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Cruel to be kind?

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There are few more emotive and divisive issues today than the hunting of wild animals. To many, killing animals for sport is simply barbaric and senseless. But advocates say that in many parts of the world, it's absolutely necessary: properly managed, it can keep rising animal populations in check while providing livelihoods for hunters--and can even benefit the hunted creature by providing a reason to conserve it. So, against this background, can hunting ever be justified? Mark Rowe reports

American grey wolves lived alongside Native American Indians for thousands of years before the arrival of the first white settlers. But from the first persecution of the animals in the Plymouth colonies during the 1620s, it took barely 300 years for the wolf to be wiped out in most of the lower 48 states of the USA.

The wolf's reintroduction to parts of its former range, which began in 1994, has been one of the biggest conservation success stories of recent years. So effective has it been that last year, wolf hunting in the lower 48 states was allowed again, a move that provoked furious opposition from conservation groups across the USA. The Sierra Club, the nation's oldest conservation organisation, launched a successful legal challenge that has delayed the resumption of hunting by at least a year.

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A DIVISIVE SUBJECT

Hunting polarises more than almost any other issue related to animal welfare--just look at the ferocious debate over the hunting of foxes and deer in the UK. Hunting as a management 'tool' to control populations for their own good (to prevent starvation from overpopulation) or the good of others (to prevent them being killed by humans when they encroach on livestock) does have its proponents, who argue that it creates a situation where local people, or sporting bodies with access to sizeable membership funds, have an active interest in ensuring the species in question, and its habitat, are protected.

'Hunters support wildlife conservation because there is something in it for them, a payoff in their annual allocation of wildlife,' says Professor Valerius Geist of the University of Calgary. 'Their motives are selfish, not altruistic. With a self-interest in wildlife, hunters become concerned, active spokesmen for wildlife, and experience shows that wildlife will then flourish. An impersonal view of biosphere management that excludes broadly held aspirations to use resources by common people cannot but fail.'

Opposition comes in various guises: many contend that alternative management options exist; some oppose eating animals; others feel uncomfortable with the taking of any life.

All opponents express welfare concerns, and argue that regulated hunting is open to abuse by inexpert or unscrupulous hunters. An often cited example of unsustainable hunting is the shooting of millions of migratory birds every year by Mediterranean hunters.

In the case of the American grey wolf, three states--Wyoming, Idaho and Montana--anticipate removing a third of their wolf population each year, which amounts to between 300 and 400 wolves. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which proposed delisting the wolf from the Endangered Species Act, argues that wolf numbers are healthy--rising from the 66 that started the reintroduction programme to up to 1,500 wolves.

After their reintroduction, about six per cent of the population was killed each year by humans. That figure is now up to 13 per cent. 'Wherever people and wolves mix, people kill wolves,' says Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the USFWS. 'You either allow people to kill them illegally, or you allow public hunting and tightly regulate it. Wolves are very resilient--the wolf dies each but it still grows by 24 per cent a year. If you allow people to participate in game management, they provide investment and funds. They have an interest in keeping the population alive.'

Several alternatives to control wolf numbers have been tried, including the use of rubber bullets, fencing, light and siren scare devices, and supplementary feeding. After wolves were reintroduced to the USA, they were relocated 177 times. 'In the early days, it was worth relocating the wolves rather than shooting them because every individual wolf counted to make the reintroduction successful,' says Bangs. 'The Endangered Species Act clearly did its job, but the future for wolf conservation in the lower 48 states still depends on sportsmen and successful state-led management.'

SUSTAINABLE USE

Hunting as a conservation tool is endorsed by many of the world's leading conservation groups. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) operates a Sustainable Use Specialist Group, which argues that the 'use of wild living resources, if sustainable, is an important conservation tool because the social and economic benefits derived from such use provide incentives for people to conserve them'.

For many observers, such a sentiment translates as 'if it pays, it stays'.

Meanwhile, several conservation charters also incorporate hunting policy into their approach to conservation.

