Trophy Hunters Pay More to Kill Larger-Bodied Carnivores

New research shows they favor animals who bring status, rather than food.

Posted Sep 19, 2019

I've long been interested in why some humans, predominantly males, but also occasionally females who love the spotlight for their killing ways, trophy-hunt nonhuman animals (animals) who have no nutritional value. Some correctly say this gratuitous violence really is murder. Previous research has shown that among the reasons people kill these magnificent beings are: to show they can absorb the costs; because they enjoy killing large and "dangerous" animals as indicated by their "pleasure smiles" when they pose with the corpses; and to show they've really achieved something. (See Why Men Trophy Hunt: Showing Off and the Psychology of ShameTrophy Hunters' Smiles Show How Much They Like to KillWhy People Hunt: The Psychology of Killing Other Animals, and references therein.) 

Because trophy hunting is a hot topic, I was pleased to see a new research essay by Ilona Mihalik, Andrew Bateman, and Chris Darimont published in the journal Royal Society Open Science called Trophy hunters pay more to target larger-bodied carnivores. Their essay is available online for free, so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more. They note that animals who are targeted as trophies "require resource investment disproportionate to associated nutritional rewards." Costly signaling theory provides a potential explanation, proposing that hunters target species that impose high costs (e.g., higher failure and injury risks, lower consumptive returns) because it signals an ability "to absorb costly behavior." They hypothesized that if costly signaling is a factor in big game hunters choosing who to kill, they would go after animals who had higher perceived costs. To conduct their study, the researchers analyzed 721 guided hunts for 15 North American large mammals. They also noted that there was a correlation between the animals' body size and online prices. 

The researchers garnered some support for their prediction "showing that hunters pay more to kill larger-bodied carnivores, which likely carry the higher perceived risk of failure and injury, as well as low consumptive returns." They stress that the relationship between body mass and price only applies to carnivores because these animals "strongly signal increased danger or rarity."  

While more research is needed and the researchers note where available information may not be as accurate as they and others would like it to be—for example, estimating the total costs of hunting certain species and Google search results might vary across users and may have limited reproducibility—the practical application of these data are very important. They write, "If larger-bodied carnivores are generally more desirable to hunters, then conservation and management strategies should consider not only the ecology of the hunted but also the motivations of hunters." 

It's also very important to focus on the words we use to describe other animals and what we do to them. Some people get upset when killing a nonhuman is called "murder," however, it is interesting to note that in a poll taken in October 2015, 58% of the respondents voted “yes” and 42% voted “no” when asked if killing an animal is murder. Currently, almost four years later, 69% say "yes" and 31% say "no." There are excellent arguments why this unnecessary and gratuitous violence should be called "murder" and the word "murder" shouldn't be used exclusively for humans. (See The Psychology and Thrill of Trophy Hunting: Is it Criminal? and Murdering Animals: A Book About Social and Species Justice.) 

Needless to say, the topic of trophy hunting isn't going away anytime soon, and it's essential to learn why people choose to engage in this sort of recreational slaughter if we're ever going to stop it. Science and ethics tell us trophy killing is wrong, that it is an immoral and inappropriate conservation practice. The study about which I'm writing and others provide data that are essential for figuring out what actually drives trophy hunters to kill other animals for fun, and there are important practical uses for this information. Please stay tuned for more research on this most timely and important topic.


Beirne, Piers. Murdering Animals: Writings on Theriocide, Homicide and Nonspeciesist Criminology. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, United Kingdom, 2018. (See Murdering Animals: A Book About Social and Species Justice for an interview with Dr. Beirne)

Bekoff, Marc. Trophy Hunting: Confronting the Elephant (Head) in the Room. Psychology Today, May 13, 2018. 

_____. Why Men Trophy Hunt: Showing Off and the Psychology of ShamePsychology Today, March 28, 2017. 

_____. Hunting Grizzlies For Fun is Unscientific and Unethical. Psychology Today. August 22, 2018.

_____. Why People Hunt: The Psychology of Killing Other Animals. Psychology Today, August 30, 2017. 

_____. Trophy Hunters' Smiles Show How Much They Like to Kill. Psychology Today, November 26, 2015.

_____. Do Some People Simply Like to Kill Other Animals? Psychology Today, October 2, 2012.

Child, K. R. and Darimont, C. T. Hunting for Trophies: Online Hunting Photographs Reveal Achievement Satisfaction with Large and Dangerous Prey. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 20 (6), 2015.

Ebeling‐Schuld Alena M. and Darimont, C. T. Online hunting forums identify achievement as prominent among multiple satisfactions. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 2017.