Trophy Hunting is a Major Threat to Lions – Interpretive Bias

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By Jared Kukura, Wild Things Initiative,  6 December 2020

Once again, a scientific paper is presented in a way to disparage critics of the trophy hunting community despite its shortcomings and potentially contradictory interpretations.

The Threat Analysis for More Effective Lion Conservation attempted to provide a framework for defining issues plaguing lions which could help in implementing better solutions. Yet, the trophy hunting community and its proponents presented the analysis as confirmation that trophy hunting was not a major threat to lions.

But this interpretation on trophy hunting’s threat to lions was not supported by the paper as there was no analysis done to differentiate between major and minor threats. This seemed to be a case of interpretive bias, essentially reaching a conclusion that best conformed to their inherent biases.

This is unfortunate as many will view the interpretation as fact, allowing the trophy hunting community to hang dearly onto a similar argument made popular by the American gun lobby (“Why focus on banning guns when car accidents kill more people every year?”).

Trophy hunting proponents are entitled to their opinion, but it should be held in no higher esteem than others based on different interpretations of the data presented in the paper. For instance, one can easily interpret the major populations declines in the Ruaha-Rungwa-Katavi and Selous regions as meaning that trophy hunting is a major threat to lions.

An analysis of population declines shows the two largest declines from 2005-2018 occurred in the Ruaha-Rungwa-Katavi (-2,148 lions) and Selous regions (-1,175 lions). Together, the Ruaha-Rungwa-Katavi and Selous regions account for 27.3% (6,677 lions) of the overall lion population but 37.7% (-3,323 lions) of the decline. Both regions have two things in common, being in Tanzania and experiencing high levels of lion declines specifically because of trophy hunting.

It is fair to point out that the threat score given to trophy hunting in these two regions was lower than other threats like prey availability and human-wildlife conflict. However, this ranking was based on expert opinions from a 2005 workshop.

I previously criticized the use of those opinions due to sponsorship basis, lack of score weighting skewing results to favor frequency over impact, and the specified exclusion of trophy hunting from detailed analysis “due to the difficulty of separating potentially negative biological impacts on lion populations from improperly managed offtakes from potentially positive socio-economic impacts on lion conservation.”

Yet, a 2011 study produced by one of those experts in the 2005 workshop, Craig Packer, stated, “In contrast to the conclusions of IUCN (2006) and Bauer et al. (2008), reports, we were unable to detect any consistent impact from habitat loss or human–carnivore conflict in hunting areas, although retaliatory killing was substantial in several of the protected areas.” (Note: IUCN (2006) refers to the official report of the 2005 workshop in question).

As well, the study notes, “Trophy hunting appears to have been the primary driver of a decline in lion abundance in the country’s trophy hunting areas and is likely affecting lion abundance in Katavi National Park and possibly Tarangire National Park. In contrast, lion abundance was unchanged in two of the three photo-tourism areas that are only minimally affected by trophy hunting.”

A following study then confirmed the drastic lion declines in the Selous region were specifically because of unsustainable hunting due to short-term hunting block allocations. Blocks with the highest lion offtake experienced the largest declines and had the honor of generating the most governmental income.

It seems clear that trophy hunting is a major threat to lions if you take the two worst performing regions and study their threats. But even if you disagree with labelling trophy hunting as a major threat, it is still widely considered a threat, nonetheless. Arguing semantics around what defines “major” only seeks to promote a trophy hunting-friendly agenda.

Just as banning guns in the United States doesn’t mean detracting from the problem of automobile-caused deaths, banning trophy hunting doesn’t mean detracting from other threats facing lions. And just like bans on guns, bans on trophy hunting can be quickly and easily implemented compared to the necessary solutions for prey depletion and human-wildlife conflict.

I understand the desire for conservationists to focus all their energy on the most serious problem with the biggest impact, but there is also a time a place for the snowball method. Sometimes it makes sense to do the quick and easy tasks to build momentum for the eventual avalanche of change.

And before someone spouts the potential use of trophy hunting as a solution for human-wildlife conflict – the evidence is dubious, at best. Research found that “general attitudes toward lions were the strongest predictor of lion killing behavior,” while another study found positive attitudes towards lions in communities without trophy hunting (Maasailand) but negative attitudes in communities with trophy hunting (Ruaha and Hwange).

And research also shows that legally mandated killing of predators can increase poaching rates, possibly by signaling to communities that the animals are not in need of protection.

Additionally, if the goal is to help reduce livestock depredation by lions, there are non-lethal alternatives. This phenomenon of non-lethal deterrence has shown much better results than lethal deterrence in the United States.

All these studies add up to the same conclusion, killing predators doesn’t build tolerance and may even exacerbate human-wildlife conflict. Let’s stop pretending a destructive practice like trophy hunting is anything but a net-negative for conservation. The industry is dying, let’s put it out of its misery and move on to other matters.

Watch this video to learn about how the hunting industry covered up their impacts on Tanzania’s lions:

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