Hunting for status: men trophy hunt as a signal they can absorb the costs

Just days before the controversial trophy hunt of grizzly bears resumes in BC on April 01, science offers new insight into the human ‘super predator.’ It also offers a glimpse of potential change in the future.

Although Cecil the lion’s death sparked a fierce global debate about trophy hunting, until now no one has explained the behaviour that seemed so baffling to many. After all, no other predator on the planet trophy hunts, targeting large, dangerous and/or rare prey, and often not consuming their quarry.

It is not because trophy hunters are ‘sick’, ‘blood-thirsty’ or other labels of depravity hurled their way by those opposed. Rather, new research suggests that trophy hunting provides for hunters not merely a carcass but also – perhaps more importantly – a status-enhancing signal.

The surprising theory, supported by abundant evidence and careful inference, was published in a peer-reviewed Opinion piece this week in Biology Letters. Chris Darimont, a Conservation Scientist at the University of Victoria and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, teamed up with Brian Codding and Kristen Hawkes, Evolutionary Anthropologists from the University of Utah.

The scientists drew on a body of work showing a similar pattern by hunter-gatherer men across the globe. Among all the potential animals to hunt across varied landscapes, men typically target the largest and most difficult to acquire. In some cases, most of the meat is given away. “This seemingly irrational behaviour makes sense by invoking so-called ‘costly signaling theory’, which considers the status that men accrue by signalling that they can afford costly behaviour,” says Darimont.

The team suggests the theory equally applies to contemporary trophy hunters. Simply put, killing large, dangerous, and/or rare trophy animals imposes costs. Trophy hunts for endangered species are extraordinarily expensive. “Even the everyday hunter who targets larger ‘trophy’ deer pays the costs of passing up smaller, more abundant deer that could fill their freezers,” added Dr. Darimont. “Whether they realise it or not, they are hunting for status.” Status is universally important to men because it attracts mates and wards off competition.

The authors explain how contemporary culture and technology support status-seeking behaviour that likely evolved long ago. Hunters commonly pose for pictures with their kills, and have the heads, hides, and ornaments prepared for display to others. The Internet now provides a vast audience to which to boast. Advertisements for hunting and fishing equipment often promise the biggest buck, bear or other animal.

“Like a luxury car, trophy hunting seems to be about status accumulation,” offers Dr. Paul Paquet, Senior Scientist for Raincoast Conservation. “Although a natural inclination, trophy hunting of carnivores cannot be justified, given the suffering of individuals killed, and also the risks to many populations. That’s certainly the case with grizzly bears in British Columbia. It’s fringe behaviour that most hunters do not support.”

The paper concludes by asking how the widespread shaming directed at trophy hunters since Cecil’s death might influence the future of trophy hunting. “The perceived benefits of costly signaling might be eroded by shaming, which tends to erode status,” Darimont adds.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.