The most elephants that Ron Thomson has ever killed by himself, in one go, is 32. It took him about 15 minutes. Growing up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Thomson began hunting as a teenager and quickly became expert. From 1959, he worked as a national parks ranger and was regularly called on to kill animals that came into conflict with man. “It was a great thrill to me, to be very honest,” he says by phone from Kenton-on-Sea, the small coastal town in South Africa where he lives. “Some people enjoy hunting just as much as other people abhor it. I happened to enjoy it.”
Now 79, Thomson has not shot an elephant for decades, and he struggles to find an open-minded audience for his stories of having, in his own words, “by far hunted more than any other man alive”. Today there are people who hunt, and many more people who feel a deep-seated aversion to it; for whom the image of an animal slain by man – regardless of species, motive, legal status or even historical context – is nothing but repellent.
Today, these fault lines are most often exposed when a picture of a hunter grinning above their kill goes viral, as it did last month for the US hunter and television presenter Larysa Switlyk. Photographs of her posing with a goat and a sheep she had shot weeks earlier, and entirely legally, on the Scottish island of Islay went well beyond hunting circles on social media to be met with widespread disgust. Mike Russell, the local member of the Scottish parliament, told BBC Scotland it was unacceptable “to see people in camouflage … rejoicing at the killing of a goat”.
Nicola Sturgeon publicly sympathised with the outcry and said the law would be reviewed. Switlyk posted on Instagram that she would be heading out of internet access on her “next hunting adventure”. “Hopefully, that will give enough time for all the ignorant people out there sending me death threats to get educated on hunting and conservation.”
And that was a goat. In the case of species that people travel to glimpse in the wild, or just watch on the Discovery Channel, the outrage can reverberate around the world. What would possess someone to want to kill these animals, let alone pay tens of thousands of pounds for the opportunity to do so?
“If you ask 100 hunters, you will get 100 different answers,” says Jens Ulrik Høgh by phone from woodlands in Sweden, where he has been escorting groups on hunts of wild boar. Høgh, who works for Limpopo Travel & Diana Hunting Tours, a Danish hunting travel company, compares the attraction to that of mountaineering, scuba diving or golf: a physical hobby through which you can see the world. Hunters travel to experience different challenges. Zebras, for example, are tricky because they gather in herds out in the open and are watchful for predators. “There are always eyes looking in every direction – it typically takes a couple of days to get one.” With baboons, numerous but intelligent primates, “you need to be a good hunter, a good stalker and a good shot”.
The demand is reflected in the price tag. It costs relatively little – about £3,000 – legally to hunt a giraffe because doing so is widely considered easy by hunters and therefore not desirable. “A giraffe is basically a very docile pile of meat. I could go shoot a cow in a field,” says Høgh. (For the same reason, he tells me, he is rolling his eyes at Switlyk, the self-styled “hardcore huntress”, posing with her trophies on Islay: “Who wants to kill a sheep?”)
Although Høgh has made about 30 trips to Africa, he has never killed a lion, elephant or much “super-big game” for a straightforward reason: it is very expensive, typically upwards of £20,000. (And rightly so, he adds.) “I simply cannot afford to go lion hunting. But if I could, I would.”
It is a tiny proportion of hunters who can, he says; he guesses fewer than 1%, although he is upfront about the distinction between hunting a wild lion and a “canned” one, an animal raised for slaughter. That comes much cheaper – but to hear Høgh tell it, it is a price no hunter with integrity would want to pay. “That’s basically a farmed animal. You wouldn’t even call it a hunt,” he says.
One name keeps cropping up in conversations about so-called trophy hunting: Cecil, the lion killed by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer in Zimbabwe in 2015. Although it was legal to shoot him, he had been lured out of a national park where he was well-beloved, and Palmer, hunting with a bow and arrow, did not kill Cecil outright, meaning the animal suffered. “It was an outrageous and shabby thing,” says David Quammen, a US science writer who has written extensively about humanity’s relationship with predators. But, he adds, there is a skill, even nobility, to hunting when “old-fashioned” rules of fair chase are observed. “Anyone who is not vegetarian is ill-advised to condescend to the people who do that.”
