Lion killing exposes dark side to African big-game hunting

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Cecil the lion was killed by an American hunter in Zimbabwe, sparking outrage on social media and in the press.
Cecil the lion was killed by an American hunter in Zimbabwe, sparking outrage on social media and in the press. Photo Credit: Dr. Andy Loveridge

For anyone who thought that trophy hunting safaris were as passe as old Tarzan movies, this week’s news that a U.S. dentist had paid $50,000 to hunt and kill what turned out to be a prized Zimbabwean lion named Cecil served as a reminder that big-game hunting remains a popular activity among some affluent visitors to sub-Saharan Africa.

Most people who take safaris today pay thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars for a chance to see Africa’s renowned wildlife thriving in their natural habitats.

But the killing of a lion that had been tracked by researchers since 2008 and was providing crucial information for conservation efforts has drawn attention to the fact that the trophy safari never went away.

“It has been going on for a long, long time, and only occasionally does the activity come under scrutiny,” said Anne Bellamy, president of Great Safaris, an operator that is not involved in trophy hunting. “Driving around the countryside in southern Africa, you don’t see signs saying, ‘Hunting concession, next right.’ Yet, we all know these hunting farms abound.”

For traditional safari outfits and Africa specialists, the fact that big-game hunting is still going on doesn’t appeal to the animal lovers they bring to the continent.

Darrell Wade, CEO of Intrepid Travel, said, “Apart from being a bit sick, in my view, it also doesn’t do great things for the image of Africa that it is even allowed.”

Indeed, big game hunting in Africa is illegal in some countries, such as Kenya and Botswana, but not in others. According to LionAid, a nonprofit dedicated to raising funds to support lion research, Cecil was shot outside a national park in a private hunting concession, which is legal. But the group also said the kill will likely be ruled illegal because Cecil was shot in an area that had not been assigned a lion quota.

“As for the argument that live animals are worth more to the economy in Africa than dead ones, it is simply not true.” — Mick Jameson, Wild Africa Hunting Safaris

Cecil’s killing comes at a time when there appears to be a groundswell of attention being placed on the various threats facing animal populations, including environmental hazards, poaching and hunting. Discussions abound about how and whether to tackle the challenges. Tourism often plays an important part in the conversation because of the significant role it plays in the economic argument that animals can be worth more alive than they are dead. 

“Trophy hunting has dropped off every year as tourism has replaced that segment of income,” said Joan Embery, a wildlife conservation advocate who will be hosting a Tanzania trip with International Expeditions next year. “Some countries, such as Kenya, outlaw trophy hunting. Some still rely on the income, which can be substantial.”

On the other hand, the proprietors of hunting safari companies say that critics fail to acknowledge the important role revenue plays in helping to support African economies.

“As for the argument that live animals are worth more to the economy in Africa than dead ones, it is simply not true,” said Mick Jameson of Wild Africa Hunting Safaris. “Have you ever heard of someone paying $60,000 to take a picture of an elephant, or $20,000 to take a picture of a lion? I took over 650 pictures on my hunt last September. I took home eight trophies and left $20,000 in the country.”

Other proponents of trophy safaris argue that hunting helps control certain animal populations and that indigenous communities have traditionally hunted big game for food and other resources.

But this week’s outpouring of grief for Cecil and the public shaming of the lion’s killers on social media suggested that public opinion increasingly favors further controls and a tightening of restrictions on hunting practices.

Those in support of clamping down on trophy safaris said they hoped that while Cecil’s death was tragic, it has also placed a spotlight on the issue, which could become a catalyst for change.

“We are now encouraging our clients and colleagues to sign the online petition that will fast-track the listing of the African lion under the Endangered Species Act,” said Great Safaris’ Bellamy.

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