Legalized Hunting Could Be Encouraging Poaching
Many governments and wildlife organizations in Europe, United States, and Africa promote controlled, legalized hunting as a way to decrease poaching; however, a new study suggests it may actually be increasing poaching.
The researchers behind the study are Adrian Treves, associate professor of environmental studies at University of Wisconsin, and Guillaume Chapron, researcher at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences’ Grimsö Wildlife Research Station. Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. For the study, they combined data on U.S. policy changes for the past 15 years in relation to carnivore protection. The information includes wolf growth rates modeling the effects of government-approved culling of wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan on the wolf populations there.
“Today the notion that killing is conservation has become a mainstream one,” stated Guillaume Chapron. “It is now used by many governments to justify killing. Our study shows that there is no scientific support behind this notion.”
The origins of this widely believed theory began in the early 19th century, when commercial markets in wild game were driving species, like the passenger pigeon, to extinction. Regulating hunting was seen as better than unregulated killing and appeared to help certain threatened species like the white-tailed deer and Canadian geese.
Even the International Union of Conversation for Nature (IUCN) claims through its manifesto for large carnivore conservation in Europe that “legalized hunting of large carnivores can be a useful tool in decreasing killing.”
“Would-be poachers may learn the government is culling wolves to protect livestock and decide they can do it more effectively,” says Chapron. “Or the government may be sending a signal that wolves have lower value, so people become poachers, or poachers may feel the risk of being arrested has declined.”
In 2005, the U.S. federal government granted Wisconsin a permit to kill 43 endangered gray wolves. The wolves had a bad reputation for preying on livestock and pets and the government believed controlling their numbers would help increase human tolerance. By letting the state to cull the wolves, it would prevent the wolves from being shot by ranchers. However, wildlife activists disagreed and in a federal lawsuit, they argued that culling ran counter to the Endangered Species Act. The judge agreed and forced the federal government to revoke the permit.
From 1995 to 2012, the wolves in Michigan and Wisconsin experienced six legal culls and six stages of protection, making it ideal to test if the cullings aid conservation. The researchers identified repeated slowdowns during these periods in population growth rates that could not be explained by natural factors, writing “the most likely explanation for these slowdowns was poaching”. They attempted to rule out all other factors such as migration and disease, but it is important to note that poaching could only be inferred from the data and is not a direct parameter.
The researchers believe the increased poaching “may have sent a negative message about the value of wolves or that poaching prohibitions would not be enforced.” When the government allows culling, the wolf population grew by 25% less than when culling is prohibited. Their findings corroborate a 2013 study suggesting that the legal culls didn’t reduce the inclination to poach and a 2014 study that found less government involvement resulted in decreased poaching.
Though the researchers studied only wolves, Chapron suggests the effect can also be applied to other large carnivores such as mountain lions, wolverines, and lynx.
However, the study has gained controversy in the science community.
Tim Van Deelen, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, said that even if human-caused wolf deaths had increased, linking them to changes in policy was “too much of a stretch.”
He offered other possible reasons for the slowdown that the researchers did not adequately address, including reduced survival of wolf pups, decreased litter size, disease, and increased territorial battles resulting in deaths.
Daniel MacNulty, wolf expert and assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Utah State University, state that the authors ignored other research findings suggesting the slowed growth rate in Wisconsin is due to an increase in their numbers, a natural occurrence.
Dr. MacNulty goes as far to say, “One could reasonably conclude that there is actually no meaningful difference between years with and without legal culling.”
That is not to say poaching and culling do not take a part, rather, these factors cannot be ruled out by this investigation.
The controversy of legal hunting is particularly relevant at the moment with the removal of the protected status of grizzly bears in Yellowstone
Park, allowing for legal hunting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services is currently arguing that legal hunting of the Yellowstone grizzly bears would reduce poaching. Conservationists say removing the bears’ status and allowing hunters to kill would cause the iconic animal to once again suffer catastrophic population loss. Furthermore, as a fragmented population, the bear population lacks the genetic diversity to sustain itself.
Zimbabwe Selling Its Wildlife Due to Drought
Earlier this month, Zimbabwe’s wildlife authority announced plans to sell some of its wildlife stock in its parks but did not specify which species. A few days ago, the state-run Herald reported that among the species, elephants, wildebeests, lions, impalas, and zebras will be up for offer.
