Does Trophy Hunting Actually Aid Conservation? Cont'd

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

Several readers are responding to that question, raised by my colleague Matt. Here’s Janet Burns:

That Radiolab episode did awaken me to the thinking that hunting can help with conservation efforts. But the bottom line for me is that trophy hunters enjoy killing—or, to use their euphemism, “taking.”  They can sugarcoat their reasons for hunting with all kinds of noble excuses.

I’m not saying that their efforts are ineffective. But they get their thrill from killing, plain and simple. Otherwise, why didn’t that hunter just donate his money, save on airfare, etc. and let someone else do the “taking.” As eloquent as that man was, he enjoys taking lives, and I just cannot wrap my head around that kind of thinking.

Jason B. is more blunt:

$350,000 is a lot of money. One could put it toward killing something for no good reason, and maybe that would help some economically disadvantaged people. Or maybe one could just invest $350,000 in the community of those people and not kill something for no good reason. You know. Just a thought.

But there are people who like to pull the wings off of flies. Psychopaths should have some sort of way to contribute, I guess.

Another reader is much more nuanced:

There is no doubt in some specific areas that sport hunting helps with conservation. The best example is Ducks Unlimited, where a habitat is conserved and numbers of ducks have increased because people put their money where their values lie. Almost every game species in the U.S. has a supportive group with similar results.

Trophy hunting is quite different, and the distinction is important, in part because the problems associated with conservation are so different.

In North America, we simply do not have a problem with adequate amounts of quality habitat for game species. In many parts of Africa, the opposite is true. This is where some argue that trophy hunting can have an impact. The failure of the model is not that some will pay to shoot a trophy and that may provide some small incentive to produce hunt-able animals. The issue is twofold:

1. Simply producing more animals for shooting is not the same as conservation of large swaths of habitat with an intact system of ecosystem services. More rhinos on private land simply result in more rhinos. As long as there is a market to shoot them, ranchers will serve them up.

2. Theory is rarely reality when the institutions that would redistribute the fees from hunting to locals fail. The simple fact is that corruption likely kills as many animals as poachers, etc. and it’s rampant at all levels, from local bureaucrats to Asian officials who look the other way at illegal ivory trade or sale of endangered species. Until those institutions are functional and trustworthy, we cannot count on a modicum of hunting fees to have any important impact on conservation.

Any perspectives from people who have firsthand experience in the areas of species preservation or big-game trophy hunting? Please email