The impact of trophy hunting on endangered species

What is trophy hunting? 

Trophy hunting is a legal sport that takes place across the world, with popular spots including South Africa, Canada and Argentina.

Attracting the rich and elite, hunters can pay large sums of money to legally kill animals under an official government license.

Their ‘trophy’ is the animal itself and often they’ll display specific body parts such as the head, hide or tusks to mark their victory.

Governments are responsible for enforcing hunting regulations to control and limit the number of each species being killed in their country. 

Why is it so controversial? 

Trophy hunting is a complex and controversial topic that divides many. Unlike poaching, this sport is legal and even encouraged in many countries. In the current environmental climate, it seems irrational that the senseless killing of endangered animals should be legal.

There is another side to the story, however.

Trophy hunter supporters argue the controlled killing of individuals of some species is beneficial to population growth. For example, the removal of older males gives the younger males an opportunity to breed that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, thus helping to increase the gene diversity and population growth. 

Sadly, it’s been found that a high number of trophy hunters will seek out and kill the young, stronger male animals to retrieve the most valuable ‘trophy’, despite rules stating they shouldn’t.

Human-induced species selection is also not always considered in the way that it can affect several generations of animals. This can be seen in the case of an almost 30% increase of female elephants born without tusks over a 20-year period, due to their persecution for their tusks.

When considering this impact in relation to trophy hunting, a useful case study is that of the Bighorn sheep in Alberta, Canada.

Rams with the largest horns were the most desirable, due to the size of the ‘trophy’ and were believed to be the oldest, therefore allowing for them to be selected to be killed.

However, a 2003 study undertaken found that these rams were not necessarily always the oldest but instead had ‘stronger’ genes that had led to their impressive features. 

The impact from the hunting went on to decrease the average size of the horns within herd.

In addition to this, trophy hunting has led to an increase of ‘canned hunting’ during which animals, such as big cats are bred in large numbers with the intention of being shot.

Often, the animal will be confined within a space with no natural fear of humans and will be distracted with food when they get shot.

In some cases, non-licensed hunters are also given permission to kill animals in inhumane ways, prolonging their suffering. Many trophy hunters are inexperienced and will even sometimes slowly track wounded ‘game’ for several days before killing them.

Some governments continue to welcome the activity despite all of this, as they rely on the large income it brings in. The large sums of payment to the government for the trophy hunting licenses are also argued to be a positive outcome of trophy hunting.

Governments claim to put this money back into vital conservation work and promote it as both beneficial and crucial to support the population increase of these endangered animals.

But many question where this money truly goes. Difficult to regulate and monitor, these large sums of money are often be misspent by governments or shared out to dishonest organisations as a cut for bringing in business.

Which species are affected?

Due to the sheer danger and thrill of the hunt, the most desired targets tend to be large, endangered mammals. In the eyes of hunters, the bigger and rarer the animal, the more valuable the ‘trophy’. In South Africa, ‘The Big Five’ are the most sought-after animals to kill. Being hailed as the most dangerous and challenging to hunt on foot means they have the biggest appeal. They are also some of the most endangered animals in Africa, that are in desperate need of saving from extinction.

African Lions

Famous for being the most desired species of The Big Five, the African lion is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The African lion population has seen a huge decline in the past 25 years due to threat from poachers, mismanaged hunting and loss of prey.

With numbers decreasing by nearly 50%, it’s estimated there are now less than 25,000 African lions in the wild. 

Southern White Rhinoceros

The past population growth of southern white rhinoceros was a conservation success story.

Having thought the animal had gone extinct back in 1895, a small population was discovered in South Africa.

After monumental efforts to conserve and build the species numbers, it’s now thought that there are up to 21,000 southern white rhinos in the wild.

Unfortunately, due to poaching and the illegal trade of their horn, this species is currently listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List.

This means that if nothing changes, this species will reach “Vulnerable” status very soon.

African Elephants

Targeted mainly for their tusks due to the lucrative illegal ivory trade, the African elephant population has seen a major decline in numbers over recent years.

There are two species of African elephant:

  • African forest elephant
  • African savannah elephant

The former is now classed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List and is at real risk of becoming extinct.

The African savannah elephant is also at risk and is listed as “Endangered”.

Whilst poaching remains the biggest danger to these species, due to their huge size and valuable tusks, these animals are a favourable target for trophy hunters.


This is the smallest and most elusive species of The Big Five.

Their biggest threat is loss of habitat and trophy hunting, the latter having a real detrimental impact to the population.

With hunters being poor at ageing and sexing leopards, many young, female leopards are killed instead of males.

Despite this being illegal, many hunters have expressed their willingness to kill females if the opportunity arose and not declare it.

Unfortunately, despite the huge decline in population of this species, South Africa still have a trophy hunting quota of 150 leopards a year and continue to argue it is beneficial in conserving this species.

African Buffalo

Labelled the most dangerous of The Big Five, the African buffalo achieved this title due to its instinct to charge at a threat rather than flee.

Injured buffalo have been known to turn on their attackers and kill them more frequently than any of the other five animals.

This species is the least endangered, currently listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List.

However, the population has suffered concerning decline over recent years which shows no sign of slowing due to a significant loss of habitat.

Despite what trophy hunter supporters claim, as more information is uncovered about the activity, it’s apparent that government regulations are often ignored by hunters and not enforced by the governments themselves.

This is leading to an increase in the uncontrolled, unlawful and unnecessary killing of animals.

Due to its continued lack of monitoring, trophy hunting is encouraging the elite to illegally kill some of our most vulnerable species. This is having a serious and damaging impact on many of the world’s most endangered animals and needs to be addressed immediately, particularly when seen alongside species-threatening events, such as climate change and habitat fragmentation.

If you’d like to help put a stop to trophy hunting, sign Born Free’s petition to ban the activity:

Keep an eye out for any upcoming Worldwide Rallies Against Trophy Hunting.

Join us on World Animal Day, October 4, to speak up for all of the incredible animals across the globe.

- October 1, 2021