Soon a big-game hunter will kill a rhinoceros, in Namibia. It is already reserved for him (I tacitly assume the anonymous hunter is male), and he has paid the solid sum of 350,000 US-Dollar. Should the money rather be spent on animal protection?
Since this news emerged, the public debate about whether nature can have a price has picked up again. Can we buy the right to kill an animal in Africa? Should we not instead ban big game hunting? The auction had to be held under safe conditions, because there were threats against the operators. Does animal protection justify violence? Assuming that most people advocate animal welfare, one should lead the debate objectively and carefully consider the situation.
The fact is that stocks of various big game species in Africa are developing very differently. This is true not only for different types, but also for international comparison within the same species. For example, the number of black rhinos in South Africa has increased since the 1990s, while it has declined in Kenya. In Southern Africa there are many lions, but the population in West Africa is decreasing. Some experts even fear the extinction of the big cat in West Africa. Another problem is that the stock of elephants in areas in Botswana and South Africa is growing too big to manage, leading to culling. Overall, the situation is not that easy to judge.
However, one can see a pattern behind these findings. Extinction is a threat especially in those places where people are not allowed to use the fauna economically, rather where it is forbidden to hunt big game.
Where big game can be marketed, things looks better. Thus, in Southern Africa big game represents an economic value for people, which is utilised. This usually happens in a rather peaceful way, namely by offering tourist packages including photo safaris. In recent decades, many lodges have opened, and in numerous national parks visitors can watch animals. This form of tourism is relatively sustainable, and it creates many jobs because tourism is a labor-intensive sector. More jobs will be created in souvenir shops, restaurants, car rentals and other service industries. Tourism is therefore positively correlated with species richness and biodiversity. As tourism is demanded disproportionately to increasing income, in other words it is a so-called ‘superior good’ with income elasticity greater than one, it provides good opportunities for positive development in Africa (and other underdeveloped regions of the world). Numerous empirical studies confirm this relationship.
Some tourists are eager to hunt big game. It may well be worth a second thought to please their ego and let them pay accordingly. For an earmarked old animal, it may be even better to die quickly than suffering long. In the Namibian case mentioned above, an old bull is to be killed, and the proceeds will go towards animal protection. It has become known that even some animal rights activists support the hunting of the old rhino bull in Namibia.
While tourist infrastructure is progressively increasing along with wildlife populations in some countries, in countries with shrinking stocks hunting is prohibited and/or tourism is underdeveloped. In such cases, animals do not present economic value for the population. To the contrary, they are troublemakers, because they compete with people for the use of the land, and they ravage the countryside or kill domesticated animals. Elephants and lions in search of food are particularly well known for this. They will consequently be hunted illegally. The shrinking habitat due to a growing population also decreases their potential prey, or so the enormous reduction of lions in West Africa is explained by the non-governmental organization Panthera. Occasionally, the animals are hunted by humans to serve as food.
The international outcry against hunting is also caused by the fact that big game is so attractive. It is obvious that the threat of extinction of a worm, would receive much less attention: ‘Beauty Pays’.
This strategy to contribute to better protection of big game and generate income for people seems rather clear. Instead of looking at the animals as intruders and enemies, people in West Africa should turn their presence into a business model. By building up tourist infrastructure, people help themselves as well as the big game.
Many people from rich countries and increasingly from emerging markets appreciate a holiday in Africa. Never before was the continent more popular than today. The tourism industry does not even have to offer hunting opportunities, the vast number of tourists is perfectly happy to enjoy a photo safari. Since one can be sure, however, that big game hunting would also take place if banned, the legalization of controlled hunting may as well be preferred. For various reasons (lack of resources, enormous vastness of the landscape, incompetence and corruption) the control of hunting bans is a burden for African authorities.
This proposal drastically deviates from the suggestion of Panthera, namely that the international donor community should provide more resources. Of such payments the farmers and poachers can only make little use, at least as long as it is not clear who receives the funds and for what. Given decades of sobering experiences with development assistance, as impressively analyzed by development economists such as William Easterly and Martin Paldam, this proposal falls short of a serious measure to tackle the problem.
Tourism offers a much better solution, and Panthera itself can be active. Why does this apparently well-equipped and well-connected NGO not run its own tourism sites? This would firstly help the animals since the credibility of this company would certainly be high. Second, in tourism businesses the locals would no longer be stigmatized as victims. Third, the operators are not donors, but business partners; the issue is no longer about charity. This is always preferable. Of course Panthera would not need to offer big game hunting.
Under certain conditions it nevertheless may be beneficial for ethical or economic reasons, to offer hunting, too. Any opportunity for improved animal welfare should be considered and there is no reason to reject commercial methods immediately. It is better for the dignity of all parties involved to make wildlife preservation a business than to be dependent on the generosity of others.