The Ethics Of… Conservation Hunting

So a dude called Theunis Botha was hunting cheetahs in Zimbabwe this week when a herd of elephants caught him by surprise, and one lifted him up with its trunk. He shot it and then it promptly fell over and crushed him the process. If that isn’t the single most amazing headline this year then we are in for quite the interesting time.

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There is a killer Winnie the Pooh joke in there somewhere, but this the best I could come up with.

Naturally this story prompted some pretty intense reactions across the internet, but the interesting thing is that, depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, at least some of those reaction would have caught you totally by surprise. Seriously, however you are reacting to the dude getting killed by the elephant he just shot, imagine the exact opposite of that reaction and that is how some people are taking this story. And when such incredibly diverse opinions meet on internet comment threads and forums like reddit, the results are fairly predictable:

While there’s no doubting this story is pretty damn exceptional (not to mention pretty damn funny in an abstract karma’s-a-bitch kinda way), it brings up a pretty controversial topic that is the source of a lot of the outrage in both directions here; is it ethically justifiable to breed endangered animals for hunting?

The practice is known either as ‘conservation hunting’ or ‘canned hunting’ depending how the commentator feels about the practice, and knowing the audience I tend to attract here I’m guessing most of you are going for the second option. Breeding endangered animals exclusively for the purpose of trapping them in preserves for the rich to hunt and kill for giggles, sounds like the sort of distopian late-stage-capitalism trope that would be a bit tacky in a comic book villain – in real life everything about the idea is repellent. Breeding endangered animals to then be hunted spits in the face of the very concept of endangered animals. Hunting for enjoyment is barbaric enough, but to specifically target ‘big game’ just reeks of the sort of bourgeoise ‘I would totally hunt humans if I could get away with it’ entitlement we fear in the rich and powerful.

If anything, the justification thrown about for such hunting, that it ‘brings jobs and income to people in developed nations’, somehow makes the practice even worse; “Look at these darkies I’m paying! This totally justifies me engaging in behaviour we’d normal class as poaching.”. So naturally whenever we get any excuse to turn on one of these hunters we take it with both hands. Sure Theunis Botha (seriously man, someone help me out with that Winnie the Pooh joke) was real human being with family and friends, and his death should not be celebrated. But given the guy spent his entire life enabling practices we despise, it’s hard not to get a bit of a schadenfreude off him getting ended by his prey.

An even better example was that dentist last year who managed to find himself hunting a famous lion from the nearby National Park which was part of scientific research no less, thereby stripping himself of any legal defence and giving the entire planet a fair license to tar and feather the fucker.

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But cool your jets fellow pinko-greenie-communist-watermelons; turns out the hunters may have a bit of a case to answer here.

Let me preface this by stating that I personally dislike the idea of hunting, but that said, that is just a preference and doesn’t come into the question of ethics. What matters here is whether the hunters can justify their practice and in many cases they definitely can; hunting that targets invasive species or species like kangaroos that have overpopulated serve a valuable service to the ecosystem. Hunters quite often eat any meat they kill, preventing reliance on the pretty horrific practice of factory farming or commercial abattoirs, and also gives them an extremely good understanding of where their meat comes from and the suffering it caused to get said meat – this quite often inspires care and respect in hunters for their quarry. And hard as it may be to believe, many hunters are active conservationists, recognising that their pastime relies on a healthy ecosystem and actively working towards preserving said ecosystems all over the world.

So at least in specific circumstances hunting is very justifiable – in fact I’d go so far as to say it’s vasty better than buying your meat from the supermarket and trying not to think about where it came from. Sure the whole ‘blood sport for enjoyment’ bit is a bit worrying, but then again I’ve wilfully tortured simulated human beings in computer games and have yet to don a trenchcoat and slaughter a preschool, so fair to say that implication is a bit weak.

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Pictured: SIGNIFICANTLY more cruelty than hunters indulge in.

But canned hunting is another beast entirely, right? These aren’t invasive pests we’re talking about, they’re endangered species bred specifically for rich folks to enjoy killing on the spurious justification that ‘it’s good for the local economy’. But hold up a sec – vile as it may sound, is that justification actually incorrect?

For the uninitiated, Zimbabwe is a pretty messed up nation even by the relatively low standards of Sub-Saharan Africa. You’ve got a megalomaniacal dictator, military rule, widespread poverty and an economy which pretty much coined the concept of ‘hyperinflation’.

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Was going to compare this to US dollars but apparently Zimbabwe no longer has an official currency, so it’s actually worth absolutely nothing. That’s the sort of economy we’re talking about here.

So needless to say quality of life in this region ain’t great. Therefore the idea of bringing rich foreigners into the country to spend huge sums of money is absolutely a good thing for the local economy and has doubtless led a massive improvement in quality of life for many. Sure it’s not addressing the underlying problems that put people into poverty in the first place, but since that would require the sort of international military invention that worked so very well in Iraq, this is a pretty good compromise in the meantime, right? Well the locals involved obviously think so, because they are welcoming these sorts of businesses in with open arms, willingly giving permission for such operations on their land and often participating in said hunts, butchering and eating the meat of the hunted animals afterwards.