It is undeniable that industrial meat production causes more global suffering than hunting. But even charges of hypocrisy do not deter opponents of hunting, even those who eat meat themselves, for whom the thrill of the chase could never justify taking a life.
This reflects the complexity of our often emotional, sometimes contradictory relationship with animals, which Quammen explores in his 2003 book, Monster of God. Hunting is an ancient impulse. From bringing down mammoths in the ice ages to the gladiatorial battles of Roman times, whether for food or sport, humans have always pitted themselves against animals. Large predators, such as big cats and bears, loom large in our collective consciousness, rendered either as “man-eaters” or charismatic and cuddly, like Simba and Pooh. And hunters argue sentiment is impeding our ability to protect them as a species.
“The ‘Hollywoodification’ of animals is, more than anything, the biggest threat to their survival,” says Loodt Büchner. As director of Tootabi Hunting Safaris, outfitting mostly US clients on legal hunts of “50-plus species” on ranch land in five southern African countries, he is now mostly deskbound. But, growing up poor in South Africa, he came to hunting as a valuable source of protein, joining his father hunting for antelope when he was as young as five or six. Today, the philanthropic arm of his business provides schoolchildren in Eastern Cape province with 3,400 meals of trophy-hunted meat each month.
Büchner says most of the backlash to hunting comes from “very fragile people” who conflate wildlife conservation – which can sometimes necessitate killing – with preservation, “shooting with a Canon camera, not a rifle”.
He makes no distinction between people who hunt for food and those who pay his company $13,500 (£10,400) for a package of 10 “trophy animals” in 10 days. Regardless of circumstance, no animal killed is ever wasted, with the meat either sold or consumed. In fact, he says, Tootabi has seen a 54% increase in revenue that he credits to the killing of Cecil because, before then, people didn’t know legal hunting was possible. Conversely, Høgh suggests the increase might instead be the result of the subsequent crackdown on canned lion hunting.
Much of the interest is from recent university graduates, says Büchner, which he ascribes to their generation’s desire to document unique experiences on social media. “It’s amazing to see the number of young people in Manhattan who all of a sudden realise there’s a world out there, that it’s not just shares and stocks: ‘We could actually go hunt animals, it sounds amazing.’”
The desire to hunt – especially for “ornaments” such as heads or horns – is often explained by detractors as being driven by male ego. Craig Packer, an ecologist now resident in Minneapolis after 35 years spent pushing back against unsustainable lion hunting in Tanzania, says many hunters model themselves on the Marlboro Man, the stereotypical picture of masculinity – or, more precisely, what he calls “toxic masculinity”.
He recalls his encounters with Steven Chancellor, a Republican fundraiser, who has shot about 50 lions and displays them in his home in Indiana: “He dresses up in black – he’s into that cowboy thing.” Chancellor is also one of many big-game hunters to sit on a new federal board tasked with advising on US import laws.
Packer says hunters often share Republican politics, a rural background and religion, leading them to reject evidence showing that species are under threat, because (Packer affects a redneck drawl), “only God can be getting rid of the wildlife”.
Unsurprisingly, hunters reject suggestions that they are motivated by their fragile masculinity. Høgh says it is an ill-informed stereotype. Büchner says it is sexist. “As an accredited dangerous game hunter, killing any animal isn’t fun, nor [about] boosting my ego,” he says. But earlier, he had said hunters were driven by the adrenaline rush – surely that is fun?
For Høgh, the trouble is that non-hunters see the act of killing an “innocent” animal as fundamentally dramatic or evil, as well as the primary goal of hunting. “It’s not about those 0.5 seconds,” he says. “I’ve met extremely few who took pleasure in killing animals, and the ones I have met, I wish they would actually stop hunting. It’s just perverse – they’re sadists.”
But it is entirely understandable people would assume otherwise, he adds, when that is what gets documented. “Hunters have been very poor at communicating the complexity of the experience. Often what we show the world is a picture of a dead animal and us sitting behind it with a big grin on our face.”
Høgh asks his groups not to post photos of their kills online, or at least to be mindful of how they might strike a non-hunter. But there are individuals – he assumes an American accent – who demand that it is “their right”. “And it is their right. But it’s still damn stupid.”
