A Picture and a Thousand Words

Sometimes the stories behind the photographs are as intriguing as the photograph itself.

Then again, sometimes they aren't

Im a fine art wildlife photographer from Oregon.  I specialize work to provide a unique perspective on the wild world

Take a Picture - A Discussion on Trophy Hunting and Conservation

I would like to start this off by saying I do not agree with trophy hunting.  In any shape and form, it is not something that I approve of, nor is it something I will ever participate in.  I know people who have done a good deal of trophy hunting in their day, I have friends that have.  I grew up with family friends with bear rugs in their dens and stuffed heads on their walls.  As a kid I didn't think much of it, I didn't see it often, but it was never something that was out of the ordinary either.  I was aware of the concept, that it happens, but I never understood the reality of it.  I never knew to distinguish between the types of hunting until I was older.  

So to start, we need to distinguish between substance hunting and trophy hunting.  Subsistence hunting is specifically for the purpose of food and survival.  Using the entire animal to support ones self or family.  Subsistence hunting, in my opinion, is a completely different topic and one that I have no issue at all with, in fact I support it.  I truly think this distinction is an important thing for people to understand.  Its important to know what it takes to get a meal from the field to your plate.  Its not pretty, its messy.  There is suffering, and there is no getting around it.  But it also a life that has gone toward something.  What is the difference between a hunter killing a dear to eat, and a lion killing a kudu for a meal?  I don't believe there is one.  Sadly, we as a society have removed ourselves so much from the process that we have a hard time distinguishing the two.  Few people care to know where their steaks come from, and what it takes to get it.  I wish more people knew.  While a hunter may enjoy hunting, a subsistence hunter chooses not to hunt for the joy of killing, or the trophy, but their motives lie somewhere else. Trophy hunting and subsistence hunting are not the same thing in my opinion, not at all.  My uncles subsistence hunt, some of my friends, my father, even I have.  The importance lies in the morality.  The animal is used, all of it.  Nothing goes to waste.  When a trophy hunter kills a lion, they mount the head on a wall, but I don't know many people who are hunting for lion meat.  We are not talking about subsistence hunting here.

Now, people should be able to make their own decisions, their own choices on how to spend their life.  Who am I to judge? While I may not agree with it, trophy hunting often involves animals that are not endangered, threatened or otherwise.  However, I hold wildlife near and dear to my heart and I felt compelled to write something.  I don't expect everyone to agree with this, I also don't care.  

When I was 18, I spent several summers in Alaska.  One of those summers I worked at a fishing resort. During that summer we would typically have most evenings free after our work was done.  I was still new to photography, but loved it very much.  I had an old film camera, and a single 55-100 lens.  Almost every night we would head out on a small boat looking for bear to photograph.  We typically found more bear than we knew what to do with most nights. They would congregate at the point the river met the ocean, where the fish began their journey inland.  We would park our boats and walk in on foot, always cautious, but never really afraid.  We carried guns for protection, but I was convinced by the end of the summer that was because we were 18 and wanted to look cool.  I never raised mine once.  Each night we would walk just a little further in, and each passing day we began to recognize the bears a little more.  It was mostly the same set every night.  A few large males, a few sows, a number of cubs.   They never seemed to care, from the first day to the last, we couldn't tell if they even knew we were there.  Pictures were easy to snap, but getting good images with a 100mm lens meant we needed to be close, very close. So we kept working our way in, closer and closer.  I never got what I would consider the perfect photograph, but I had some I was pretty happy with.  

When I left at the end of that working summer I missed the adventure, and the bears terribly.  So when I made it back the next summer, I headed out straight away to photograph.  I could tell a number of them were still there. It was fun to see some of the cubs had grown quite a bit, but I was disappointed to see we were missing my favorite big boy.  He was a massive animal, probably stood 10 feet tall or more.  I say 10 feet because if I said how big I thought he really was no one would believe me. When he walked though the tall grass, he was the only bear who's shoulder blades would stick up for us to see.  Helped us keep an eye on him.  I got back from my first night out there curious if anyone had seen him recently. I found one of my buddies and asked where they had seem him last.  

He just looked at me with a sad stare and said that he was shot a few weeks earlier by a hunter.  Took him down at about 200 yards.  I was crushed.  One person was able to take that animal away from me forever.  I would never be able to see him, hear him or watch him fish again.  All because one person wanted to put him in his house as a rug or a wall decoration. I could not imagine that that beautiful animal would now be just one person's decorative object and hunt story. To make it worse, he was shot at 150 yards.  I never even tried to photograph at that distance. If we were not within 100-150 feet, it wasn't worth the effort, particularly using a film camera.  That bear was shot by a "brave" hunter at a distance 3 times as far as I would have photographed him. (I must note that I am not saying it is wise to go out and try to photograph bear at 100-150 feet. It is NOT smart. We got lucky a few times.  I do not recommend it unless you are with a professionally trained guide.  I say again DO NOT TRY THAT AT HOME).  

So here we are today. I have been hearing quite a bit about Kendall Jones and her Facebook photos featuring her big game trophies, which have spurred quite an uproar.  I feel compelled to weigh in on the issue of trophy hunting after reading numerous opinions regarding these photos.  I write this as someone who wants to do my part to preserve wildlife, but also as someone who has been to these places.  How many people out there have spit opinions regarding this situation, like they know the ins and outs as a reality, yet have never visited Africa.  They have never seen a pen raised animal bred to be killed, and never seen a wild lion.  I have seen that side of the world.  I want to note that this opinion has less to do with Kendall herself and more to do with the promotion of trophy hunting and blatant self promotion.  I want to make a statement to all recent trophy hunters, be it : Melissa Bachman, Go Daddy's Bob Parsons, or even Jimmy Johns' owner Jimmy John Liautaud.  The message is the same to all, so please don't take this as JUST an opinion on one instance, but my stance on ALL instances.

Lets first start with some truths about the trophy hunting industry in Africa.  It makes money, there is no denying that.  In fact it makes big money, and the money from this influx of hunters (a great number of which come from the US) can go to pay for some positive things in the host countries. The hunting safaris were the backbone for entire tourism industries in some countries for a long time.  The money earned from selling hunting safaris can help preserve wildlife in certain ways, but that statement should be taken with a grain of salt every time it is spoken. There is very little to support the claim that the millions of dollars spent by hunters in Africa goes toward conservation or to support locals.  The vast majority of sites report that as little as 3% of those dollars actually go to the local population (Also see NatGeo Letter Here) So for every million in revenue spent by hunters, perhaps as little as $30,000 goes to wildlife conservation and the locals people.  It is important during the discussion to understand that while the claim that millions are spent by these hunters, the distribution of funds does not favor what most hunters are so quick to point out.  There needs to be a distinction between "spent" dollars and "actual" conservation dollars.  

There is also the argument that the hunter cares more about the animal, the species survival, and the habitat than most do.  That is a hard one to justify standing over a dead, bloody animal.  If a hunter really cared about an animal that was killing local livestock, they could easily work with any of the conservation efforts that work to track and relocate the animals. But the stronger argument against the claim by hunters and their supporters is that the act of trophy hunting is counter evolutionary.  (See NatGeo Letter here again) Taking the strongest healthiest males from the breeding stock weakens the genetic pool of the local species.  With respect to wild lion hunts, killing a male in his prime also puts every young lion in the pride at serious risk of death as rival males move in to claim the new territory.  This can set the growth of the group back years.  With elephants, females are sexually mature at age 10-13.  And while males mature by 15-20, most males observed mating average age is closer to 35.  Killing a bull, again, severely dampens the gene pool.

It is also important to note that early trophy hunting has lead to some great things . . . mainly photographic Safari (and if you are interested in going on one let me know, I am starting photographic trips next year).  The standard safari that you go on today is based on what they did in the hunting era, minus the gun.  Most places you now either photograph or just sit and enjoy. There is still the adventure of tracking a leopard and the thrill of happening upon a pride of lions, all without killing the animal. On a photographic safari, you get to go back the next day and see what that pride of lions is up to.  Some very good things are now starting to take place in parts of Africa. It was recently announced that Botswana is to TOTALLY OUTLAW hunting by the end of 2014. GOOD FOR THEM! (This is why a majority of my photographic safaris are centered around Botswana).  A very important step for other countries to follow.  

The final truth to understand about a great deal of trophy hunting is that anymore they are canned hunts.  Meaning that the animals are raised from birth on farms, caged and not allowed to go free.  These animals are then bought and paid for by the hunters.  When they arrive, the animals are released into the open area of the ranch or land and the hunter finds and shoots it.  There is limited tracking, limited real skill or effort on the part of a hunter.  I have photographed elephants from 20 feet, and lion from 10 . . . getting close is not hard, and there is no skill involved, none.  So don't let them fool you otherwise. There are still places, as Jones happily points out, that you can still shoot and kill these animals in the wild, specifically elephants (approximate population of 450k) and leopard (a "near threatened" species).   

