The recent worldwide uproar over the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe has put the spotlight on the “trophy hunting” industry in Africa.
Cecil, a resident of Hwange National Park, was killed on July 1 by Walter Palmer, a dentist from from Minnesota who paid US$54,000/GB£35,000 for the privilege.
Guides and rangers allegedly lured the 21-year-old male lion outside the park’s boundaries into an area in which “canned hunting” is allowed.
More than three weeks later the public learned of the death, and outrage erupted on Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and dozens of other internet and media outlets. Over the last few days millions have expressed their disgust that such a popular and beautiful animal could be killed for sport.
Will this recent focus on canned hunting reduce or end the practice, which has been popular in Africa since the days of colonial “white hunters”?
Thousands of animals are legally killed by professional hunters every year in Africa, with Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania being the top destinations for the activity. The practice is illegal in Kenya and Botswana.
The most common targets are the “Big Five”: elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalo, and leopards.
A 2013 study in the journal Public Library of Science estimated that 96 lions were hunted every year in Zimbabwe between 1996 and 2006.
Lion trophy hunts were banned temporarily banned there in 2005, but allowed again after 2008, with officials claiming that the country needed the money derived from hunters for the upkeep of parks and reserves.
Elsewhere in Africa, over 990 lions were killed for sport in Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique between 1999 and 2009, according to a study by Lion Aid.
Though large numbers of animals are legally hunted in Africa, organized crime syndicates cause far more animal deaths.
Poachers killed between 15 and 20 rhinos in Zimbabwe in 2014, 60 rhinos in 2013 and 84 in 2008.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that over half of the rhino population in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was lost to poaching between 2003 and 2005.
Elephants aren’t faring well in the country either. In July 2014 Zimbabwe requested that the U.S. rescind its ban on ivory imports, which will only endanger them more.
While poachers are come from all over the world and are funded by the worldwide demand for animal products, trophy hunters primarily come from the United States and pay between US$20,000 and $50,000 to do it.
“Americans are among the most bloodthirsty among citizens of the world when it comes to trophy hunting, in particular lions and elephants,” said Jeff Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare to the LA Times. “It’s a small group of privileged Americans. 80% or more of Americans want to see endangered species protected.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe acknowledged that U.S. citizens make up “a disproportionately large share of foreign hunters who book trophy hunts in Africa.” Reports cite figures between 65% and 70%.
The U.S is also the world’s largest importer of African lion parts. Between 1999 and 2008, U.S. citizens brought in 64% of lion parts exported from the continent, according to data from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
And these numbers are on the increase, both in terms of the share of hunters coming from the U.S., and the number of animals being hunted across Africa.
By one estimate, fewer than 20,000 lions exist in the wild, a drop of about 40 percent over the past two decades.
Canned hunting came under heavy fire even before Cecil’s death, particularly because of the documentary film Blood Lions.
The film brought awareness to the practice of breeding lions in South Africa for the sole purpose of hunting.
WildAid executive director Peter Knights said after Cecil’s death that the canned hunting industry has “ethical problems.”
“The industry needs to clean up its act, and it needs to be the first to condemn this action,” said Knights, to News 24.
Critics say that breeding lions for canned hunting serves no real purpose other than to make money for private reserves and guides, and helps to drive demand for trophy animals.
But officials like South Africa’s environment minister Edna Molewa disagree. Hunting “is a source of much needed foreign exchange, job creation, community development and social upliftment,” Molewa said in a July 23 statement.
According to Voice of America, South Africa’s big game hunting industry earns more than $744 million each year, and is responsible for the creation of 70,000 jobs. The money supposedly also goes towards conservation.
Some studies dispute these claim, finding that very few dollars trickle down to local communities or other parts of the economy outside of the tourism industry.
Critics also say that canned hunting causes animals to unnecessarily suffer, and is not exactly “sporting.” Animals are often herded by vehicles or even small planes to areas where it is easier for hunters to shoot them, then they are lured with bait until they are close enough to get a good shot.
This is what happened with Cecil, who was lured outside the boundaries of Hwange by strapping a dead animal carcass to a guide’s car. He was then shot with a bow and arrow but not killed right away. Trackers followed the injured Cecil for more than a day before Palmer ended the lion’s life with a gunshot.
Palmer claims he had no idea the animal was a beloved Hwange favorite, nor that he was a collared specimen who was part of an Oxford university research study.
He and other trophy hunters contend that trophy hunting, if done within accepted guidelines, actually helps control animal populations and, since it is done in a regulated environment, results in the deaths of far fewer animals than illegal poaching.
But at the moment, it seems that the tide of public opinion is trending toward the cessation of canned hunting, in no small part due to the power of social media and the emotional reactions of millions to the death of a beloved lion.
It remains up to governments, hunting enterprises and activists to hash out whether “sustainable” sport hunting has a future in Africa, or whether it’s a barbaric practice that needs to end.