Why People Trophy Hunt: Unpacking the Psychology of Status - and Shame
Why men collect trophy corpses
The question "Why people trophy hunt" has been bandied about for many decades, and just this week a very thoughtful study centering on this question has been published by Dr. Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast Professor at the University of Victoria and Science Director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Brian Codding, and Kristen Hawkes. Their essay, aptly called "Why men trophy hunt," is published in the scientific journal called Biology Letters. A press release titled "Hunting for Status: Men trophy hunt as a signal they can absorb the costs" released by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation nicely summarizes the very important findings of this seminal study.
The heinous killing of Cecil the lion as a trophy corpse (1) in July 2015 stimulated a great deal of global interest about trophy hunting (please also see "Compassionate Conservation Meets Cecil the Slain Lion" and "Cecil the lion and compassionate conservation"). Numerous people, many of whom never had previously gotten involved in speaking out about animal abuse, were incensed and voiced their opinions in all sorts of media. A good number simply wanted to know why people chose to go out and kill other animals as trophies and how it could be stopped. This new study is a significant step toward answering these and other questions. The abstract for this paper reads as follows:
The killing of Cecil the lion (Panthera leo) ignited enduring and increasingly global discussion about trophy hunting (Nicholls 2015 Nature (doi:10.1038/ nature.2015.18101)). Yet, policy debate about its benefits and costs (e.g. (Di Minin et al. 2016 Trends Ecol. Evol. 31, 99–102. (doi:10.1016/j.tree.2015. 12.006); Ripple et al. 2016 Trends Ecol. Evol. 31, 495–496. (doi:10.1016/j. tree.2016.03.011)) focuses only on the hunted species and biodiversity, not the unique behaviour of hunters. Some contemporary recreational hunters from the developed world behave curiously, commonly targeting ‘trophies’: individuals within populations with large body or ornament size, as well as rare and/or inedible species, like carnivores (Darimont et al. 2015 Science 349, 858–860. (doi:10.1126/science.aac4249)). Although contemporary hunters have been classified according to implied motivation (i.e. for meat, recreation, trophy, or population control; (Festa-Bianchet 2003 Animal Behavior and Wildlife Conservation (eds M Festa-Bianchet, M Apollonio), pp. 191– 207); (Mysterud 2011 J. Appl. Ecol. 48, 827–834. (doi:10.1111/j.1365-2664. 2011.02006.x))) as well the ‘multiple satisfactions’ they seek while hunting affiliation, appreciation, achievement; (Hendee 1974 Wildl. Soc. Bull. 2, 104–113)), an evolutionary explanation of the motivation underlying trophy hunting has never been pursued. Too costly (difficult, dangerous) a behaviour to be common among other vertebrate predators, we postulate that trophy hunting is in fact motivated by the costs hunters accept. We build on empirical and theoretical contributions from evolutionary anthropology to hypothesize that signalling these costs to others is key to understanding, and perhaps influencing, this otherwise perplexing activity.
I've been long interested in what causes people, including women who also engage in trophy hunting, to go out and kill, some say murder, other animals for fun. (2) When I learned about Dr. Darimont's essay, I asked him to do a brief interview, and here are his responses to the questions I sent to him.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write "Why Men Trophy Hunt"?
Chris Darimont: As someone who loves animals and evolutionary ecology, this was a fun piece of scholarship that I also hoped would be useful. I was puzzled as to why on earth men would kill animals for trophy. No other predator targets large, rare and/or dangerous animals, and then often shows no interest in eating them. Why take the risk? Why act so wastefully? For me (and many people), evolutionary explanations provide one important source of insight, and potentially ways forward in addressing behaviours that are of conservation (or in this case too, animal welfare) concern.
So, I teamed up with prominent evolutionary anthropologists (Brian Codding and Kristen Hawkes from the University of Utah) who have studied hunter-gatherer populations for decades. Interestingly, analyses of the types of animals hunter-gatherer men target are very similar in that they are often the largest animals in the landscape. Importantly, they are also animals with high 'failure rates'. That is, men are likely to come home empty handed from hunting. This is very different from women hunters, who target smaller animals that they are more assured to acquire and bring home as food.
Men who target these large, difficult-to-acquire animals, therefore, signal to others that they can absorb the costs of an inefficient behaviour. It signals that they have high-quality underlying mental and physical characteristics to be able to absorb such costs. This 'costly signalling' to which it's referred in the evolutionary literature) provides a way for men to accrue status. And status is universally important for men to ward off competition and attract mates. (I'll note here that hunter-gatherer populations consume the animals they kill, unlike most trophy hunters. In no way do I advocate any opposition to the ways in which Indigenous peoples earn their livelihood).
