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30 January 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 2:48pm

Mounting an animal’s head on your wall is a funny way to show how much you revere its beauty

No amount of PR can disguise how different subsistence hunting is from its more leisurely cousin.

By John Burnside

Reading the stories last month about  John Amistoso – the latest in a long line of hunters to pose gleefully for the cameras with the rare animal he had just slaughtered – I was reminded of a verse by Walter de la Mare:

Hi! handsome hunting man
Fire your little gun.
Bang! Now the animal
is dead and dumb and done.
Nevermore to peep again, 
reep again, leap again,
Eat or sleep or drink again,                               
oh, what fun!

It seems this particular hunting man forked out $100,000 to kill the Astor markhor, a screw-horn goat – which is bad enough. What is worse, however, is that Pakistani authorities licensed the hunt, even though the screw horn is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “Red List of Threatened Species”. Their claim is that the money goes back to the community and help sustain the markhor’s environment – and, without doubt, we can be certain the money goes somewhere.

There are five subspecies of markhor (Kashmir, Bukharan, Suleiman, Kabul and, of course, the Astor); over the past three years, Amistoso has claimed all but two of these. Presumably, he will return to the sub-Himalayan region as soon as he can to nail those last trophies, including the highly endangered Bukharan. And, presumably, this will put him up there with Walter Palmer, the American dentist who killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015. (Cecil was lured from the safety of a national park and shot with a bow and arrow; some reports say he took 40 hours to die.) Perhaps Amistoso will even get to rub shoulders with Trump’s sons Donald and Eric, who have been pictured proudly exhibiting their latest kills, including leopard, elephant and waterbuck.

Last October, controversy raged after American “celebrity huntress” Larysa Switlyk tweeted news of her latest escapades, hunting “beautiful wild goat” in Scotland. “Such a fun hunt!” she declared. “They live on the edge of the cliffs… and know how to hide well… Made a perfect 200-yard shot and dropped him.” What struck me most was the use of the word “beautiful”, often employed by pleasure hunters to emphasise their affinity with, and respect for, their quarry. I have to confess that, whenever I hear it, I immediately recall the Ellen DeGeneres skit in which she asks people “why they have deer heads on their walls. They always say because it’s such a beautiful animal. There you go. I think my mother is attractive, but I have photographs of her.” 

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Of course, there are people in this world who still hunt to live. For them, the hunt poses real risks and is so much a part of daily life that it is central to the culture. We are constantly told that without recreational hunters there would be no wildlife conservation, but no amount of PR can disguise how different subsistence hunting is from its more leisurely cousin.

As Donald Jr and Eric show off their latest trophy kill, all I feel is grief for an animal slaughtered for no good reason by a pair of well-togged-out but highly inferior creatures. The Palmers, the Amistosos and the Trumps should not be treated as hunters, but as figures of ridicule. As Ogden Nash says:

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The hunter crouches in his                            
’Neath camouflage of every                           
And conjures up a quacking                            
To lend allure to his decoys
This grown-up man, with pluck and luck
is hoping to outwit a duck.

This article appears in the 30 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail