While I often get incredulous stares when I make this claim, it is true that hunters are generally strong advocates of conservation. The cynical might rejoin that this is so that they can keep killing animals. This is, obviously enough, part of the truth: hunters enjoy hunting and animals are required for hunting. However, it would be unfair to cast all hunters as purely selfish in their motives: as a hunter, I have met many others who are concerned about conservation in a broad sense and not merely for their own interest in hunting animals. While the true motives of hunters are relevant to assessing their character, the ethics of hunting for conservation is another matter. This issue is perhaps best addressed on utilitarian grounds: does allowing the hunting of animals and charging for such things as hunting licenses create more good or evil consequences?
In the United States, it seems quite reasonable to believe that this sort of hunting is morally acceptable. After all, hunters of all political stripes tend to support preserving public lands that serve as habitats and the fees they pay are used to fund conservation efforts. There is also the fact that human hunters serve to help check various game populations, especially deer, that would suffer from the harms of overpopulation (namely starvation). Naturally, there are counter-arguments against this view, such as pointing out that human hunters wiped out many of the natural predators that kept deer populations in check in the past and that it would be preferable to restore these animals.
Even more controversial than game hunting in the United States is trophy hunting around the world. While all hunters can take trophies, trophy hunting has as its main objective the killing of a trophy animal and the taking of trophy parts, such as a head, tusks, or hide. The main goal is the prestige of the kill, rather than getting meat to eat or for the challenge and enjoyment of a true hunt. Of special concern is trophy hunting in Africa.
One key concern about such hunts is that the target animals tend to be at risk or even endangered, such as big cats, elephants and rhinos. The counter to this concern is the main argument for this sort of trophy hunting. Trophy hunting in Africa is mainly to domain of the wealthy because foreigners generally must pay to hunt their desired animal and, of course, they must be able to pay the cost of the hunt itself. This money, so the argument goes, is used to support conservation efforts and incentivizes the locals in conservation efforts.
From a moral standpoint, this argument can be cast in utilitarian terms: while the animals that are killed are a negative consequence, this is offset by the money used for conservation and to add to the economy of the country. The moral balancing act involves weighing the dead animals against the good that is supposed to arise from their deaths. This then leads out of the realm of ethics to the realm of empirical facts about the money.
One point of practical concern is corruption—does the money go to conservation and to the locals, or does it get directed elsewhere, such as the bank accounts of corrupt officials? If the money does not actually go to conservation, then the conservation argument fails.
Another point of practical concern is whether the money from the hunts is adequate to support the conservation efforts. If killing some animals does not conserve more animals than are killed, then the conservation argument would fail. This raises the question of whether there are enough animals to kill and enough left over to conserve. In the case of abundant species, the answer could easily be yes. In the case of endangered species, killing them to save them has less plausibility.
In addition to the utilitarian calculation that weighs the dead animals against the alleged benefits, there is also the worry about the ethics of trophy hunting itself, perhaps in the context of a different ethical theory. For example, a deontologist like Kant might contend that killing animals for trophies would be wrong regardless of the allegedly good consequences. Virtue theorists might, as another example, take issue with the impact of such trophy hunting on the person’s character. After all, the way many trophy hunts are conducted seem to involve people other than the “hunter” doing all the hunting aside from pulling the trigger. As such, it is not really trophy hunting for the “hunter”—it is more aptly described as trophy shooting.
To use an analogy, imagine a rich person who hires a team to play basketball for him. When the players get a free throw, he marches out onto the court to take the shot. This is playing basketball in the same sense that trophy hunting of this sort is hunting. That is to say, barely at best.