(CNN) — I am a lifelong animal lover and vegetarian for whom the idea of killing animals for fun is repellent, and have committed my career to African wildlife conservation.
You might, therefore, expect that I would have been thrilled with Donald Trump’s suggestion — influenced apparently by media and animal rights pressures — that he could decide against the US importation of trophy-hunted elephants (and possibly other species such as lions).
However, I am fearful that impulsive and emotional responses to trophy hunting — no matter how well-meaning — could in fact intensify the decline of species such as lions.
There is no doubt that iconic African species are in serious trouble — lion numbers have nearly halved in 20 years, and as we estimate that only around 24,000 remain, lions are now as rare as rhinos in Africa, and 15 times rarer than elephants .
From the furor over trophy hunting, the public could be forgiven for thinking that it was the major threat facing lions. But in reality, the key issues are the loss of habitat, prey loss from bushmeat poaching and conflict with local people.
That conflict usually involves poisoning, shooting or spearing lions, either to retaliate for (or try to prevent) attacks on livestock or people. Some traditional killing of lions also still occurs, where young men spear them to gain wealth and status.
It is unquestionable that poorly managed trophy hunting can negatively impact lion populations, and it is imperative that hunting is well managed. Systems have been established in places like Zimbabwe to regulate hunting, and while they will never be perfect, they are working relatively well.
Furthermore, any negative impacts need to be set against the positives such a land use can offer. People may find it very strange that there can be any positive aspect to hunting threatened species — surely any additional mortality heaped on a declining species must unquestionably be a bad thing?
The reality is more complicated. Of course, if trophy hunting is the main reason for the decline in an area’s lion population, then stopping it is entirely justified and desirable.
However, in most places, this is not the case. And if trophy hunting diminishes those other threats — by protecting habitat, preventing poaching or acting as a buffer between parks and human populations — then overall the threatened species could be better off.
People are often confused by the “benefit” of hunting, imagining it is about money going to local people. While that can be important, particularly in remote communal areas with few other revenue options, the most important benefit from an African conservation perspective is that trophy hunting maintains vast areas of land for wildlife, which is invaluable in an ever more human-dominated world.
There is a risk that by banning trophy importation without considering the alternative land uses, the headline-grabbing but usually small threat posed by trophy hunting could be replaced by the far more silent, deadly and larger threats of land conversion, poaching, and conflict.
Photo-tourism is often touted as a replacement — but in many remote, less attractive areas, it would not generate sufficient revenue to maintain that land as a wildlife area. If there are non-lethal alternatives to trophy hunting that could safeguard the same amount of land, then I would be the first to support them — but the reality is that no such alternatives currently exist for most hunting areas.
People may hate the ethics around trophy hunting, but to a lion (and to a conservationist), the consequence is the same whether it is shot by a trophy hunter, poisoned by a local villager or starved from lack of prey, so the aim should be to reduce overall unsustainable mortality rather than focusing on one particular activity.
We should remember that the management of African wildlife is the right and responsibility of range states — who have managed to maintain populations of large, costly wildlife while in the Global North we have largely extirpated ours.
The US-based calls to ban trophy hunting in Africa seem particularly hypocritical considering the scale of domestic US hunting — it would save far more animals if the activity was banned in-country, and would not impact the lives of rural Africans and their wildlife.
Our ultimate goal should be to really understand the threats to each population and aim to reduce those, based on science rather than emotion.
Otherwise, we could be condemning far more of these magnificent animals to death, even if such deaths occur far beyond the gaze and hype of the media.
It is a cause for celebration that so many people love lions, elephants, and other wild animals — but we should be extremely wary of basing decisions on emotion alone, in case we worsen their conservation outlook, and effectively love them to death.
(The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.)