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What happens if we stop managing wildlife, and ban hunting?

What happens if we stop managing wildlife, and ban hunting?

Hunting has always been a way of life, it has dominated the course of human evolution for millions of years and is still a way of life for many millions of people closely connected to nature and the animal world.

It is also common knowledge that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who used tools to obtain food, however, what is less commonly known is that the laws to manage animal populations were only established much, much later when modern humans noticed that certain species had started to decline, and in some cases, disappear.

So, in light of this knowledge, what would be the consequences if we stopped hunting?

What would happen to the wildlife populations and the land they live on if, as many that are opposed to hunting, we stopped intervening?

A lesson from the past

…The attitude towards hunting and wildlife quickly changed from unrestricted abundance and harvest to regulated management and equitable access to wildlife…

What better way to demonstrate the consequences of unmanaged wildlife, than by discussing an actual situation from a time before game management laws were established and this can be seen from the birthplace of wildlife conservation: America.

Perhaps the best known of these situations was the decline of bison in the late 1860s and 70s in North America which almost led to their extinction. This decline was a result of a combination of factors, including market hunting, the war against native Americans and the introduction of diseases from cattle. Between 1868 and 1881, an estimated 31 million bison were killed (Taber & Payne, 2003).

Along with the overhunting of bison came the extinction of the passenger pigeon and together these became the turning point and led to the introduction of wildlife management and conservation.

When looking at the situation in Europe, the lowest point for most wild mammals was the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. At this time, the ecosystem was under its heaviest pressure due to humans. Not only were animals being hunted for food, but their habitats were being destroyed due to deforestation and the rise of modern farming (The British Agricultural Revolution) which lead to wildlife having to compete with domestic livestock.


In addition, as can be seen from the above graphic taking Hungary as a case study, the second World War had a devastating effect on game populations.

If we look at the red deer numbers, based on the Hungarian game census and harvest records, after the second World War, the deer population basically disappeared. It is clear from the data that people (both civilians and soldiers) were hunting to stay alive.

Consequently, the attitude towards hunting and wildlife had to change. This happened when people started moving away from unrestricted abundance and harvest to regulated management and equitable access for all to wildlife (Brown, 2013). Not everybody was allowed to hunt anymore whatever amount he wanted. Therefore, quotas were set and hunting licenses had to be obtained.

It is important to note that the driving force behind the restoration (and reintroduction) of game populations was the hunting community who were the ones willing to place values on these species and put the effort in to save them.

A recipe for disaster: “Let’s ban hunting!”

Many people think that nature will simply “find its balance” but nothing is further from the truth. Nature is ruthless and animals that are not fit, fast or adaptive enough, will die out.

Depending on the land which they occupy and the status of the particular species, several serious consequences can arise when the sustainable use and management of the wildlife is deprived.

To list a few consequences…

“Habitat loss and degradation is a primary driver of declines in populations of terrestrial species” (IUCN, 2016).

If we ban hunting and stop managing land for the survival of wildlife, that land would inevitably be converted for other uses - in most this is agriculture or urban settlements.

This, therefore, predictably, leaves no space for wildlife, and populations decline and can potentially go extinct.

In ecology, it is explained in the following way:

Wildlife species that have a vulnerable status and live in small, fragmented and isolated populations behave differently than larger populations.

Small populations are often the result of a large reduction in the population size due to natural disasters or human activities (e.g. wars, as mentioned earlier) - this is called a population bottleneck.

The small population becomes trapped in a so-called “extinction vortex” where the gene pool is small and subsequently inbreeding occurs and, because of this, genetic diversity decreases. 

In this situation, it becomes more difficult to find genes within the gene pool that fit (if no random genetic mutation occurs).

As a result, these populations are less likely to adapt, survive and reproduce. Furthermore, the population becomes sensitive to changes such as climate change or a reduction in available resources and the population size reduces even further.

Also, as in each population there are fluctuations in size (because of birth, death, immigration, emigration), these fluctuations have a higher influence on small populations and so, in a small population, these fluctuations can lead to extinction.

However, each species has a minimum viable population size, which is the ecological threshold that specifies the smallest number of individuals in a population that can still persist, survive and reproduce in a given environment.

The population has no chance of survival if it falls beneath this number.

If we don’t manage land, these vulnerable (and often rare) populations will eventually go extinct.

But we do have a chance to save these populations if we manage them. For instance, we can improve the chances of success by reducing competition with other species, introducing or increasing predator control, or by improving the habitat and providing necessary resources.

Of course, these options are easier said than done, but by first analysing the potential causes of the decline we are already one step ahead as based on this, we can apply the necessary management actions.

Somebody’s hands have to get dirty

We have previously established that wildlife management is the manipulation between the connection of wildlife populations and the habitat the animals live in (read our article on the topic here). And by managing the habitat we can influence the abundance and distribution of wildlife species (read our article here).

These habitat management efforts are largely financed by hunting and hunters. For example when they manage their own lands and provide hunting opportunities for “money” and by supporting those organisations who represent the countryside and fieldsports. If these hunters stopped supporting organisations that help in the conservation of wildlife and nature in general, that would cause a disaster.

