A Hunter’s Heritage – Aboriginal Conservation

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In my previous column on that “management thing”, I make the argument that hunting and other forms of active management, although seemingly counter-intuitive to conservation, in fact promote healthier and more abundant wildlife than does the “hands off” approach to resource management. A strictly preservationist view, in fact, endangers wildlife populations because it refuses to consider humans as part of the natural process and more importantly, scapegoats hunting while ignoring the clear majority of other human activities that have serious detrimental effects on wildlife. In keeping with the continued theme of many columns here, hunting can be conservation’s number one tool if the goal is larger and healthier wildlife populations.

Although humans have effectively hunted other animals for more than a million years, hunting’s positive effects on wildlife populations are a historically recent phenomenon.  In fact, I will argue that it wasn’t until the creation of the “North American Model of Conservation” (the concept of which first arose in the latter half of the 19th century) that hunting attained its utility as a tool for promoting wildlife and wildlife habitat. Think about this for a moment: I just stated that hunting has only been a successful tool of conservation for 0.0001% of its existence as a human activity.

aboriginal hunters
Aboriginal Hunters: Are native hunters also considered good conservationists?

So, what about all those other cultures and innumerable extinct human groups that have become the poster children of conservation? After all, every media form you can think of depicts native peoples as walking in harmony with nature and maintaining that precious balance between take and conservation. The picture most often painted is that aboriginal hunters “conserved” wildlife to a far greater degree than modern hunters…with the expected media follow-up opinions that modern hunting is bad but aboriginal hunting is just fine.

I’ve lived with, associated with and overall befriended too many aboriginal folks in my lifetime to have developed anything but respect for their cultural ways of life. They have much to teach modernized society and, after sweeping aside the political veneer that sometimes obfuscates their message, we should pay more heed to these folks than we normally do. That being said, “aboriginal conservation” is a myth.

deadman cave teeth
Deadman Cave Teeth: Archaeological remains can tell us a lot about how prehistoric peoples hunted and their effect on wildlife populations.

There are a lot of reasons why I have come to this conclusion. It stems largely from my experience with hunters in East Africa and years of focusing on hunting methods and return for extinct societies in various locations throughout the world. But it also derives from contemporary observations of both aboriginal and modernized use of natural resources. This is not to say that aboriginal people make a habit of haphazardly slaughtering wildlife populations (although examples of this are certainly not uncommon). Nor would I deny that aboriginal folks engage in active conservation efforts from time to time (probably less frequently than you might realize, however). But understanding conservation and how it is implemented by modernized and aboriginal societies alike, is a very nuanced discussion, necessitating all those pesky but vital details that never make it to today’s fashionable modes of electronic discussion on these topics.

Let me give you some examples. The argument that hunting is an effective conservation tool depends significantly on how conservation is defined. Active conservation, in my view, is different from hunting strategies, hunting frequencies, prey choice and a variety of other factors that can affect the long-term viability of a wildlife population. While contingency factors such as these may result in long term viability of a population, that is not necessarily the same as conservation. Population, technology and environmental constraints impact hunting efforts and their effects on conservation, good and bad. And introduce any type of economic motive into the equation and taking animals as a tool to conserve them becomes very complicated. There are a lot of variables in determining what conservation efforts are, whether hunting helps these efforts or complicates them, what factors contribute or don’t contribute to effect hunting conservation and whether one society is better at it than another.

Confused? Yeah, I understand…you should be.  And that’s my point: the role any given hunting activity has in relation to conservation is a very complicated relationship. My umbrella argument, however, is that hunting truly functions as a conservation tool only when it is employed in a manner consistent with the North American Model of Conservation. Aboriginal hunting, in most forms since its inception, just doesn’t meet the standard for conservation.

Stay tuned for my next column – I’ll give you an example.

Good hunting!

Dr. Chris

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