Evidence, values, policy, and the advance of science

Conservation scientists respond to an old idea, by reiterating what grounds the foundation of science, and conservation.

A rhinoceros and juvenile rhinoceros stand in the brown grass of the Botswana flats.

Last month, a group of scientists published a letter in the journal Science that advocated for trophy hunting, arguing that the practice can help safeguard biodiversity. In today’s issue of Science, there are six response letters, and Raincoast scientists (Drs. Kyle Artelle, Chris Darimont and Paul Paquet), contribute to three. 

Our team argues that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate any positive effects of trophy hunting on biodiversity. Additionally, we highlight the ethical implications of such policy. Extracts from the letter appear below.

Trophy hunting: Insufficient evidence

“In their Letter “Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity” (30 August, p. 874), A. Dickman et al. argue that banning trophy hunting would be detrimental to conservation. We agree that evidence for effectiveness is important before actions are taken. However, Dickman et al. do not provide evidence that bans to trophy hunting harm biodiversity.”

“Stronger evidence might be gleaned through adequate tests of the effectiveness of trophy hunting for protecting the hunted population, including broad-scale experiments using multiple replicated land parcels subject either to hunting or another putative form of biodiversity protection under similar socioeconomic systems, or tracking of populations before and after trophy hunting (accounting for other threats). Rigorous examinations would likely reveal outcomes that vary by population, geography, other threats to biodiversity, and socioeconomic and governance contexts.”

Trophy hunting: Values inform policy

“In their Letter “Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity” (30 August, p. 874), A. Dickman et al. mischaracterize context, offer weak evidence, and overlook the role of values. They caution against trophy hunting bans, yet the policies they cite do not ban trophy hunting. Two of the policies discontinue only import of lion trophies (1); the others ban the import of trophies from a delimited set of endangered species (1–3). These are not blanket bans on trophy hunting but species-specific import restrictions. Although Dickman et al. contend such bans would “imperil biodiversity,” their evidence is selective [e.g., (4, 5)] and does not directly support the contention that import bans yield negative conservation outcomes.”

“Conservation is rife with risk. Humans and wildlife face physical and biological risks; hence both are subjects of concern. But conservation strategies may carry moral risks as well, even when enacted out of concern. Science can quantify risks, but it cannot tell us whether they are acceptable or by whose values they should be judged. Governments are right to institute policies that manage the landscape of risk by weighing scientific evidence and accounting for the values of their citizens.”

Trophy hunting: Bans create opening for change

“In their Letter “Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity” (30 August, p. 874), A. Dickman et al. warn that banning trophy hunting, a practice many of them deem “repugnant,” could threaten African biodiversity and livelihoods. What they actually describe is how loss of funding may impart these effects, without specifying any unique benefits of trophy hunting. It is defeatist to defend business-as-usual instead of promoting alternative conservation activities that could sustain formerly trophy-hunted species and areas.

“During transitions, nongovernmental organizations could raise funds to pay concessions or countries could agree that a private entity would temporarily assume game reserve management. As the bans are not blanket but import bans, they provide the impetus and the time to incrementally switch to practices that maximize contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals.”

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