The problem for me comes into the issue of a trophy hunter and conservation.  I've recently heard claims by some of these hunters that because the money they spend can be put toward conservation efforts, that they in turn are a conservationist.  That is similar to me saying I'm Santa Claus because I donated some old toys I had in my home to good will, and someone MAY buy those toys for a child's christmas. This justification used is based on an underlying problem with the infrastructure and support in a given country.  Trophy hunters are effectively taking advantage of a situation, and group of people who have limited opportunities to make money.  Yes, some of the money might be used to support conservation efforts, but if the country had a strong infrastructure, and a tourism base without hunting, it could still fund conservation.  Hunting does not need to take place for the conservation to take place.  Hunting takes place because its the quickest and easiest way to get into a great deal of pocket books to fund everything else.  Trophy Hunting takes advantage of a desperate situation.  To be simple, wildlife conservation does not exist because hunting is the only thing that funds it.  If hunting disappeared, would conservation cease to exist?  Of course not.  Finally, population control, my favorite.  Keeping the population of elephants, leopards, lions in check.  This excuse is for individuals who have no clue the vast scale of the continent.  Saying you need to control a population of elephants that is down from millions to less than the 500,000 isn't much of an argument, so does that mean that the killing of the bulls in Kenya is justified?  Or keeping a lion population of 22,000 lions under control is important, a species that gets little recognition for the dire situation they are in.  Down from 1.2 million just a hundred fifty years ago.  This land is so incredibly large that if man cannot find a way to co-exist with the animals that inhabit it, its their own fault, plain and simple.  

NOW, here is where it would get interesting, if Trophy Hunters come back stating that they are not taking advantage of a situation.  So in this case are they not concerned with where the funds go?  And if thats true, are they merely stating the conservation piece to justify the moral decision that they made to the people who stand on the fence about it?  Oh, well money went to conservation it must be OK.  

I have already expressed that I dont agree with, or accept hunting as a "form of conservation," or hunting for the "skill" of the hunt.  The, "it helps the local population" is a thin line at best and not one that should be used as a plausible reasoning behind a hunt, otherwise you might as well just go over on a normal safari, because that is where our money goes too.  If you are really concerned with the furthering of these animals wouldn't it be better to just write a check?  This brings us to a real reason they hunt, the only true reason, to kill something, photograph a dead animal, and keep the "Trophy" for themselves.  There is nothing else to it.  While there are truths that good things come of it, there is not enough there to justify the taking of somethings life.

What this brings us to is the ethics and morality behind, something I have not touched yet.  The Trophy, a rug or head, or mount.  Perhaps the animal in a fierce pose, or its head stacked on the wall.  Something for them to look at and tell stories for the rest of their lives.  Discuss how they faced danger, stared down a lion or elephant and killed it dead.  But when this happens, the animal is taken from this earth forever, never to be seen by anyone other than that hunter again.  The animal never dies a fierce challenger, it leaves this world terrified and alone, its last moments filled with self preservation, fear.  The animal, then spends the rest of its days unseen in the home of the mighty hunter, gathering dust.  That hunter has taken something that can never be given back, and kept if only for themselves.  They have taken future memories, taken future stories that other people could have had with that animal.  Something they could have witnessed on safari in Africa.  Stories that they could have told their friends and their friends could then experience for themselves.  Trophy hunters take more than just a trophy, they take the opportunity for new memories, they take these moments from everyone.  They take them and they mount them in their homes.  There is nothing more sad, nothing more self-involved than that.  

So here we are, Kendall Jones, apparently a Texas cheerleader has killed a number of beautiful African animals recently, posted them all over Facebook, and is intending to go back for future hunts.  This sounds like it is in concert with starting her own hunting show, where she will hunt animals across Africa (again, we have already discussed how difficult that is).  So the images of her lining up shots, walking over long stretches of landscape to find the animals and all the "arduous" work probably isn't real.  It's there to fool the viewer.  All for ratings and a TV spot.  I think a better use of TV airspace would be used on a conservationist, a photographer, an explorer or a field guide.  Let them take you out to these remote places, introduce viewers to conservationists who are fighting to protect these animals.  Have them discuss the ecology and future of the species.  Let them teach viewers better photographic techniques when you encounter these animals.  Talk about what everyone can do to help, differences they can man.  Lets raise a generation that cares, not one that kills.  

I looked for hours for a good photograph from back then, I know I have one . . . I have seen them recently.  but this one was the only image I could find.  This photo was taken of me in July 2000.  We were heading up the river one evening, looking for something to photograph.  

Admiralty Island, Alaska

I can still imagine my summers in Alaska.  Trudging through the bog, or along the beaches, holding a camera in one hand, always looking for that next bear to photograph.  There is a part of me that believes that it is because of him that I am as passionate about wildlife as I am, and it's that spirit that I want to carry with me, and that feeling I never want to forget. 




Take a picture, it will last longer


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