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An Unexpected Ally in the Fight Against Poaching: Airlines (UPDATED)

What makes the aviation industry so valuable when it comes to curbing international big game hunting?

A taxidermy shop in London displays some big game. Image by Fabio Venni via Flickr

After several years of intensive coverage, much of the world is by now aware of the rising threat of illegal poaching. Within the space of 40 years, big mammal populations in Africa have dropped by up to 58 percent; within recent years, the number of elephants killed illicitly has surpassed 10,000 a year. Yet while awareness of black market assaults on threatened and endangered animals has grown of late, quite a few people are probably unaware that there’s actually a sizable legal market for hunting the same animals, not included in these numbers. By all accounts, these modern day big game safaris (which you’d be forgiven for assuming went extinct in the early 20th century, along with the explorer’s pith helmet) are on the rise as well. But recently, after years of lobbying against this practice, anti-trophy hunting advocates have received a huge assist from a set of unexpected allies: international airlines.

First, some background on the issue: Some of these legal hunts occur in the wild, when national governments issue special permits for (often foreign) hunters to take down rare species. For example, Namibia scared up a good deal of controversy earlier this year, by allowing an American hunter to take out two of the world’s last few thousand black rhinos. But most legal hunts are what are called captive or canned hunts, in which special populations of rare animals are grown in captivity specifically to be hunted and killed. Between these two forms of hunting, recent statistics suggest that 18,500 foreign hunters visit Africa every year to bring down 105,000 big game animals in an industry that nets the continent at least $200 million every year. These bloody visitors shell out anywhere from a few dozen bucks to kill a monkey to tens of thousands of dollars to take down a lion.

As you might imagine, a number of organizations have long opposed legal hunts. But there’s a shocking amount of support for these practices as well. Many organizations argue that controlled hunting practices contain the demand for trophies, encourage breeding programs to bolster animal populations, and benefit local communities who might otherwise resort to illegal poaching. Opponents of the practices counter (convincingly) that canned breeding programs never help bolster wild populations, that hunt quotas are often overblown and may even encourage further poaching, and that an abysmally small amount of the profits make it to local governments. Still, they’ve had a difficult time making significant headway against these admittedly licit ventures. And that’s where the airlines come in.

Confiscated Ivory. Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Airlines first seriously entered the fray on big game hunting in late April, when the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa leaked documents showing that the nation’s flag carrier, South African Airways, had banned the transit of any wildlife trophies in their cargo holds. The decision came after a spate of bad press earlier that month, when the airline discovered a shipment of misdeclared, illegal elephant ivory in the hold of one of its craft traveling from Australia to Malaysia. After a little soul searching, the airline’s executives declared that they’d decided to cease all activities that could potentially diminish the nation’s wildlife population, declaring that such animals had more value to visitors alive than dead (and taking a firm side on the debate regarding canned and coordinated hunting). Their hope was that by making it hard for hunters to take any mementos out of the country whatsoever, they could create an implicit tax on the practice, making it harder for legal poaching operations to grind on unchecked.

Although it was only one airline, the South African decision made waves given the amount of traffic they operate in and out of their home country, essentially a Mecca for legal (and illegal) poachers. As of 2012, South Africa’s canned hunting industry alone netted $70 million in annual revenues. The nation has 160 captive lion ranches (home to 8,000 animals, twice as many as the local wild population), where American and European tourists kill hundreds of lions every year for about $20,000 apiece. Putting a barrier on hunters in that market by eliminating a huge swath of flights and cargo space goes a long way towards punching deep holes in the national and continental industry.

But South African Airways wasn’t alone. Less than a month later, on May 15, Emirates Airlines (whose cargo service is the third-largest air freighter in the world, after FedEx and UPS) announced a similar ban on trophies and animal parts from elephants, lions, rhinos, tigers, and other animals that are considered threatened species. This ban knocked out an even larger chunk of cargo space for hunters around the globe. It also highlighted many other lesser-known (often limited, but still moderately effective) restrictions on wildlife trophy transit amongst other air carriers. And it brought new attention to a ban on imports of trophies in Australia, and a similar proposed ban in the European Union, both of which do and would, respectively, create huge disincentives for traveling hunters.

These airlines’ bans inspired some Americans to petition Delta, the only U.S. carrier with direct flights to South Africa, to issue its own ban. But unfortunately the company has rejected such petitions (as have a few other air carriers), arguing that so long as trophy hunting and importation are legal where it operates, it will allow passengers to exercise their full rights to traffic trophies. In truth, this may be less an issue of legality than of economics, given that American airlines often have slim profit margins on everything but cargo, which can account for up to a tenth of a carrier’s revenues.

Animal materials confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Image by Ryan Moehring / USFWS via Flickr

Unfortunately, this refusal matters when it comes to reigning in the legal hunting trade because Americans are actually some of the most active big game trophy importers in the world. And the American government shows no signs of regulating the trade anytime soon: It was the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, after all, which authorized the import and thus enabled the killing of the two Namibian black rhinos downed earlier this year. So as long as Delta keeps its flights open, there’s a means for one of the South African hunting industry’s biggest consumer markets to keep patronizing its for-profit preserves with no snags along the way.

Yet many advocates still hold out hope that Delta and other airlines will eventually be forced to cave and issue their own bans once a critical mass opinion forms in the industry. The way they see it, eventually the visibility of being the holdout used by hunters to kill majestic animals will create bad PR buzz, and no matter the legality, the profitability of transporting that sort of cargo will functionally decline. The hope is that eventually, there will be no big venues left for hunters to take their trophies out of a hunting nation, and these controversial companies will be shuttered.

Granted, hunters always will find a workaround. Even if the major airlines shut out these hunting prizes, those with the resources to blow tens of thousands on a lion trophy are likely to have the cash lying around to hire a charter flight—if not for themselves, then for a big group. Perhaps some bespoke airlines will open, catering to this niche clientele so willing to shell out big money.

But even though this trickle would be able to sustain a small legal hunting industry, it’s likely that blocking out one’s ability to take trophies in or out on major airlines would make today’s massive market unsustainable. As such, airlines may really have the ability to crash this insidious industry, circumventing all the browbeating about its possible benefits and hunters’ rights. It’s an unexpected (and unexpectedly viable) source of aid for conservationists. And perhaps it’s an alliance of convenience, built more around PR concerns than principles. But if it works, it works. We can only hope that the two major bans of recent months are the start of something larger.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, as commenter christinaalgeciras points out, South African Airways has now lifted the ban on carrying hunting trophies.

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