Conservation Letters: The elephant (head) in the room: A critical look at trophy hunting

Speaking especially to members of the conservation community who assert conservation success is inextricably bound to the practice of trophy hunting, the researchers urge more concerted efforts to develop appropriate alternatives.

A lion head is attached as a trophy to a post overlooking a large expanse of desert, and several University logos on the right hand side.

Photo by Nick Brandt.

Writing in the scientific journal, Conservation Letters, an international team of conservation scientists argue that trophy hunting – hunting that involves the collection of animal body parts, or “trophies,” – is morally wrong. Led by Chelsea Batavia from the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University, the authors identify trophy hunting as an expression of Western chauvinist, colonialist, and anthropocentric norms.

“When we examined the conservation literature many ethical concerns were not being duly addressed. The one that really struck me was the idea of the ‘trophy.’ There was a conspicuous lack of commentary on what this practice involves, in a very basic sense: killing an animal, and claiming its body or body parts as a trophy of conquest. In my mind that immediately raises some moral red flags. Why was no one else talking about it?” – Chelsea Batavia, lead author, Oregon State University

Read the full article


Trophy hunting has occupied a prominent position in recent scholarly literature and popular media. In the scientific conservation literature, researchers are generally supportive of or sympathetic to its usage as a source of monetary support for conservation. Although authors at times acknowledge that trophy hunting faces strong opposition from many members of the public, often for unspecified reasons associated with ethics, neither the nature nor the implications of these ethical concerns have been substantively addressed. We identify the central act of wildlife “trophy” taking as a potential source of ethical discomfort and public opposition. We highlight that trophy hunting entails a hunter paying a fee to kill an animal and claim its body or body parts as a trophy of conquest. Situating this practice in a Western cultural narrative of chauvinism, colonialism, and anthropocentrism, we argue trophy hunting is morally inappropriate. We suggest alternative strategies for conservation and community development should be explored and decisively ruled out as viable sources of support before the conservation community endorses trophy hunting. If wildlife conservation is broadly and inescapably dependent on the institution of trophy hunting, conservationists should accept the practice only with a due appreciation of tragedy, and proper remorse.


  1. Ethics of trophy hunting: arguments advanced in previous literature
  2. Wildlife “trophies:” A critical view
  3. Practical implications
  4. Conclusions


Trophy hunting has attracted wide academic and popular attention in recent years. A wave of scholarly commentary and mainstream media coverage surrounded the now infamous killing of Cecil the Lion outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe (e.g., Macdonald, Johnson, Loveridge, Burnham, & Dickman, 2016). Discussion of trophy hunting in the popular media has recently been reignited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, initially overturned but since reinstated, to lift the ban on the import of elephant body parts from Zambia and Zimbabwe to the United States. Although empirical research quantifying public perceptions of trophy hunting for conservation is limited, conservation scientists commonly recognize strong public opposition to the practice (e.g., Macdonald et al., 2016; Nelson, Lindsey, & Balme, 2013). Lindsey, Frank, Alexander, Mathieson, and Romañach (2007, p. 882), for example, wrote, “Problems associated with trophy hunting have resulted in increasingly negative publicity and opposition to the industry…at a time when there is widespread public discomfort with the concept of hunting for sport.” It is also relatively common in the literature to see trophy hunting identified as a practice with ethical implications (e.g., Crosmary, Côté, & Fritz, 2015), although this observation is not explained or substantively addressed.

At the same time, a large body of scholarly conservation literature is generally tolerant if not supportive of trophy hunting (e.g., Di Minin, Leader‐Williams, & Bradshaw, 2016; Nelson et al., 2013). Here we observe a strange disconnect between many conservation scientists’ perceptions of public disapproval, at times attributed to unspecified ethical issues; and their determined defense of trophy hunting as a conservation tool. Authors allude to an ethical tension precluding widespread acceptance of trophy hunting as a conservation strategy, but this tension remains undefined and unaddressed in the literature. We aim to break the conspicuous silence and highlight an issue we suspect may underpin much of the “public discomfort” around trophy hunting. This is the basic fact that trophy hunting involves a hunter paying a fee to kill an animal and subsequently retain some or all of the animal’s body as a “trophy.” This practice is intrinsically troubling, and we argue it is also morally inappropriate.

Anthropologists have increasingly sought to understand the roles and representations of nonhuman animals in human societies, which of course include hunting practices (Mullin, 1999). The advent of hunting marked an important development in human biological history and evolution, but hunting is also a cultural act, expressing ideas and beliefs about the (proper) relationship between humans and nonhuman animals (Mullin, 1999). This relationship is variable and dynamic across cultures, and scholars agree its meaning and significance must be interpreted in context (Mullin, 1999). In this essay, by “trophy hunting” we refer specifically to the practice of Western (e.g., North American or European) individuals paying to hunt large mammals such as elephants (Loxodonta Africana) or lions (Panthera leo). Only in this particular context do we consider what it means, and whether it is appropriate, for hunters to claim some part of an animal’s body as a trophy.

Authors & affiliations

Chelsea Batavia
Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society
Oregon State University

Michael Paul Nelson
Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society
Oregon State University

Chris Darimont
Department of Geography
University of Victoria
Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Paul C. Paquet
Department of Geography
University of Victoria
Raincoast Conservation Foundation

William J. Ripple
Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society
Oregon State University

Arian D. Wallach
Centre for Compassionate Conservation, School of Life Sciences
University of Technology Sydney

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