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Why Deer Hunters Should Care About African Trophy Import Bans

This piece first ran in the July 19th edition of The Hunting Wire as part of the Voices of Leadership Panel Series. The full edition can be found here.

“I’m never going to hunt in Africa – why should I care that some state I don’t live in is trying to prevent hunters from bringing back trophies of some animal I might never see outside of a zoo…?”

Honestly – it is a logical question. Research shows that most people care about the issues which directly impact them. This is why people choose certain areas to live, work, and send their kids to school. It is also why you’re more likely to hear outrage and concern from hunters in the United States over an attempt to shut down access to deer hunting vs. a threat to lion or leopard hunting thousands of miles away.

But if you are a hunter, you should care about both. Here’s why.

The big push to ban the import, possession, and transfer of African species in places like the United States and Europe started after the fallout of Cecil the Lion – the lion hunted by a Minnesota dentist back in 2015. The story made international news and supercharged the debate about international hunting where it had not previously been discussed, such as in state capitols and the offices of airline CEOs.

Typically, you will see anti-hunting advocates and uninformed lawmakers focus on a handful of African species in their attacks – the “Big Five” – which consists of elephant, Cape buffalo, African lion, white and black rhinoceros, and African leopard. Proponents of bans target these species because they generally exist in lower numbers (with the exception of buffalo) and are at higher risk from poaching.

But, contrary to what anti-hunting advocates claim, banning the import and possession of these species would be bad news for their long-term survival. These species typically generate the most funding for wildlife authorities and rural communities in the African range countries where they are found. The revenue generated by legal, regulated hunting in these countries are often the single most important source of funding for conservation and anti-poaching efforts.

Absent in the discussion from groups pushing for these bans is the science showing that the countries that incorporate hunting into their wildlife management strategies have higher, more sustainable populations of these species than other countries who have banned hunting.

It is documented fact that the world’s largest populations of African elephant, leopard, lion, black and white rhino, and giraffe inhabit Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe– the countries with regulated hunting programs which generate income and other incentives for conservation and habitat preservation, and which result in more secure habitat and lower rates of poaching. In addition, these countries have developed successful conservation programs to encourage the rural communities who live side-by-side with wildlife to invest in and protect these species.

Sadly, when presented with evidence directly from rural Africans or wildlife experts from range countries that runs contrary to their emotional based argument, lawmakers not only overlook it, but they also flat out ignore it.

In 2020, Director of the Namibian Association of Community Based Natural Resource Management Support Organizations (NACSO), Maxi Louis, testified against legislation to ban the import and possession of the “Big Five” in California. She told legislators, including the bill sponsor, Senator Henry Stern, that Namibia’s wildlife management relies on hunting, saying in part, “Namibian communities rely on sustainable hunting as part of a larger conservation effort that protects healthy populations of diverse species and wildlife habitat, while also supporting local jobs and livelihoods.”

Speaking to the same piece of legislation, the second-highest official in Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Mr. Munesushe Munodawafa, gave powerful testimony on the potential negative impact of the bill, calling it “a suicidal prescription that will not work for the African species and the African people… Zimbabwe does not subscribe to neo-colonialist ideologies and laws that are enacted to dictate how our wildlife resources should be governed in Africa.”

Mr. Munodawafa emphasized that Zimbabwe has healthy and increasing populations of elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and other species that would be severely impacted by the bill, in direct contradiction to the bill’s misrepresentation that these species are declining across Africa.

But California legislators didn’t listen. They tuned out the collective voice of community leaders and wildlife professionals in Africa who will probably forget more about these species and ecosystems than any legislator in the United States could ever hope to learn. The bill passed both the California and Assembly. Luckily, it was killed on the last day of California’s legislative session in 2020 and wasn’t re-introduced in 2021.

Similarly, the Connecticut legislature recently passed a bill banning the import, possession, ad trade in lawful African species – despite letters in opposition from African range countries and an op-ed, published in the Hartford press, about the damage that the bill could cause. Why are we enacting laws centered around conservation and species biodiversity that completely disregard science? In what other scenario would that be appropriate?

Setting aside the conservation impacts ideas like these would have on the actual species in Africa, there are also glaring legal issues associated with these pieces of legislation under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Lawmakers in New Jersey passed legislation in 2016 which prohibited the possession, import, and export of African elephants, leopards, lions, and black and white rhinos. The State was immediately sued under the Endangered Species Act, and New Jersey was forced to concede that the law was preempted by federal law.

When California Governor Brown vetoed similar legislation in 2018, he wrote in his veto message to state legislators that this legislation “would have imposed a state civil penalty for activities expressly authorized by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.”

In virtually no other situation, in the United States or otherwise, do we make wildlife management decisions based purely off emotion while discrediting actual science by on-the-ground biologists and wildlife professionals closest to those species.

Let me frame it this way – if the government of Botswana passed legislation preventing their citizens from coming to the United States to hunt and bring back any part of that animal because they thought hunting in the United States contributed to the overall decline of the species and those animals would end up extinct… there would be a lot of angry hunters in the wondering why a country and its politicians thousands of miles away purported to know more about wildlife management and biology than their local or state biologist. Yet when legislators in Connecticut, California and elsewhere do it – the bulk of the hunting community remains quiet.

You might never take a trip to Africa to hunt plains game animals like Kudu and Gemsbok, let alone a trip to hunt some of the most dangerous game animals on the planet. But if you’re a believer that science should be guiding our wildlife management decisions around the globe, and that those communities and individuals closest to the resource should have a say in how their wildlife is managed in a sustainable way, then you should be red hot the next time one of these import bills gets introduced.

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