Photo made on December 30, 2012 shows an elephant at the Amboseli game reserve, approximately 250 kilometres south of Kenyan capital Nairobi. Drawing to its close today, this year 2012, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, stands out as the ''annus horriblis'' (Latin for 'year of horrors') for the World's largest land mammal with statistics standing at 34 tonnes of poached ivory having been seized, marking the biggest ever total of confiscated ivory in a single year, outstripping by almost 40 per cent last year's record of 24.3 tonnes. Earlier this year, in just six weeks, between January and March 2012, at least 50 per cent of the elephants in Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park were slaughtered for their ivory by horseback bandits. Most illegal ivory is destined for Asia, in particular China, where it has soared in value as an investment vehicle and coveted as "white gold." AFP PHOTO/Tony KARUMBA        (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump puts big-game trophy decision on hold
01:27 - Source: CNN

Amy Dickman is the founder and director of Tanzania’s Ruaha Carnivore Project, part of Oxford University’s WildCRU. She has worked in African conservation for over 20 years. All views expressed belong to the author. For more about the debate over big game trophies, watch CNN Films’ “Trophy,” premiering Sunday, January 14, at 9pm ET/PT, on CNN.

CNN  — 

I am a lifelong animal lover and vegetarian for whom the idea of killing animals for fun is repellent, and have committed my career to African wildlife conservation.

You might, therefore, expect that I would have been thrilled with Donald Trump’s suggestion – influenced apparently by media and animal rights pressures – that he could decide against the US importation of trophy-hunted elephants (and possibly other species such as lions).

However, I am fearful that impulsive and emotional responses to trophy hunting – no matter how well-meaning – could in fact intensify the decline of species such as lions.

There is no doubt that iconic African species are in serious trouble – lion numbers have nearly halved in 20 years, and as we estimate that only around 24,000 remain, lions are now as rare as rhinos in Africa, and 15 times rarer than elephants .

From the furore over trophy hunting, the public could be forgiven for thinking that it was the major threat facing lions. But in reality, the key issues are loss of habitat, prey loss from bushmeat poaching and conflict with local people .

That conflict usually involves poisoning, shooting or spearing lions, either to retaliate for (or try to prevent) attacks on livestock or people. Some traditional killing of lions also still occurs, where young men spear them to gain wealth and status.

It is unquestionable that poorly managed trophy hunting can negatively impact lion populations, and it is imperative that hunting is well managed. Systems have been established in places like Zimbabwe to regulate hunting, and while they will never be perfect, they are working relatively well.

Furthermore, any negative impacts need to be set against the positives such a land use can offer. People may find it very strange that there can be any positive aspect to hunting threatened species – surely any additional mortality heaped on a declining species must unquestionably be a bad thing?

The reality is more complicated. Of course, if trophy hunting is the main reason for the decline in an area’s lion population, then stopping it is entirely justified and desirable.

However, in most places, this is not the case. And if trophy hunting diminishes those other threats – by protecting habitat, preventing poaching or acting as a buffer between parks and human populations – then overall the threatened species could be better off.

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Inside the world of trophy hunting
01:50 - Source: CNN

People are often confused by the “benefit” of hunting, imagining it is about money going to local people. While that can be important, particularly in remote communal areas with few other revenue options, the most important benefit from an African conservation perspective is that trophy hunting maintains vast areas of land for wildlife, which is invaluable in an ever more human-dominated world.

There is a risk that by banning trophy importation without considering the alternative land uses, the headline-grabbing but usually small threat posed by trophy hunting could be replaced by the far more silent, deadly and larger threats of land conversion, poaching and conflict.

Photo-tourism is often touted as a replacement – but in many remote, less attractive areas, it would not generate sufficient revenue to maintain that land as a wildlife area. If there are non-lethal alternatives to trophy hunting that could safeguard the same amount of land, then I would be the first to support them – but the reality is that no such alternatives currently exist for most hunting areas.

People may hate the ethics around trophy hunting, but to a lion (and to a conservationist), the consequence is the same whether it is shot by a trophy hunter, poisoned by a local villager or starved from lack of prey, so the aim should be to reduce overall unsustainable mortality rather than focusing on one particular activity.

We should remember that the management of African wildlife is the right and responsibility of range states – who have managed to maintain populations of large, costly wildlife while in the Global North we have largely extirpated ours.

The US-based calls to ban trophy hunting in Africa seem particularly hypocritical considering the scale of domestic US hunting – it would save far more animals if the activity was banned in-country, and would not impact the lives of rural Africans and their wildlife.

Our ultimate goal should be to really understand the threats to each population and aim to reduce those, based on science rather than emotion.

Otherwise we could be condemning far more of these magnificent animals to death, even if such deaths occur far beyond the gaze and hype of the media.

It is a cause for celebration that so many people love lions, elephants and other wild animals – but we should be extremely wary of basing decisions on emotion alone, in case we worsen their conservation outlook, and effectively love them to death.