The Economic Case Against Trophy Hunting


Outrage over the killing of Cecil, beloved lion by an American dentist multiplied after news that another lion, Jericho, had been killed by an American doctor. Reports of the death have since been refuted by researchers tracking that lion’s movements through its tracking collar. Still, the ongoing outcry over the death of Cecil have led to questions about the economic and environmental merits of trophy hunting.

Walter Palmer, the man who paid $55,000 for a big game permit to shoot a lion in Zimbabwe, has gone in to hiding.

Some argue that putting such high prices on the heads of animals helps drive conservation efforts.

Safari Club International, a pro-hunting group from which Palmer was recently suspended, makes this point: “[T]he surest way to persuade an indigenous population to preserve animals is by giving those animals financial value. And the surest way to give them value is to allow them to be hunted, with the locals getting the proceeds.”


There is little evidence that the staggering sums paid by individuals to hunt some of the world’s most endangered animals do not help to sustain local communities or promote conservation. The returns from killing animals — both in terms of profit and longer term gains such as employment — are far more limited than the returns from ecotourism.

“We‘re more closely allied with the photographic operators than the hunters,” a Tanzanian villager told an academic researcher. “They are finishing off the wildlife before we’ve had a chance to realize a profit from it.”

That’s partly because local communities see very little of the profits earned from gaming permits.

While some researchers have claimed that trophy hunting is a $200 million a year enterprise in Africa, more recent assessments suggest that that number is far smaller. According to Economists At Large, a Melbourne-based organization, the figure is based largely on unpublished tallies by hunters’ associations.

Trophy hunting itself accounts for an average of about two percent of all tourism-related revenues for sub-Saharan African countries. The amount of overall revenue from hunting big game that goes towards community development is only around three percent. That number might even be lower since many of the countries where game hunting is most widely practiced are plagued by corruption that may well undermine the amount of earnings that reach local communities from collectively-held land.


Trophy hunting generally cuts short the earning potential of a living animal. For example, the ivory of a single poached elephant can earn about $21,000 on the black market. That’s a small fraction of the $1.6 million that same elephant can rake up through ecotourism over the course of its life.

The number of jobs generated by trophy hunting across the continent of Africa has been put at around 15,000. Some researchers, however, point out that the jobs created by the industry are rather low considering how much land is used for the sport. For the 11 countries where big game hunting is most widely practiced, hunting preserves take up about 15 percent of national territory, but account for less than one percent of their respective country’s GDP. The earnings from tourism overall are up to six times the amount accrued from trophy hunting.

While some sub-Saharan African countries have moved to ban trophy hunting all out, others allow so-called “canned hunting” in which game animals are bred to be hunting. In South Africa, there are more than 160 farms breeding big cats such as lions and tigers. The animals released into enclosed areas and shot by hunters who pay anywhere from about $8,000 to $40,000 for the “hunt.” The gains of these hunts are less likely to be shared beyond individual companies. While some might suggest that breeding animals for the hunt might help conserve the species, the relative affordability of “canned hunts” has made them increasingly popular while the number of lions in the wild has continued to fall precipitously: its down 80 percent over the last two decades. About 600 lions — or upwards of two percent of their their population — are legally killed each year.

Aside from the economic argument against hunting is a more common sense approach.

“If you’re just giving money to kill an animal, it doesn’t make you a conservationist,” Jeffrey Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare said. “We don’t have to kill an animal to save it.”