A proposed UK ban on trophy hunting imports risks undermining the conservation of rhinos, elephants and other endangered wildlife, according to a group of leading scientists and conservationists who said African perspectives have been ignored by the government.
On Friday, MPs will vote on a private member’s bill to ban trophy hunting imports while, separately, the government is preparing legislation to ban hunting trophies from thousands of species, including lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and polar bears.
In an open letter seen by the Guardian and signed by more than 100 scientists, conservationists and African community leaders, the group said the ban is poorly conceived and threatens to reverse conservation gains and undermine the livelihoods of rural communities across sub-Saharan African.
It urged the UK government to implement a smart ban that incentivises good practice by prohibiting trophies from “canned” hunting operations, where captive-bred animals are shot at close range, or those that fail to share revenues with local communities.
By allowing trophy hunting to continue within the UK, where hunters can pay thousands of pounds to shoot deer, the group said the government was opening itself up to accusations of hypocrisy by banning imports from countries with impressive conservation records such as Namibia and Botswana, where trophy hunting is used to fund conservation.
“We understand (and many of us share) the public’s instinctive dislike of trophy hunting. However, the reality is that no alternative land use has yet been developed which equally protects the wildlife and habitats found in these vital landscapes while also generating valuable revenues for local communities. Indeed, where trophy hunting has been subjected to bans, wildlife has often suffered, and conflict with communities has increased,” the letter states.
“This is not to claim that trophy hunting is perfect. It is beset with a variety of problems, including but not limited to the inequitable sharing of hunting revenues, inappropriate or poorly observed quotas, corruption and inadequate regulation. But tourism is not a perfect industry either,” it continues.
Signatories include the heads of leading conservation NGOs such as Save the Rhino International, academics from the University of Oxford and African community leaders.
The IUCN, which oversees the red list of endangered species, established that trophy hunting has supported the conservation of several species, including rhinos, African elephants and markhors, the national animal of Pakistan, and a UN report said that trophy hunting is helping to protect millions of acres of wildlife habitat in sub-Saharan Africa. Community leaders have previously criticised British celebrities for calling for a ban on trophy hunting, naming Ricky Gervais, Joanna Lumley and Piers Morgan in July 2020.
Supporters of the trophy hunting import ban argue it will help protect endangered species and end a cruel practice. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has called trophy hunting a “disgusting trade” and his father, Stanley, has campaigned in favour of the ban.
But Leslé Jansen, CEO of the NGO Resource Africa, who signed the letter, said the legislation will harm conservation and African livelihoods and undermine the rights of rural communities to use their natural resources.
“We have voiced these concerns many times, and have attempted to engage in the process. Why are Africans’ rights, views and conservation successes continually ignored?” she said.
Dr Rodgers Lubilo, chairman of a community leaders network covering Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, called on the government to reconsider the proposed legislation.
“We have time and again told our international friends that trophy hunting is part of local rural livelihoods, and we will continue to pursue sustainable use of wildlife for generations to come,” he said.
Dr Amy Dickman, a professor of conservation at Oxford University who signed the letter, said: “We shouldn’t base policy on what comedians and celebrities think. We should be basing it on expertise and on local opinion. Those are the two things that count the most.
“Ricky Gervais has 14 million followers on Twitter, whereas the African Community Leaders Network, when they post about this, tend to get zero engagement. The people most affected have the smallest platforms,” she said.
A Defra spokesperson said: “We are bringing forward ambitious legislation to ban the import of hunting trophies from thousands of species.
“This will be one of the toughest bans in the world, and goes beyond our manifesto commitment, meaning we will be leading the way in protecting endangered animals and helping to strengthen and support long-term conservation.”