But even if we concede that point, all these benefits still come at the expense of endangered animals, right? I mean it’s hardly surprising poor people are willing to compromise their local ecosystem to get above the poverty line, anyone would in those circumstances, but that doesn’t make it right for rich westerners to roll in and exploit the situation, does it?

But this argument still depends on the idea that such canned hunting is bad for endangered species, and counter-intuitive as it may sound, that may not be the case. In fact such businesses may actually help improve the numbers of these endangered species via breeding programs, and by giving local communities  and governments a vested interest in protecting and supporting said species where previously poaching would have been a pretty attractive proposition.

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Say what you like, but if it was between your family starving and an elephant, you’d probably shoot the elephant. And even if you wouldn’t, you’d then die and your high and mighty principles would be buried with you.

So believe it or not, what we’re left with here is a pretty damn convincing justification for canned hunting. It may well still appear disgusting and you personally may still consider it ‘wrong’, but given the fairly strong evidence the hunters are bringing to the table here, all your objections really boil down to are ‘I don’t like it’ which is not a terribly compelling case.

Sure ‘conservation hunting’ may seem an unbelievably scummy practice spits in the face of there mere notion of conservation, but it is also a very good example of a utilitarian approach trumping a deontological stance – by acknowledging the practical realities of Zimbabwe and finding a compromise between moderate conservation efforts and a profitable business practice, the hunters have helped improve the situation while all the anti-hunters can do is say ‘but it’s wrong!’.


Yeah there’s a ‘but’ in here and congratulation for getting this far without giving into confirmation bias and bailing on me.

This ‘but’ comes from the precise definition of utilitarianism, which I’m not sure conservation hunting adequately meets. Can canned hunting be justified based on the costs and benefits of the practice, particularly compared to the ‘just stop it’ ideology other bring to the table? Sure it can. But deontology demands more than just weighing the pros and cons of one solution to the problem – we must also consider alternative approaches and always, ALWAYS choose the superior alternative.

In justifying conservation hunting as ‘better than doing nothing’ we are being offered a classic false dichotomy – these are not the only two options on the table, and as soon as we start to examine other options, the case for the hunters starts to fall apart. This is not to say that the benefits of canned hunting aren’t real; they most certainly are real and very beneficial compared to the ‘do nothing’ approach. But can those same benefits be achieved without the also extremely real costs of the practice? Bet your arse they can.

International aid comes to mind as an obvious solution, though that of course has many drawback of it own. Alternatively simple investment into a wildlife park for the enjoyment of rich foreigners that doesn’t involve shooting said wildlife in the face is a good commercial prospect with all the benefits and significantly less costs. Or we could invest some time and effort into actually addressing the fundamental problems the country faces that make poverty and thus poaching so common – a much larger, harder and longer task to be sure, but one with vastly greater benefits in the long term with none of the costs of canned hunting, which, if we’re frank essentially boils down to bribing corrupt officials and exploiting poverty-stricken communities to be allowed to break the normal rules.

Of course this is all a lot easier to suggest than to implement – after all, half the reason canned hunting has been so successful in the good it has achieved is because it is offering rich folks an extremely rare opportunity they absolutely cannot get anywhere else, and are willing to pay massive premiums for. Sensible investments in politically unstable developing nations don’t really offer rich kids the same sort of thrills, so they’re a lot less likely to invest in them. But if what we’re talking about here is what can be ethically justified (as opposed to what might be a lucrative commercial venture) then the one and only question we need to ask is ‘what approach will lead to the best possible outcome’?

And if you can think of a better solution to poverty in developing nations than letting rich kids pay to break the rules, then that answers that question pretty god damn decisively.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Conservation Hunting

  1. Gordon, are you saying that conservation hunting and canned hunting are the same thing? The articles you link to define them as very different things. As I understand it, conservation hunting is the government-sanctioned killing of animals that pose a threat to humans or are no longer required for survival of the species, in order to raise money for conservation. Canned hunting is the breeding of animals in captivity to be shot for private profit. These are two very different situations. In my opinion your oversight undermines the awareness raising element of your article. How could you address this?

    • Hi France thanks for the comment. Based on the research I did it appeared the two terms are more political/ideological in nature rather than evidenced definitions – the same act is described using both terms depending on who’s writing about it. I agree that the two appear to be quite distinct practices and I can see a case for legitimate conservation hunting (ie when the ecosystem is legitimately threatened by over population, etc). However in developing nations like the one described in the article it appears that ‘conservation hunting’ quite often overlaps heavily with either canned hunting or the more ambiguous practice of making an exception to the usual rules for a wealthy foreigner. I’m certainly not in a position to judge whether any specific case was legitimate conservation hunting or not, but the ethical analysis of the practice still stands. Frankly even where an older bull elephant is harassing younger males, letting a tourist pay to shoot it seems like a remarkably poor quality solution to the problem

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