Big money: a look at the complexities behind the ever-increasing costs of hunting big game

“And there is no greater disaster than greed,” wrote the Chinese Taoist philosopher Laotzu twenty-five centuries ago. There are those who would claim that greed today is being displayed in all its pavonine glory by the fees charged by governments, both national and international, for the privilege of hunting big game.

The numbers would certainly appear to substantiate this. For some time hunters heading Out West have been accustomed to nonresident permit fees approaching $2,000 for such glittering species as Shiras moose and bighorn sheep (over $3,000 in New Mexico for sheep). These animals have their own peculiar worth due to their exalted rank in the hierarchy of trophy game, whether a hunter is in quest of taking all the North American species or achieving a Grand Slam. There is a limited quantity of such animals, and so it makes sense that they should cost what they cost today, even if that amount has risen at a rate far outstripping inflation.

What about more common species, though? How are wildlife departments justifying the license fees for those animals?

Wyoming, for example, has a “special” nonresident elk permit that in 2007 cost $893. That amount doesn’t even guarantee a tag but merely places an applicant in a pool with an allegedly more exclusive cohort, thus supposedly improving his odds of drawing. Where the nonresident fees for elk and deer become truly shuddering, though, are in Montana. A nonresident who wants to ensure he acquires a deer and/or elk tag in the state can obtain one through his outfitter. These so-called “outfitter sponsored” tags, which do not require the hunter to enter a drawing, cost $845 in 2007 for the deer-combination permit that also included licenses for fishing and upland game no turkeys, though. Deer-and-elk went for $1,195. In 2008 the fees jump to $1,100 and $1,500, respectively. When a representative of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department was asked about the reason for such increases, his reply was that the fees were pure “market driven.”

It seems hardly unreasonable for game departments to charge whatever the market will bear for a permit. How that market is arrived at, though, is not a web that is so simply disentangled. Supply and demand, as has been noted, is certainly a portion of it there are far more hunters than there are available permits, at least for some species. For deer and elk, even though the demand may not be as intense for them as for the likes of sheep, many hunters are willing and able to pay for the convenience of knowing they will have a tag in the fall, and therefore don’t have to wait until midsummer to make their hunting plans. And it has to be said that historically many species have undoubtedly been undervalued.

What may also be a major factor in the rise in license fees is the pressure that has been exerted on the draw systems by the introduction of “application services” into the process. These services advertise themselves as experts at researching hunting areas and submitting their clients’ applications for the very finest hunting units. For a modest charge, of course. And to be sure, these services have long lists of satisfied customers. It seems hardly unfair, though, to speculate that the successful clients might represent a rather small ratio of all the clients whose applications were sent in for particular units. The best elk and deer units in any state are hardly a national secret. Now, take two, three, four application services putting large numbers of their clients into drawings for the few truly outstanding units, and demand becomes not merely a cascade but a tsunami. The odds of a nonresident pulling a tag become not merely outrageous but astronomical. Yet the services have likely sent in so many of their clients’ applications that by the law of averages they will have had enough successes to look like real men of genius at least to each new batch of unknowing applicants. And from some celestial Big Top, Phineas Taylor Barnum must be smiling down.

Game departments, under such circumstances, wouldn’t be just foolish for not inflating their license fees; they could very well be accused of malfeasance. They, unlike the assorted energy departments, have no business giving away a public resource, namely wildlife. It is a lesson that has recently been brought home to governments outside the United States, most notably Tanzania.

Early last summer, after the hunting season had already begun, the Wildlife Division of the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism announced that it was revoking the Hunting Regulations 2005 and would be increasing the fees for both hunting blocks and big-game trophies. Blocks of at least 800 square kilometers, or a little over 300 square miles, that could be leased for $10,000 annually under the 2005 regulations, would go to $50,000 while blocks at a minimum of 100 square kilometers (nearly 40 square miles) would rise from $7,500 to $40,000. Government trophy fees would shoot up from $5,000 for an elephant to $15,000 and lion and leopard from $2,500 to $12,000. In order to offset such cost increases, some safari operators started lopping off hunting days, while others demanded tens of thousands in additional fees from their clients, or threatened to cancel safaris and keep deposits.

From some members of the hunting press and representatives of hunting organizations “howls of execration,” as Albert Camus wrote at the end of his novel, The Stranger, rang forth. Beguiled lovers seldom sound as pained” After all we’ve done for Tanzania!” Eventually, some compromise was achieved, and the fees were increased but not as much as originally proposed.

Despite the bad timing, despite the apparently arbitrary and capricious nature of its actions, the Tanzanian government had by all reasonable accounts every right to react in some way to the circumstances into which its hunting resource had fallen. It seems that for more than a while the allocation of hunting blocks in Tanzania had been a matter of political patronage. The graft was rampant, and hunting as a resource was significantly underpriced. Foreign companies were subletting hunting concessions, denying Tanzania tax revenue; and through legislation intended to give local residents a say in the safari industry had been signed, it had not gone into action. So in reaction to these and other examples of misbehavior, Tanzania resolved to jack up its fees.

The real problem is that the outfitters, professional hunters, the hunting press, and not least the hunting organizations, should have seen this coming in Tanzania. For years there has been a crying need for concessions to be awarded through an “objective and transparent system” and on the basis of true market value (which may or may not be the figures on which the Tanzanian government has settled: at these proposed fees, some blocks remain below value while others are costing far too much). But long opposing this has been both the safari outfitters and some of the largest hunting organizations, who have argued that an open market would lead inexorably to the plundering of the hunting resource by “businessmen,” something, presumably, safari outfitters are not believed to be.

This symbiotic relationship between hunting organizations and safari outfitters (the organizations lobby for the interests of the outfitters, and outfitters reciprocate by renting expensive booths and donating hunts at the hunting conventions) can leave the hunting country feeling suspicious that it may not be receiving the highest possible return on the utilization of its wildlife resource, and at its worst can contribute to darker indulgences among hunters and PHs as well. The greed of some outfitters for income, married to the greed of some hunters for “achievement” (summarized by the notion of keeping the customer satisfied), can see fair-chase ethics and even game laws were thrown out the speeding Land Cruiser window.

The irony is that one need only look across Tanzania’s border at the environmental disaster that is the safari-free zone of Kenya, which is estimated to have lost almost three-quarters of its wildlife in the thirty years that hunting has been banned, to realize that safari hunting remains the soundest, most economically viable means of preserving the large mammals of the country and benefiting the local populations who share the land with them. If corruption reaches a point, though, at which Tanzania feels compelled to follow Kenya’s misguided example, or if we complain too vociferously about the high costs we are required to pay for big-game permits, we would do well, before blaming anyone else for these turns of events, to remember the words of that other renowned philosopher, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

About Connie F. Kirkland

View all posts by Connie F. Kirkland →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *