Does Trophy Hunting Actually Aid Conservation?

Paul Sakuma / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday I wrote about the reemergence of Walter Palmer, the man who killed Cecil the Lion. Then, this morning, I awoke to a characteristically immersive and thought-provoking episode of Radiolab, “The Rhino Hunter,” focused on the very question Palmer’s act touched off: Can big-game trophy hunting actually benefit the conservation of endangered animals?

In the episode, we hear from Corey Knowlton, a hunter from Texas who paid $350,000 at auction for a permit to kill a rare black rhinoceros. (The case was widely reported, although perhaps not as widely as Walter Palmer’s fateful expedition; the rhino didn’t, as far as I can tell, have a TV-friendly name.)

What you’ll hear in this episode is primarily the trophy hunter’s case, made in a vivid and emotional appeal. If you can’t stand the thought of hearing a rare creature shot again and again until it dies, do not listen to this episode. Conservationists who oppose hunting as a funding mechanism for protecting endangered species get much less air-time than Mr. Knowlton and his hunt.

But you’ll also hear the depth of feeling that stands behind the argument that responsible trophy hunting is an aid to species conservation. If you don’t believe that argument, this episode likely won’t (and shouldn’t) change your mind, since the counter-claim gets so little attention. But if you’re like me, it’ll make you think.

It’s genuinely difficult to find a robustly supported answer to the question. The position of WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) stated on their site is this:

As a leading conservation organisation, WWF works to address illegal or unsustainable exploitation of wildlife. Within this framework, WWF accepts or supports hunting in a very limited number of contexts where it is culturally appropriate, legal and effectively regulated, and has demonstrated environmental and community benefits.

But PETA has its own position on the WWF.

A piece by Jason Goldman from last January in Conservation Magazine, pegged (presumably) to the very auction at which Corey Knowlton bought his permit, argues that research supports the trophy-hunting-for-conservation approach in Knowlton’s case:

According to a 2005 paper by Nigel Leader-Williams and colleagues in theJournal of International Wildlife Law and Policy the answer is yes. Leader-Williams describes how the legalization of white rhinoceros hunting in South Africa motivated private landowners to reintroduce the species onto their lands. As a result, the country saw an increase in white rhinos from fewer than one hundred individuals to more than 11,000, even while a limited number were killed as trophies.

In a 2011 letter to Science magazine, Leader-Williams also pointed out that the implementation of controlled, legalized hunting was also beneficial for Zimbabwe’s elephants. “Implementing trophy hunting has doubled the area of the country under wildlife management relative to the 13% in state protected areas,” thanks to the inclusion of private lands, he says. “As a result, the area of suitable land available to elephants and other wildlife has increased, reversing the problem of habitat loss and helping to maintain a sustained population increase in Zimbabwe’s already large elephant population.” It is important to note, however, that the removal of mature elephant males can have other, detrimental consequences on the psychological development of younger males. And rhinos and elephants are very different animals, with different needs and behaviors.

Still, the elephants of Zimbabwe and the white rhinos of South Africa seem to suggest that it is possible for conservation and trophy hunting to coexist, at least in principle. It is indeed a tricky, but not impossible, balance to strike.

It is noteworthy that the Leader-Williams’ 2005 paper recommended that legal trophy hunting for black rhinos be focused mainly on older, non-breeding males, or on younger males who have already contributed sufficient genetic material to their breeding groups. They further suggested that revenues from the sale of permits be reinvested into conservation efforts, and that revenues could be maximized by selling permits through international auctions. Namibia’s own hunting policy, it turns out, is remarkably consistent with scientific recommendations.

Goldman argues the outrage pointed at Knowlton should be redirected towards poachers, who conservationists and hunters alike find execrable.

After reading more on the debate, I found myself revisiting this New York Times story I linked yesterday. The story reinforces something that could easily get lost in all this coverage: there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all answer either way. An approach that’s apparently been beneficial to one animal population in one place may detriment another species in another spot.

I’d love to hear more perspectives from people who have firsthand experience in the areas of species preservation or big-game trophy hunting. What have you seen? And what did you think of the Radiolab episode? Please email