The Benefits of Hunting: Locked and Loaded

Population control is one of many benefits of hunting

White Tail Buck
Gary Kemp Photography / Getty Images

Though there are many benefits of hunting, you're not likely to read about them in most green-living publications. Yet hunters have been among the most dedicated of conservationists for centuries. Take a look at how new ideas like green hunting are reshaping this most ancient of the survival arts.

Hunting and Extinction

For eons, people hunted and fished in order to survive, especially in harsh climates where the growing season was short and food supplies were not reliable year-round.

Even in places with temperate climates, diets that were largely vegetarian were supplemented with nutrient-rich fish and meats.

Some of this hunting was done without undue stress on animal populations, though there is evidence that overhunting contributed to the extinction of many animal species. (There's always an inherent danger in assuming that primitive people lived in blissful harmony with nature. Nothing, in fact, could be farther from the truth.) The North American camel and mastodon, New Zealand's moa and Australia's giant kangaroo were completely killed off thousands of years ago by human hunters.

The Rise of the Conservationist

Over the centuries, as human populations grew, hunting, agriculture and human encroachment into natural habitats started to kill off animals and fish worldwide. Additionally, the benefits of hunting diminished as hunting for sport became more popular, with unfortunate results.

The extinction or near-extinction of thousands of species of wildlife -- the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, the North American bison -- began to alarm some conservation-minded people. It could be argued that "hunting for sport" is often nothing more than target practice, since the killed animals were often just left to die on the ground, instead of being used for meat or other purposes.

Though hunting fell out of favor with some people, it continued to be practiced by millions of people, either out of necessity or for recreation. And, beginning in the 1800s, there were many avid hunters who recognized the importance of preserving both animal populations and natural habitats.

One of the biggest champions of conservation was big-game hunter Theodore Roosevelt, who single-handedly preserved millions of acres of forest, prairie, wetlands, and other habitats to ensure the sustainability of hunting stocks and to preserve the beauty of America's natural heritage.

Preservation and the Benefits of Hunting

Today it's more widely understood that the benefits of hunting include preservation of wilderness and of wildlife -- the image of the beer-bellied buffoon blasting his way through the forest is largely the stuff of Hollywood fantasy.

Ducks Unlimited, for example, was born in the midst of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when severe drought conditions threatened many North American waterfowl with extinction. A group of concerned sportsmen gathered to promote one primary mission: habitat conservation. And since its beginnings in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has succeeded in preserving over 12 million acres of natural habitat.

Hunting today is much more regulated than in centuries past -- at least in developed countries. (High rates of extinction in many African and Asian countries, due in part to the trade in exotic animals, highlight the dismal state of wildlife protection in those places.) And some of the most enthusiastic supporters of bag limits and other hunting regulations are hunters themselves.

Hunting of white-tailed deer in North America proves that the benefits of hunting (when properly regulated) include wilderness conservation. Natural predators like wolves and mountain lions are rare in the eastern United States, so deer populations have skyrocketed, with disastrous results. Deer have stripped many forests of young trees and undergrowth, causing other animals to die off due to lack of food and shelter.

Deer hunters, however, are keeping the population of white-tailed deer in check through managed hunting. By reducing the numbers of deer in hardwood forests, hunters are allowing those forests to remain healthy ecosystems that can support a rich diversity of plants and animals.

Green Hunting: Shoot to Save

A relatively new hunting ethos is helping researchers better understand the lives of at-risk animals, which in turn can ensure their continued survival. Green hunting, sometimes called dart hunting or dart safaris, give hunters the chance to shoot animals with tranquilizer darts. The animals are then tagged or fitted with GPS collars; researchers may also take blood samples or collect DNA from the animals.

Because darts are heavier than bullets, hunters must get much closer to the animals to score a hit. This makes green hunting a little more challenging and dangerous than typical hunting since animals like bull elephants, leopards, rhinos, and lions are likely to charge.

Green hunting can also be more expensive –- some dart safaris cost as much as $25,000 per hunter –- but the funds go to support a managed wildlife preserve or an animal conservation group. And since the green safari takes place under the direction of a veterinarian and other staff, the safety of the hunted animal is assured.

Green hunting is particularly popular in South Africa, where numerous dart safaris have taken place in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and North West provinces. Kruger National Park and the adjacent Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) in South Africa have succeeded in using green hunting to gather information on the lives of several bull elephants in the region.

According to a research paper from the Save the Elephants organization, "Incorporating green hunting into research methods has permitted us to obtain information on the range behavior of bulls. Furthermore, green hunting has allowed the targeting of large-tusked bulls without depleting the gene pool, and this has taken place at financial benefit, rather than cost, to the APNR.

We, therefore, recommend the use of green hunting as an alternative to lethal hunting trophy bulls within private nature reserves such as the APNR and elsewhere."