Hunt for the middle ground

Hanniah Tariq grapples with the complex question of trophy hunting in Pakistan

Hunt for the middle ground
A story broke in late April that a press conference had taken place in which a distraught mother lamented the country’s inability to honor the achievements of its youth. One would think that the government had taken away the National Youth Award from an adolescent scientist on a technicality or something along those lines. But, surprisingly, it was about her 13-year-old son not being officially recognised as the youngest Pakistani to hunt and kill a Himalayan ibex in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Trophy hunting has always been a hotbed for controversy but this particular case had many problems – apparently, he had used a license issued to his father, not him and the animal was hunted in Gojal when the license was for Hushey (a completely different area). Activists and animal lovers were up in arms, hurting their keyboards while posting on social media about the evils of trophy hunting and the preciousness of life. Pictures of the young hunter next to his kill made the rounds on Facebook. Trophy hunting was unequivocally labeled the most despicable practice to have ever materialised in the north. However, as with most things (leaving aside this one very problematic incident), trophy hunting – even with a proper license – is a complex issue when seen from different perspectives.

The Himalayan Ibex of Gilgit-Baltistan

A similar complicated debate was ignited globally in July 2015 when ‘Cecil the Lion’ was controversially shot by an American dentist in Zimbabwe. Animal welfare organisations, conservationists, and pro-hunting groups were all at loggerheads over the ethics involved in the killing of rare animals in exchange for money. Social media was aflame with people demanding his head – or at the very the revocation of his license as a dentist. Many prominent airlines refused to transport hunting trophies. Even Ingrid Newkirk, President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) passionately weighed in, stating that “All wild animals are beloved by their own mates and infants, but to hunters like this overblown, over-privileged little man, who lack empathy, understanding, and respect for living creatures, they are merely targets to kill, decapitate, and hang up on a wall as a trophy”. It was an earnest message that tugged at the heartstrings of many animal lovers calling for a complete ban on trophy hunting worldwide.

I knew where I stood on the debate: completely on the side of banning this inhumane practice. Until the controversy was reignited closer to home last month. I suddenly saw many experts agree that trophy hunting is vital to the economy of local communities in the north if carried out responsibly and legally. While having a conversation online with Mr. Shabbir Mir, a noted journalist from the area, some of my intense misgivings about trophy hunting were given a new perspective. According to Mr. Mir, “Trophy hunting has been legalised in many countries, though many consider it bad and unethical. In Gilgit, it’s been taking place since the 1980s under certain rules. It is helping communities a lot economically and ecologically. Now people themselves safeguard the animals collectively which has resulted in an increase in the population of animals like the Markhor – once considered ‘threatened’. Of the money, which is in the billions, several development projects have been completed in areas like Gojal”.

In Pakistan, 80% of the license fees are to be released to the communities where the hunt took place and spent on projects that aid development in the area while 20% goes back to the government to be utilised for conservation activities. It has also been debated that regulated hunting helps support local communities by creating jobs in rural, marginalised areas where few other economic opportunities are available. Hunting groups have numerous requirements: local guides, jeeps, drivers and accommodation just to name a few. Some also agree that it helps incentivise local communities to protect the wildlife on their lands from poachers and illegal hunting. The Punjab Urial Conservation, Protection and Trophy Hunting rules for example clearly state that local committee members (association of local landowners) in the Urial Protection Zone must “identify habitual poachers and deliver warnings”.

All that being said, one can only hope that care is being taken by the authorities when establishing quotas to ensure that they take into account the current population of the species. A joint study carried out by researchers from the Karakorum International University, PMAS-Arid Agriculture University, the Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan and COMSATS Institute of Information Technology stated that “the availability of scientific data about population and distribution of ibex will be helpful for conservation and can be used for allocation of quota for trophy hunting.” Such surveys carried out regularly would be a critical factor in responsibly regulating the number of licenses being allocated.
In Pakistan, 80% of the license fees are to be released to the local communities for development while 20% goes back to the government for conservation activities

Checks and balances also need to be maintained, not just in Pakistan but wherever trophy hunting is legal. There are many burning questions. Are the communities really receiving the amount proportioned? How is transparency maintained in the process? Analysing the frameworks of four major game countries from Africa, a ranking member of the ‘Democratic staff of the House Committee on Natural Resources’ (USA) concluded that the “implementation of these frameworks has in many cases been marred by corruption and has not produced the advertised and desired results”. Additionally one wonders how valuable it is overall. For example a 2013 report by ‘Economists at Large’ claims that in most countries “Overall trophy hunting accounts for less than 2% of tourism revenues”. Another particular question that arises in this case is if the hunt was authorized in Hushey but actually took place in Gojal then which community got 80% of the fee paid for the license?

Ultimately, it is hard to stand on either side of the line for me. All animals (endangered or not) must be cared for and protected. In the end, we are all God’s creatures with the right to live. Sure, in Pakistan a large majority of us consume meat, hence it may be a tad hypocritical but glorifying it as some trophy hunters do is just overkill (pun intended). Like the people who pay thousands and thousands of dollars just to have the title of the ‘big five’ (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo).

But if the local marginalised communities in our north really are benefiting from it, then it is perhaps unjust to sit back and judge from behind a keyboard. Still, more progressive tourism is also possible – as some countries are demonstrating. National Geographic reports that in South Africa some “hunts offer the thrill of the chase without the kill. A rule change in 2012 generally allows only veterinarians to fire tranquiliser darts; hunters can shoot darts containing vitamins”. Namibia is yet another example of a sustainable solution. Locally owned “Communal Wildlife Conservancies” are promoting photo-tourism and setting up eco-lodges to replace trophy hunting and reaping economic benefits springing from those. Surely stalking an animal to take a shot (but through a lens) can be just as thrilling to those seeking that form of adrenaline. There has to be a middle ground somewhere for us as well. I will try to stand there too.

However, the image of a young boy holding a gun and grinning next to the body of the beautiful animal he just killed is too hard to stomach!