By and large, however, the ecological benefits of trophy hunting are exaggerated. Though many hunters claim to limit their pursuits to old, sick, and/or infertile specimens, the culture of trophy hunting renders the largest, most impressive animals most desirable. In an op-ed for CNN, Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, writes, “hunters are not like natural predators. They target the largest specimens; those with the biggest tusks, manes, antlers, or horns.”
This imperils one of the most basic mechanisms of healthy ecology: survival of the fittest. Eliminating the largest, and generally most virile members of a population produces a sort of reverse-Darwinism effect—“survival of the weakest.” Scientists have found that heavily sport-hunted populations of bighorn sheep, for example, now have smaller horns than those of 30 years ago (paywall). The elephants of today tend to have smaller tusks than those of the last century.
Furthermore, when the dominant male in a population is killed, it devastates the group social order. Young males will immediately begin fighting each other for dominance, resulting in a number of needless deaths, a subsequent dearth of breeding males, and a generational population decline. For lions, males jockeying for top-status will also try to kill cubs sired by competitors. They have to go through mom first, however, inevitably lumping numbers of youngsters and breeding females into the eventual death toll.
“The saddest part of all is that now that Cecil is dead, the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho, will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs,” Johnny Rodrigues, head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told The Minneapolis Star Tribune.
A population decaline among apex predators (lions, leopards, etc.) results in a bloated population of prey species (antelope, zebras, wildebeest, etc.). In turn, this results in overgrazing, a depletion of vegetation. Depleted vegetation then fires consequences back up the food chain—herbivores die of starvation, then the predators that feed on them (however many are left) starve and die off too.
Economically, the benefits of trophy hunting are similarly exaggerated. A 2004 study (pdf) compiled by scientists at the Terrestrial Ecology Research Unit of the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa estimated that non-consumptive ecotourism (i.e., photo safaris, etc.) on private game reserves generated “more than 15 times the income of livestock or game rearing or overseas hunting.”
Likewise, compared with ecotourism, trophy hunting does not facilitate meaningful or substantial employment opportunities for abutting communities. “Photo safaris and other non-consumptive activities can be quite lucrative, but take a great deal of time and investment to set up,” wrote Michael De Alessi in a report (pdf) for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Guests expect comfortable accommodations, quality meals and a range of activities. This in turn means a fair number of staff. Hunters, on the other hand, are often more happy with Spartan amenities, and one or two game scouts.”
A 2011 study (pdf) published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature states that in 11 sub-Saharan countries, 272 million acres (roughly 14.9% of the land) is open to trophy hunting. Though hunters abscond with thousands of trophies each year, they invest only an average of 44 cents per acre. In some countries, like Tanzania—home to some of the continent’s lushest game reserves—they invest as little as two cents per acre. “The average contribution of hunting to GDP is 0.06%. This means they are the least economically productive lands in the country,” researchers found. “Trophy hunting does therefore not represent economically valuable land use, especially in the context of the need to abate poverty and hunger.” These reserves are essentially blood-soaked playgrounds for the rich.
Let Cecil the lion’s needless death stand as yet another point against the fallacy of eco-friendly trophy hunting. Regardless of what proponents of the sport claim, the numbers don’t add up. Trophy hunting is damaging to the environment, and the so-called economic benefits aren’t nearly substantial enough to justify it—if you can put a price tag on biodiversity to begin with.