This is an issue that every so often captures the public’s hearts and minds (in unequal parts), most recently with the case of Cecil the Lion (2002 - 2015). Cecil was killed by an American dentist by the name of Walter Palmer, who forked out $55,000 for the right to carry out the hunt. You’ll probably know that the public wasn’t thrilled about this.

lion killer

Cecil is by no means an isolated incident — hundreds of animals are killed in this way by trophy hunters every year. Another prominent case was the 2013 hunt of an endangered black rhino in Namibia, carried out by a Texan, Corey Knowlton, for the price of $350,000.

It’s not hard to see why this stuff doesn’t sit well with people. As well as the obvious animal cruelty angle, “rich white man goes to Africa to kill endangered animal for fun” has serious colonial vibes.

The public discourse on trophy hunting frames the issue as having two camps — “it’s okay to kill animals for fun” and “it’s not okay to kill animals for fun”. The real discussion to be had, however, is one on the limits of utilitarianism and the science of wildlife conservation.

What’s the dominant narrative?

Trophy hunting is Wrong because it causes animal suffering for the sake of human pleasure. People who take part in trophy hunting are Bad for deriving pleasure from killing animals and/or for valuing their own pleasure over the lives of animals. It is Seriously Wrong if it involves the killing of animals that are members of rare/endangered species.

What’s the weakest position you’d have to hold for there to be nothing up for debate?

(Against) It is Wrong for a human to, primarily for pleasure, cause the death and/or suffering of an animal, regardless of any benefit to animals that results from it.

(For) It is not Wrong for a human to, primarily for pleasure, cause the death and/or suffering of an animal.

“The Facts”

Trophy hunting is not to be confused with poaching, an organised criminal practice that fuels the illegal wildlife trade. Managed trophy hunting, a legal and regulated activity, is a common strategy in wildlife management and conservation throughout the world.

The way it normally goes is that a conservation group will sell permits to hunt particular animals — not just a particular species, but the precise animals that the hunter is allowed to shoot. These designated animals are often unproductive members of their societies — elderly black rhinos, like the one hunted by Corey Knowlton, are infertile and aggressive, killing other members of the species and posing a threat to locals and their crops.

Trophy hunting can bring in serious dollar for conservation groups — for the African Rhino Specialist Group in Namibia, trophy hunting accounts for ~63% of income over the last 8 years, compared to ~18% from traditional tourism. Compared to the number of animals designated for hunting, the number that have been conserved by these groups is typically significantly higher — since the introduction of trophy hunting programmes in South Africa in 1968, white rhino numbers have increased tenfold from 1,800 to ~18,000, with only 0.34% of the population being hunted.

Many trophy hunting programmes seek to work with local communities, for whom wildlife would otherwise be a nuisance. Hunting revenues give animals a monetary value, providing incentives for communities to use part of their land for wildlife conservation and to clamp down on poachers, and even give poachers an alternative source of income by allowing them to be involved conservation work.

If trophy hunting isn’t well-managed, many of its potential benefits can go unrealised. It's well and good to talk about the money that it brings in, but where that money goes is another question — corruption at any point in the process can mean that only a tiny proportion of the hunting fee ends up going towards conservation, and even without corruption it can be the case that the majority of the fee is pocketed by middlemen in the process, leaving little left for supporting habitats and local communities. This article raises these issues, and questions pretty much all of the above arguments in favour of trophy hunting.


The argument for trophy hunting has a very utilitarian leaning — ”it’s okay to kill one rhino if it helps save 100 others”. Even if you’re against utilitarianism, I think you’d have to concede that the logic here isn’t completely bonkers; it’s a defensible position to hold.

A valid concern would be whether trophy hunting is settling for a sub-optimal solution to the problem: whether there are equally effective non-lethal conservation methods that we haven’t found. This is the multi-million dollar question, but it's really hard to answer — while the conservation community is moving towards measuring the impact of interventions more rigorously, there aren’t any impact assessment standards that let us easily compare methods across countries, and there often isn't much transparency when it comes to publishing impact data.


Part of what makes this an easy issue to misunderstand is the false dichotomy that the mainstream narrative implies; that you can't be in favour of trophy hunting as an enterprise while still being against undue cruelty to animals. It’s particularly thorny because of the judgement that awaits you in civilised society if you appear to be endorsing cruelty to animals.

The “jumping to conclusions” factor was really strong for me when it came to this issue, which I put down to a lack of empathy for “hunting culture” and the people involved in it. Hunting isn’t something that naturally appeals to me and I don’t personally know people who are involved in it, so it was very easy for me to label them as the “bad guys” and bask in my own moral outrage, without reading past the headlines on the issue. It wasn’t until this excellent Radiolab episode that I actually gave it some thought.

I find that when I personally know reasonable people who engage in a questionable activity, my default reaction is to trust that there must be something behind the curtain that I don’t know. When I’m so far removed from the questionable activity that I don’t know anyone, reasonable or otherwise, who engages in it, I have a tendency to dismiss it outright without giving it much thought. This is something I’d like to work on changing — let me know if you have any advice.