Trophy Hunting: Confronting the Elephant (Head) in the Room

Trophy hunting is an immoral and inappropriate conservation practice.

Posted May 13, 2018

“If wildlife conservation is broadly and inescapably dependent on the institution of trophy hunting, conservationists should accept the practice only with a due appreciation of tragedy, and proper remorse." Paul Paquet of Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the University of Victoria

In a most important essay called "The elephant (head) in the room: A critical look at trophy hunting" published in Conservation Letters and available online, an international team of conservation scientists from Oregon State University, University of Victoria and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and The Centre for Compassionate Conservation at University of Technology, Sydney challenges conservationists to fully consider the ethics of trophy hunting and to think critically about endorsing the practice as a key funding mechanism for wildlife protection. The "poster child" who attracted global attention about the despicable practice of trophy hunting is Cecil, a African lion who was killed by an American hunter named Walter Palmer (for more discussion please see "Cecil the Lion: His Life, Death, and Effects on Conservation"). 

Nick Brandt
Source: Nick Brandt

According to the researchers, "trophy hunting —hunting that involves the collection of animal body parts, or 'trophies'—is morally wrong, as an expression of Western chauvinist, colonialist, and anthropocentric norms." They argue that alternative strategies for conservation and community development need to be fully explored before the conservation community embraces trophy hunting as business as usual. 

I've been long interested in, and deeply offended by, trophy hunting, as a form of basically gratuitous violence, and suspicious of specious claims that it has conservation value. I was pleased when lead author, Chelsea Batavia, agreed to answer a few questions about their landmark essay. Our interview went as follows.1

 Why did you write your essay and how does it follow up on earlier research in this area?

The essay was sparked by another project we were working on, which involved a review and analysis of recent literature about trophy hunting as a conservation tool. I’d done a fair amount of reading on trophy hunting, and all my co-authors had a longstanding interest in the topic as well. At a certain point I came to a paper investigating whether elephant carcasses left by trophy hunters were changing hyena behaviors. In this paper the authors described, in a completely objective and “scientific” way, the sorts of scenarios they were talking about, where all but the tusks and maybe an ear or trunk would be left behind. And for some reason that drove something home for me, something I hadn’t really internalized before. I realized trophy hunters are killing animals and removing their body parts as emblems of the kill. It’s objectification in just about the most literal sense possible. As I continued to read I was more attuned to the way people were talking about this or, more to the point, not talking about it. The word trophy was used so easily, and so casually, cloaking what in my mind was the pretty grisly reality that we’re talking about body parts here. So I started searching more broadly to see if others outside the scope of the review had addressed this dimension of trophy hunting, especially from an ethical perspective. I couldn’t really find anything. And that’s how the essay idea emerged—to draw attention to this “elephant (head) in the room,” by pointing out some of the morally problematic underpinnings and implications of claiming animal bodies as trophies.

What are your major conclusions?

A big takeaway is that trophy hunting is steeped in cultural and historical meanings that modern society has broadly condemned. We argue that trophy hunting expresses a dominant Western narrative of human supremacy (and by that, we mean largely white, male human supremacy). The symbolism of the trophy represents the prowess of the (white, male) human conqueror and the subordination of the “inferior” being, in this case, individual nonhuman animals. But the same label of “inferiority” also could be and has been attached to human groups, such as women or indigenous people. To make the argument we tap into some critical scholarship to situate trophy hunting in chauvinist, colonialist, and anthropocentric thinking; and we basically argue that, as an expression of these oppressive modes of thought and behavior, trophy hunting is morally wrong.

The other, more practical strain of the essay takes on the claim that banning or otherwise eradicating trophy hunting would critically compromise international conservation efforts. We’ve seen this claim advanced prominently in recent years. In response, we point out first and foremost that this claim lacks robust empirical substantiation ("Trophy Hunting Fees Do Little to Help Threatened Species, Report Says"). There’s some important research to be done before we can make informed statements on the necessity of trophy hunting for ongoing conservation success. But then we link back to the more explicitly ethical argument I talked about a minute ago, by contemplating what it would mean if we determined, by rigorous impact assessments, that some major conservation intervention would crumble without funding and other benefits afforded by trophy hunting. We don’t deny this is possible. But we also point out that this would be a truly unfortunate situation. Conservationists are trying to protect ecosystems. They’re trying to protect wildlife. To learn that the only way to achieve these objectives is by killing and debasing individual nonhuman animals would be a perverse and ironic rendering of the conservation mission. In this circumstance, the conservation community should accept trophy hunting reluctantly, not as a winning strategy but as a necessary burden to bear. Ignoring or denying the ethically unpalatable connotations of wildlife trophies to ease our conscience isn’t a morally mature move to make. If we are bound and tethered to this practice, we should face that reality head-on with grief and due remorse, and, I hope, engage in some serious self-reflection as well.

Why do you think your arguments and conclusions are significant in terms of their practical application?

