Why do some humans go after the biggest animals they can find? And how can these hunters be turned away from killing what are often endangered or threatened beasts? One trio of researchers found it’s all about bragging — or shaming.

Antlers.

Image credits Michael Bieri.

For a really long time in human history, supermarkets surprisingly weren’t a thing. So if you wanted some meat to go with your nuts, berries, and assorted veggies, boy you were in for an adventure — it was either hunting something alive or scavenging (which usually meant fighting something alive which had fangs). Long story short, it was dangerous, but we had to do it for the food.

There is one kind of hunting that flies in the face of this risk-reward dynamic animals have with subsistence hunting, however. Some human hunters go after the biggest, meanest, most dangerous animal around, even when they don’t want to eat it. Needless to say, such hunting can have devastating consequences for wildlife populations. So why do some people spend huge sums of money to kill big game that’s usually on the brink of extinction anyway? It doesn’t make any sense.

The answer, according to a trio of researchers, is sex.

What.

The fact that it doesn’t make sense is half the point here, the team explains. The other one is that it is expensive. Put them both together and what you get is “this costs a lot, I get nothing out of it, and now I am going to do it. Look how cool I am.” In short, it’s all about getting bragging rights. The pricey hunt is meant to show off a male’s high social status to competitors and potential mates. The theory would offer an evolutionary explanation for why humans kill animals they don’t need to, and suggests a possible tactic for discouraging that behavior in the future.

“Policy debate about [trophy hunting] benefits and costs focuses only on the hunted species and biodiversity, not the unique behaviour of hunters,” the authors write.

Lead author Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and his team describe human beings as “superpredators” because they’re not bound by the typical rules of other carnivores in the animal kingdom. The average predator “typically picks prey that are newly born (the juveniles) or nearly dead (the sick and weak animals, the substandard animals in populations) and they eat them,” they added. “And this really bizarre, unique predator, [the] human being, kind of does the opposite. We target the large; we target animals for characteristics that have nothing to do with their nutritional value; we target animals with big horns or antlers.”

To find out what evolutionary drive powers trophy hunting, the team compared this behavior to the habits of “traditional hunter-gatherers” — modern populations whose lifestyles resemble those of ancient humans. Darimont pointed out that in the Meriam population of Australia, men and women both hunt for green turtles but employ different methods.

We can do it the sensible way, or the right way

Ego.

Look at this handsome guy!
Image credits cortto / Flickr.

Whereas the women employ a safe and easy method, by capturing turtles who come ashore to lay eggs, men take a complicated, expensive, and dangerous route. They take to the sea on boats then dive in dangerous waters to hunt the same turtles on their own turf. Even worse, the men often have to share the meat they hunt with the community, rather than keeping it for their family.

Still, the men keep hunting this way because they get another (more evolutionary relevant) advantage. They show that they can mobilize the resources to undertake such a costly and dangerous task, which shows they can provide for their offspring, potentially making them more attractive to mates. This behavior is known as “costly signaling behavior,” and the Meriam males use it to gain social standing. The team reports that the turtle hunters get married earlier, to “higher quality” mates, and generally have more surviving children than their peers.

With the advent of social media, these hunters have more opportunity to brag — but they’re also opening themselves to shaming by critics. Public outcry, the team points out, may be a key tactic to stemming such behavior.

“If these hunters are hunting for status essentially, there’s nothing like shame to erode status,” Darimont said.

“So where the internet might fuel this kill-and-tell generation, it might also provide a vehicle for those opposed to trophy hunting to emerge with a powerful strategy.”

The full paper “Why men trophy hunt” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.

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