1. There is growing concern about the evolutionary consequences of human harvesting on phenotypic trait quality in wild populations. Undesirable consequences are especially likely with trophy hunting because of its strong bias for specific phenotypic trait values, such as large antlers in cervids and horns in bovids. Selective hunting can cause a decline in a trophy trait over time if it is heritable, thereby reducing the long-term sustainability of the activity itself.
2. How can we build a sustainable trophy hunting tradition without the negative trait-altering effects? We used an individual-based model to explore whether selective compensatory culling of ‘low quality’ individuals at an early life stage can facilitate sustainability, as suggested by information from managed game populations in eastern and central Europe. Our model was rooted in empirical data on red deer, where heritability of sexual ornaments has been confirmed and phenotypic quality can be assessed by antler size in individuals as young as 1 year.
3. Simulations showed that targeted culling of low-quality yearlings could counter the selective effects of trophy hunting on the distribution of the affected trait (e.g. antler or horn size) in prime-aged individuals. Assumptions of trait heritability and young-to-adult correlation were essential for compensation, but the model proved robust to various other assumptions and changes to input parameters. The simulation approach allowed us to verify responses as evolutionary changes in trait values rather than short-term consequences of altered age structure, density and viability selection.
4. We conclude that evolutionarily enlightened management may accommodate trophy hunting. This has far reaching implications as income from trophy hunting is often channelled into local conservation efforts and rural economies. As an essential follow-up, we recommend an analysis of the effects of trophy hunting in conjunction with compensatory culling on the phenotypic and underlying genetic variance of the trophy trait.