In a 2014 survey designed to understand the perceptions of the general US population toward hunting, administered by Lightspeed GMI, a global market research firm, 87% of respondents indicated it was acceptable to hunt for food, but only 37% indicated it was acceptable to hunt for a trophy. In response to this, much of the hunting industry ran headlong from “trophy” hunting. There have been endless articles about how our hunting culture is threatening the future of the sport and how trophy photos on social media are discouraging new hunters. Most of these articles center around not posting “grip and grin” photos on social media and focusing on the food aspect of hunting in order to raise the image of hunting with the non-hunting public.
While this is an important goal – without public support hunting will not exist anymore – this approach ignores a couple of realities. First, the fact is hunters care a lot about trophies. This is for varied reasons. A nice set of antlers hanging on the wall is a reminder of a successful hunt. Not just of the kill mind you, but a reminder of the whole experience. All the hard work, the patience, beautiful vistas, and the memories made with hunting buddies are all brought to mind when looking at a trophy on the wall. There’s also just something magical about antlers that makes us want to possess them, to have them in our hands. It’s almost as if there’s a genetic memory from our ancestral past – when antlers were used for all kinds of purposes – that drives us to pursue big antlers. Some people even wander into the woods every spring searching for shed antlers which are just laying on the ground. Finally, big antlers are usually found on the biggest animals. So even for pot hunters, big antlers are appealing since the animals with the biggest antlers typically put the most meat in the pot.
Second, trophy hunting can be the most conservation minded way to hunt. There are many animals where the oldest, largest males actually become an impediment to population growth. Take Alaskan brown bears for example. Male brown bears are notorious for killing brown bear cubs. They do this for a couple of reasons – for food as well as to get the cubs mother back into heat again sooner. The point, however, is that a single bear going around and killing lots of other bears is not good for population growth or diversity. And the largest males are the worst offenders since the sows have a harder time defending their cubs from them. When a hunter comes in and kills a trophy 10 ft bear, that hunter has actually improved the population dynamics of the area. The number of animals in the area will increase, as will the genetic diversity.
Finally, there is the economics of trophy hunting. This is, to mind mind, the most distasteful part of the conversation, simply because I view these animals are more than just a commodity, but it is an important part of the conversation. The fact is, an enormous amount of funding for conservation comes from the fees associated with trophy hunting. Many of the overseas species commonly thought of as trophy animals still exist because of trophy hunting. Species like elephant, which cause incredible amounts of damage to crops, would be hunted to extinction by local tribesman if not for the economic value they provide in the form of fees and employment opportunities related to trophy hunting. And lest one argue the government could protect these animals, the fact is virtually all of the funding for conservation and anti-poaching activities comes from fees related to hunting.
Even in North America, where there is a thriving environmentalist movement and protections like the Endangered Species Act have real teeth, far and away the largest contributor to conservation funding are hunters. In North America, we hunters voluntarily tax ourselves to provide conservation funding in the form of the Pittman-Robertson Act. And all of our license fees go towards conservation activities, and the license fees are the highest for “trophy” animals. Tags for bighorn sheep, moose, and the like go for $2,000 plus. Then there are the controversial governors tags, which have reportedly gone for nearly half-a-million dollars for a single big horn hunt. Like pretty much any field, money is what gets things done in conservation; and that’s some serious money – all going toward conservation efforts.
It is understandable that organizations trying to improve the image of hunters in the eyes of the public have focused on the food aspect of hunting. It is a major – if not main – part of the hunting tradition and, based on surveys, seems to play well with the general public sentiment. The problem, though, lies in running away from the trophy hunting topic. The hunting community has allowed anti-hunting groups like PETA to define the terms of the debate. Hunters, and especially hunting publications and outreach groups need to start reclaiming, and redefining, the phrase trophy hunting, because, in the end, every animal harvested is a trophy in its own right.