Conservation is a pursuit that engages all hunters. Our commitment to healthy wildlife populations is expressed either through direct action—like the many habitat conservation and improvement projects organized and funded by hunter led non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—or financial contributions to state, federal and international wildlife departments through the sale of licenses, permits and an excise tax on firearms and ammunition. Increasingly though, conservation is a term that risks losing its meaning as animal rights extremist groups co-opt its definition to one that excludes hunting and work to negatively influence organizations that traditionally held no bias against hunters.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest network of conservation scientists and other professionals, formally defines conservation as: “The protection, care, management and maintenance of ecosystems, habitats, wildlife species and populations, within or outside of their natural environments, in order to safeguard the natural conditions for their long-term permanence.” With such a wealth of on-the-ground experience, the IUCN recognizes hunting and other sustainable uses as important management practices in efforts to conserve biodiversity, going so far as to host a Sustainable Use Livelihoods Working Group (SULi) to provide professional input on the subject to policy makers. This kind of input, however, faces resistance from a well-organized movement, led by groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Such groups reject the idea that hunting can be an effective part of holistic conservation programs. By leveraging networks of donors, activists and celebrities, they have waged a long-term campaign to skew popular ideas of conservation and turn powerful NGOs into vehicles used promote their extreme anti-hunting agenda.
One recent example of the creep of animal rights ideology into conservation organizations can be found in the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). The AWF was founded in 1961 by U.S.-based hunter Russell E. Train with the support of other notable individuals, including Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson. Its founding purpose was to help newly independent African nations develop the professional capacity and capability to conserve their wildlife resources. It has since grown into an organization with programs in 16 African countries, assets of more than $49 million, operating expenses of more than $27 million and a staff of more than 180. These resources make the AWF an influential voice in the politics and policies impacting African wildlife conservation and the hunting programs of African nations.
Historically, the AWF has focused on worthwhile projects that work to conserve African wildlife and wildlands through sustainable development, humanitarian efforts, community engagement and scientific inquiry. If anything, the AWF’s views on hunting might have been described as neutral. This began to change in 2015, when in the midst of the propaganda-fueled public outrage over the killing of “Cecil” the lion, AWF called for a moratorium on lion hunting with an AWF Vice President stating, “…we cannot support any human activities that contribute to lion mortalities, and that includes sport hunting.” The organization went on to call for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to consider listing the African lion as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), noting that such a designation would “ban the import of all hunting trophies.”
The call for the effective end of lion hunting in Africa was a notable break from the AWF’s historic contributions and role in wildlife conservation efforts. This break sharpened later in 2015 when the organization demanded a similar moratorium on all elephant hunting in Africa following the killing of a large bull elephant in Zimbabwe.
AWF flirted even further with animal rights extremism this past July when, following the hunting of another lion in Zimbabwe, the organization released a statement saying, “Sport hunting and any trade in wildlife products should be banned and other non-consumptive means put in place to replace the revenue earned from limited hunting quotas.” The statement went on to say that the hunting of the lion was “a sad reminder that Africa must not rely on the killing of rare species to finance conservation. It is a call to the conservation community, institutions and governments to increase investment in alternative financing to support programs such as relocation, eco-tourism development and securing space for these species to thrive.”
The statement was later removed from the organization’s website. Unconfirmed reports attributed the release to an over-eager staffer. That such a statement could be released, even if by accident, is telling of how deeply animal rights sentiments have penetrated the AWF.
The AWF is well-aware that hunting is an essential partner to photo-tourism and other mechanisms promoting the conservation of Africa’s wildlife. Hopefully the organization will get back to its ideological roots post-haste. The lesson for hunters, however, is clear: Not all conservation organizations are created equal. Some may not even be “conservation” organizations at all.
Defending our hunting heritage means asking hard questions of those who claim to speak for wildlife and ensuring that they are not actively working against the hunting programs that help to support healthy wildlife populations for enjoyment by all. Hunters have a demonstrated willingness to partner with everyone who values the natural world, but we must make sure those partnerships are based on mutual respect for each other’s strengths and contributions. Otherwise, we risk undermining conservation and our ability to pass on our hunting traditions to future generations.
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About the Author Catherine E. Semcer is Chief Operations Officer ofHumanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants(H.O.P.E.), a U.S.-based non-profit organization that provides training, advisory assistance and procurement services to African anti-poaching programs by leveraging the skill sets of U.S. veterans and the capacities of commercial businesses. A longtime hunter, Semcer is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (ICUN)Sustainable Use Livelihoods Specialist Group(SULi), a global-expert network that promotes both conservation and livelihoods through enhancing equitable and sustainable use of wild species and their associated ecosystems. You can support H.O.P.E.’s efforts to secure a future for Africa’s wildlife by visitingwww.saveivory.org. *Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are strictly her own.