let's get real about the elephant in the room
A few years ago I had the privilege to go on safari in Tanzania during a two-week stint exploring the country. While there, I saw lions, elephants, cheetahs, and giraffes. It was, in short, surreal.
If I had gone in 2020, however, elephants may be crossed off that list. That's because, according to recent reports, African elephants are being killed and hunted for their ivory at such a devastating rate that large groups of this species could face the end of their existence as soon as 2020. That means that, in as little as three years, African elephants could go extinct.
And it’s not just elephants, nor is it simply hunting and poaching that are causing this decline.
Extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process, according to an article in Engendered Earth. While major changes in the condition of the Earth cause populations of wildlife to decrease, the current extinction crisis we are seeing is quite unique.
How unique, exactly? According to a study from Brown University, the extinction rate is 10 times worse than scientists previously thought; the current rates topping at 1,000 times higher than natural background rates. And, while there are many reasons for this - including evolution - natural disasters, increases in human population, and a decrease in conservation efforts, the facts remain the same: a 52% decline in wildlife between the years of 1970 and 2010 (a significant increase from the previous 30% average).
But there's a larger elephant in the room that is decreasing our wildlife population unnaturally: hunting.
Hunters didn't pay for wild lands
The notion that hunters have helped pay for wild lands is a skewed one; in the USA alone, approximately 90% of wild lands in national refuge areas are government-owned. Hunters have only paid for an average of 0.3% of that land. Let's ditch the myth that trophy hunters help conserve wildlife refuge lands, shall we?
Decades ago in many European countries, hunting was a privilege restricted to the noble and the rich. Today, more than 13.7 million Americans hunt (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). While some catch and release fish, others hunt big game, often traveling overseas to hunt the more exotic and notorious, seeing this accomplishment as their own version of "noble."
And though hunting isn’t entirely to blame for the decline of wildlife, it is responsible for a significant portion of species degradation, specifically in various African countries where the Big Five are popularly hunted for trophy or sport.
Hunting, on average, leads to an 83% decrease in mammal population within 25 miles of hunter access points. It’s not just mammal populations either. Hunting has also taken a toll on bird populations, leading to a 58% decline in population within 4.5 miles of hunter access points (like roads and nearby towns).
As hunters gain access to new areas of huntable land in the coming decades, researchers are calling for expanded legal protection for the natural wilderness areas and habitats of wildlife.
According to a report released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the U.N. Environment Program, about 15 percent of Earth’s land is protected. But that’s not enough. Unprotected sites are sprinkled around the globe, but several contain endangered species that live in highly threatened habitats. While agencies are working to protect more land, regulations and standards will continue to tighten until more land is rightfully protected.
Hunting isn't actually necessary
One popular claim of trophy or sport hunting is that it helps to reduce overpopulated species and simply takes place of larger predators. Let's cut the bull: trophy hunters single out and kill the largest, most "prized" predators of a species, and often have a technological advantage to do so. This type of hunting also destroys natural predators and, thusly, harms ecosystems and food chains.
Increasing regulations and standards won’t stop the decline, but they could help slow the process. That is, if hunters are willing to not only oblige and obey, but pay closer attention to the adverse effects trophy and sport hunting can and do have on wild species.
A few poachers will forge on, disobeying land usage laws, always on the hunt for their “trophy.” It’s hard to know why illegal hunters do what they do, but what we do know is that they are threatening some of the world’s most vulnerable species. And their reason? Just for the thrill of it. Hunting may not be completely responsible for the decline of wildlife, but the false reality that it contributes to conservation certainly isn't true, either.
There is a present and consist urgency to conserve what is left on this planet. That includes animals, of all shapes, sizes, and species.