HRecently and completely, people have turned against trophy hunting.
Twenty years ago it was considered, even by those who found it distasteful, a private vice. Today, the image of a man posing with a gun over a fallen elephant is considered almost akin to child pornography.
Fashions can change with astonishing rapidity. Smoking went almost overnight from being universally accepted to being virtually excluded from the public square. Around the same time, and with the same speed, same-sex relationships reversed.
You might think “fashion” is a frivolous word to use to protect rare mammals. Britain last week became the latest country to ban the import of trophies, listing around 7,000 species banned, including lions, tigers and bears (oh my). The Conservative government said it was ‘protecting endangered animals and helping to strengthen and support long-term conservation’. The United States is now an exception in allowing people to bring in as many polar bear pelts and leopard pelts as they wish.
Intuitively, a trophy ban might make sense as a conservation measure. But how much evidence is there that banning the import of animal parts (animals that have, by definition, already been slaughtered) serves to protect their numbers?
It turns out that, in at least some cases, hunting drives conservation by incentivizing local people to preserve their megafauna. You or I might think elephants are noble and majestic, but African villagers see them as pests that trample crops and knock down houses. Without a good reason to treat them as a renewable resource, elephants’ human neighbors will hunt them to extinction. The same goes for big cats and rhinos.
Consider the contrasting experiences of two African countries. Kenya had around 1.5 million head of big game when it banned trophy hunting in the late 1970s. It quickly saw that number drop by 80% in four decades.
Around the same time, South Africa went the other way, encouraging local communities to farm wildlife for meat, hides and tusks. The numbers there have since jumped to more than 20 million head, including rare species. White rhinos, for example, are not threatened in South Africa, largely due to demand from foreign hunters.
The Pakistani government, which runs ambitious rewilding and reintroduction programs, has learned this lesson. He recently sold four licenses to shoot the markhor, an endangered mountain goat with beautiful screw-like horns, raising $575,000, 80% of which went to local communities. These communities now have every reason to ensure that there is always plenty of markhor.
All of which brings us to an uncomfortable truth. We often support policies for emotional reasons and then look for ways to logically defend them. Much of the opposition to trophy hunting was sparked by revulsion at a 2015 image of an overweight Minnesota dentist posing near the carcass of a Zimbabwean lion called Cecil. An essentially aesthetic aversion was disguised as a concern for the number of lions. But lions are not endangered in Zimbabwe, partly because they can be legally hunted.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has examined in detail how we rationalize our intuitions. It presents people with scenarios in which no one gets hurt but triggers a disgust reflex. For example, a man defrosts a chicken, has sex with it, then cooks it and eats it. Haidt found that while working-class respondents have no problem saying certain things are simply unacceptable, students struggle to try to come up with a reasoned objection.
“The Puritan hated bear-baiting,” wrote the great 19th-century historian Lord Macaulay, “not because it hurt the bear, but because it pleased the beholder.” Twitter hated trophy hunting, not because lions were close to extinction, but because it hated the image of a fat dentist crouching over a fallen beast.
It can be hard to accept that some of the positions we consider moral, or at least logical, are nothing more than rationalizations of our gut feelings. But think of all those trolley dilemmas in which psychologists ask people if they would push someone off a bridge to block a trolley that was about to hit children. For most respondents, logic is not in the question.
That doesn’t make our intuitions wrong, of course. It may be aesthetics rather than ethics that elevates baby seals above, say, baby cockroaches, but that doesn’t make our feelings any less valid.
We do, however, have to be honest enough to face a question. If we knew banning trophies would drive some species closer to extinction, would we still support it?