Brazil - The shaky camera footage depicts torch-lit woodland and the fuzzy outline of a gun barrel as the shot is fired. The hunters move in to collect their prey — paca, a species of large rodent found in South and Central America.
A man dressed in military fatigues displays the kill proudly next to his carbine. The animal’s unblinking eye reflects light back into the lens and the nighttime ring of woodland crickets serves as a backing track.
As part of new research into the extent and impacts of unregulated sports hunting, scientist Hani Bizri and his peers have watched more than 383 YouTube videos like this one, primarily depicting the pursuit and killing of wild animals.
“When we started looking at these videos we became a little bit disturbed, but at the same time we got a lot of information about the hunters and their strategies,” said Hani.
“It isn’t only occurring deep in the Amazon. We found videos for every biome in the country, and some of those posted were of hunting happening within driving distance of Sao Paulo, the largest city in Brazil.”
The videos on which the study is based upon have collectively accumulated 15 million views, suggesting that interest in sport hunting is widespread, despite being illegal under most circumstances in Brazil.
And due to the apparent inefficacy of prohibition, Hani says more needs to be done to ensure that hunting is conducted sustainably.
Hunting linked to Brazil’s cultural history
Unlike the “trophy hunting” of big game observed on the savannahs of southern Africa, which is predominantly perpetrated by rich, fee-paying Westerners, the roots of Brazil’s sport hunting culture lies in the “rural connection” of much of the country’s urban middle class.
Intermittent periods of rapid economic growth during Brazil’s post-war history resulted in widespread urbanization, as rural residents moved to cities in search of higher-paying work.
Nonetheless, hunting traditions have been retained by the ensuing, wealthier generations. For many of Brazil’s newly urban population, hunting has become a leisure pursuit rooted in their cultural history.
“These people’s parents used to hunt and eat this meat out of necessity, so it’s a part of their heritage,” said Hani.
The posting dates of the videos are seasonal and concentrated during vacation periods in July and December, suggesting that hunts are conducted as a holiday sport. Moreover, the cost of the air-pressure carbines observed in the videos viewed by the researchers range from $350 to $2000 — far beyond the means of a subsistence hunter.
The study’s findings stand in contrast to other studies conducted on hunting in the urban and semi-urban areas over the country, where game hunters often hunt to satisfy their need for food, or supplement their income.
“[With regard to sports hunters] they like the process and the act. They enjoy running after the animal and the thrill of the chase,” said Thaís Morcatty, the study’s co-author. “But they also eat the meat.”
The most commonly targeted species observed in the video study have been lowland pacas and armadillos, the former of which features on nearly every state endangered species list in Brazil. White-lipped peccaries, tapirs and capybaras are also targeted to a lesser extent.
How can hunting be regulated?
So what can be done to curb the impacts that sports hunting is having on forest wildlife?
“Rather than continuing with prohibition, which appears not to be working, I think regulation could be good to generate money for conservation,” said Hani.
Although it is a measure that is opposed by many animal rights activist groups, the creation of reserves for sport hunting is often touted as a way to advance the interests of conservation.
As an example, Hani and Thais point to the permitted hunting of birds in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, where populations of the target species remained stable during a five-year period, although the program was eventually abandoned.
We can’t be effective with just the surveillance effort that Brazil has been applying. [The hunters] are not going to stop because of illegality, so we must start a dialogue.
According to Hani, greater richness and larger populations of waterfowl species were observed in the region than states where sport hunting remained prohibited because hunting areas were spared from habitat conversion to agriculture.
Hani believes that the same results could be achieved by regulated hunting of forest game, and if the interests of sustaining animal stocks are shared by some of the hunters themselves.
“The hunters are already discussing how to legalize and regulate themselves on the videos and in the comment sections, so it would be more effective for them to be included in the process.”
“We can’t be effective with just the surveillance effort that Brazil has been applying,” said Hani. “They’re not going to stop due to illegality, so we must start a dialogue.”
This publication was selected among more than 200 articles published in “Ecology and Society” in 2015 and awarded “Best Paper”.