Why do you hunt?

There’s a growing gulf in the perception of different forms of hunting – but, Byron Pace warns, we can’t entirely discard ‘trophy hunting’ in favour of ‘meat hunting’ or conservation will suffer.

I start this month’s article with a request. We all need to engage more with defining what the future looks like. Do more than sit and critique, all too quick to suggest that someone else should be doing more. Doing more of what should be the first question.

So my request begins by asking you to write in and give your own thoughts as to what direction the global community of hunters should be moving, and what outcome we hope to achieve. Solve our problems in a few paragraphs, and you may just be picked for letter of the month.

It is important to first understand why a reasonable debate and discussion about wildlife management is so hard to achieve. It’s an emotional issue for many people. Put even the most seasoned public speaker on a morning chat show, throw around a bit of human connection and a few pictures of charismatic animals, and it becomes very hard get an audience on side.

The simple truth is that most people can barely come to terms with their own food consumption, never mind anything else. Dissociating the emotional response from the reality of facts and figures will be key going forward.

Indeed, it is this basic human reaction that means we have to do more than simply provide the dry, binary supporting evidence for why hunting as a tool can offer unmatched benefits. We have been doing this for some time, and despite some incredible success stories, from Marco Polo in Tajikistan to bongo in the Central African Republic, hunting struggles to find support.

The reasons for this span more than a simple one-line response, but we have to apportion some blame in our direction. Be that for illegal activities within our community, such as persecution of protected predators, or a lack of considered impact when commenting in public forums, anything that chips away at the little hard-won understanding of hunting we have, tarnishes the good work and positive effects.

The evidence supports hunting but we need more than that.

Whether we like it or not, it’s not one for one. A single blustering fumble from a young hunter with a dead giraffe on social media isn’t offset by a report showcasing the man-hours funded by hunting in anti-poaching efforts in Mozambique. One poisoned raptor doesn’t suddenly get forgotten with a positive study showing positive species diversity on managed grouse moors.

The world isn’t fair like that. A dead giraffe and a grinning blonde circulate the world in a day. The gritty, on-the-round stories of real conservation struggle to find the light of day.

There are, of course, many other factors that have worked against hunting in the last handful of decades. Increasing urbanisation and a dissociation with rural interactions desensitises people to the challenges of a world outside their sanitised concrete jungles.

Celebrity figures, some of who are probably well meaning, skew public perception, distorting and twisting truths to support their own opinions. It is dangerous to assume that every individual’s opinion should be weighted equally, or in this case weighted disproportionately, simply because they are well known. Celebrity crusades against hunting are the perfect example of this.

Yes, many of us live in democratic societies, and are free to vote for the people we want to run our countries and make decisions on our behalf. Our opinions are treated equally. However, none of us are experts on everything. We trust that teams of people who are experts in their field make decisions on the best information available to them.

From governments to construction and medicine, we allow expert, informed opinion based on facts to build skyscrapers and transplant livers. No one asks for a global opinion among the general public to check we all agree. Sure, methods will adjust and change with time, debated by people within these fields to push towards a better outcome.

Yet when it comes to wildlife management, we seem to be in a position where every man and his dog is given equal importance as to their opinion, often guided by high-profile individuals with air time. More gravity needs to be placed on the proven science we have, and we need the public to trust in the experts who deliver this.

Some progress has been made in associating hunting with the provision of ethically sourced high-protein, low-fat meat, and this has been massively positive across the board. It seems that when discussions are dragged around to this, the response is often one of understanding.

“Well, yes, I accept that if you want to eat meat then ethically hunted, sustainable game harvested for the table can be justified quite easily. What I take exception to is rich Americans murdering majestic animals for a head on their wall.”

This is not a direct quote from anyone in particular, but is the kind of angle the likes of Piers Morgan have taken in the past when discussing hunting.

Trophy hunters play a role in conservation – the facts are there.

Once again, we see emotion blinding any kind of reasoning or logic, but it does raise an important point – one I need to consider much more myself. That is, that we are seeing a divergence in hunting; a rift between those people only willing to stand and be counted when their hunting is for food, and those who continue to participate in what would be classed as trophy hunting.

Many of the meat-hunting segment would not want to be classified as undertaking any kind of trophy hunting. We have seen this with the rise of shows like Meat Eater, pushing the meat-focused agenda both within the hunting community, and most recently in more public domains with the release on Netflix.

This is a massively positive step, but we need to be careful that we don’t give way to a situation where hunting for meat is acceptable but no other reason is. Management around the world would collapse under this notion.

This is a challenging concept for me to wrap my own head and activities round. I hunt a lot for food. As I have written before, my protein intake is mostly game, supplemented with agriculturally produced meats. Indeed, most of the time I am hunting, my family or friends will consume the spoils of a trip.

However, part of me hunts for reasons I can’t articulate with any consistency. An element is adventure and challenge, but undoubtedly there is an element of primitive being underlying much of it. We are hunters by nature – it is what we were made to do.

As long as we do it with respect, ethically (which includes full use of the animal), and consider our impact to ensure our actions do not detrimentally affect the overall population or habitat, it is hard to think of a more natural endeavour.

What do you hunt for? Really think about it.

Yet, while we wrestle with conveying the reason some of us have an insatiable desire to travel half a world away to hunt, it is hunting of this nature that is at the very core of some of our greatest recent population recoveries. It is the money facilitated by people willing to travel to remote corners or the globe that really make a difference on the ground.

It is money and a vested interest in the wildlife’s continued long-term success that protects areas from people, over-grazing, poaching and development. It is not, however, driven by meat harvesting, though this is a positive spin-off for rural communities.

It is so important we rationalise this thinking in our own minds and between our friends to have honest, reasoned and more open discussions. I will finish with a clear example of why we need to think about what we say.

Very often we pipe the tune that hunting is an important part of our heritage, and this in a way justifies our actions. Although this has a lot of merit, and heritage is vital for identity, the statement in itself holds little water, because at the extremes, there are plenty of practices around the world that could be considered ‘traditions’ and are not palatable or acceptable in a modern age.

Bear-baiting, badger-baiting, shark-finning, sun bear bile farms. All of these are rooted in various cultures’ traditional activities, and none of them could be considered ethical or deliver acceptable animal welfare. So tradition alone is not enough. We must think about the implications of our statements in a far broader sense than we often do.

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