Why a Labour MP’s desire to ban hunting trophies angered African governments

Elephants at the Kruger National Park in South Africa
Elephants at the Kruger National Park in South Africa - Murat Ozgur Guvendik/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Yet again the fate of the African elephant, and indeed the continent’s wildlife and wilderness, is being debated in Britain’s Parliament. Labour MP John Spellar’s Hunting Trophies Prohibition Bill has just passed its second reading after the previous attempt was beached in the House of Lords. And yet again, an African delegation arrived in London to attempt to forestall the bill and has gone home empty-handed.

Spellar says the bill, which is designed to prevent hunters bringing tusks and other body parts into Britain as trophies, is a “well overdue” measure to crack down on a “brutal trade and protect animals from British hunters”. A ban was promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto and is backed by MPs from all the major parties.

But the delegation that came to London, led by Botswana’s wildlife minister Dumezweni Mthimkhulu and southern African rural community representatives, argues that the bill amounts to colonial interference and will neither protect the animals it is intended to protect nor provide a solution to the ongoing crisis in African wildlife conservation.

To make its point, the Botswana government suggested that a herd of 10,000 elephants be placed in Hyde Park to see how Londoners like living with these huge pachyderms. Given the massive damage they have done to forests in Botswana and South Africa – in Kruger National Park, raptors are disappearing as there are fewer trees to nest in because of elephant depredation – they would make short work of Westminster’s largest royal park.

The delegation wants to retain big game hunting as a conservation mechanism, arguing that, as a properly regulated industry, it can contribute significantly, financially, to the larger conservation effort. The African delegation came accompanied by British environmental scientists and hard statistics to back its argument. The delegation represents a group of southern African countries that have unarguably been the most successful in conserving wildlife, including elephant herds, lion prides and a whole range of endangered species – and their equally important habitats.

Elephants in a domestic garden in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Humans and elephants are trying to find ways to live side by side in Zimbabwe. Many Africans see hunting as crucial to controlling elephant numbers - BBC Studios

What irks the African delegation is that Spellar, a minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was invited to meet them but declined. This, they claim, shows a dismissive, arrogant colonial attitude. Prof Patience Gandiwa, Zimbabwe Parks’s charismatic director of international conservation affairs and delegation members, says: “It is baffling that the British can pass legislation clearly without understanding the issues.”

Spellar, on the other hand, says he was simply unable to meet the delegation due to other diary commitments. He strongly rejects the claims of a “colonial attitude”, stating that the bill relates to Britain “and what we bring into this country”.

For Prof Gandiwa and the delegation, the most egregious statement Spellar makes to support his bill is that Kenya, which banned trophy hunting in 1977, is a role model for African wildlife conservation. In fact, his critics believe the opposite is true and that Kenya has been the most graphic example of failure across the continent.

Labour MP John Spellar
Labour MP John Spellar is trying to get the Hunting Trophies Prohibition Bill through Parliament - Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament

As an example, the International Livestock Research Institute reported that in the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s most famous wildlife reserve, the population of ungulates – large mammals with hooves – declined dramatically between 1989 and 2003 as a result of both poaching and human encroachment. Giraffe numbers fell by more than 90 per cent, warthogs by 80 per cent, hartebeest by 76 per cent and impala by 67 per cent.

Kenya’s elephant and rhino populations were poached in industrial quantities through the 1970s and 1980s and today there are 35,000 elephants and 1,700 rhino, black and white, left. By contrast, southern Africa’s Kaza conservation collective (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) has more than 300,000 elephants, and the population is growing vigorously. Southern Africa is also the last refuge of the white rhino; an estimated 15,000 of the continent’s remaining 16,800 animals are located in South Africa. And of the 6,500 remaining black rhinos across the continent, almost 5,000 are in southern Africa.

The debate over how best to preserve Africa’s wildlife in the face of an alarming human population explosion (1.25 billion people in Africa today, to double to 2.5 billion by 2050 and double again to almost 5 billion at the end of the century) has been raging across the continent since the end of the colonial era in the 1960s and 1970s.

That political control, however, was seemingly replaced with a Western emotional attachment to elephants, which emerged in the 1980s. That was when biologist Joyce Poole and zoologist Katy Payne, with help from the former Newsweek journalist Cynthia Moss, released groundbreaking studies of elephant behaviour that revealed how they were sentient beings, how they communicated with one another, how they held strong family alliances and, most of all, how they mourned dead relatives. (Around that time I followed a small herd in Namibia to a remote place where the bones of a dead relative lay. Watching them gently running their trunks across the bones was one of the most moving experiences I have had in the wild.)

