Hunting for conservation

As a recent arrival to the world of wildlife conservation, I feel extremely lucky to have been admitted to membership of the Otter Specialist Group (OSG). Species specialist groups like the OSG are part of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN SSC), a science-based network of more than 10,000 volunteer experts from almost every country of the world.

It has come to my attention that some conservationists are concerned about the admission of hunting groups such as the Dallas Safari Club to membership of the IUCN. It certainly seems contradictory, at the very least, to include an organisation which promotes the hunting and killing of wild animals for sport within a membership dedicated to nature conservation.

Taking a closer look at the purpose of the IUCN, however, as stated on its website (http://www.iucn.org/secretariat/about) I notice that it is devoted to enabling “human progress, economic development and nature conservation to take place together.” Nature conservation is not pursued by the IUCN in isolation, but as part of an overarching plan for sustainable human progress.

Now this excites me. You see, I’ve always been troubled by the way in which sections of society are polarised on the subject of nature conservation. In the UK, where I am based, it is common for those who work and live in the countryside to feel that nature campaigners may be considered to be mainly townies with no practical understanding of how rural life works (see http://www.countryside-alliance.org/about-us/).  Yet in reality, we all understand that sustainable development, biodiversity conservation and regard for our natural environment are essential to the continued survival of the human race. Don’t we? Surely we are all in this together?

Hunting for sport may be an anathema to many nature enthusiasts. It certainly doesn’t appeal to me. But most hunters understand the need for nature conservation (see https://www.biggame.org/who-we-are/) and many are very knowledgeable about the species they hunt.  In addition, revenue from trophy hunting can be substantial and may fund valuable conservation efforts.  Should conservationists refuse to accept the help of hunters, on the grounds that they disagree with hunting on ethical grounds? Perhaps.  After all, if a principle is worth having, we ought to be willing to make sacrifices for it.

Do I disagree with hunting for sport on ethical grounds? On the surface of things, yes.  But human beings use animals in a number of ways. I have spent a large part of my career as a veterinary surgeon, caring for the health and welfare of domestic animals kept as companions.  The purpose of companion (pet) animals is for recreation. This could be compared to the recreational purpose to which a sport hunter puts wild animals.

There are obviously huge differences. A pet has been reared for its purpose, while a hunted wild animal has not.  Pets provide recreation for their owners for a lifetime, while a hunted wild animal is likely only hunted once, for a relatively short time. Pets are not purposely hurt or killed, as a hunted wild animal is. Although, here’s the thing which strikes me: I know that more pet animals are bred, than are required. As a veterinary surgeon I have been required to euthanase pet animals for which homes cannot be found.  I wonder how many pet animals are killed for this reason each year?

My point is that when we as humans use animals for any purpose, it may be that some of the animals die.  Perhaps we should not use them at all. But most of us do, one way or another.  I believe strongly that animals should not be needlessly hurt, and have spent much of my career to date attempting to improve and safeguard animal welfare. I find it hard to understand why anyone would enjoy hunting for sport. But do I feel able to pronounce the practice so profoundly wrong that I refuse to cooperate with those who undertake it? I do not.

I remain proud to be a member of the IUCN, and hope that human progress may continue in a sustainable fashion. I believe that this can only be achieved if we work together, and hope that this can be done whilst respecting the needs and welfare of wild animals and each other.