Humans have been hunting, foraging and scavenging since the dawn of human history in Africa – this is supported with ample evidence from paleontological research from the Pleistocene (the geological epoch which lasted from about 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). Hunting thus constitutes arguably the oldest human activity. Indeed, many scientists believe that the intellectual stimulation initiated through hunting (e. g. tracking, pursuing and killing wild animals, providing protein for the group, tool making, communication and cooperative skills, etc.) made humans evolve into their present form towards the end of the Pleistocene. Early scientific and critical thinking was stimulated by the rigors of having to provide food for the family bands of hominins (humans and their close extinct ancestors).
Skilled and physically strong hunters undoubtedly advanced into group leaders, influencing social development in the process; the uncertain outcome of the chase of wild animals, and inspiring reference for killed animals which provided sustenance and shelter, probably triggered a spiritual progression towards more formal religious beliefs and nurtured the development of visual and performing arts. All competitive sports evolved one way or another from hunting – the original and oldest ‘competition’ since the dawn of time – hunters were the live-sustaining champions of human society! Hunting demanded, facilitated, and made major changes in social structure “worth it” from the point of view of natural selection.
Few human activities other than hunting show a more sustained link across human prehistory and history, and all human civilizations from the Stone Age to the Internet Age.
Why is it then that the very act of hunting and wildlife conservation (which embeds the sustainable use of wildlife) is in the crosshairs on the international stage today? Why does hunting come under fire over moral objections?
What if the word ‘hunting’ represented not just a set of conflicting emotions sensationally presented by the pro and con camps, but a peer-reviewed set of scientific, economic, ecologic and social facts? Could controversial discussions and media reporting on hunting then be replaced by dialogue of how hunting as a subset of the sustainable use of natural resources is contributing to landscape and biodiversity conservation?
There seems to be a need to explore the reasons which actually drive people to hunt or to oppose hunting.
I believe that the anti-hunting feelings of the general public are heavily influenced by the media and some sensationalist reporting, not always based on irrefutable facts. Yet, the empathy non-hunting men, women and children harbor for individual animals is understandable; they see nature through a non-use perspective and cannot understand why anybody would kill an animal. Unfortunately, the majority has infrequent or rare exposure to nature and country life, and judgement is often based on what the media report or vociferous opinion makers say.
If one takes a critical look at today’s ‘hunting’ messages it becomes apparent that on the one side these messages come from and are aimed at hunters, wildlife managers or sustainable use friendly scientists; they almost never reach non-hunters. Typically, messages on the conservation benefits of hunting do not raise big media interest; they may be complex and they are not easily digestible.
The second group of ‘hunting’ messages comes from strictly anti-use circles with the objective to direct the consumers’ emotions towards an anti-hunting stance. As we have seen recently, messages about real or perceived illegal or unethical hunting create significant media hype. It gets worse when a few vociferous animal rights and anti-use activists reduce these real or perceived problems to 140 character tweets. These tweets spread like wildfire; readers take them at face value; they usually do not have the complex factual information which put such tweets into context.
Hunters, land owners and conservancies with sustainable use (hunting) programs, wildlife managers and researchers readily admit that they struggle to find a truly persuasive message. Our usual justification, a cocktail of ecological, social, and economic facts and beliefs, lacks emotions and fascination, and sometimes clear and hard data. It apparently cannot be reduced to 140 character tweets. Our messages focus on species conservation, motivations of hunters, and methods of hunting, conservation contributions on a narrow or wider scale, and so on. The all-important interconnection between landscape conservation and sustainable hunting is lost to the average consumer, even to the average hunter. Rarely does this true, but complicated message reach the public and policy makers in a concise and understandable form.
Simplifying complexity is what brands do every day. Brands are empty words to start with, but skilled and professional communicators fill them with meaning for their audiences, making them simple retrieval cues, which represent a much larger body of information. Consumer brands don’t just sell products; they are shortcuts to what inspires an audience. Brands represent a set of values and promises which resonate powerfully with specific people.
Sustainable hunting coupled with wildlife conservation deserves the same success, and we can apply the same principles. We are in need of ‘branding’ hunting – not simply by using association logos, mission and vision statements or slogans. Hunting associations should promote coherent sets of values and promises understandable for the non-hunter; embark on transparent courses of action, and support peer-reviewed evaluations of the benefits hunting has for the conservation of wildlife populations and entire landscapes. The results could be both provocative and intriguing, delivering a powerful new hunting message. After all, what could be more inspiring than a brand that embodies the conservation of biodiversity on incredibly vast tracts of land outside protected areas?
“The best defense is a strong and consistent offense” said the Boone and Crockett Club in a recent email to associate members. “In this age of social media and instant outrage, the primary enemies of fair chase and science-based wildlife management are twofold: hunters who ignore fair chase ethics, and the anti-hunting groups who use [these] transgressions as public-relation weapons. Fair chase [sustainable] hunting, and science-based wildlife management are not just acceptable practices in a society that seems determined to forget its place in the food chain—they are necessary ones. But those who oppose hunting will not learn this on their own, and neither will those who ignore fair chase ethics, yet still call what they do ‘hunting’. It is up to all fair chase hunters to stand up for what is right and be on the forefront of spreading the message of fair chase.”
In my last editorial I said “The hunting associations and clubs of the world need to recognize the immense challenges sustainable use are facing, and with it our valued traditions and passions” – and concluded with “let our leaders rise to the challenge”! Here is the challenge: we urgently need a credible, independent review of the specific and broader conservation impacts of trophy hunting. IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Group Chair Dr. Rosie Cooney suggested “a series of case studies that cover a representative set of species and contexts, including both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practice examples, using desk based review of published and grey literature followed up with methods that could include expert interviews, access to government records (where possible), interviews with members of local communities etc., as appropriate.”… “A variety of scales could be chosen to capture different dynamics – national, landscape, specific species. Transparency and independence require a technical review of the work by specialists with a diversity of expertise”, Cooney added.
Hunters and non-hunters alike need ‘greater independence of thought’ – and in this African Indaba’s column Conservation Matters Shane Mahoney’s thoughts may just assist in this process: “Hunters need to take the lead in a broad-based conservation coalition, … and once again welcome all those who care for wildlife, helping them to understand hunting or to accept its contribution, even while they remain less than totally comfortable about it.”
Editorial by Gerhard R. Damm