I’m not sure how most people in the conservation community (academic and nonacademic) think about trophy hunting. There’s not much by way of empirical work detailing public perceptions of the practice. But from my reading in the academic literature, my sense is that many conservation scientists have become sort of acclimated to trophy hunting. It’s just something that’s done, and the task is to make sure it’s done in the best, most sustainable way possible. I think that’s a fair and useful angle for scientists to take: Given some management strategy, how can science be used to inform its responsible implementation? But there’s a certain complacency there as well, in my mind. The assumption—I’m tempted even to use the word dogma—that conservation depends on trophy hunting may be stifling our collective will and ability to explore other options. So I’d say the practical extension of our argument is the call to work on those other options. We need to devote time and energy into research that assesses the linkages between trophy hunting and conservation outcomes. We need to channel our creative and intellectual energies into designing and testing alternative funding mechanisms for conservation. And we need to engage with local communities, where trophy hunting is being used as a cornerstone of wildlife preservation, to learn more about how they view and value trophy hunting. I hope we can find ways to collaborate with them to implement conservation strategies that are socially, economically, and ethically sustainable.

Are you hopeful people who support trophy hunting will pay attention and stop killing other animals for sport and fun?

"If our words inspire some trophy hunters out there to reconsider their behaviors as well, that would be pretty remarkable."

Oh, I’m not sure our aspirations are so sweeping. This is a controversial and emotional issue, and we certainly don’t expect one paper is going to change the hearts or minds of devoted trophy hunters or trophy-hunting defenders. I think the more modest goal is to spark dialogue and inspire people to view trophy hunting in a different light. It seems as though the social climate is sympathetic to critical thinking about social and cultural norms right now, at least in the United States—I’m thinking about grassroots campaigns like Black Lives Matter and MeToo. As a society we’re becoming more attuned to subtle (or less subtle) systems of injustice and the ways they’re perpetuated in common speech and action. People are growing impatient for meaningful change, and this essay was written partially as an expression of that same impatience. It’s my hope that we can help people give voice to concerns over trophy hunting that they may have felt but couldn’t quite articulate before. If our words inspire some trophy hunters out there to reconsider their behaviors as well, that would be pretty remarkable.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

"The bottom line in conservation is the protection and persistence of biodiversity, and of course I think that’s a worthy goal, but at what costs?...If we’ve stopped even imagining that conservation could operate differently, we’re surely not going to work for it. Maybe I’m a bit of an idealist, but to me, meaningful change has to start with hope."

My co-authors have worked extensively on issues related to trophy hunting, and for far longer than I have. Chris Darimont and Paul Paquet, my co-authors from Raincoast Conservation Foundation/University of Victoria, have researched the ecological, evolutionary, political, and social dimensions of trophy hunting. My other Oregon State University co-authors, Michael Nelson and Bill Ripple, both do research on carnivore conservation, which has inevitably intersected with the discourse around trophy hunting. And Arian Wallach, from the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at University of Technology Sydney, is a predator ecologist whose work focuses on bringing compassion for nonhuman animals into conservation science and practice; again, strong connections with the trophy-hunting debate. My academic career isn’t nearly as long or acclaimed as my co-authors’—I haven’t even finished my Ph.D. yet!—but I have been thinking about trophy hunting for several years now. As I mentioned before, this paper was catalyzed by work on a different trophy-hunting project, and I was also graciously invited to contribute to a recent paper on compassionate conservation, which I’m proud to have co-authored with you and two of the authors on this paper. I’d say these two efforts are much in line with one another.

I hope readers will approach this essay with an open mind. It is written in an academic style, since we published in an academic journal, but I’d like to think the writing is still relatively accessible. This came from a place of deep concern, not only for individual nonhuman animals but also for the mission of conservation. I’m worried we’ve become so focused on the rush to the bottom line that we’ll use any and all measures to get there. The bottom line in conservation is the protection and persistence of biodiversity, and of course I think that’s a worthy goal, but at what costs? The final sentence of the essay is, “We must at least hope to do better,” and for me that sums it up. Complacency is dangerous. If we’ve stopped even imagining that conservation could operate differently, we’re surely not going to work for it. Maybe I’m a bit of an idealist, but to me, meaningful change has to start with hope.

Thank you, Chelsea, for your detailed answers to these questions. I agree that trophy hunting is ethically indefensible and really plays no role in conservation practice and that compassionate conservation can help move us out of the "killing in the name of conservation" mentality. The wide-ranging concern and condemnation of trophy hunting is not merely an animal rights or vegan perspective, but rather one grounded in concerns about respect and decency. My view and that of many others is that killing other animals in the name of conservation has to stop (please see "Rather Than Kill Animals 'Softly,' Don't Kill Them at All") and that trophy hunting should play no role in conservation practice. Not only is it a reprehensible activity, it also really doesn't work, and those who defend it "in the name of conservation" are misguided and mislead a naive public. 


1Please also see "Researchers question conservation community's acceptance of trophy hunting" for further discussion of the essay on which this interview focuses. 


 Marc Bekoff. Why Men Trophy Hunt: Showing Off and the Psychology of Shame. Psychology Today, March 28, 2017. 

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

Arian Wallach, Marc Bekoff, Chelsea Batavia, Michael P. Nelson, and Daniel Ramp. Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation. Conservation Biology, 2019 (in press).

Daniel Ramp and Marc Bekoff. Compassion as a Practical and Evolved Ethic for Conservation. BioScience 65, 323-327, 2105. 

More Posts