MB: What are your major messages?
CD: We believe this 'costly signalling' model applies equally well to trophy hunters from the developed world. By paying big bucks to trophy hunt, or even forgoing smaller individuals within populations to wait for chances at the very biggest, imposes costs on trophy hunters. And it's prestigious to signal that you can absorb these costs. In other words, trophy hunters, whether they realize it or not, are likely hunting for status. It's like driving a luxury car, though in this case the lives of animals are taken.
MB: I was thrilled to see your essay in a in a refereed journal. What was there review and editing process like?
CD: Biology Letters provided a fair and comprehensive editorial process that included reviews by four reviewers. This was necessary because of some competing hypotheses (and other issues) we had to address, as well as the controversial nature of the material. It took two full revisions.
Interestingly, two reviewers appeared to subscribe to the idea that 'trophy hunting helps conservation' model because it directs revenues to local communities who will then in theory be more likely to protect populations and their habitat. I can only speak for myself (and not co-authors), but that is a model to which I am opposed. The reasons are well expressed in an excellent open-access article by Michael Nelson ands colleagues called "Emotions and the Ethics of Consequence in Conservation Decisions: Lessons from Cecil the Lion" in the journal, Conservation Letters. We had to stay clear of that debate in the Biology Letters piece because it was beyond our scope.
MB: How do your findings extend and differ from what others have written about trophy hunting?
CD: People, including me, were confused as to why men do this. Are they sick in the head? Bloodthirsty? Some believe that these are appropriate terms. For me, this evolutionary explanation goes deeper and asked, why did this behaviour evolve? We think we offer a good explanation.
Some might argue, 'Well, if this is natural behaviour, then it's justified'. I believe this is a dangerous argument referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. My colleague and mentor, Dr. Paul Paquet of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, makes this abundantly clear by reminding us, "Trophy hunting can neither be justified for being natural nor as an aid to help populations, given the enormous costs paid by individual animals - their lives."
MB: How might one apply what you found to put a stop to this reprehensible practice that some claim they do "in the name of conservation"?
CD: One interesting observation post-Cecil (the lion's death by trophy hunting) is that demand for lion hunting has declined owing to prohibitions on transporting the remains on planes, etc. If hunters cannot bring the trophies home to boast with, then they have no costly signal.
MB: Why do you think that shaming trophy hunters might work?
CD: Another interesting observation is that the widespread 'shaming' of trophy hunters that has occurred online since Cecil might have also decreased trophy hunting (or at least the boasting online, itself feeding back to decrease the activity). If our 'hunting for status' hypothesis is correct, then shaming could be an effective strategy for those opposed. This is because shaming tends to erode the status that trophy hunters appear to be seeking.
MB: Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?
CD: Yes, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation is currently purchasing the commercial trophy hunting rights to massive landscapes in coastal British Columbia to extinguish the guided hunts of grizzly bears and wolves. Read more about this one-of-a-kind conservation intervention and opportunity here (p 20).
Thank you very much, Chris. This is extremely helpful for gaining more insight into why men may choose to hunt to collect trophy corpses and how we may put an end to the egregious activity. I wonder if it also applies to women who also like to kill other animals for fun and status, as if it's merely business as usual.
Trophy hunting is gratuitous violence
Trophy hunting is gratuitous violence that can justifiably be called murder.2 The failure to use the word “murder” for nonhumans is embedded in legal systems globally, and is a view that ignores who other animals truly are — sentient beings with rich and deep cognitive and emotional lives and capacities — based on detailed empirical research.
Will the widespread shaming directed at trophy hunters since Cecil’s was hunted and killed influence the future of trophy hunting? Let's hope that shaming, along with other criticisms of those people who choose to kill other animals for fun, will end trophy hunting once and for all. Putting an end to collecting dead animals "in the name of trophy hunting" surely cannot come soon enough. Other animals need substantially more freedom to live their lives without humans harming them and killing them for fun and profit.
1. Similar to the word "murder' that is used to refer solely to humans, so too is the word "corpse." Dead animals are invariably referred to as "carcasses," but there is no reason why both "corpse" and "murder" should not be used to refer to nonhumans. Indeed, using these words brings attention to just what is being done to them when humans intentionally harm and kill them.
2. For more on trophy hunting please see: