Paying the price – New research indicates trophy hunters pay more to target large-bodied carnivores

New peer-reviewed research by scientists from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the University of Victoria offers fresh insight into the behaviour of trophy hunters. In short, guided hunters pay more to kill larger carnivores, reflecting a desire that likely evolved because large carnivores serve as impressive trophies to signal the abilities of hunters.

Theory from Evolutionary Anthropology suggests that men often hunt in behaviourally costly ways – risking failure and injury for little or no nutritional reward – to signal to potential competitors and mates that they have the brains and bodies to absorb such costs. This ‘Costly Signaling’ theory has not been tested in the context of non-subsistence hunters of North America.

Analyzing advertised prices of 721 guided hunts for 15 species across North America, Ilona Mihalik, Andrew Bateman, and Chris Darimont, Researchers in the Raincoast Applied Conservation Lab at the University of Victoria, report in the journal Royal Society Open Science that hunt prices increase with body size in carnivore species, from about 550 USD to 1800 USD/day. “Species like grizzly and polar bears are likely perceived to pose the largest failure and injury risk, and are rarely eaten by guided hunters,” said Ilona Mihalik who led the work as an Honours student. “The market prices these species command fits with the theory that predicts such qualities make for a desirable trophy.”

There is also a modern twist. Despite its evolutionary origins, costly signaling by modern humans is thought to be commonly subject to cheating. “These days, killing large carnivores often does not honestly reflect special physical and cognitive abilities, given that guides and weaponry eliminate pronounced risks of injury and failure,” said Associate Professor Chris Darimont. “Guided hunters can buy carnivore trophies like they can buy sports cars, monster houses, or works of art.”

These findings offer new insight into hunter motivation, behaviour, and wildlife management. “The evidence that hunters are willing to pay more to target large carnivores could help explain why they are exploited at such high rates,” said Andrew Bateman.

Given this focus on big-bodied carnivores, the authors suggest that conservation management strategies should consider not only the impact of trophy hunting on trophy species, but also the status rewards associated with the hunting of large carnivores.

A grizzly bear lies down on the beach in Khutze Inlet.
Photo by Andy Wright.