Why worry about an import ban on hunting trophies when you can bag one at home?
An alliance that brought together conservationists, African leaders, taxidermists, recreational hunters and the patron saint of upskirters, Christopher Chope MP, is recovering, its protests having last week failed to prevent the progress of Henry Smith’s hunting trophies (import prohibition) bill towards enactment.
These trophies being – incomprehensibly for anyone whose love of animals does not express itself in killing them – the dead animal’s body parts, brought home for display or sale. A recent US Humane Society investigation at a Safari Club International convention found, for instance, “elephant skin luggage sets ranging from $10,000 to $18,000 and jewellery made from leopard claws”.
What is never explained is why, if the hunters are so passionate about animals, they look so exultant after killing them
Although the new UK law will not stop recreational killers hoping to shoot, say, a bull elephant (available via the UK’s Prostalk African Safaris website for £13,550.00), it is just not the same, you gather, without souvenirs of the corpse to impress friends, or turn into luggage – or jackets, or bags. Even an ear, for the frustrated trophy lover, is better than nothing.
Some years ago Martin Amis coined the expression “species shame”: there’s nothing like a tour of hunting company websites, with their price lists and photographs of exultant goons who’ve arranged dead animals into submissive poses, for bringing it repeatedly to mind.
But even these enthusiasts seem sufficiently sensate to realise that they are not its finest advocates. Rather, they trust in African leaders and conservationists to redefine their wildlife killings as a conservation tool, rehearsing the contested case that recreational hunting (and any related body-part acquisition) is a crucial contribution to biodiversity and, by helping to fund anti-poaching patrols, animal protection. Though what is never explained is why, if the hunters are so passionate about animals, they always look so thrilled after killing them.
Discussions before Smith’s private member’s bill featured some energetic, impassioned attempts to explain that encouraging the worst of humanity to kill the most beautiful of animals is somehow ethical. Ideally, it may even, the argument goes, benefit local communities.
Understandably, to some of those at the receiving end, UK tellings-off echoed earlier versions of imperialist control. “What on earth do they know about Africa’s animals, and what right do they have to interfere in our democracies?” Maxi Louis, the director of a coalition of conservation groups in Namibia, objected in a letter to the Times.
Anyway, it would certainly be appreciated, at least by some of us, if African politicians, conservationists and influencers were now to return the compliment with a reminder, perhaps via a round robin in the Times, that the persistence of recreational hunting is a stain on the UK. Few visitors from Africa may wish to return home with the skin or teeth of something that they legally slaughtered in Britain but that seems no reason for African equivalents of Joanna Lumley, Richard Curtis and Liam Gallagher not to reproach indigenous hunters who persist in pretending blood sport is conservation, or, for its artier exponents, a Ted Hughes-style communion between man and beast.
Supporting the proposed ban on trophy imports, Sir Ranulph Fiennes wrote last week that “killing animals for entertainment and mementoes is something straight out of the darkest Middle Ages. It is moronic, medieval mindlessness. And it is about as un-British as you can get.” It’s mystifying, then, that killing animals for entertainment should be so remarkably well-tolerated in Britain, the hobbyists’ excuses generally coming, as with trophies, from the Cruella de Vil school of conservation management.
Genuine animal lovers would be, as ethics studies have suggested, regretful about their butchery. They would not, as the amateur slaughterman David Cameron has done, confidently joke about it: “I find when I shoot a few Borises and Michaels I feel a whole lot better.”
Nobody who respects animals would want to pose triumphantly with their kill or boast about body counts. But contributions to UK sporting publications consistently dwell on the hunter’s endurance (in outwitting a supposedly wily prey) followed by creepily orgiastic joy. This month, in the pages of one journal, we find a “retired financier” ecstatically recalling one outdoorsy abattoir – “unadulterated bliss of the most chaotic kind”.
Aspiring hunters should not get too downcast about the Tory MP Anna Firth’s statement in the trophy-banning debate that “trophy hunting is a relic of the past, it has no place in modern Britain”. Because if you don’t mind getting a bit of antler instead of elephant, you can book a stalking slot today. Training courses are available from the British Deer Society, patron King Charles III.
A bloody digression in Prince Harry’s Spare could go some way to explaining why the UK’s recreational hunters can still flourish in a nation of alleged animal lovers: we just love our royals more.
True, the royals don’t go in for elephant skin luggage, and they probably have enough deer heads already
Turning 15, Harry was told he’d “be undertaking the true stalker initiation” and sent to execute a deer. In enjoying this he appears, for once, no different from his family. After its death (“I felt swelling pride”), his head was shoved in the entrails.
“This ‘blood facial’ was, to me, baptismal,” he says. “If you loved Nature, Pa always said, you had to know when to leave it alone and when to manage it, and managing meant culling, and culling meant killing. It was all a form of worship.”
What with all the land, there’s so much relentless royal managing that poor William was also run off his feet keeping the partridges sustainable; we know qualified deer assassins were so thin on the ground that before Kate Middleton was engaged, her parents had to be pressed into service. At one point, even Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein were required in Sandringham for a “straightforward shooting weekend”, helping out with Nature.
True, the royals don’t, like reviled US trophy collectors, go in for elephant skin luggage, and they probably have enough deer heads already. From the hunted animal’s point of view it may not make much difference.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist