Hunters who travel to Africa to shoot big game had been keeping a low profile in the aftermath of global outrage provoked by the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe last year. Now they’re fighting back.
The conservation arm of Safari Club International, which suspended the membership of Bloomington dentist Walter Palmer for shooting Cecil, has published research that says trophy hunting contributes $426 million to eight mostly poor sub-Saharan African countries and employs 53,000 people.
United Airlines and Delta Air Lines banned transporting animal trophies, and tighter hunting rules were introduced after Palmer shot the 13-year-old male lion, who was part of an Oxford University conservation project, in July. Such restrictions threaten a vital source of income for one of the world’s poorest regions, according to SCI, home to the world’s largest collection of hunting records.
“There’s certainly some negative impacts that have been realized in the aftermath of that incident,” said Matthew Eckert, director of conservation at the Safari Club Foundation, SCI’s conservation arm, which funded the report.
Each year between 2012 and 2014 nearly 19,000 international hunters, mostly from the United States, visited the eight African countries studied in the report, spending on average two weeks and $26,000. Most of that spending is in remote rural areas where people have limited economic opportunities, it said.
“By providing jobs and income to local communities, hunting conveys a positive value to wildlife, which incentivizes communities to protect game species and the land they, and all wildlife species, depend upon,” the report said.
That’s not an argument that sits well with animal-rights organizations, which say hunting is too lightly controlled. In most of Africa, wild animals on government or community land are hunted mainly.
“When you hunt it’s supposed to be selective, but trophy hunters tend to just want the biggest trophies,” said Isabel Wentzel, a spokeswoman for the South Africa’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It’s a free-for-all.”
Hunting groups are coming under pressure from animal-rights activists to reform their practices after the slaying of Cecil, whose striking black mane was a popular tourist attraction, exposed the scale of Africa’s hunting industry. Palmer was forced to temporarily close his dental practice as demonstrators and news crews congregated at the Minnesota clinic.
After Cecil was killed, United and Delta joined a number of airlines including Emirates and Deutsche Lufthansa from stopping customers from transporting big-game hunting trophies as cargo. To import lion carcasses to the U.S., hunters must prove to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that hunting in the country of origin enhances populations.
“I hope that a single incident that was an international sensation and phenomenon driven by an emotional response doesn’t impact negatively a conservation mechanism of sustainable use,” Eckert said.