To add to the complexity of the debate, some point out that many of the people who most oppose the hunting of animals will never know the realities, and sometimes the costs, of living alongside them. “Wildlife is a problem for many people,” says Prof Adam Hart, a scientist at the University of Gloucestershire and host of the 2015 BBC Radio 4 documentary Big Game Theory. Elephants, for instance, raid crops and damage trees. Big cats kill livestock, while impala compete with them for food.
There is an important distinction, Gonçalves says, between an individual who kills an animal sensitively and skilfully for meat that they will consume themselves – “and hunting for a plaque on the wall and a selfie”.
Many, including Hart and Büchner, believe that hunting even big game can be not only sustainable but beneficial to species’ survival. They call it the “if it pays, it stays” approach, meaning that, by putting a monetary figure on animals, they become valuable and worthy of preservation. They say that if hunting and ranging is more lucrative than farming livestock or ecotourism, landowners are incentivised to buy more land – thereby conserving habitat – and ensure species’ long-term survival.
Hart says figures from Namibia and South Africa seem to bear this out, but cautions against oversimplification. “Is it good where we’ve got a system whereby the only way we can conserve wildlife is to actively use it? We [Britons] would say no, but we have a very privileged viewpoint. The biggest problem is that people don’t understand the complexities of the situation – there are different species, different habitats, different countries, different economies, different societies.”
Not even Packer is against lion hunting in principle. But in Tanzania he found that the industry was resistant to reform and charging far too little per hunted animal to fund the conservation of their land. “What’s really infuriating to me is that they’re posing like they are the great saviours of wildlife, but they’re putting in pennies where they should be putting in pounds.”
A fair price, Packer says, would be about $1m a lion. “Steve Chancellor may be able to afford it. But there aren’t many Steve Chancellors.”
In Botswana, home to the world’s largest elephant population, Hart says that numbers have grown so great that their habitat cannot support them and they are causing lasting damage. The government there is considering lifting a 2014 ban on hunting elephants for sport, pointing to figures that say there are 237,000 animals in an area able to support 50,000.
Last Monday, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Bill Oddie, Peter Egan, a cross-party group of MPs and a lifesize inflatable elephant delivered a 250,000-strong petition against the proposal to lift the ban to the Botswana high commission in London, saying that allowing hunting could push the species towards extinction. The protest marked the launch of the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting, founded by Eduardo Gonçalves, the former CEO of the League Against Animal Sports. He says elephant numbers in Botswana have only increased as a result of the 2014 ban, while populations in neighbouring countries have declined. “The ban on trophy hunting has been good for conservation – there’s no two ways about it,” he says.
He is scathing of the justification that hunting benefits communities or conservation, pointing out that if that was their motivation, hunters could donate direct to the cause. “They try to come up with rational arguments to justify their bloodlust,” he says. Moreover, he adds, there is an “indivisible line” between trophy hunting and poaching, with laws against poachers having an impact on poor African people while wealthy westerners lawfully carry out the same practice, for a price.
Thomson says many species suffer when there is an excess of elephants: arboreal snakes and chameleons, black hornbills, martial eagles, bush babies (“beautiful little monkey-like things”). Elephants’ lives have been valued above theirs by “purely human sentiment”, he says, now audibly angry. “The people who think like that don’t know anything about wildlife management. These are people who have never left their armchairs, in London or New York or wherever they live. They make these demands, and they haven’t a clue what is going on. We are the ones looking after the elephants in Africa. They are the ones that are causing all the problems.”
In 1971, Thomson and two other hunters were called on to halve the elephant population in Gonarezhou national park in Zimbabwe, killing 2,500 animals using semiautomatic rifles. “The three of us were able to kill between 30 and 50 elephants stone dead with brain shots in less than 60 seconds. In some cases, we were almost touching the elephants when we pulled the triggers. We did the job that had to be done, without any emotion and without any blood loss, and we did it exceptionally well.”
His own regret is that they hadn’t started sooner. The elephants’ numbers had already grown so great as to have caused permanent devastation to the park’s baobab trees – some so old, Thomson says, that they would have stood during Tutankhamun’s reign of Egypt. “To have these ancient trees wiped out before me – it broke my heart.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 04 Nov 2018.