In February, President Mugabe declared the 2015-16 agricultural season a national disaster due to the dire effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon that has seen the country receiving below normal rainfall.
Faced a collapsed economy and a devastating drought, Zimbabwe has turned to selling one of the few remaining resources it has. Induced by the El Nino weather pattern, the drought has left more than 4 million needing aid and has devastated crops that they rely on for food and export earnings.
The Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, also known as Zimparks, has put in several measures to fight against drought impact on wildlife. One is drilling a number of boreholes to locate resources like water across several national parks countrywide. Another is selling wildlife, claiming the sales will replenish its coffers after facing cash shortages so extreme that ATMs can’t be refilled.
“In light of the drought that was induced by the El Nino phenomenon, Parks and Wildlife Management Authority intends to de-stock its parks estates through selling some of the wildlife,” read part of the statement.
In addition, the government says that the recent bid by the European Union to ban trophy hunting imports would deprive the country of additional crucial revenue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already banned the import of elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe in 2014, determining that it did not enhance the population’s survival, a requirement under the Endangered Species Act.
“All our national parks are in the driest regions,” Jerry Gotora, a conservationist and former chairman of Zimparks stated. “The biggest question as we experience this drought is ‘Who is going to feed the wildlife and who is going to give them water?’”
Johnny Rodrigues from the Zimbabwe Conservation Taskforce says that many of the animals will end up going to international buyers, doubting that the locals have the money to purchase wildlife. Prospective buyers will be required to provide specific details of the property that will be used to house the animals. This includes the size, address, and ownership of the property, a description of current land use, and the intended use for the acquired animals. Once the committed buyers submit the required documents, the authority would provide prices of the animal varieties. This process is meant to ensure that potential buyers were in safer and good position to care of the animals.
The government intends to use the raised money “to buy food and secure water facilities for distressed animals” (Environment, Water, and Climate Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri).
Some species are off-limits for the government to sell as they are already protected against the sale or hunting under the Parks and Wildlife Act of 1975. These include pangolins, pythons, and rhinos; however, elephants, lions, and African wild dogs aren’t, despite also being considered endangered. Elephants, in particular, given their high value, would likely be priorities for sales. Species like the elephant or the wild dog are perceived to be found in abundance, but for each, their exact numbers are unknown. Estimates range from 3,000 to 5,500 individuals for the African wild dogs and 60,000 to 100,000 for the elephants.
Despite the government’s decision, there are many opposing the decision.
Ross Harvey, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, is one of them. He believes that if Zimbabwe had been governed responsibly, there would be no need to sell its wild animals. “Zimbabwe’s economy has been intensively mismanaged since the late 1990s, and the recent drought has had a more devastating effect than it otherwise would have if the economy was in fact being run properly.”
According to Harvey, “the idea that the sale of elephants would help to assuage the country’s economic woes is unworkable.” He continues with saying that the money the government acquires from these sales would be towards conservation or drought relief, which is what the government is promising. “In a system where lack of accountability has been baked in over a long time,” Harvey says, “there’s no guarantee that the money would be directed towards those who need it most.”
Zimbabwe has been criticized for its previous wildlife sales as financial leverage by wildlife and animal rights advocates. In July of 2015, the country exported 24 wild elephants to China.
Others are fighting to keep Zimbabwe’s endangered species from being sold.
Peter Blinston, the managing director of the Painted Dog Conservation, does not believe that the wild dogs would ultimately be put up for sale. “Painted Dog Conservation has very good relations with Zimparks,” he said. “Thus our standing carries some weight, and if there was talk of dogs being on the for sale list, we would fight hard, and I suspect we would win.”
However, it is possible that the impalas, an important food source for the wild dogs, could be sold, due to being over-represented in some areas. If not sold, impala numbers will suffer from the drought, affecting the wild dogs even more.
Ministry of Environment, Water, and Climate permanent secretary Mr. Prince Mupazviriho said it was unfair for the international community to criticize the decision to allow the sale of live animals. Instead, the country should be “lauded for its good initiatives to protect its wildlife”.
“We are surprised that some people are only out there to condemn what we are doing, ignoring the danger posed to our wildlife if the issue of drought is not dealt with.”