For some wealthy foreign visitors, it’s the ultimate African experience: hunting a lion. Now an American dentist’s killing of a celebrity lion in Zimbabwe has triggered global outcry, highlighting what critics say is an industry of trophy hunting that threatens vulnerable species across sub-Saharan Africa.
Hunting is banned in Kenya and Botswana, which depend heavily on income from tourists who flock to see wildlife on tours that often combine a sense of adventure with luxury lodging. Many more countries, including South Africa, Namibia and Tanzania, allow it, arguing that it benefits communities and funnels high-priced fees from hunters back into conservation. Opponents, however, warn that regulations are often poorly enforced or overlooked.
Such suspicions are swirling in Zimbabwe, where a professional hunter, Theo Bronkhorst, was charged Wednesday with failing to “prevent an unlawful hunt” while working for Minnesota resident Walter James Palmer, who killed Cecil, a well-known lion with a distinctive black mane, in early July.
Conservationists say that a dead animal was tied to a car to draw the lion out of a national park and that Palmer first wounded Cecil with a bow before fatally shooting him with a gun after 40 hours of tracking.
Palmer, who said he relied on his professional guides to ensure a legal hunt, has been vilified globally on social media and talk shows and has closed his dental practice for now.
“Cecil is not the first lion that has been lured,” said Ian Michler, a South African conservationist. “It goes on all the time.”
Michler, who made a documentary film called “Blood Lions” that came out this year, said nearly 1,000 lions that are bred in captivity in South Africa are fatally shot every year by trophy seekers for an average of about $20,000, and sometimes up to $50,000, in conditions that can hardly be described as sporting. There is also an increasing phenomenon of lion owners charging tourists, many from Europe but also Australia and the United States, to pet and cuddle cubs earmarked for trophy kills when they get older, he said.
South Africa maintains that its legal hunting industry adheres to international agreements and actually contributes to the welfare of species, including lion, elephant and rhino.
Hunting “is a source of much needed foreign exchange, job creation, community development and social upliftment,” Environment Minister Edna Molewa said in a July 23 statement.
Molewa said the industry in South Africa is valued at about $490 million annually, but some conservationists believe the figure is inflated to support the argument that hunting is good for the economy. In a 2013 report, a group called Economists at Large estimated that trophy hunting generates $200 million in African communities but said the figure should be used “with caution” and is a relatively small part of money earned from tourism.
Lions are designated as vulnerable on an international “red list” of species facing threats. By one estimate, fewer than 20,000 lions exist in the wild, a drop of about 40 percent in the past two decades. Another estimate puts the number at closer to 30,000. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has taken note of successful lion conservation in southern Africa, but said West African lions are critically endangered and that rapid population declines were also recorded in East Africa.
But the possibility of the lion’s disappearance has not stopped killing the animal for sport.
On its Web site, a group called Central African Wildlife Adventures offers hunts in Central African Republic, though it isn’t operating now because of the country’s political instability and violence. The Web site describes an almost mystical experience in which the hunter and the hunted lion are equals.
It says: “The last and final contact is usually done at close range, with the lion appearing from nowhere in the green foliage. Without a warning or a sound, the King of Beasts is suddenly there and the time has come for two of the most powerful predators on earth to meet.”