On 1 November Melissa Bachman posted a photo of herself with a big smile, a male lion... and the rifle she had just used to kill it. The caption read "An incredible day hunting in South Africa! Stalked inside 60-yards on this beautiful male lion... What a hunt!" In the two weeks since then she has received widespread criticism and abuse, culminating in a petition to ban her from re-entering South Africa.
I'm a researcher and conservation biologist. I don't hunt and I would prefer it if others didn't either but I would like to set a few facts straight and hopefully shed some light on a complicated issue.
Firstly I'd like to note that Melissa Bachman participated in a very specific form of hunting: trophy hunting. Trophy hunting is usually very selective, with a small number of individual animals killed per year and hunters paying high fees for the privilege.
Trophy hunting is legal, and very common, in South Africa. Melissa Bachman's lion hunt was organised by Maroi Conservancy, who are licensed by the South African government. In response to the controversy Maroi Conservancy have stated that all permits and paperwork were in place for Melissa's hunt. They have explicitly refused to apologise for their role in the hunt and have underlined their ethical standards and contribution to conservation.
Despite my personal feelings about killing animals for fun I recognise that trophy hunting is a valuable tool and a much needed source of income for conservationists. When managed properly trophy hunting does not have a negative impact on wildlife populations. Wildlife managers ensure hunting is sustainable by only targeting older males which are no longer breeding. The large sums paid by trophy hunters fund numerous conservation activities, ensuring the continued existence of many habitats and species. Trophy hunting organisations also often employ local people as guides and trackers. This provides poachers with an alternative source of income, reduces the reliance of local communities on natural resources and creates a perception of the value of wildlife in the minds of local people. In their statement Maroi Conservancy said that all meat from trophy hunts goes to local communities.
I found the petition to bar Melissa Bachman from South Africa to be factually incorrect and rather offensive. It describes Melissa Bachman as "an absolute contradiction to the culture of conservation, this country prides itself on". Hunters were, in fact, the first conservationists and many of the first national parks, such as Yellowstone in the US, were set up as hunting preserves. South Africa has a long history of hunting and it is still common there. Melissa Bachman will definitely not be the only hunter to shoot a lion in South Africa this year.
Many people, regardless of the benefits of trophy hunting, will object to the killing of an animal for pleasure. Unfortunately, many of the 258,745 people who signed the petition will happily eat a plate of beef or chicken. Many domestic animals are raised and slaughtered in far less humane conditions that Melissa Bachman's lion so any meat eaters amongst the 268,745 signatories are being rather hypocritical. By eating meat they are killing animals too, indirectly but probably in far larger numbers, and all for their culinary pleasure.
Finally, no matter how many tax-paying South African citizens sign the petition Melissa Bachman will not be banned from entering the country. Why Elan Burman, who started the petition, believes that this is possible or remotely acceptable is beyond me. Their opinions on hunting clearly differ from Melissa Bachman's but it is not for them to demand that sanctions be imposed on a woman who has committed no crime.
In summary, whilst I have personal feelings about hunting, as a conservationist I recognise its benefits. Melissa Bachman is one of many people who will kill a wild animal for sport in South Africa this year and many of her fellow hunters will also have posted pictures of their trophy online.
Whilst she might be a bit bemused at becoming the focus of so much negative attention I doubt Melissa Bachman is that bothered. In fact she's probably very happy. She writes, produces and presents a hunting show in the US called Winchester Deadly Passion. There are currently over 14.5million people with a hunting licence in the US and there's no such thing as bad publicity. In fact I've already read a few articles attacking the "bunny hugging animal rights activists" for sending her and the Maori Conservancy hate mail.
The one serious concern which arises from this uproar is the effect such a public outcry will have on trophy hunting, both in South Africa and internationally. I can already see petitions springing up which call for hunting to be banned outright. This would have a devastating effect on wildlife populations. Illegal hunting and poaching would continue but conservationists and wildlife managers would now have considerably less funding to protect against it. I sincerely hope the South African government avoids any knee jerk reactions.