Early this week, I found out that the number of rhinos poached for their horns this year in South Africa, where I live, had jumped to 1,006. Just a few days later, that number has grown to 1,020. This represents a shocking and upsetting new annual record – and it means that the rate at which poaching incidents now occur poses a genuine threat to the future survival of rhinos in my country (which is also the place where most of the world's rhinos happen to live).

I'm mentioning all of this because there is another story that also got my attention this week: a flare-up of intense anger against American celebrity hunter Eva Shockey, who's facing a major backlash for shooting a 230-kilogram (510 pound) bear and posting the photo on Facebook. Reading the story with the rhino poaching figures fresh in my mind reminded me why I feel compelled to speak out when people launch such ferocious (and sometimes downright vile and reprehensible) attacks on hunters who kill animals legally, often utilising the entire carcass and often generating funds for conservation in the process.


I am not out to defend Shockey. On a purely personal level, I struggle to see eye to eye with someone who kills animals for sport, even if, as was reportedly the case with Shockey's bear, the meat is eaten (yes, many people eat bear) and the hunt helps generate much-needed conservation cash. That said, I do recognise that within the complex and mine-ridden debate that this is, there are strong and persuasive arguments that conservation and hunting do sometimes go hand in hand.   

Besides, I don't actually think Shockey needs much defending. The 26-year-old Canadian has a big fan base and is happily ensconced in the hunting world as the co-host of her father Jim Shockey's popular TV show Jim Shockey's Hunting Adventures – and she's already calmly and self-assuredly confronted the criticism that's been thrown at her. It also seems she's had plenty of fatherly advice for dealing with the public backlash. She says: “My dad warned me before I even got involved with the show that I was going to have to deal with anti-hunters. I’m a huge target for them because I’m a smiley young woman, and I’m different than who they’re used to dealing with.” 

In saying this, Shockey brings up a weighty point – a point several writers have highlighted in relation to other high-profile female hunters (like Kendall Jones and Melissa Bachman) this year: just how much does the intensity and nature of the backlash depend on a hunter's sex ... and what does that say about those hurtling the insults (you can read a great opinion piece that tackles these very questions here).

Of course, all of this doesn't mean you don't have a right to disapprove of how Shockey chooses to spend her time – and to direct criticism her way if you wish. However, just a quick glance at some of the posts on her Facebook page reveals that the anti-Shockey abuse has reached pretty extreme levels. If ethical and animal welfare issues relating to hunting are of genuine concern to you, there are organisations you can engage with if the goal is to actually effect change. On the other hand, if you're hurtling death threats (Shockey says she gets thousands) and other (frankly repugnant) vitriol at a lone target on social media, you might want to look in the mirror and reassess your motives (for more on angry and misplaced rants in the name of conservation check out this video).

And that brings me back to the rhinos. What frustrates me most about these recurring outbursts of such energetic outrage against those who legally hunt animals is the attention they take away from the sort of illegal killing that is a genuine and very pressing threat to wildlife, like the rhinos that continue to be butchered as I write this. I can't help but think that by choosing to focus a disproportionate amount of our attention on Shockey (or Jones, or Bachman) and the small handful of animals they kill, we're doing a disservice to the countless animals – from iconic giants like rhinos to the little-known pangolins – threatened by poaching and the vast black market that feeds it.

Top header image: Shadi Samawi, Flickr