An elephant never forgets...


I just came across this opinion piece touting the benefits of big-game hunting on wildlife conservation generally, and African elephants in particular.  The authors write:

It’s counterintuitive, of course, but an elephant well shot is a species well protected. Simply enough, when there is a market value in products derived from any species, people have a strong incentive to preserve and protect that species for its economic worth.

Now, there is undoubtedly something to be said for this argument, which is often repeated by trophy-hunting organizations.  But it also misses a crucial point: namely that trophy hunting does not take animals indiscriminately. Large healthy animals are often selectively targeted by hunters, precisely the opposite of what natural predation or mortality patterns would dictate,where the very young, very old, and infirm are generally the first to go.  And the selective culling of large healthy animals can have all kinds of unknown consequences .

Case in point:  the African elephant.  As Andrew Revkin noted at Dot Earth today, a recent study just found that when older female elephants are killed by poachers the health of an entire elephant family group can suffer.

The scientists, led by Charles Foley of the conservation society, focused on a terrible drought in 1993 and the fates of three family groups, two of which — led by older females — left the park, found water, and had a higher survival rate for calves than a group whose older females were killed by poachers seeking their tusks.

Scientists believe that the older females had memories of distant watering holes that their younger counterparts lacked. 

Another example is the practice of selectively hunting large mature males.  As I’ve written about before, some studies now indicate that the selective harvest of male polar bears by hunters in Canada has thrown off the male-to-female ratio in some polar bear populations, making them vulnerable to sudden population collapse.

My point is this: the use of market forces is a powerful thing; like all powerful things, its use can have powerful (and often unpredictable) consequences.  Let’s be damned sure we know what those consequences will be before we unleash them.