The most significant are the 14 Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines for the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity within the Biodiversity Convention, which argue that sustainable use 'can generate incentives for economic benefits that people derive from it'.

Conservation means managing biodiversity for social, cultural and practical reasons, rather than idealistic ones, according to Dr Grahame Webb, chairman of the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group and director of Wildlife Management International. 'Biologists can sometimes lack economic nous,' says Webb, who has been involved in the recovery from the point of extermination of crocodile populations in Australia, particularly in the Northern Territory. 'They can miss the obvious--everything else is driven by economics and making money. It's not the be-all and end-all--it only applies to some animals in some contexts. But in certain circumstances, resource use can be the only conservation tool.'

In the case of the crocodile in the Northern Territory, the animal's recovery has been so successful that the possibility of hunting them in the wild has been raised again. The original decision to turn crocodiles into what are effectively economic units was heatedly debated, but Webb feels vindicated. 'We were faced with the problem of how we were going to get the public to support the return of crocodiles,' he says. 'The only thing we could think of was to make them economically valuable--let landowners sell some of the crocs, sell the eggs and develop crocodile farms.'

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Today, the Northern Territory's wild crocodile population stands at around 75,000, with a farmed population of 100,000. 'The public sees crocs as an asset,' says Webb. 'When someone gets killed by one, the response is much more moderate. The public sees them as the most important thing in the north. You can't expect the world to love crocodiles, but if you make them valuable enough, people will put up with them. It isn't always easy, and I have sympathy with people who don't like the way they are managed. You're going to feel differently if it's your child that is pulled out of a croc's stomach.'

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EMOTIONAL APPEALS

And many people do feel differently. 'There's always another option to hunting,' says Justin Kerswell, campaigns manager of Viva!, which has led opposition to the licensed killing of kangaroos, which accounts for up to four million animals each year in Australia. Viva!, which persuaded UK supermarkets to drop kangaroo meat, points to the Australian government's code of practice for the humane shooting of kangaroos, which calls for the joeys of slaughtered females to be decapitated or killed with a blow, such as that from being swung against the towbar of a vehicle. Defenders of the practice argue the joeys are hairless and almost embryonic. Kerswell disagrees. 'These are truly needless victims of this barbaric trade,' he says. 'Most adolescents will escape, only to die of starvation later. Licensed hunting will never benefit an animal. Profit will always get in the way. The people who set the quotas and authorise hunting are those who are supposed to protect the kangaroo--the government. It's like making an oil company the custodian of climate change legislation. Ultimately, nature is not kind, but we would like to let nature find its way.'

Opponents of hunting, wary of having the 'Bambi factor' label attached to them, are increasingly scientific in their arguments. The coalition of environmental groups that successfully blocked the resumption of wolf hunting took the scientific route, arguing that the time wasn't yet right to cull them, rather than that culling was wrong per se. They suggested that the population needed to almost double to ensure genetic exchange between different groups.

'There's no doubt that opponents of hunting have had to become more professional, and not just rely on the emotional argument,' says Shelley Waterland, programmes director of the Born Free Foundation. 'There has been a drop-off in emotional arguments against hunting and culling--perhaps because of international pressure to be very dry about the way in which we present our case. But we have learned so much more in the past 20 years about animal welfare--about the way in which more intelligent animals grieve and work as groups--that the emotional argument can't be ignored. Can we ethically and morally allow hunting to take place? I would say the answer is that we can't.'

'Emotion is an important aspect to the debate,' agrees Michael Wamithi, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's elephant programme. 'I don't feel we need to apologise for having an emotional response. The relationship between human beings and nature is value-based and you can't ignore the feelings you have about it. We can argue that global warming must be tackled because it's bad for the economy, but there's also the question of how we relate to nature--and the same applies to culling of animals.'

SCIENCE VERSUS SENTIMENT

Those who support hunting are dubious about the scientific arguments of its opponents. 'It's basically a religion--some people just don't like killing animals,' says Professor L David Mech of the US Geological Survey's Biological Resources Division. 'The wolf is a very powerful symbol of the wilderness, and if people oppose killing them, then that's their prerogative. But there is no scientific argument against harvesting them--opposition comes down to ethics.'

