When I was around 13 or 14, I and my cousin shot a squirrel with BB guns. What started as ignorant teenage fun became an agonizingly slow death for the squirrel. The experience traumatized me so thoroughly that since that day, I have never fired a weapon of any sort towards an animal. I should confess that I have killed fish, amphibians and reptiles, and rats – not to mention insects and other arthropods – by various means, although I am finding that harder and harder as I age. As a consequence of my childhood trauma I don’t like hunting or guns, although I am not anti-hunting as such, except when it comes to trophy hunting and killing an animal for some specific body part because of some misguided ancient belief (bear gall bladders, elephant tusks and rhino horns (made of keratin!), and pangolin scales (also made of keratin) come to mind) or for the sole purpose of mounting a trophy head on a wall. Perhaps that is hypocrisy on my part, because I do enjoy fishing. When practicing catch and release, there is no question that the fish is suffering.
Lately, opinions have been put forward to the effect that trophy hunting can benefit conservation efforts, e.g., in this article in National Geographic. The idea is essentially that by selling licenses to rich hunters, money is generated for conservation. It is a bit hard for me to swallow that logic, but in the end the proof is in the pudding. If that is what it takes, then perhaps that is the approach that has to be taken, at least in some cases. When it comes to controlling poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa, however, it is questionable in my mind if a few rich tourist safari hunters contribute enough to make a difference. Depending on who you listen to, the opinions vary. Although hunting can certainly eliminate a species (there is no shortage of examples, e.g., the passenger pigeon is a spectacular case), it is not normally the main culprit. Habitat destruction and loss is more likely to put the final nail in the coffin of an endangered species, except in the case of above-mentioned groundless medicinal beliefs. (Chewing on one’s fingernails should be highly beneficial if rhino horn or pangolin scales are of any medical value).
Humans have always hunted. I have many friends and colleagues who hunt. One argument often used against me is that it is likely more humane to hunt for wild animals to put meat on the table than to raise livestock only to slaughter them. I can’t argue strongly with that, particularly given reports of animal abuse of chickens and cattle in today’s mass production facilities. However, I have a feeling that death is not always a quick affair for an animal depending on the skill of the hunter and the distance from which an animal is shot. For example, the death of Cecil the lion took 10 to 12 hours, allegedly because the hunter wanted to be able to claim that he shot it with bow and arrow!
In my mind there are two basic types of hunters. I respect capital H hunters, i.e., the people who enjoy and respect nature and hunt for food in a sustainable and responsible manner. In my mind such a person may opt to NOT shoot an animal because they find pleasure in leaving it to live its life. However, there are also hunters that I would call “shooters”, i.e. people who take pleasure in killing animals, whether to prove their ability to kill an animal or simply because they want to have bragging rights about their trophy collection. A few years ago, I met a guy on a quad, who I probably would have assumed to fall in or close to the latter category. However, he told us that he had just chased a young grizzly bear who was wandering along the road into the forest to make sure it didn’t get shot. Assuming that he was telling the truth, I would put him in the capital H hunter category, in spite of the quad. I realize that hunters can’t be put in distinct categories, but as with everything we classify, it makes the discussion less ambiguous, so I pretend that it is the case!
I recognize that sometimes hunting is necessary, e.g., when animals become so abundant that they destroy their own habitat. However, that is frequently a result of a lack of predators, which in turn is due to relentless persecution by humans. The example of wolf re-introduction in Yellowstone National Park shows that healthy ecosystems depend on a balance between predator and prey populations. Similar information can be found about other ecosystems, e.g., the apparent impact of sharks on coral reef health (but see this article for another view). Even the most carefully regulated hunting cannot completely emulate predator effects, just as clearcutting cannot replace the impact of wildfire! The examples of our clumsy failed attempts to restore ecosystems we have impacted abound!
Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, so it is not surprising that we still engage in activities such as harvesting clams, picking mushrooms, fishing, and hunting. When it comes to hunting (and commercial fishing in particular), however, our technological advances have tilted the field in our favour to the point where animals have little chance to escape unscathed. The result is all too frequently that the animal populations go into decline. I grew up in Sweden when wolves could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the other three large native predators (lynx, wolverine and brown bear) were
exceedingly rare, numbering in the low hundreds. I was lucky to see a wolverine in the wild, but never had the opportunity to see any of the other three. Here in Canada I am still missing wolf and cougar on my bucket list, but I have had the pleasure of seeing lynx, bobcat, and the two species of bear in the wild. Sharing the environment with these magnificent animals is truly a privilege. The only shooting I do is with my camera, and having photographs of animals that may still wander the forests gives me a great sense of satisfaction. And that is the way I like it!