California may ban African hunting trophies. How Black Lives Matter has altered the debate

California lawmakers this week will debate Black inequality and injustice in an unlikely arena: Trophy hunting.

For years, animal rights groups across Western nations, in campaigns often led by white celebrities, have pushed for bans on trophy hunting of iconic African species such as lions, hippos, rhinos, zebras, and elephants.

California, home to many of those activists, is no exception. The state Legislature is moving forward with a bill, Senate Bill 1175, that would ban the possession of trophies taken from several African species. The bill faces a committee hearing on Tuesday and is supported by a long list of animal rights and environmental groups.

Tucked among the opposition letters from the usual cadre of hunting associations and taxidermists are pleas from some African nations and conservation organizations whose leaders are urging lawmakers to kill the bill.

They argue that wealthy trophy hunters provide a key source of money for anti-poaching efforts, wildlife habitat protection and funding for impoverished rural communities that might otherwise kill off entire populations of animals if not for the huge sums of money hunters pay to shoot a few of them a year.

They say the sentiment behind this bill, and similar efforts in Western countries, amount to whites making sweeping generalizations about the people living in 54 separate African countries. In effect, they’re saying it’s racist and insulting for wealthy white Westerners to imply that all Africans are too corrupt or incompetent to make hunting sustainable.

“Africa is not a country,” Masego Madzwamuse, CEO of the Southern Africa Trust, said in a video interview Friday from her home in South Africa, echoing a now-common phrase asking people to understand the vibrant diversity of the continent.

“This is where it links to the issue of Black Lives Matter,” Madzwamuse said.

Banning the possession of trophy animals is an easy sell in a predominantly liberal state like California. Every few months, social media erupts with vitriol over photos of wealthy whites, including the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., smiling next to the carcasses of the African beasts they’d shot on a safari.

But Madzwamuse said trophy hunting’s foes are forgetting that those photos are taken on land owned by Africans and managed by Africans, who “ought to be determining the future of Africa’s wildlife.”

“They’ve lived side by side with these resources for many years and have been able to conserve them,” Madzwamuse said. “To take away economic opportunities from families that are struggling to feed themselves, that are struggling to take children through school, struggling to put food on the table on a day-to-day basis, is really to push people into a space of indignity.”

Supporting a trophy-hunting ban

The bill’s author, State Sen. Henry Stern, D-Calabasas, said he’s aware of those criticisms, and he discussed them with a Zimbabwean wildlife official who testified against the bill in the Senate.

“I don’t dispute the fact that these safaris bring some economic value to these countries,” Stern said. “And I’m not so self-important that I think we know what’s best for Zimbabwe. But there’s nothing in this bill that inhibits anyone from going to Zimbabwe or any game preserve in Africa and going on one of these hunts.”

Hunters would, however, face a fine of up to $40,000 if they possess their trophies in California.

Stern argues that there are better and more effective ways to monetize African animals to benefit local people that don’t involve killing them, such as expanding ecotourism. He points to reports that show wildlife tourism can replace or surpass trophy hunting whose revenues often don’t make their way back to conservation.

Many environmental groups strongly believe that trophy hunting is incompatible with their values, and they point to research that shows it can have a negative impact on wildlife.

SB 1175 also contains provisions that would ban the importation of foreign wildlife that could harbor diseases, though local, state and federal agricultural, customs and wildlife agencies already enforce a slew of regulations pertaining to live-animal imports.

Critics say the bill is a cynical attempt to link trophy hunting to concerns around so-called “wet markets” that sell live animals similar to the market in Wuhan, China, that was originally described as the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. (The Chinese government disputes that claim.) Environmental groups counter that the bill is an important step to ending the dangerous global trade in wildlife.

“The international wildlife trade not only poses a disease risk to people but is a threat to biodiversity,” Brendan Cummings, conservation director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Whether it’s dead animals brought in as trophies or curios, or live animals imported as pets or food, our unsustainable appetite for wildlife is one of the main drivers of the extinction crisis.”

California’s second attempt

This is not the California Legislature’s first attempt to ban the possession of African trophy animals. In 2018, then Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill that Stern also authored.

“Even though I share the sentiments of the author, this bill, if enacted, would be unenforceable,” Brown wrote.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s late father, Judge William Newsom, was a beloved figure in the state’s animal rights movement, having founded the state’s influential Mountain Lion Foundation. As lieutenant governor, Newsom supported Stern’s earlier bill, and he’s made it clear that he finds African trophy hunting repugnant.

“Some of these trophy hunters are trying to call their hunting ‘ethical hunting,’ Newsom wrote on Facebook in 2015. “That is absolutely absurd. Don’t go into the jungle in an SUV with three paid guides, GPS and an elephant gun and have the audacity to call that ethical. You want to be an ethical hunter? Go into the jungle with a spear at midnight, but you won’t…because we all know how that will turn out.”

The new legislation would, starting next year, prohibit possession of trophies from African elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, giraffes, Jentink’s duikers (a deer-like animal), pangolins, zebras, hippos, hyenas and baboons.

Opponents of the bill say the U.S. Endangered Species Act allows for the importation of African trophies, so the state’s possession ban would likely be overturned in court.

They also argue that the bill would create a large “unfunded mandate” for California’s already understaffed wildlife officers at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Since the bill bans people from possessing trophies brought into the state after 2021, the state’s game wardens would require proof that the trophies people already possess were acquired before the ban.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the bill comes with a one-time cost of $3.6 million when it takes effect in 2021, and ongoing enforcement costs of $2.7 million each year. The costs represent a tiny fraction of the state’s $151.6 billion general fund budget.

For Stern and the bill’s supporters, ending trophy hunting and the global wildlife trade is a matter of life and death for endangered species, and funding issues shouldn’t stand in the way.

“I think that’s a resolvable fiscal challenge, and not something that should make us throw up our hands and just let extinction happen on our watch because we don’t want to fund a few more law enforcement officers,” Stern said. “We want people policing … this extinction possibility.”

If not trophy hunting, then what?

But is trophy hunting really a source of an African extinction crisis?

Amy Dickman, a University of Oxford scholar who founded the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania, said she’s seen the opposite in the rural areas where she works trying to protect predators like lions.

Without the incentive to keep those animals alive so a few of them can be hunted, she said, they end up killed as bushmeat, captured for the wildlife trade or shot, poisoned or speared and left to rot because they’re a nuisance to impoverished villagers.

For Dickman, it’s easy to judge how others manage their wildlife when you’re thousands of miles away and a herd of elephants isn’t trampling your crops or lions aren’t hunting outside your village.

“The further you get from the field, the further you get from the realities of conservation, and the louder the voices are and the stronger the opinions about how (wildlife) should be managed,” she said.

Dickman also asks: Why do Westerners think that Africans can’t create a system of well-regulated hunting that can protect wildlife like the way North American governments have?

In the U.S., no species hunted for “sport” has gone extinct from overhunting since regulations were implemented early last century. Hunting revenues also have been a key source of funding for wildlife habitat and for bringing animals like elk back from the brink of extinction.

“It really concerns me that we do see a lot of celebrities, musicians, and actors driving and amplifying the debate because they end up with the power and the platform,” Dickman said. “There is no equivalent power and platform for the people most affected.”

Pushing back against celebrities

African conservation groups and local communities are starting to push back.

Last month, facing similar anti-trophy-hunting campaigns in England, 50 community leaders representing millions of people across southern Africa, wrote an open letter to British celebrities Ricky Gervais, Joanna Lumley, Peter Egan, Ed Sheeran, Judi Dench and Piers Morgan urging them to stop using their influence to undermine the rights of impoverished people to manage their own wildlife.

These celebrities’ generalizations about all African species being endangered also doesn’t ring true for Fulton Mangwanya, the director general of Zimbabwe’s parks and wildlife authority.

Citing elephants as an example, he noted that there are more than 83,000 of them in his country, he said. One park alone is home to 45,000 elephants, but that’s 15,000 more than the park’s habitat can sustainably support, he said.

While non-hunting tourism provides an important revenue stream for his country, it can’t replace hunting to sustainably manage game populations. He said if trophy hunters stop flying to Zimbabwe, the animals will suffer for it.

“You want to talk of ecotourism? Fine,” Mangwanya said. “It’s another tool we can have in our toolbox, but, honestly, we are talking of the cog of conservation, wildlife conservation, and it’s hunting.”

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