To make it clear, the direct economic distribution of hunting in Europe alone is 16 billion euros (FACE, 2016). However, this doesn’t take into account the extensive amount of voluntary work that hunters provide in managing species and habitats.

It is easy to forget, and maybe even harder to understand, that it is in the best interests of hunters to have stable, top quality populations. For example, letting deer grow huge and valuable antlers takes up to 10-13 years. And through these years, a responsible and ethical hunter or gamekeeper takes care of the game on their land.

The other side of management work done by the hunters is pest and predator control. These are species that pose a danger to species that we would like to conserve. Although we would like to think that all animals are equal, this is simply not the case and without these interventions we would also lose other valuable species.

The one group of people that does not care about wildlife management and conservation are poachers. And without hunters, the fight against them would be even harder. Just take a look at the African countries where hunting is banned and you will clearly see the decline in wildlife species.

We will come back to the subject of poaching later in this article.

We know it may all sound contradictory, because when we ban hunting, we think we are keeping those animals alive, but if you examine and learn the basics of wildlife management, you will understand that this is far from reality.

Let’s take a look at the Grey Partridge

In the UK, one of the most important species that has suffered a large population decline since the Second World War is the grey partridge. 

It is clear that multiple management efforts have been made that have resulted in an increase in the population size. The following figure shows the result of a study where the average annual spring density of the grey partridge was monitored in five estates in Norfolk since management began in 1992 (Aebischer & Ewald, 2004).

On five other estates from the same area the land remained unmanaged. In 1996, two of the formerly unmanaged estates started management. The decline from 1997 to 2000 was a result of poor weather conditions. However, we can clearly see that in managed land the partridge density is at least four times higher than on unmanaged land, in addition, the recovery after the fall was quicker.

It is important to note that this is only one example of many.


What else?

On the other hand, when a population gets too large, it needs management as well. 

Wildlife populations that have “exploded” in size cause a lot of serious issues to the ecosystem and can pose a danger to other species.

As you read earlier, ecosystems consist of complex processes.

Overabundant populations can form multiple threats to the ecosystem and they do this by utilizing and therefore, decreasing all the available resources. This has a disastrous effect on the landscape. Just take a look at wild boars digging up gardens or parks. Furthermore, with resources dwindling, this leads to a reduction in food for other similar species.

Consequently, an overabundant population, for example of deer, can destroy the habitat of other species by trampling small plants and the insects that live on them, on which, in turn, bird species live on.

In addition, animals will invade urban settlements in search of food and cause other problems (e.g. in Romania where brown bears are attacking tourists and wandering around in towns and villages searching for food). As a consequence of overabundant prey, large predators numbers will also rise and will cause conflicts with humans, etc.

The point we are trying to make is that in the ecosystem everything is connected to everything else. By removing one element, there will be an impact on another element, and this causes a chain reaction of negative consequences.

As the manager from the Minnesota Deer Population Program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Steve Merchant, said: “They [the deer] would eat themselves out of their own habitat.”

The primary tool for combating these problems has always been hunting. And hunting, if done correctly, is a carefully managed practice. We only hunt the “biological surplus” of a population and therefore don’t cause any damage to already stable populations. However, when the sustainable use of game is banned, as we have demonstrated, a number of issues arise.

The consequences of “too many animals”

Let’s start with explaining what exactly is “too many”?

For this, we need to go back to ecology. Each environment has a so-called carrying capacity, which is the maximum number of individuals the environment can sustain. This principle is valid for humanity as well, that’s why the overpopulation of humankind is a serious problem. So, when management is not taken into account, the following can and will happen:

Spread of diseases

When a population becomes overabundant, the chance of disease transmission increases as the chance of sick animals crossing each other’s path also increases. This can also pose a threat to humans as animals can transmit zoonoses (diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans), such as Lyme disease and rabies.

One of the most recent and biggest examples of disease transmission is the spread of the African Swine Fever among wild boars (and domesticated pigs). Wildlife managers and biologists are working together to come up with ways to deal with the current issue. However, as there is no treatment or vaccine, there is no current solution.

But what we can learn from this is that to avoid the spread of disease, the wild boar population needs to be managed and hunters, gamekeepers, landowners and scientists need to work together.

Game damage

Deer, wild boar and other wild ungulates in Europe have increased over the last decades and are becoming a bigger and bigger problem in forestry and agriculture. Damage to forest and agricultural plantations through browsing and bark stripping by deer, or rooting from wild boar are problems for a lot of landowners.

In Hungary, for example, the cost of game damage to agriculture is estimated to cost up to 6 million euros per year. With the advancement of technology, there are more and more solutions to tackle this problem, but the main (permanent) solution to deal with game damage remains the culling of game.

Human-wildlife conflict

Where animals are abundant, resources decline and individuals roam around looking for food and space. These animals can wander onto or live in urban settlements and cause damage to private property, predate on livestock or pets, access garbage, compost and recycling.

Although game damage also belongs to this subject, this is a problem that everyday citizens face.

This is currently happening in Romania with brown bears.

The bear population in Romania is the largest in Europe and although it is a protected species in Romania, since the problems have only got bigger and bigger with more attacks occurring, the government has imposed a quota and now tries to reduce the number of (problematic) bears.

The same applies for the African and Indian tiger populations.

In addition, wildlife-vehicle collisions are a major problem in almost all (developed) countries around the world.

Although it is very hard to measure the exact numbers, as not all incidents are reported, it is estimated that in Europe there are 500,000 wildlife-vehicle collisions annually, including 300 human deaths and 30,000 injuries, with an estimated cost of around 1 billion euros.

As opposed to America, where the numbers of collisions has risen to more than 1.5 million accidents annually (Europe: statistics presented by Groot Bruinderink and Hazebroek; America: assessments by State Farm Insurance and the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety).

Poaching

Since the ban of hunting, Kenya has lost 70% of its wildlife.

Lastly, let’s move to another continent and take a look at what happens in Africa.

We have just read what happens when hunting is banned. And in order to solve this, the local people will take matters into their own hands.

One of the most well known examples of this was when the hunting ban was introduced in Kenya in 1977. Since the ban, Kenya has lost 70% of its wildlife. The reason for this contradictory result is that the local and indigenous people are killing animals that are a threat to their children, crops or livestock. Moreover, they live from these animals’ meat.

Apart from this, for a lot of native people the business of trophy hunting is their very livelihood and banning this practice has lead to unemployment, starvation, and consequently, illegal hunting.

However, not only native bushmen can be involved in poaching, but corrupt government officials, or other people that are involved in the illegal trade of wildlife. These killings are not regulated and certainly not sustainable, and therefore, this causes a decline in wildlife populations and even extermination of certain species in certain areas.

This is what has happened in Kenya.

It is worth mentioning that in South Africa and Tanzania the owner of the hunting right’s duty is to protect and fight against poachers. In addition to the hunting rights, the governments finance conservation efforts as well as the fight against poaching in general.

In recent talks with officials and landowners in Africa, where the topic of fighting against poaching has always been an important topic, it is clear that poaching is one of the biggest threats that they have to fight against.

Poaching also occurs in Europe and America and although it has its own reasons in these different continents, the results and the dangers of it remain the same.

Set emotions aside and face the facts

…In order to carry out wildlife management efficiently, we need to manage populations responsibly…

When we return to what we mentioned earlier; hunting provides a significant amount of revenue that goes back into conservation and habitat management. Banning this practice will result in a number of negative consequences.

Overall, we simply cannot have wildlife conservation without hunting; by placing value on wildlife, revenue is created and this provides landowners with incentives to carry out the necessary management actions, be it habitat management, game damage prevention, predator control or anti-poaching measures. When this is taken away, the incentives needed for wildlife and habitat management are removed and subsequently both wildlife and its habitats suffer.

However, wildlife management doesn’t stop there. In order to carry out wildlife management efficiently, we need to manage populations with responsibility. And responsibility starts when management is based on scientific knowledge, consisting of facts and collected numbers through monitoring.

Aldo Leopold, one of the pioneers of wildlife management, put it beautifully when he said:

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”


Sources and further readings:

  • Aebischer, N. & Ewald, J. 2004. Managing the UK Grey Partridge Perdix perdix recovery: Population change, reproduction, habitat and shooting. Ibis. 146. 181 - 191.
  • Brown, R.D. 2013. The History of wildlife conservation in North America. In: Wildlife Management and Conservation: Contemporary Principles and Practices. Edited by Paul R. Krausman and James W. Cain III. Published in affiliation with The Wildlife Society by Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (Maryland) 2013.
  • FACE. 2016. Press release: Hunting in Europe is worth 16 billion Euros
  • Groot-Bruinderink GWTA, Hazebroek E. 1996; Ungulate traffic collisions in Europe. Conservation Biology 10: 1059-1067. 
  • IUCN 2016 briefing paper. Informing decisions on trophy hunting
  • Ogutu, Joseph & Piepho, Hans-Peter & Y Said, Mohamed & Ojwang, Gordon & Njino, Lucy & C Kifugo, Shem & W Wargute, Patrick. 2016. Extreme Wildlife Declines and Concurrent Increase in Livestock Numbers in Kenya: What Are the Causes? PloS one. 11.
  • Putman, R., Apollonio, M. & Andersan, R. 2011. Ungulate Management in Europe: Problems and Practices. Edited by Rory Putman, Marco Apollonio and Reidar Andersan. Cambridge University Press, New York 2011.
  • Krausman, P.R. & Cain III, J.W. 2013. Wildlife Management and Conservation: Contemporary Principles and Practices. Edited by Paul R. Krausman and James W. Cain III. Published in affiliation with The Wildlife Society by Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (Maryland) 2013.
  • Taber. R.D. & N.F. Payne. 2003. Wildlife conservation and human welfare: a U.S. and Canadian perspective. Krieger, Malabar, Florida, USA.
  • https://www.americanexperiment.org/2017/10/minnesota-deer-hunting-season-benefits/
  • https://transylvanianow.com/bear-with-cubs-wander-around-szekelyudvarhely/

Cover photo by Snapwire from Pexels

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