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African buffalo. Picture: Picture: ISTOCK
African buffalo. Picture: Picture: ISTOCK

As the UK’s House of Lords considers a bill proposing to ban the importation of hunting trophies, the propaganda machine of the global industry that supports it has gone into overdrive. 

Its carefully scripted narrative goes something like this: we all hate the idea of African wildlife being killed, dismembered and reassembled into a trophy to hang on someone’s wall. But we must live with this necessary evil because trophy hunting is killing wild animals to conserve them.

An example of this narrative can be found in a letter to the Financial Times by Amy Dickman, who claims trophy hunting ultimately saves more animals than it kills. Prof Dickman has been a leading voice among UK academics who oppose the impending ban on imports, unanimously passed in the House of Commons. With Dilys Roe, she also aired a video lecture that explains why all of us should be slower to condemn trophy hunting.

It can all be very confusing — and it’s meant to be. The latest broadside from the propaganda machine is that anyone opposed to trophy hunting is not only “virtue signalling”, but also an unwitting perpetrator of neocolonial attitudes towards African people, telling them how to run their countries. Those who associate trophy hunting with men in white hats and big rifles who kill animals, so the narrative goes, are the real neocolonialists. This is standard gaslighting.

As the frenzy mounts, Sian Sullivan of Bath Spa University has cut through to what’s really going on. In her recently published article, “Hunting Africa: how international trophy hunting may constitute neocolonial green extractivism”, published in the Journal of Political Ecology, she shows how the trophy hunting industry has become adept at employing subversive narratives to greenwash its activities. The basic strategy, she says, is as follows: 

  • Attack is the best form of defence. Attack your opponents as leftist greenies who don’t understand that in the real world trophy hunting is a necessary evil. When they object, tell them to stop being emotional. Attack the people who question you rather than their arguments.
  • Play the victim by twisting the narrative. Tell the world that trophy hunting is actually doing poor Africans and conservation a favour and dismiss any opposition to that view as “neocolonial”.  

Back in 1996, Prof Sullivan writes, Safari Club International’s (SCI’s) African chapter was designed, among other things, to sensitise new provincial and national governments to “wildlife as an economic development and rural development and management tool”. It sought to expand opportunities for hunting into “tribal lands ... linked to rural development”. The argument has taken root.

Sustainable use’ 

On the back of this SCI strategy, Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) initiatives were established in which “sustainable use” of wildlife was promoted as a pragmatic approach to conversation. Whether this is equitable, meaningful or sustainable hardly ever gets debated. As Prof Sullivan notes, anyone who points out how “sustainable use” advances elite interests is blocked as “errant”.

SCI makes sweeping comments on its website, such as: “The science is clear: hunting results in more wildlife, more wild landscapes and a better coexistence with nature”. As Prof Sullivan shows, the science is far from clear, but anyone who raises questions about the logic of that “science” gets dismissed as pushing a Western, neocolonial animal rights agenda.   

Analysing the mechanics of the pro-hunting propaganda machine, Prof Sullivan says those opposed to the UK bill are quick to argue that African countries “significantly rely” on trophy hunting revenue, but this significance is never quantified.

In questioning why trophy hunting proponents often describe hunting as a “sport”, she points out that “often there is little that is level between hunter and prey on the trophy hunting playing field”. This is a “sport” that serves elite interests while being framed as a necessary evil for maintaining animal population health.

Cash cow 

For those at the top, hunting is a lucrative cash cow. At SCI’s 50th annual convention, a banquet raised “over $15m for SCI’s advocacy and conservation efforts”. An example: the “Inclusive Conservation Group” used the first word in its name to run social media campaigns worth more than $500,000 from 2016 to 2017, financed by SCI but falsely employing the word “inclusive” to gain legitimacy.

A further example of manipulation is revealed in a recent article by Jared Kukura — praised in Sullivan’s paper for disentangling the SCI funding links. Kukura found that UK charity Jamma International “recently pumped millions of dollars into sustainable use propaganda”. Kukura names “sustainable use” groups that have taken “money from Jamma ... with the specific intention of communicating a positive view of trophy hunting”. According to Kukura, Jamma also sponsored the documentary in which environmentalist  George Monbiot declares reluctant allegiance to the view that trophy hunting is a necessary evil.

Prof Sullivan draws on multiple studies to show that the narrative of community benefit is simply false. She notes that in Namibia poverty intensity maps most closely with the areas in which trophy hunting occurs on communal lands. This concurs with a study I conducted last year on the economics of trophy hunting in SA. It simply isn’t worth it.

• Dr Harvey is director of research & programmes at Good Governance Africa.

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