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Voice of Leadership: Why Deer Hunters Should Be Concerned about African Trophy Import Bans

Voice of Leadership: Why Deer Hunters Should Be Concerned about African Trophy Import Bans

“I’m never going to hunt in Africa. Why should I care that some state I don’t live in is trying to prevent hunters from bringing back trophies of some animal I might never see outside of a zoo … ?”

Honestly, it is a logical question. Research shows that most people care about the issues that directly impact them. This is why people choose certain areas to live, work and send their kids to school. It is also why you’re more likely to hear outrage and concern from hunters in the United States over an attempt to shut down access to deer hunting vs. a threat to lion or leopard hunting thousands of miles away.

But if you are a hunter, you should care about both. Here’s why.

The big push to ban the import, possession and transfer of African species in places like the United States and Europe started after the fallout of Cecil the Lion, the lion hunted by a Minnesota dentist back in 2015. The story made international news and supercharged the debate about international hunting where it had not previously been discussed, such as in state capitols and the offices of airline CEOs.

Typically, you will see anti-hunting advocates and uninformed lawmakers focus on a handful of African species in their attacks such as the “Big Five,” which consists of elephant, Cape buffalo, African lion, white and black rhinoceros, and African leopard. Proponents of bans target these species because they generally exist in lower numbers (with the exception of Cape buffalo) and are at higher risk from poaching.

But, contrary to what anti-hunting advocates claim, banning the import and possession of these species would be bad news for their long-term survival. These species typically generate the most funding for wildlife authorities and rural communities in the African range countries where they are found. The revenue generated by legal, regulated hunting in these countries are often the single most important source of funding for conservation and anti-poaching efforts.

Absent in the discussion from groups pushing for these bans is the wildlife science showing how the countries that incorporate hunting into their wildlife management strategies have higher, more sustainable populations of these species than other countries that have banned hunting.

It is documented fact that the world’s largest populations of African elephant, leopard, lion, black and white rhino, and giraffe inhabit Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—the countries with regulated hunting programs that generate income and other incentives for wildlife conservation and habitat preservation, and which result in lower rates of poaching. In addition, these countries have developed successful conservation programs to encourage the rural communities who live side-by-side with wildlife to invest in and protect these species.

Sadly, when presented with evidence directly from rural Africans or wildlife experts from range countries that runs contrary to their emotionally-based argument, lawmakers not only overlook it but they also flat out ignore it.

In 2020, Maxi Louis, director of the Namibian Association of Community Based Natural Resource Management Support Organizations (NACSO), testified against legislation to ban the import and possession of the Big Five in California. She told legislators, including the bill sponsor, Sen. Henry Stern, that Namibia’s wildlife management relies on hunting, saying in part, “Namibian communities rely on sustainable hunting as part of a larger conservation effort that protects healthy populations of diverse species and wildlife habitat, while also supporting local jobs and livelihoods.”

Speaking to the same piece of legislation, Munesushe Munodawafa, the second-highest official in Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, gave powerful testimony on the potential negative impact of the bill, calling it “a suicidal prescription that will not work for the African species and the African people .… Zimbabwe does not subscribe to neo-colonialist ideologies and laws that are enacted to dictate how our wildlife resources should be governed in Africa.”

Munodawafa emphasized that Zimbabwe has healthy and increasing populations of elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and other species that would be severely impacted by the bill—in direct contradiction to the bill’s misrepresentation that these species are declining across Africa.

But California legislators didn’t listen. They tuned out the collective voice of community leaders and wildlife professionals in Africa, who will probably forget more about these species and ecosystems than any legislator in the United States could ever hope to learn. The bill passed both the California and Assembly. Luckily, as reported by websites such as NRAHLF.org, it was killed on the last day of California’s legislative session in 2020 and wasn’t re-introduced in 2021.

Similarly, the Connecticut legislature recently passed a bill banning the import, possession and trade in lawful African species—despite letters in opposition from African range countries and an op-ed, published in the Hartford press, about the damage that the bill could cause. Why are we enacting laws centered around wildlife conservation and species biodiversity that completely disregard science? In what scenario would this be appropriate? Setting aside the conservation impacts that ideas like these would have on the actual species in Africa, there are also glaring legal issues associated with these pieces of legislation under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Lawmakers in New Jersey passed legislation in 2016 that prohibited the possession, import and export of African elephants, leopards, lions, and black and white rhinos. As reported by NRAHLF.org, the state was immediately sued under the ESA and was forced to concede that the law was preempted by federal law.

When California Gov. Brown vetoed similar legislation in 2018, he wrote in his veto message to state legislators that this legislation “would have imposed a state civil penalty for activities expressly authorized by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.”

In virtually no other situation, in the United States or otherwise, do we make wildlife management decisions based purely off emotion while discrediting actual science by on-the-ground biologists and wildlife professionals closest to those species.

Let me frame it this way. If the government of Botswana passed legislation preventing its citizens from coming to the United States to hunt and bring back any part of that game animal because they thought it contributed to the species’ overall decline, there would be a lot of angry hunters wondering why a country and its politicians thousands of miles away purported to know more about wildlife management and biology than their local or state wildlife biologist. Yet when legislators in Connecticut, California and elsewhere do it, the bulk of the hunting community remains quiet.

You might never take a trip to Africa to hunt plains game animals such as kudu and gemsbok, let alone a trip to hunt some of the most dangerous game animals on the planet. But if you’re a believer that wildlife science should be guiding our wildlife management decisions around the globe—and that the communities and individuals closest to the resource should have a say in how their wildlife is managed in a sustainable way—then you should be red hot the next time one of these import bills gets introduced.

 About the Voice of Leadership Panel
Facilitated by James “Jay” Pinsky, editor of The Hunting Wire, and Peter Churchbourne, a director with the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum (HLF), the Voice of Leadership Panel (VLP) is an appointed six-member group of outdoor industry leaders dedicated to sharing their voices on key hunting and outdoor recreation issues to inform, inspire and educate the hunting community. Appointed for a one-year term, VLP panelists address key hunting topics and provide leadership-based digital content to be featured on The Hunting Wire and the NRA HLF website, NRAHLF.org. https://www.nrahlf.org/

Members of the 2020-2021 VLP include:
• Jim Curcuruto, Hunting and Firearm Industry Consultant formerly with the National Shooting Sports Foundation
• Mandy Harling, National Director of Hunting Heritage Programs, National Wild Turkey Federation  
• Jenifer Wisniewski, Chief, Outreach and Communication, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
• Jess Johnson, Legislative and Advocacy, Wyoming Wildlife Federation
• Joel Brice, Vice President, Waterfowl & Hunter Recruitment Programs, Delta Waterfowl 
• David Baxter, Educator, Texas Youth Foundation, Texas Youth Hunting Program

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