Much Ado About Nothing: What the overreaction to Bob Parsons’ elephant hunting video tells us about our society

18 Apr

Bob Parsons, CEO of, recently attracted a spate of criticism from animal activists for posting a video in which he hunted a bull elephant. The elephant was subsequently eaten by the villagers whose farms were being threatened, and its tusks were sold by the Zimbabwean state. Details can be found here:

We live in a world where we as humans are dependent on animals, and few people ever consider what that means. Few people know or care about how their meat comes to their table, or what conditions the animal that gave them milk is raised in. We live in a world where it is perfectly feasible that there may well be children who have never, ever seen a livestock pen in their lives, and may well grow up to believe that the well-packaged meat appears as if by magic at a supermarket aisle.

It is upon this base of ignorance that we have increasingly seen attacks on any lifestyle that is, in any way, more natural, or more resistant of the modern food industry – whether they come in the form of draconian regulations on raw milk, government regulation of the supplement/naturopath industry, or, the emotion-driven, irrational attacks on hunting.

Unlike the average Joe whose only encounter with a prey animal is the purchase of a prepacked top sirloin at the supermarket (or increasingly, a precooked meal where one does not even have any visual exposure to animal flesh whatsoever), a hunter must know his quarry intimately before harvesting it. Unlike the average meat-eater, the hunter must understand and protect the habitat and living conditions of his quarry – the very existence of his tradition depends on it. He must be careful not to take too much, and must actively work to preserve natural habitats, lest the lest animal populations suffer. He must participate in nature, not remove himself from it.

Moreover, the overwhelming evidence shows that hunting, especially in poor regions, is an extremely effective way to fund habitat preservation. Habitat loss is the number one reason for species extinction, while well-regulated hunting has never caused the extinction of even a single animal species. The BBC has published a number of excellent articles on the role of hunting in conservation and wildlife management.

To understand why hunting and trade bans are not as effective as they are supposed to be, it is worth considering elephant conservation programmes in Africa, where countries have adopted two diverse strategies. Elephant tusks (ivory) are used in artefacts around the world and, whether we like it or not, they command a market value similar to many precious metals. As a result, there is a constant international demand for ivory.

Unfortunately, most African economies are poor and wildlife conservation has to compete with many pressing demands for public money, such as the provision of public housing, sanitation projects, health care (particularly related to Aids) and education.So conservation projects are going to be most successful if they can be self-supporting; in other words, if they can generate income and provide local jobs.

In southern Africa, countries have followed the philosophy of sustainable use. They have issued permits to sport hunters to kill a limited number of elephants that are pre-selected according to factors like age and sex. They cannot shoot breeding animals, for example. Sport hunting produces significant income through hunting fees, safari costs (guides, accommodation, trophy fees, etc.) and this is reinvested into conservation programmes. Local people support it because it provides secure employment. The result is that in Namibia, South Africa and Botswana, elephant populations are well-stocked and healthy, while incidences of poaching have been kept to low levels.

The price of hunting a single bull elephant can we over $10000, money that can be well spent to prevent habitat loss and poaching, which are the biggest threats to wildlife such as elephants. This is in every sense a victory for all parties involved – the hunter, the protein-starved villagers for whom regulated hunting allows protection of their fields and nutritious meat, and for the wildlife itself who are protected from overpopulation in the absence of natural predators, and habitat destruction.

The choice is not between hunting or having animals thrive. It is between regulated and managed hunting or its alternative – poaching, habitat destruction and the extinction of wildlife. Bob Parsons has done well to recognize the real choice that has been presented, and make a conscious decision about the course of action to take. We’d probably all be better off if we at least took the time to reflect upon our choices the next time we visit the supermarket. Or, indeed, to at least recognize that we are making those choices at all.