President Trump on Sunday called elephant trophy hunting a “horror show” and signaled his skepticism of claims that its practice is good for elephant conservation.
The data generally support the president's beliefs: Elephant populations in Africa have declined sharply and steadily since the turn of the 20th century. Trophy hunting brings in very little money relative to other forms of tourism, and corruption and instability mean that in some countries, very little of that money actually makes its way toward conservation efforts.
One reason trophy hunting is of questionable value when it comes to large African animals is that there are few of those animals left in the wild today. And when you're dealing with small, dwindling populations, every individual member of a species counts.
Below, for instance, are the populations of the “Big Five” African game animals — Cape buffalo, elephant, lion, rhinoceros and leopard.
Population estimates range from a robust 900,000 or so for Cape buffalo, down to perhaps 25,000 for black and white rhinos. African leopards are so elusive that the number of them left in the wild is unknown.
It's particularly instructive to compare populations of the Big Five with the populations of the five most commonly hunted animals in the United States. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, those animals are deer (white-tail and mule), wild turkey, squirrel, rabbit and pheasant.
I've added those animals to the chart below, resizing the bubbles for the African species populations to scale.
There are roughly 100 times as many deer in the United States as there are elephants in Africa. Grey squirrels are America's third-most-hunted species (yes, really), which makes sense if you consider that with 766 million acres of forest with an average squirrel density of at least 1 squirrel per acre, there are somewhere in the ballpark of 800 million gray squirrels residing in the United States, not counting the throngs of them populating suburbs and urban areas.
There's a big difference, in other words, between bagging one of America's 32 million deer, and one of Africa's 25 thousand rhinos. And Americans seem to get this: A 2015 Marist survey found that while 41 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of hunting animals for sport, only 11 percent said that hunting big game such as lions and elephants was “acceptable.” In fact, fully 62 percent said that such big-game sport hunting should be made illegal.
Attitudes among American hunters have also evolved considerably, with “sport” hunting falling out of favor relative to hunting for meat. For instance, in 2008, 33 percent of U.S. hunters said they hunted primarily “for the sport or recreation,” while 22 percent hunted “for the meat.” By 2017 those numbers had essentially reversed, with 27 percent favoring sport hunting and 39 percent favoring hunting for meat.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, says that “the number of people interested in killing elephants and lions is small and diminishing because of increasing social pressure.” He points to a number of watershed moments in recent years contributing to that shift, such as the killing of Cecil the Lion in 2015 and the shutting down of the Ringling Brothers circus earlier this year.
When it comes to trophy hunting, Pacelle said, “you basically just have the hardcore industry people and the wildlife management profession who defend it. There's very little support among regular people for this.”
He points out that there are wild elephant populations in approximately 50 countries in Africa and Asia. But only five of those countries allow elephant trophy hunting. “If trophy hunting were such a valuable tool, you would see a wider application of that tool,” he said.