Mech feels that public emotion can only sway decision-making in certain circumstances. 'Public sentiment has a role to play when science is on its side,' he says. 'When there were very few wolves, the science argued for protection and public sentiment supported that policy. But now that there are sufficient numbers of wolves and they can take some kind of control, that public sentiment doesn't play too large a role. Individual states have informed science-based wildlife management. Opponents of hunting are only one part of the public. It isn't a question of ignoring public sentiment--it's which part of the public mood that is considered.'

However, opponents argue that hunting can't guarantee a clean kill, and can be abused by inexpert hunters. The Australian RSPCA has called for a review of whether the harvesting of kangaroos should continue, publishing figures that show that each year, up to 100,000 individuals aren't killed humanely with a clean shot to the head. And in the short time between the delisting of wolves last year and the decision to halt the resumption of hunting, 11 wolves were killed in Wyoming--two from the air and some that were deliberately crushed by a snowmobile. 'Wild West-style shoot-on-sight policies damage populations and age structures,' says Bangs. 'Such cases boil down to a moral issue, and most people would consider the killing of wolves by snowmobiles to be morally abhorrent.'

Professor Gordon Grigg of the University of Queensland argues that hunting can be strictly monitored and controlled, and has called for kangaroos to be exploited in a similar fashion to sheep in order to address the problems they cause. 'The idea of harvesting animals sustainably is becoming quite mainstream,' he says. Pointing out that kangaroos have inhabited Australia for tens of thousands of years without devastating the landscape, he says that 'sheep grazing in the past 160 years has brought the sheep rangelands to their ecological knees'. If sheep damage the landscape, but kangaroos don't, reasons Grigg, why not harvest the latter for meat for human consumption? Grigg's idea--which he calls 'sheep replacement therapy for rangelands'--is that the harvesting of kangaroos would provide a mechanism for reducing sheep use and bring benefits for land conservation.

TAKING TROPHIES

Pragmatic conservationists are also putting emotion aside to argue that limited trophy hunting could be used as a method for generating income to fund research and preservation, or to compensate those who have lost land or livestock. 'Outside of national parks, nobody I know has ever found a way of making money out of wildlife except by eating it or hanging it on a wall,' says Professor Laurence Frank of the University of California, Berkeley. 'And while I don't understand the motivation for trophy hunting, it's enormously lucrative. It's a huge industry and it requires huge landscapes full of life in order to function.

'According to a recent model, it takes a population of something like 200 lions to produce three trophy males a year, so a small off-take of older animals that aren't critical to the population can make the entire ecosystem pay for itself,' he continues. 'In areas that have no real agricultural value, which is true of an awful lot of Africa, you could have livestock destroying habitat, or you could make some money out of having rich, fat old men shooting animals.'

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Hunting tourism is less fickle than game viewing in times of trouble and unrest, points out Professor Nigel Leader-Williams, of the University of Kent's Durrell Institute of Ecology. Frank agrees. 'Tourism obviously has an enormous role to play in conservation, but the market for tourism is ultimately limited,' he says. 'And tourism is incredibly fragile, whereas trophy hunting isn't. Take Zimbabwe for example. Tourism has pretty much died there, but trophy hunting is still going strong. Big tough guys with big rifles aren't worried about a little political instability.'

Yet the Born Free Foundation's Waterland cites the resumption of hunting of leopards in Uganda in 2007, and of black rhinos in Namibia since 2004--approved by CITES--as illustrating that the case for such an approach is unproven. 'The model hasn't done much for black rhinos or leopards,' she says, pointing to what she describes as the near-absence of scientific data proving the leopards can sustain a hunt. 'There has to be a scientific assessment of the population that really holds weight, but often, transparency around hunting is completely lacking. The problem with trophy hunting is that companies want their clients to get the best animal--and you often see prime adult males targeted, whereas nature would take out the weaker individuals.'

Opponents of hunting who yearn for a prelapsarian planet where animals roam free of such considerations will have a long wait, suggests Grigg. 'We don't live in a free-range, natural world any more. Most places are very different from the way they were 5,000-10,000 years ago.'

And, Bangs points out, there is a sliding scale of what most people are prepared to do. 'You may not want to kill a wolf, but what about a mosquito that lands on your arm? Some who protest against culling of wolves don't think twice about laying down a mousetrap in their house. They may not kill a deer but they're happy for a butcher to kill a cow for their dinner. 'It becomes a human social issue. Ultimately, we're all hypocrites.'

To cute to shoot

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During the 1990s, a proposal to cull 2,500 koalas on Kangaroo Island in South Australia prompted outrage around the world. Scientists argued that such a cull was the only way to bring the koala--introduced to the island in the 1920s--under control, as it was defoliating large areas of riverine habitat. But in the face of public revulsion at the prospect, the plan was dropped.

Sterilisation has since been tried, but this doesn't stop the individual koala from spending 20 more years eating the vegetation. In fact, large sums of money have now been spent on sterilising individuals and translocating them to the mainland. However, experts point out this simply passes the problem on. In any case, all states in Australia have made it illegal, except under certain conditions, for wildlife to be moved from one state to another.

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'Ultimately, unless something is done to control their numbers, there will be a major impact on the flora and fauna of Kangaroo Island" says Professor Gordon Grigg, who acknowledges that shooting koalas would create a powerful emotional response. 'lf anyone thought they could shoot a koala with pleasure while it's just sitting there in a tree, there would be something seriously wrong with them. It's not a nice thought at all, but there doesn't seem to be any other practical solution.'

Canned hunting

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The use of canned hunting, where wild animals are placed in a confined area and shot at close range by a 'hunter', who has typically paid a large sum for a guaranteed trophy, is a particularly emotive issue, with many of the victims hand-* reared and semi-tame.

The US Humane Society believes that there are more than 1,000 canned hunting operations in the USA, while Traffic, the wildlife-trade monitoring network, reports that nearly 54,000 animals were killed in 2004 in South African canned hunts. In 2007, the South African government sought to toughen up regulations on canned hunting, although hunting organisations have taken the proposal to court.

Canned hunting of lions is undeniably lucrative: it generates 150 million rand (9.8 million [pounds sterling]) annually in Limpopo province alone. South African hunting groups also argue that banning it could push the African lion towards extinction, as hunters would have no incentive to support the protection of lion habitat.

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'The animals used in a canned hunt are generally hand-fed and familiar with people, so they don't show the natural tendency to flee from humans; says Michele Pickover of Animal Rights Africa.' These are tame targets--baiting and confining the animals in fenced areas guarantees the hunters a kill. This type of hunting shows an extreme lack of respect for life and compassion for the dignity of these animals.'

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Bringing wildlife back from the brink

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation emerged as a continental conservation model in both the USA and Canada during the first two decades of the 20th century, according to Professor Valerius Geist of the University of Calgary. It evolved as a response to the near-elimination of wildlife from the continent by the end of the 19th century, and spawned a large number of sporting organisations that actively pursue the welfare of wildlife.

The model is underpinned by a number of policies, such as the public ownership of wildlife, the killing of wildlife for cause only and the prohibition of markets in dead wildlife. Some conservation efforts were so successful that, in the case of the bison, the American Bison Society voted itself out of existence, declaring its mandate fulfilled. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has conserved more than 3.8 million hectares of elk habitat since its inception, while the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep has overseen an increase in the animal's population of almost 50 per cent in 25 years.

The model, Geist argues, is 'pregnant with tested ideas about how to manage a renewable resource in a sustainable manner'. Yet he acknowledges that this conservation model is politically incorrect for much of the USA's urban electorate. 'Hunting as a conservation tool is more ingrained in the USA than in Europe,' says Professor L David Mech. 'In the USA, we have benefited from not destroying most of our wildlife--most species have thrived here. Europe has such a long history and such a high density of people--so many species have been exterminated.'

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Author:Rowe, Mark
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2009
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