Educational Series: Trophy Hunting

On July 1, 2015 in Zimbabwe, the beloved lion, Cecil, was lured away from his lion sanctuary where he was maimed by a bow and arrow shot by Dr. Walter Palmer. After suffering for 11 hours, he was finally shot and killed by a rifle. He was skinned and decapitated for Dr. Palmer to take home as his latest trophy. The outrage poured in from around the world, with protesters lining up outside Dr. Palmer’s dentist practice, death threats made against him, and appeals to have him extradited to Zimbabwe for prosecution. In the time since then, the protests and outrage have quieted down, and he has been able to return to his normal life, returning to his dentistry business, and enjoying all life has to offer, such as his brand new $120,000 Porsche. This was not his first trophy hunt, not even his first lion trophy, and will most likely not be his last.

Cecil’s killing drew one of the biggest responses to wildlife conservation in history, and yet trophy hunting still remains one of the biggest revenue producers in countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, with South Africa having the biggest industry overall. These countries include all five of the “Big Five” trophy hunting animals, the African Elephant, African Buffalo, Black Rhino, Leopard, and the African Lion. These animals fall into the Big Five category due to the level of difficulty and danger to hunt, and the United States is the biggest importer of these trophies. Trophy hunting is a multi-billion dollar industry for these countries and some claim that it has become an integral part of society by employing thousands and providing a large boost for local tourism. The South African currency actually showcases a different Big Five animal on each of their rand banknotes.

Supporters of the trophy hunting industry claim that the sport helps support the conservation of the very animals they are hunting, but unfortunately, the statistics don’t back this theory up. The populations of these animals continue to decline, and the revenue generated from the hunts (hunters pay on average around $30,000- $50,000 per hunt) is not being put back into wildlife conservation. The conservation status of the African Lion and African Elephant are listed as vulnerable, the African Leopard is categorized as near threatened, and the Black Rhino is listed as critically endangered. Their populations are plummeting, and the trophy industry is not saving them. Even though these countries explicitly state that the funds raised through trophy hunting go towards wildlife conservation, due to government corruption and poorly managed wildlife conservation programs, little is being done to protect these animals from hunting and, more importantly, poaching.

While trophy hunting is proving not to be helpful to these wild animal populations, poaching is creating a more serious concern for the existence of these species. Rhinos are the most endangered species of the Big Five and very few now exist outside of national parks and reserves. Rhino poaching reached an all-time in 2014, increasing 9000% between 2007 and 2014. Traditional Chinese medicine believes rhino horn can treat everything from gout to rheumatism to “devil possession”. It is also believed to be an aphrodisiac. In Vietnam, people believe it can cure hangovers and help with terminal illnesses. All of this has been disproven, but the tradition and culture maintain their stronghold on people’s beliefs. Poachers are getting more sophisticated, making it harder to stop, often tranquilizing the rhinos and removing their horns while they sleep. The rhinos are then left to wake up suffering while they slowly die.

Elephant poaching has also proven to be hard to manage and is detrimental to their survival. Tens of thousands of elephants are poached every year for their ivory tusks, with China being the biggest consumer of ivory products. In the 1980’s an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed every year sparking an international trade ban in 1989. This ban allowed some populations to recover, but in recent years, there has been a new increase in poaching and illegal ivory trade as the demand for ivory products has increased in Asian countries. Weak anti-poaching law enforcement and government corruption has been mostly to blame.

African lions are commonly poisoned, especially now that toxic pesticides are readily available. The killing of lions was originally driven by human encroachment into lion habitats, but there now appears to be a rising local and Asian demand for lion claws, bones and other parts that are used in traditional medicine. Locals will add lethal pesticides to food as bait, or poison the animals drinking water. This poisoning of lions, as well as elephants, then leads to the death of thousands of other animals that drink the poisoned water or feed on the carcasses of poisoned animals. It has been shown to have a rippling effect throughout the animal kingdom.

While hunting the Big Five for trophies is not the main culprit for the decline of these species, it preys on animals that are already struggling to survive without providing any of the value they claim toward wildlife conservation. The trophy aspect makes these animals even more appealing to the hunting and consumer market, instead of protecting the animals and educating African communities and all consumers on the atrocities of their killings. While the trophy hunting industry is heavily regulated, there is no adequate oversight to anti-poaching programs, and because of that, the money raised through trophy hunting is not able to be put toward any conservation programs effectively.

Since Cecil’s death, there have been some positive changes to help protect these majestic creatures. Australia and France banned all lion trophies from being imported into their countries, and 40 airlines have banned the transportation of all Big Five animal trophies (one airline went in the other direction, South African Airways, which lifted its ban 10 days after Cecil’s death). Anti-poaching efforts appear to be working, albeit slowly, as the number of rhino deaths has showed a decline in the past few years. In April of this year, Kenya set fire to 105 tons of elephant ivory (ivory from 8,000 elephants that is worth around $105 million on the black market) and 1.35 tons of rhino horn (from around 340 rhinos worth about $67.5 million on the black market) in an attempt to kill the market for these products. A similar burn was performed in the 1990’s, and poaching showed a sharp decline for the following ten years with officials stating it was due to a lack of market. An elephant alive is worth 76 times more in tourism revenue than its ivory tusks are worth.

There are ways you can join the fight to protect these wonderful animals and their habitats. First and foremost, do not buy any products made from ivory or rhino horn. Support businesses and local tourism that has current bans in place for the import/export of ivory, horn and animal trophies. Get vocal with your government.

Recently, Donald Trump sought to reverse Obama’s restrictions on the importation of these products into the United States. However, thanks to a loud and thunderous response from activists (including many on this site!) Trump quickly reversed his stance. Petitions, organization and speaking out works. And finally, volunteer with nonprofits who are working day in and day out to spread awareness, educate local communities and are fighting to put an end to this barbaric practice of trophy hunting and illegal trade of animal body parts.

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