the males – it is usually assumed that trophy hunting and similar selective harvests are unlikely to drive animals to extinction when only a small proportion of males are hunted. Our results suggest otherwise.

Big tusks, big target. Shutterstock

Better management would make a difference

Should we, therefore, ban trophy hunting and insect collecting? The argument about trophy hunting in particular goes on – but we do not think that our research adds great weight to either position. So far, it is only based on a computer model – clearly we need some tests of our results based on real data.

What we might consider, however, is changing management practices. We examined how different management altered the outcome of our model, and again we found a clear result. If a minimum age limit is applied to hunted animals, so that only old animals who have already had a chance to mate and spread their genes are removed, then the increased extinction risk that we found goes away.

If a population must be hunted, then restricting hunting to older males only and managing the population sensibly by adjusting quotas when there are signs of stress should ensure that any risk of extinction is minimised.


Selective harvest focused on sexual signal traits can lead to extinction under directional environmental change,” Robert J. Knell and Carlos Marti­nez-Ruiz – Evolutionary Ecology, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London, The Royal Society Publishing, 29 November 2017 –

Comments 2


    Trophy hunting of big cats is the most concerning. Hunter shoots the largest ,which is the pride male or leader of the pride.
    This disrupts the whole apple cart. A new male fights to take over and we lose a few females who are defending the cubs and the new male kills all the cubs to bring the female into season for him to introduce his genes.
    The hunter thinks he has just killed one lion. NOT SO.
    He has just killed up to 20 lion or more.
    Oliver the lion in HWANGE was killed by a US hunter in 2014 and that pride is still in a shambles.
    Way over 20 have died. Thanks to the killer in Pa.

    1. Post
      Stephen Wiggins

      Brian, Agreed – with regard to Hwange, as I expect you know, hunting concessions border the protected Hwange National Park, where pride males are lured from by the ‘Professional Hunter (PH)’ so their client can shot it for a trophy. So, the argument that all hunting concessions provide safe habitat/conservation is clearly not true, or why the need to lure the hunters’ targets into any hunting concession – the concession itself should be supporting the target species if there was any true conservation at work? Even when a remote hunting concession does support the target species, where is the proof that any hunting quota is based upon science in the first place and that quota is unlikely to decimate the target species within the remote concession by the same biased and excessive attrition of pride males for trophies?

      So, this modelling work (ie. lion pride dynamics) by Robert J. Knell and Carlos Marti­nez-Ruiz is useful for reinforcing the negative impacts you have highlighted of the trophy hunters’ preferred target’s demise potentially having much wider (negative) implications for conservation.

      Their paper talks of the imperative for age limit restrictions for targeting pride male lions for example (ie. only males greater than 6 years old should be “harvested”) – which in the field, is based upon the PH assessing any target male’s nose pigmentation (an age indicator)- which is not an easy, accurate or reliable method pre-kill, especially when there is a paying trophy hunting client with their finger on the trigger. What is the penalty for taking a younger male in such circumstances in most hunting regulations – I suspect none.

Leave a Reply