From the dusty plains of Namibia to the fynbos scrublands of the South African Cape, the swaying grasses of the Serengeti to the mist-topped rainforests of the Congo, the wild lands of Africa have become firmly established as one of the world's meccas for adventure, conservation and eco-tourism in recent decades.
People now flock to the continent to rumble over dust tracks and spy out lazy lions under the sun, or to snap shots of galloping wildebeest herds hammering the plateaus. They come to witness packs of African dogs sprinting between the watering holes, and experience the majesty of endangered creatures like the black rhino, the cheetah and the great mountain gorilla.
Curiously, another group of visitors still comes to Africa's hinterland too: trophy hunters. A contentious aspect of modern nature tourism, these folk come armed with high-calibre rifles and plenty of cash. They come not to wonder at the great fauna of the land, but to kill it. So why have so many for so long defended the practice as a necessary evil in a land desperately struggling with conservation?
The economic value of trophy hunting
For years, trophy hunters have championed their position as eco-tourists, presenting their activities as a manifestation of a great passion for the African outdoors. Moreover, many argue that trophy hunting has such a positive impact on Africa's rural communities, and plays such a strong economic role in the maintenance of its endangered ecology, that it forms one of the pillars of modern conservation.
In fact, the economic benefits of trophy hunting can't be denied. In South Africa – the trophy hunting kingpin of the continent – it's estimated that the practice generated over $56 million back in 2012. It's hardly a wonder, with individual hunters each reportedly paying fees of more than $50,000 per kill.
Hunters argue that this money is a valuable stream of income for rural communities in Africa; one that helps funnel cash away from the tourist hotspots and national parks, and helps to change local perceptions about beasts that would otherwise only be seen as a danger, not as a valuable commodity to be nurtured.
Trophy hunting versus eco-tourism
But it's no use simply talking about trophy hunting on its own. The real effects of the practice need to be considered in the context of eco-tourism across Africa as a whole. That way it's economic benefits can be properly compared with the alternatives.
First off, while some reports estimate trophy hunting brings in a whopping $200 million dollars for Africa each year, the truth is that the figure is just a tiny fraction of the overall amount generated by eco-tourism – which runs into the billions overall. The question looms: would hunting outfitters be better off offering eco-tourism trips instead of kills?
The answer is a resounding yes. Studies have shown that the economic viability and output of packages like safari camps and photography trips into the bush far outweigh that of trophy hunting.
Why? Well, for starters, eco-tourism trips go all-year round, keeping income flowing even out of the hunting season. There's also a much larger market for non-hunting travellers, who outnumber hunters almost 90 to 1. And while placing economic value on individual animals is difficult, estimations show that a maned lion generates around $50,000 per year in a Kenyan game park by attracting photographers and wildlife viewers. That's opposed to a maximum of $50,000 for a single hunt that destroys the lion forever. And another estimate made between the winding watercourses of Botswana's Okavango Delta concluded that the value of a living lion in an African safari park was more than 130 times that of a hunted lion, with the figure exceeding $2 million when the continued earning potential of the live beast was added to the equation.
When it's not just about the money
For organisations like iDOPT, proactive eco-tourism on the continent is about much more than just creating wealth to drive conservation initiatives. It's also about establishing an emotional connection with the great creatures of the bush, raising awareness for the plight of animals like the elephant and the rhino, and generating a genuine respect for nature. And that's certainly better done without a rifle in hand.
By utilising the latest technology in smartphones, the iDOPT application has found a way to connect people with the frontline of animal conservation in Africa, even from their homes far away, in countries like Vietnam, Hong Kong and China. The idea is that this will bring a more hopeful vision for the future of ecology on the continent, one that abandons aspects like commercial game hunting in favor of more ethical, profitable and loving ways to protect the wilds.