The Wildlife Game – 29 May 2017
Dr John Ledger

South African big game hunter Theunis Botha, died after being crushed by an elephant cow that had been shot on a game reserve in Zimbabwe in May 2017. He was leading a hunt with clients when the group accidentally walked into the middle of a breeding herd of elephants at the Good Luck Farm near Hwange National Park. Three of the elephant cows charged the hunters. Mr Botha fired a shot from his rifle but he was caught by surprise by a fourth cow that stormed them from the side, the news site Netwerk24 reported. One of the hunters shot the elephant after she lifted Botha with her trunk. The elephant then collapsed on top of Mr Botha, killing him in the process.

Condolences from family, friends and clients poured in for the man who was a husband, father and professional hunter. But in the other universe of the First World mainstream and social media, countless animal-rights and anti-hunting sentiments were expressed that actually celebrated his death. The story went viral around the world in an Internet frenzy that has become a phenomenon of our modern times. The other recent incident of even greater reach involved the case of Cecil the Lion, another example from Zimbabwe where local people benefit from trophy hunting and are perplexed by the peculiar emotional responses from so many people who do not actually live with elephants and lions.

In trying to understand this phenomenon, I came across the notion of the so-called ‘opportunity availability cascade’ which seems to explain what happens with many controversial issues that people feel strongly about. The article I have paraphrased here was originally about climate change, which has strongly contested views from both alarmists and sceptics, but applies equally to the issue of hunting, which also has strong protagonists and opponents.

The notion of ‘opportunity entrepreneurs’ is well known in the NGO community. Organisations like Greenpeace, WWF, Born Free and others have built lucrative businesses by grasping the opportunity to raise money from concerned citizens who have bought into a particular belief system. WWF, once essentially concerned about whales, Pandas, baby seals and elephants, saw great opportunity in climate alarmism, in which it is now a big player with a big budget, sitting at the same tables as the folks from the United Nations.

An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse. (Kuran & Sunstein, 1998).

An interesting aspect of the whole ‘animal rights movement’ is the way that the (non-sceptical, first world) public consciousness has been captured by two very simple, easy-to-understand and certain ‘facts’, that

  • Animals are sentient beings and have rights – to life, security and absence of cruelty.
  • Hunters infringe on animals rights and inflict cruelty and death upon their quarry.

In tweets/soundbites/social media, we often see things like ‘Hunters are cruel, callous murderers; hunters are cowards who only confront dangerous animals when they have superior weapons; hunters are driving certain species to extinction’.

To question these ‘facts’ is to be ‘pro-hunting’ and ‘anti-animal rights’, and despite both these ‘facts’ being debatable, these two beliefs (because that is all they are) seem to have become ‘memes’ (beliefs that spread by ‘cultural acquisition’, from peers or the media). When questioned, members of the general public who claim to hold these beliefs may say they do so because ‘my Facebook friends say they are true’, or ‘newspapers say they are true’, or ‘politicians say they are true’, or ‘Africa Geographic says they are true’. In other words, it is ‘received opinion’.

In this case they have not arrived at these beliefs through their own reasoning or even been argued into them by the reasoning of others; instead they ‘just know’ they must be true because ‘everyone else’ ‘just knows’ they must be true. After all, it is what all sympathetic, responsible, humane and reasonable people believe. Isn’t it? Only the stupid, irresponsible, irrational and unreasonable hunters and wildlife managers question it.

This process has been characterised by psychologists as an ‘availability cascade’, a self-reinforcing cycle that explains the development of a collective belief (or meme) in animal rights. The idea that a great many complex factors affecting wild animals, such as human population increases, pressure on wildlands, conflict with livestock farmers, shrinking habitats, and poaching for meat, that actually have unrelated and multifaceted causes, can be explained by one, simple, easily understood cause (hunting), gains rapid currency in the popular discourse by its very simplicity and by its apparent insightfulness. Its rising popularity triggers a chain reaction within the social network: individuals adopt the new insight that we are experiencing the abuse of animal rights because other people within their social network have adopted it, and on face value it sounds plausible.

The reason for this increased use and popularity of the ‘wicked hunter’ idea involves both the availability of this idea in the media, and the need of individuals to conform to it, regardless of whether they fully believe it.

Their need for social acceptance and political correctness, coupled with the apparent sophistication of the new insight, overwhelm their critical thinking. Imitation and conformity, rather than critical analysis and independent thinking, are at the heart of a meme. The public concern then puts pressure on political policymakers to make policies to address the public concern. The public then see confirmation that their concern over hunting must be valid – after all, the politicians are enacting policies to address it. It is a self-reinforcing loop of irrationality based on a very poor understanding of what wildlife management science actually says.

The availability cascade around the ‘wicked hunter’ idea has been so extreme that despite the fact that common sense alone should tell us that the idea may be wrong, it nevertheless is regarded as a fact by many. It is much easier to ‘just believe’ in the wicked hunter meme, when independent critical analysis of the subject requires a great deal of time and effort to understand the science and arguments for sustainable utilisation of wildlife.

Ending this availability cascade would require the politicians and journalists and public of Europe and North America (and small but vocal groups in South Africa and Australia) to understand that their beliefs are rather more based on emotion than science and reason, and to take the time and trouble to actually critically investigate and understand the science of wildlife management. It would require them to lay aside their simple certainties for complex uncertainties. Given that this is highly unlikely, it seems that when a global anti-hunting availability cascade is dong the rounds, the best advice is to ignore it – as the vast majority of African and Asians would do anyway.

Acknowledgement: this essay draws extensively on the post by Iain Aitken below

Aitken, Iain (2017). Guest essay on

Kuran, Timur and Sunstein, Cass R., Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation. Stanford Law Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, 1999; U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 181; U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 384. Available at SSRN:

Dr John Ledger is an independent consultant and writer on energy and environmental issues, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.