Recreational Hunting: What Does The Evidence Say?
Recreational hunting is the killing of an animal for one’s own entertainment rather than for survival (subsistence hunting) or sale (commercial hunting). It is often touted as a way of protecting biodiversity while bringing benefits to humans. But recently it has become more controversial. In particular, debate has raged around the ethics of trophy hunting – whereby a hunter keeps part of a killed animal’s body as a souvenir. The study also notes concerns of colonialism, chauvinism, and anthropocentrism.
To explore this fraught topic, the authors conducted a literature review of 1,342 academic studies of recreational hunting, which covered a total of 147 countries. 37% of all studies focused on just twelve hunted species: red deer, white-tailed deer, wild boar, moose, lion, grey wolf, brown bear, leopard, puma, mallard, European roe deer, and American black bear. The disproportionate emphasis on mammals was reflected in the broader studies, three-quarters of which focused on mammals.
The authors grouped the articles into seven topics based on the prevalence of certain keywords and phrases:
- How species evolve and change in response to hunting
- How hunting impacts animal behavior
- Population trends among hunted species
- Hunting as a way to control unwanted species
- Health impacts of hunting
- Economic, social, and cultural aspects of hunting
They used these topics as a framework to explore the direct and indirect impacts of trophy hunting.
In some southern African countries, ecotourism and trophy hunting have facilitated a transition from livestock ranching to wildlife ranching. Almost 1,400,000km2 of land (~541,000 square miles) in sub-Saharan Africa is dedicated to trophy hunting – more than the amount covered by national parks. (The authors note, however, that area conserved is a poor proxy for successful conservation outcomes.)
The studies show some species-level benefits from trophy hunting, but they are far from a ringing endorsement. In an example of success, population numbers of the white rhino were able to recover, with trophy hunting incentivizing their reintroduction across 16,000km2. But conservation of lions and leopards has suffered significantly from unsustainable hunting. Additionally, predators are sometimes killed so that they don’t prey on the animals that recreational hunters want to kill. Evidence for recreational hunting in America and Europe paints a similarly mixed picture.
The authors found more limited evidence of the impacts of recreational hunting in Asia and Oceania than in America, Europe and Africa. Broadly, they note that evidence from Asia finds impacts on population dynamics and selection pressures (topics 1 and 3 in the list above), and that in countries without carnivores such as Japan, hunting can reduce damage to natural habitats caused by an overabundance of herbivores (topic 4).
Recreational hunting studies from Oceania mainly fell into topic 4 – controlling unwanted species. However, some of these unwanted species were only introduced in the first place so that hunters could kill them.
Turning away from the impact on animals, how does recreational hunting impact humans? On the positive, recreational hunting can reduce human-animal conflicts and develop a hunter’s relationship with nature and with their cultural heritage. On the negative, it can contribute to the transmission of diseases from animals to humans (an acute concern as the world reels from COVID); moreover, lead in ammunition is toxic to humans and wildlife alike.
An unequal power dynamic shapes who benefits and who suffers from recreational hunting. As land is enclosed for recreational hunting, indigenous people are sometimes banned from subsistence hunting. Not only is this deeply problematic from the perspective of justice and equity, it can also compromise local support for conservation efforts – the very thing that recreational hunting is supposed to promote.
With 1,342 studies examined in this paper alone, recreational hunting is hardly a neglected research topic. Nonetheless, certain key questions remain unanswered. Most crucially, the authors emphasize that empirical evidence for claims that hunting benefits conservation efforts is lacking.
In the future, the conversation around recreational hunting should strive to better incorporate the perspectives of local people. Given the question mark over recreational hunting and conservation, the authors also suggest the importance of identifying further ways to fund conservation efforts.
For animal advocates, this study provides an interesting overview of the impacts of recreational hunting across the globe. But amid the talk of population numbers and protected areas, it’s worth remembering that every species is made up of individuals. The best we can say of recreational hunting is that it protects the one, at the cost of the other – and there’s little evidence it succeeds even in that.