Trophy hunting and poaching are making it more likely that several species will go extinct due to climate change.
Big antlers, big targets
These days aren’t a great time for species such as elephants, lions, deer, and antelopes. Trophy hunters target the biggest and best members of these species, like the antelopes with the biggest antlers, or the elephant with the longest tusks. These individuals are not just impressive in the aesthetic sense; they’re also the ones with the best genes and are the most evolutionarily fit. Unfortunately, to trophy hunters, these impressive specimen are little more than objects than can appease their vanity.
Trophy hunting targets, being the most evolutionarily fit members of their species, also have the genes that increase a species’s ability to adapt to changes in the environment. They’re also likely to have a lot of offspring. However, according to a new study, if the animals are killed before they can pass on their superior genes, it can impact their species’ chances of survival.
Black-maned lions, like the ill-fated Cecil, are prized among trophy hunters.
It’s not often that we see a kind of domino effect between two different things that can cause a species to go extinct. Both hunting and climate change may affect a species’s survival, but we don’t often hear that one can exacerbate the effects of the other. Even so, this isn’t really surprising.
Targeting only select members of a species based on certain physical attributes is called “selective harvesting”. Selective harvesting as a concept helps trophy hunters excuse their activity, since they’re targeting just a handful of individuals who are also all males. This is because males tend to have the physical features that make good trophies. Thus, the hunters aren’t really making too much of an impact on the species’s populations.
While that makes sense on the surface, the logic unravels once you dig deeper. The physical attributes that hunters prefer are not just things that make the animals look better than others. They are signs of biological fitness. The sheep with the biggest horns, for example, produce the biggest offspring. If the animals possessing these attributes are the ones getting hunted, declining genetic quality may become a huge problem. This problem can be even bigger due to environmental stress caused by climate change.
Can trophy hunting be regulated?
The African savannah in particular, which trophy hunters frequent, is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. “If we get the 2°C change that now looks like the minimum we are going to get , that’s going to put a lot of stress on a lot of these populations,” said Robert Knell, lead author of the study. Even when a species is healthy and isn’t the target of hunting, their chances of going extinct rise due to the changes caused by climate change. Poachers are thus a bigger threat than trophy hunters, since they are less discriminating.
The researchers also say that trophy hunting can be managed in such a way that hunters will only target older males that have already had offspring that they’ve passed their genes to. However, the researchers still warn that humans have an immense ability to impact the evolution and survival of other species.
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