Biologist Joyce Poole mimicking an elephant call
Biologist Joyce Poole's studies on elephant behaviour fostered an emotional attachment to elephants in the West, and led to the ban on trading elephant ivory

At the end of the 1980s, Poole was one of the architects of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) proposal that effectively banned the international commercial trade in elephant ivory. Around the same time, according to Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, of Oxford University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, “as a result of the attention elephants were now getting, Western campaigning organisations such as Born Free and Save The Elephants rose to prominence. They began pushing the welfare approach to conservation which has subsequently been branded compassionate conservation.

“If you’re looking for a turning point in how the West viewed elephants and began interfering in African conservation politics,” he says, “it was when Cites banned the trade in ivory.” (This was not a ban on trophy hunting.)

Unfortunately, many of the Africans involved in conservation, like the delegation that visited Parliament in March 2024, feel that Western animal rights activists, despite the apparently good intentions of many, are now way off the mark. “Hunting was banned in Botswana between 2014 and 2019,” says Siyoka Simasiku, the director of the community leaders network based in Botswana. “During that time, elephants destroyed livestock, irrigation systems and fields of crops. Maize production in one of those communities was reduced from 1,160 bags to 330 bags. Around 34 people were killed by elephants in those areas.

“Conservation will not succeed if those local communities are alienated from wildlife. Hunting revenues provide a significant incentive, as we’ve seen since the hunting ban was lifted.”

Poaching, and the activities of the crime syndicates, has not gone away. At the moment, the rhinos in South Africa’s Kwazulu Natal’s parks are taking a terrible hammering and there are sporadic poaching outbreaks across southern Africa. But the conservationists on the ground argue that if local communities are rewarded for living among wild animals – and trophy hunting provides such rewards – it is in their interest to help see off the poachers.

If there is no benefit for living with the animals, there is no incentive for locals to look after wild animal assets. Thus they end up collaborating with the international poaching syndicates for small cash bribes – or poach themselves. One of the untold stories of Africa’s wildlife crisis is bushmeat poaching, which is decimating the ungulate herds everywhere.

Critics of Spellar’s approach believe that one of the great misunderstandings in Britain, and indeed among the politicians driving this bill through Parliament, is that trophy hunting and poaching of wild animals are the same thing. They are not. Properly regulated big game hunting is selective, controlled and affects a small number of animals. Poaching is largely run by international criminal syndicates.

One of the most successful examples of trophy hunting as a conservation mechanism cited by Zimbabwe’s Prof Gandiwa is her country’s Bubye Valley Conservancy. It is located in the arid southern lowveld, originally a colonial Rhodesian cattle ranch. The Conservancy was founded in 1994 by conservationists who understood that wild animals were better adapted than domestic livestock to cope with local climate and environment conditions.

The conversion from cattle ranching to wildlife was complicated and expensive. Today, however, Bubye boasts the world’s third-largest black rhino population; Zimbabwe’s largest lion population, numbering more than 500; flourishing herds of elephants, and abundant other game. Key to the financial upkeep is the sale of 16 lion-hunting licences every year, which give the community an annual income of £1.2 million, much of which is used to protect the local rhino population from poachers.

An elephant in Kruger National Park
Many African environmentalists claim that Spellar's bill confuses trophy hunting with the poaching of wild animals such as elephants, which are different things - Murat Ozgur Guvendik/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

According to Prof Gandiwa, Bubye “is a source of great pride for us. It has proved that the private sector, communities and government can work together and grow the wildlife cake”. She says that, if the hunting trophy bill goes through – and thus the income from hunting licences is removed – the knock-on environmental effect would be catastrophic. Bubye would lose its rhinos.

The British scientists who accompanied the African delegation claim that 75 per cent of the statements made by MPs debating the bill were incorrect, based on misinformation. They are concerned that Spellar and his bill’s supporters are overlooking the reality in Africa, such as the Bubye Valley Conservancy story.

As one of those scientists, Prof Amy Dickman, a director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, said of the second reading of the bill: “It was a complete shower of misinformation and nonsense, calling Africa a country among other things. They were wilfully ignorant and refused to meet anyone from the African delegation. Disgraceful.”

Spellar strongly rejects the claims and says that the statements made by him and other MPs in support of the bill “could have been challenged in Parliament if people wanted to do that”. He adds, “There were some people there who were against it, but they clearly didn’t have the numbers, otherwise it wouldn’t have gone through.”

Speaking last month, the former minister insisted that his bill “represents the views of Parliament and it represents the views of the British people, who want nothing to do with this vile trade”. He added: “Would I rather people shoot animals with cameras and not crossbows and rifles? Yes, but this does not hold extraterritorial jurisdiction. It relates to Britain and what we bring into this country.”