After the infamous case of the untimely death of the beloved Cecil the lion, natural history museums have become even more careful than before about demonstrating the provenance of the specimens they use for research and display. Big game hunting can be viewed with such distaste by members of the museum-going public that its display can be somewhat controversial. For those of us in the industry, it presents a conundrum of messaging, not least because the topic of big game hunting is highly nuanced and has many benefits to both wilderness landscape and the local communities that both utilize and (potentially) protect the land.
Calls to consider sustainable hunting as a tool for wildlife management are nothing new. Teddy Roosevelt, who popularized the activity to an eager early 20th century pubic, said:
“In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen.”
This perspective has proliferated, especially in a time when the rights of indigenous peoples increasingly honored as the right thing to do. Writing in 1997 in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Joni E. Baker said:
Preserving wildlife in a pristine state on a large scale is no longer feasible in view of continued human population increases, economic development, habitat fragmentation and degradation, the introduction of nonnative species, and commercialization of wildlife products. The wise use of the planet’s remaining wildlife resources will depend on management practices which recognise that indigenous people are integral parts of ecosystems. Community-based conservation, which attempts to devolve responsibility for the sustainable use of wildlife resources to the local level, can include consumptive activities, such as trophy hunting, as well as non-consumptive forms of tourism. Trophy Hunting as a Sustainable Use of Wildlife Resources in Southern and Eastern Africa, Vol. 5 (4): 1997
And yet, a $7 million, comprehensive census of African elephants has found that the population decreased by nearly a third between 2007 and 2014. This was primarily due to poaching, an activity that is more difficult when sustained (and lucrative) tourist hunting is possible.
The same year as the conclusion of the elephant survey Jason G. Goldman wrote a thoughtful post for the University of Washington conservation blog, entitled Can trophy hunting actually help conservation? Discussing the auction of a permit in Namibia to hunt a single black rhino (for US$350,000). He said:
But if an endangered species as charismatic as the black rhinoceros is under such extreme threat from poaching, then perhaps the message that the species needs saving has a larger problem to address than the relatively limited loss of animals to wealthy hunters. The real tragedy here is that the one rhino that will be killed as a result of Saturday’s auction has received a disproportionate amount of media attention compared to the hundreds of rhinos lost to poaching each year, which remain largely invisible.
In a world in which the global human population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people by the year 2050, we simply may not have the luxury of some of the solutions that are more aligned to western palates with regard to conservation of charismatic megafauna (and the species their presence protects).
And how does that impact us on coalface of natural history museums’ exhibitions and public programming? Notable museum thinker Elaine Heumann Gurian considers the museum as a civic forum and said famously that it can be “a fitting safe place for the discussion of unsafe ideas.” We mustn’t shy away from challenging people’s entrenched paradigms because it’s awkward or because we feel we can’t tell the story in sufficiently simple “bite-sized pieces”. In an environment of accelerating change and increasingly wicked problems, natural history museums are places that can unpack complex issues and live, to some degree, in the gray area. It is, perhaps, part of our unique contribution to society and the world.