This ain’t no Disney movie

No one likes an armchair quarterback. The amateur know-it-all. The person who is convinced that he knows how to do something better than a person who has spent years attaining specialized education and training, someone who has toiled for years in his career to learn the ins and outs of his area of expertise.

I don’t pay a visit to my doctor and then say “listen, Doc, I was googling the symptoms and it seems to me that you’ve got this diagnosis completely wrong. And not only that, but I just feel it’s the wrong diagnosis.” 

Which is why it is increasingly frustrating for me to be confronted with armchair ecologists who tell me that what I am doing, what entire government agencies are doing, what entire countries and thousands of trained ecologists are doing is wrong. And why do they know that it’s wrong? Because they feel it is wrong. There is no logic or rational argument they can present to support this feeling. They just feel it.

The sustainable utilization of wildlife is a well-established ecological principle. The selective removal of surplus individuals from a population does not drive a population into decline. In some cases it can actually stimulate the population growth rate. But aside from the ecological aspects, the plowing of hunting-derived revenue back into conservation has been the economic engine that has enabled wildlife to flourish.

In 1937, the US passed the Pittman-Robertson Act. It was a groundbreaking piece of legislation that collected a tax on the sale of weapons and ammunition and used that tax to fund conservation. Today hunters in America spend around $5 billion annually on taxable merchandise that results in around $200-300 million annually returning to conservation. This money is essentially what funds most state game and fish agencies. It protects habitat, funds species restoration and funds the conservation officers that protect wildlife from poachers.

Simply put, if not for the direct investment of hunting revenue, species like white-tailed deer and wild turkeys would be extinct in North America today. Feeling strongly about nature is one thing. Paying to protect it is quite another.

Similarly, in places like Namibia, hunting has been the economic engine that has fueled community-based conservation. As a result of this program, Namibia’s wildlife is flourishing. But more importantly, people’s attitudes toward wildlife have shifted dramatically. Whereas carnivores and large mammals like elephants were previously viewed as a nuisance and a pest, today they are highly valued because of the revenues they bring to communities. At a very conservative estimate, more than 1 million rural people in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania rely on a wildlife-based economy for their livelihoods today. And the driver of that economy is hunting revenue. Sustainable hunting. Sustainable in the sense that wildlife numbers in those areas are increasing dramatically. Hunting is not driving wildlife to extinction, it is allowing it to recover. Mountain zebra in Namibia have recovered from a mere handful to over 30,000 today.

The black rhino was very nearly extinct in Namibia but today around 2,000 of them are found in the country, double the number that existed just 15 years ago, and the population is on track to double again in another 15 years’ time. Which is why the manufactured outrage around the hunting of a single post-breeding age male rhino is so laughable. Hunting that one bull resulted in $350,000 going back to Namibia to protect and conserve 2,000 other black rhinos. No matter how much you feel that killing that one rhino was wrong, there is no denying that the death of one animal is in no way threatening the survival of the species. In fact it is enhancing the survival of black rhinos in Namibia, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has said as much.

There is simply no arguing against these facts. Yet despite the clear evidence, armchair ecologists with absolutely no training in biological science whatsoever stand up and say that hunting is against conservation. When they fail to find any logical or rational argument to support their cause they resort to ad hominem attacks, saying things like “hunters have small penises.” I’m curious as to how the millions of female hunters around the world would respond to such statements.

These impassioned yet misguided animal lovers have educated themselves by watching Disney films and Animal Planet documentaries. Shows which give names and anthropomorphized personalities to individual animals.  Shows which have about as much to do with the reality of nature as the Kardashians do to the reality of life. These armchair ecologists could not tell you how to calculate the carrying capacity of an ecosystem. They couldn’t define r-selection or k-selection. They have no idea what Lindeman’s Law of Trophic Efficiency is. They couldn’t conduct a population viability analysis if their lives depended on it. They wouldn’t know Bergmann’s Rule from Beakman’s World. Yet they will vociferously denounce those of us who have spent years receiving this type of training and toiling away in dangerous and remote places conserving the very species those people love so much.

I have personally put my life at risk many times in my occupation as a wildlife biologist. From the many hours flying at low altitudes in frigid conditions counting deer from a Cessna to capturing rhinos from a helicopter at treetop level (66% of all job-related deaths of wildlife biologist are from aircraft accidents). From confronting surly elephants in musth to sleeping in tents surrounding by roaring lions. I have encountered armed and dangerous individuals intent on stealing natural resources for their own greedy aims. I have been bitten by tsetse flies and anopheles mosquitoes and have sweated the feverish hallucinations of a malarial ague. All for the cause of conservation.

Yet a small and vocal minority of impassioned animal lovers would discard all of that and call me an inadequately-endowed murderer because I understand and support the sustainable hunting of wildlife.

But I don’t care. Call me what you will. I can easily brush that dirt off my shoulders. But what I will not abide is when you use your ill-informed emotional opinions to influence policy makers to take bad decisions. Decisions that hurt wildlife and people. Call me what you will, but what will you say to those 1 million people whose lives depend on the sustainable use of wildlife in southern Africa? What of the man in the rural village who poisons a lion because it killed all of his goats in a single night? Goats that literally represented that man’s entire life’s savings? Will you call that man a small-penised murderer? Will you tell him that hunting is murder? Please do, I dare you. But be cautious of the pointy end of his spear.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in medicine, or law or real estate or computer programming or insurance or any other career field. But I am an expert in wildlife ecology. And unless you have invested the years and blood and tears that I have in this field I honestly don’t care to hear how strongly you “feel” that killing an animal is wrong. Feelings are not science. If you want to have a rational and scientific discourse, by all means let’s talk. But if your only recourse is to taunt and shout ad hominem attacks then I’m sorry but that didn’t work in 2nd grade and it won’t work now.

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