Examples of multinational companies forgoing business on purely ethical grounds are rare. Despite fine words, corporations are by nature profit-maximisers. Their remit is to make money without stepping over the law; separating right from wrong, they often argue, is the job of governments and regulators. Even so, there are occasions when a perfectly legal practice is so unpalatable to the public, and any association with it so damaging to the brand, that morality is difficult to ignore.
That is what happened in 2005, when British Airways stopped carrying animals destined for scientific experiments in its cargo holds. Despite jeopardising a lucrative relationship with GlaxoSmithKline, a British pharmaceutical firm, the threat of a customer boycott was deemed too damaging. And it happened again last month, when South African Airways (SAA) quietly banned the transportation of hunted animal trophies—specifically rhinos, elephants, lions and tigers—on its aircraft.
Shooting a marvel of nature and shipping its carcass home seems an odd practice to many. But business is roaring. An estimated 1,000 captive lions are shot dead by mostly American and European tourists on South African ranches annually. That's nearly double the number of wild lions felled across the entire continent. Killing beasts in fenced-off, private property is easier than gunning them down on their own turf. It's also much cheaper: tourists can pay $20,000 for a captive male, compared with $75,000 for a wild one. The expansion of the “canned hunting” industry—which breeds lions by isolating mothers from their cubs to jumpstart ovulation—has lifted African trophy hunting revenues to $200m a year.
For SAA, making money from this booming trade should be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Tourists have few options but to load their spoils onto planes for one final journey, providing the flag-carrier with lucrative custom beneath the passenger deck as well as above it. Cargo can account for up to 10% of a passenger airline’s revenue. In an industry with average annual profit margins of 1-2% per cent, that is nothing to sniff at. Cargo is also one of the more trouble-free aspects of the business: freight doesn't complain when you push it around; and many of the fixed costs of getting a plane airborne apply regardless of how full the cargo hold happens to be. SAA, which is in financial straits, can ill-afford to turn away such easy money.
The ethical arguments against canned hunting are also open to debate. Supporters say that it reduces demand for wild kills; that intensive breeding programmes keep a declining gene-pool healthy; and that rural communities benefit from the industry. Others counter that Africa's wild lion population has plummeted from 200,000 to 30,000 over recent decades, suggesting that humans have a poor track-record of helping the species. And one study, commissioned by environmental groups, found that just 3% of the revenue from trophy hunting ends up in the pockets of locals.
No matter how profitable and defensible, SAA has decided that trophy kill cargo is bad business. It wants to nullify a potential storm of bad publicity before it arrives. The embargo may be legally expedient too. SAA got into trouble recently when one of its customers mis-declared a batch of illegal elephant tusks; it might think that the only way to avoid recurrences is to ban all trophy kill cargo, and so do away with the hassle of distinguishing legal from illegal carcasses.
Either way, SAA should be lauded for its move. British Airways won praise for refusing to transport animals bound for the vivisection table. That many people recognise the ethical necessity of animal experimentation counted for naught; emotion trumps reason when moral dilemmas get personal. Few passengers could sit comfortably knowing that terrified monkeys are quivering just beneath their feet. The one airline that has come out strongly in favour of animal transportation, Air France, has been subjected to relentless campaigns by PETA, an animal rights group, resulting in damaging media attention, such as this article in the Daily Mail.
A few months ago, Gulliver visited Ukutula, a lion park near Johannesburg that also breeds the majestic animals for tourism purposes. Rather than sell the right to kill them, however, it sells the right to photograph and interact with them. It also conducts research with the University of Pretoria. Animal rights campaigners are hardly fans of such establishments. But their business model illustrates an important point: African fauna has commercial value while living, too. There are better ways to build tourism-based economies–and to conserve nature's great beasts–than down the barrel of a gun. SAA’s embargo is a step in the right direction. Now more governments should follow Australia’s lead by banning the importation of trophy kills.