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WP1: The cultural meaning of hunting

Contact: Ketil Skogen & Anke Fischer


Hunting is an extremely important mode of human-nature interaction. How people think about this interaction is closely linked to culture patterns and value systems. To address hunting merely as a relationship between humans and animals, and manage it accordingly, will miss essential dimensions of hunting as a social practice. In spite of this, hunting in modern societies has received limited attention from the social sciences. One of the objectives of HUNT has been to remedy this situation.

We have used qualitative methods (interviews, focus groups and observation) because we were investigating meaning in context, something which is difficult to do with quantitative methods, and because pre-existing knowledge was limited. We needed the flexibility and openness of qualitative methods to capture the unexpected and to probe cultural meaning with sufficient depth.We adopted a grounded approach in the sense that we did not presuppose a fixed theoretical framework.This has generated a number of analytical paths or “sub-projects” that are not easily summarized under a few headings. Because of this diversity we can only provide selected examples here.

We encourage interested readers to follow the website and refer to publications (see list below) as they are made available online.


Moralities of hunting



Talking about hunting often seems to mean talking about morality: much of the public debate over hunting revolves around perceptions of the moral acceptability of different types of and approaches to hunting. But what exactly is seen as moral and what is seen as a legitimate (or illegitimate) way of hunting?


Key findings

Based on interview material from Europe and Africa, we identified the attributes that are drawn on to legitimise hunting – or to undermine its legitimacy − including characteristics of the hunted animal, hunting techniques and approaches, and motivations. The latter factor in particular (i.e. ideas of legitimate and illegitimate motivations) seemed to underpin a large part of our informants’ discourses. We identified what may be termed a moral hierarchy, where motivations such as recreation and excitement are accepted by hunters and non-hunters, but only if the moral imperatives of meat consumption or responsible population control are fulfilled. Differing evaluations of hunting practices (e.g., between hunters and non-hunters) were often not due to fundamental disagreements on moral values, but lay in the question to what degree these were observed in real life.



We conclude that all ideas about the legitimacy of hunting are embedded in societal discourses, and should be interpreted in this context. Our analysis also suggests that there might be more overlap between the argumentations of hunters, non-hunters and even some animal rights activists than commonly thought. Recurrence to common, moral principles that capture a consensus on what constitutes legitimate hunting (and what does not) could be used as a starting point to manage disputes between hunters and other actors in wildlife management.


Hunting as stewardship



Debates over hunting also revolve around the issue of hunters’ relationships with wildlife and the land where they hunt. Do hunters merely seek excitement and recreation, or are they in fact responsible conservationists? We studied how hunters in Norway, Scotland, Croatia and Spain understand their role in nature, and how they relate to conservation.


Key findings

For many hunters, the idea the idea of caring for the wildlife and the land is crucial to their understanding of what hunting is about. The basic premise is that due to long-term human interactions with nature, nature also needs to be managed – not only for people’s sake, but to maintain ecosystems. This engagement with wild animals is thought of as part of a deeper unity with nature, which means being part of nature in physical sense. Hunters claim that if humans are to be part of nature, we must also engage with it (e.g. as predators), but also as caretakers or stewards.



The idea of hunters as stewards contributes to the moral justification of hunting and, importantly, underpins a symbolic appropriation of the land where hunting takes place. Despite differences, hunters and conservationists share many thoughts and values. The idea of stewardship that many hunters nourish, points to potential grounds for increased cooperation between the two groups and could provide a starting point for building a consensus that might also prove valuable for reconciling apparently conflicting moralities from a management viewpoint.


Bushmeat hunting in western Serengeti (Tanzania) and the Omo valley (Ethiopia)

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Illegal hunting is often addressed through increased law enforcement and the creation of monetary or material incentives. However, as well as formal rules, informal norms could also help reduce illegal hunting. We investigated the role of informal institutions and other cultural factors that shape bushmeat hunting in western Serengeti and in the Omo valley.


Key findings

In the recent past, clan-specific social norms worked as taboos and prohibited the hunting of certain species around Serengeti. However, these rules have been eroded: people are moving from a subsistence to a market economy, and cultural and ethnic groups are mixing. Traditional religious beliefs are being replaced by modern religious beliefs, such as Christianity, and traditional authorities are no longer respected. In Omo, our results indicated that hunting was important for establishing relationships between people, but did not appear to be relevant for developing relationships with nature or wildlife, or developing knowledge about the natural environment. This strong focus on social relations may contribute to the disappearance of hunting and its social functions, because it also leads to over-hunting.

Bushmeat hunting is usually described as an activity carried out by men. However, we learnt that women play an important role, both in Serengeti and in the Omo valley. Women play a strong indirect role by actively encouraging men to go hunting. For example, women in Serengeti are widely seen to prefer men who hunt as partners. Women encourage men to go hunting because (1) they prefer bushmeat over other food, (2) they use the cash obtained from selling bushmeat to purchase household items, and (3) because they prefer not to wait for or to rely on uncertain crop cultivation. Women in the Omo valley encourage hunting through a variety of (often ritualised) means. Due to its persistent cultural importance, hunting both contributes to and is encouraged by the definition of gender roles in Omo.



Informal institutions can be powerful tools to constrain bushmeat hunting, but are vulnerable to social change. As it may be impossible (or undesirable) to restore previously active norms, alternative social norms that are compatible with modern society should be encouraged. Conservation interventions should pay attention to those areas where hunting is currently limited due to social norms that are still in place. Interventions that aim to address bushmeat hunting should focus not only on men, but also take the role of women into account.



Further reading:

Lowassa, A., D. Tadie & A. Fischer (in press) On the role of women in bushmeat hunting – insights from Tanzania and Ethiopia. Journal of Rural Studies.


The role of women in natural resource use has been a recurrent theme in social scientific research, especially in relation to developing countries. In contrast to much of this literature which focuses on differences and tensions between female and male roles, we argue that the interplay between and complementarity of such gendered roles might be highly relevant in understanding contested resource use, but are often neglected. We explore here the role of women in illegal hunting, specifically bushmeat hunting in eastern Africa. Using qualitative data from two sites, lower Omo in Ethiopia and western Serengeti in Tanzania, we found that in both places women, while not actively hunting, played a strong role through a variety of verbal and non-verbal behaviours that motivated male hunting and discouraged their non-hunting. Hunting activities were highly gendered and driven by the interplay between male and female roles, which served to maintain these activities despite strong disincentives from legislation and conservation and development interventions. In contrast to the current literature on women and natural resource use, we thus found that gendered roles complemented and reinforced each other. We discuss implications for research on gender, environment and development, and for the design of conservation-oriented interventions.