Legal Hunting Fuels Poaching

Legalized hunting does not curb poaching, as often thought, but instead increases it, concludes new research.

Many governments and wildlife organizations have promoted controlled, legalized hunting as a way to decrease wildlife poaching, but a new study finds that hunting actually increases poaching.

Government approved culling and other hunting of endangered animals like grizzly bears and wolves therefore should be reevaluated in light of the new evidence, according to the authors of the new paper, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

"Today the notion that killing is conservation has become a mainstream one," Guillaume Chapron, who co-authored the paper with Adrian Treves, told Discovery News. "It is now used by many governments to justify killing. Our study shows that there is no scientific support behind this notion."

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Chapron is a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences' Grimsö Wildlife Research Station, and Treves is an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. For the study, the researchers combined data on U.S. policy changes in carnivore protection with information on wolf growth rates to model how government-approved culling of wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan affected the populations of these carnivores over several years.

The scientists identified repeated slowdowns in wolf population growth rates that could not be explained by natural factors. As the authors wrote, "The most likely explanation for these slowdowns was poaching and alternative explanations found no support."

As for why legal hunting likely triggers poaching, Treves told Discovery News: "Would-be poachers may learn the government is culling wolves to protect livestock and decide they can do it more effectively, or the government may be sending a signal that wolves have lower value, so people become poachers, or poachers may feel the risk of being arrested has declined."

Half Of Africa's Lions May Go Extinct In 40 Years The effect applies not only to wolves, but also to other large carnivores such as mountain lions, wolverines and lynx, Chapron said.

"Our study is very timely with the proposed delisting of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area," he added, referring to how the U.S. government has proposed ending federal protection of Yellowstone grizzlies under the Endangered Species Act.

In its recent "Conservation Strategy," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued that culling promotes conservation "by minimizing illegal killing of bears and promoting tolerance of grizzly bears." Chapron countered, "Our study shows that there is no support for this."

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The World Conservation Union (IUCN) claims through its manifesto for large carnivore conservation in Europe that "legalized hunting of large carnivores can be a useful tool in decreasing killing."

"In light of our results," Treves and Chapron wrote, "we find this recommendation has no support."

The origins of the widely held theory that legalized hunting curbs poaching appear to date back to the early 19th century, when commercial markets in wild game were driving species, such as the passenger pigeon, to extinction. Regulating hunting was a "good step" then to curb unregulated kills, Treves said, and did help to protect threatened species like white-tailed deer and Canadian geese.

"Maybe it was easy to jump to the conclusion that implementing regulated hunting would curb poaching because hunters would value the game species, pay for its conservation and persuade local communities to tolerate the wild animal populations," he added.

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"The findings of this noteworthy study, carried out by two internationally prominent researchers, have certainly shown how wrong I was in believing that killing wolves could help conserve wolves," said Paul Paquet of the University of Calgary's Applied Conservation Science Lab. "It's always enlightening and humbling when evidence contradicts dogma, allowing us to see the world as it is, rather than what we think it is, or expect it to be."

Jason T. Fisher is a senior research scientist with Alberta Innovates, and was a former big game management biologist with the Newfoundland & Labrador Wildlife Division. He said it "has long been an incorrect assumption" that poaching decreases as a result of government-approved cullings.

"This paper is bound to be controversial," Fisher continued. "If the wolf mortality studied here were caused by other animals, it would be a ‘nice to know' piece, but because it involves humans - and humans committing crimes - it will certainly invoke the ire of many people, while piquing the interest of many others."

Hunting and conservation don't mix, finds new research. Shown is a grizzly bear in Alaska.

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This scorpion in the sun was captured in a double-exposure shot by eight-year-old Carlos Perez Naval.