With a mass wolf cull announced in Norway and widespread trophy hunting throughout the world, animals are once again endangered by humanity’s drive for entertainment. As the debate between hunters and environmentalists is recast into the spotlight, there is a need to reassess why humans hunt and explain why it is no longer acceptable to do so.
According to the Norwegian Farmers’ Union, “farmers become psychologically tired from the threat of finding carcasses of their sheep during the summer.” While to deny a predator’s instincts is to deny common sense, justifying the virtual eradication of a keystone species based on “tired farmers” betrays a blatant disregard for environmental protection. Put simply, Norway should be ashamed, for a variety of reasons.
To begin with, the assertion that the wolf is responsible for a significant portion of livestock deaths is quite misleading. While farmers lose 120,000 sheep each year, wolf kills account for at most 8% of those. In fact, the vast majority of losses are not predator-related at all; instead, they are the result of poor herd management and supervision. In Norway, sheep are allowed to roam with minimal herding or human presence—their freedom is so vast that the country even uses them in marketing campaigns to promote tourism. It’s not surprising thar most of them fall prey to train accidents, crevasses, or simply get lost. Only 20,000 (17%) lost sheep are attributed to predator deaths, and among these, the wolf kills around 400; at most 1500. As a comparison standard, wolverines (small bear-like predators) kill 10,000 sheep every summer.
Now, if Norway’s decision to kill wolves is truly about protecting its sheep, then why have 11,571 people registered for a license to shoot 16 wolves last year? That means 723 people are fighting each other for the chance to kill one wolf. 723 against 1 is a slaughter. Perhaps the problem then is the wolf itself—symbol of sin and violence, associated with the Devil and hunted from time immemorial.
The wolf is still profoundly misunderstood and culturally stigmatized—more so than any other predator, it is ingrained at the back of our collective consciousness. From Aesop’s Fables to Christianity, many dominant cultural paradigms have reinforced the perception of wolves as evil incarnate, and with the rise of urbanization and a “progress” narrative wolves also became the “direct embodiment of uncontrollable nature.” Norway’s would-be murderers are unaware, however, of the wolf’s status as a keystone species. A keystone species is an animal so vital to an ecosystem that its disappearance would set off a domino effect with dire changes to the entire ecosystem. Wolves control the distribution and population of anything ranging from deer to songbirds. When reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park, wolves hunted existent elk and in doing so, prevented elk from lazily remaining in one place and excessively grazing local willow. Loss of willow had almost destroyed beaver populations, who need willow to survive the winter. The knock-on effect (a “thropic cascade”) had an impact on beaver dams, which regulate fish habitats. With the wolf restored, elk were forced into defensive migration over the winter. Willow becomes strong again, which means songbirds, beavers, and other local species can thrive. In the eyes of science, the wolf could not be less instrumental.
Of course, science has little bearing over popular culture and car stickers proclaiming “Real Men Kill Wolves” are still common in rural Norway. Popular books like Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1963) have helped give the wolf a more positive reception. Mowat, a dedicated Canadian environmentalist, explained that even elk or caribou are better off with the wolf hunting them since wolves will usually catch and kill the weakest herd members—strengthening the herd and its breeding process. Such efforts are admirable, and undoubtedly a reassessment of the wolf in popular culture can deter uneducated riflemen from committing murder. And yet, the problem extends far deeper than the wolf.
While the wolf is getting all the publicity for reasons outlined above, there is a similar demand to kill brown bears (10,930 candidates for 18 bears) and wolverines (10,820 for 141). This is no longer a one-animal issue. What these men want (and they are unquestionably men, for only 6.8% of Norwegian registered hunters are women) is hunting for the sake of hunting. And in the 21st century, that should be a crime.
This is one side of the issue—a side the author fully endorses. Yet one must look at the broader picture too before coming to a conclusion. Hunting, in general, used to be very popular; often associated with royals leading large parties into the wilderness for a bit of “sport,” hunting was, in fact, essential for survival in many eras of history. All the way through the Middle Ages, it still formed a core part of procuring food for the family, and earning money at the marketplace. Paradoxically, even in more modern times hunters were seen as one of the driving forces for the conservation of species: they needed animals to survive so that they could be hunted. In the United States, hunters form the largest financial donor to conservation, with a $796 million annual contribution from license and permit fees alone. There are multiple reasons why people hunt, and these need careful investigation before a verdict is pronounced.
Trophy hunting—the practice of shooting animals for sporting or display purposes—is abhorrent to a vast majority of today’s public and should not be allowed. In 2013, National Geographic dropped a wildlife presenter due to international outrage following her posing with a shot lion. More recently, after a Zimbabwe lion was infamously killed by a US dentist in 2015, Botswana declared trophy hunting illegal. Romania followed suit last month. With the rise of animal rights activists over the last century (and the dramatic increase of endangered or extinct species) leisurely hunting is no longer considered sustainable. Moreover, much like the “Real Men Kill Wolves” stickers, there is an ominous link between animal hunting and The Dark Triad—a personality concept in psychology combining narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. The more selfish, deceitful or troubled a person is, the more likely they are to act cruelly towards animals. Such symptoms are to be found in our case study discussed above: the maligned wolf is being shot by men who merely desire to take their internal problems out on a scapegoat—in other words, a standard Freudian defense mechanism. That is not a good enough reason to hunt.
In what conditions, then, can hunting be acceptable in the modern world? Last summer, Faroese folk metal band Týr faced multiple bans from concert venues after its lead singer participated in the Faroe Islands’ annual whale hunt. Whaling is again a much-maligned practice, illegal almost everywhere and a controversial issue in Japan. In the Faroe Islands, however, whaling takes on a different scope: entirely non-commercial, the hunt is undertaken for nourishment in a territory that heavily relies on self-sufficiency when it comes to food. Not endangered and not affected by the hunt (800 whales are killed every year from a population of around 100,000, or 0.8%), whaling here is different in that it truly benefits the human community without unnecessarily putting animals in danger of extinction. And yet we have uncovered a double standard: killing 0.8% of a sustainable whale population is greeted with accusations of “shameful slaughter” while killing 70% of a critically endangered wolf population seems not to bother Norwegian authorities. Such prejudices need to be addressed, and quickly.
In an era where developed and developing nations are striving for technology and progress, hunting remains an archaic, ugly custom with far more detriments than benefits. Be it wolves (a petition to protest the government can be accessed here), wolverines or lions, hunting animals for personal pride or entertainment is not only unsustainable but also morally unacceptable. Hunting, if done at all, must provide tangible survival benefits and account for the hunted species’ endangerment. Paradigms change slowly, but they do change.