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The Vanishing

How trophy hunting is pushing lions to the brink of extinction

By Karen E. Lange

Photo illustration by Jennifer Beel/The HSUS.

A long time ago, when Stephen Slack was just 5 or 6, he went hunting with his father for pheasants and ducks in the Iowa countryside around their home. Back then it was not about trophies; it was not a single-minded pursuit of awards for killing animals. Instead, Slack remembers early mornings waiting in blinds—hours together in the out of doors. Years later, hunting is still his favorite way to spend his days, according to a Safari Club International video (he takes his grandson along now). “The camaraderie I felt with nature and my dad hooked me.”

When Slack turned 35, he moved to rural Minnesota from cities where he lived as a young adult, and started to hunt again. This time, though, it was in a manner and ona scale his father would not have recognized. Slack brought home trophy after trophy from animals he killed but did not eat. He went after each of the North American big game animals: bears, mountain lions, deer, elk, caribou, moose, bison, musk ox, American mountain goats, pronghorn antelope and wild sheep.

He joined SCI and booked the first of many hunting trips overseas, paying tens of thousands of dollars per hunt.

Killing one lion is not enough. It's killing and killing and killing, for no reason at all." —Teresa Telecky, HSI

On a trip to Spain with his daughter to hunt ibex, a type of mountain goat, he entered his first kill in the SCI record book. At her urging, he says, he decided to try for the organization’s top prize: the World Hunting Award. To get it, he would have to kill at least 250 animals across six continents—a process the organization compares on its website to a Boy Scout earning merit badges.

After Slack put the ibex in the record book, an obsession took hold. “[When] I found out I was close to the World Hunting Award ... it became a disease,” he says on a local TV program. “And it was like a countdown to try to collect the animals.” Once he retired from his job as a retail executive, he began spending up to six months a year pursuing his hobby.

In 2004, at age 52, Slack became the 31st recipient of the World Hunting Award (there are now 87). He received a gold and gemstone ring, like the kind given to NFL players who win the Super Bowl. He was honored at a glitzy ceremony with speeches and a video celebrating his character and hunting achievements.

Soon after, he established a tax-exempt museum near his Dalton, Minnesota, home to display all the animals he had killed. (The HSUS has since helped close an IRS loophole that allowed hunters to claim trophies donated to such institutions as tax deductions.) He calls it the Preserve the Tradition Museum of Natural History. Inside are the remains of more than 650 animals from 37 countries. The TV program featuring Slack shows the collection: On the walls, rows of heads—an African elephant with tusks, a rhino, a hippo, a Cape buffalo. Crowding the floors, full-body trophies of heads with skins stretched over foam—a polar bear, his face fixed in a perpetual snarl; a leopard displayed forever in mid-leap; a black-maned African lion whose mouth is parted as though he is about to roar.

The museum’s mission statement contains the word “conservation.” SCI says that’s what its members are all about: preserving species. It’s a standard justification given not only by SCI but by the Dallas Safari Club and by agencies and organizations that fund or advocate the practice, among them the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, the World Bank, the U.N. Development Programme, the World Wildlife Fund, and Fauna and Flora International. In theory, the money hunters pay to kill animals will help underwrite wildlife conservation.

  • Large, potentially dangerous, iconic, the “Big 5” top many trophy hunters’ lists for killing, even as the species’ populations decrease. Click the graphic to see all five. Jennifer Laumann/The HSUS

In theory. In practice, however, the “sport” hurts populations of threatened and endangered animals, encourages hunters and guides to break the law, engenders corruption and serves as a cover for poaching and other illegal activities. Rather than supporting conservation during a time of habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and poaching, trophy hunting undermines it.

“Hunting doesn’t save lions, it destroys them,” says documentary filmmaker and wildlife conservationist Dereck Joubert via email. Joubert has lived and worked for more than three decades in Botswana, where the government eventually banned trophy hunting. “We witnessed whole prides being wiped out, males shot first, then their cubs breeding with the females and ultimately [populations] collapsing under the weight of conflict and inbreeding. Hunters—I prefer to call them killers—broke the law on every safari, shooting more than their licenses [allowed], illegally from vehicles, etc.”

Whatever the stated goal, what really drives trophy hunters, including Slack and most of SCI’s 50,000 other members, appears to be the pursuit of animal heads and skins. Images in hunting magazines and on websites show one step in a complicated, expensive process: wealthy Westerners in khaki or camouflage posed triumphantly over big, dead animals in the African bush. Then comes the skinning, the taxidermy, the permits, the packing and the wait until the trophy is flown home.

Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who caused an uproar when he killed Cecil the lion in July, is an SCI member (the group suspended his membership but later reinstated it after Zimbabwe brought charges only against his guide). He was seeking a trophy—he cut off Cecil’s head and took his pelt. He seems to have been after an entry in the organization’s record book that would help him get the African “Big 5” award (for killing a lion, a southern white rhino, a cape buffalo, an elephant and a leopard).

In February, SCI is scheduled to hold its annual conference in Las Vegas. While thousands of hunters attend sessions such as “planning and designing your trophy room” and “your first African safari,” animal advocates around the world will be working to end trophy hunting. In November, France’s minister of ecology, sustainable development and energy announced that the country will no longer allow imports of lion trophies and urged the European Union to consider greater retrictions on imports of trophies from other species.

Cecil, here with a lioness, drew thousands to Zimbabwe's Hwange Park before a trophy hunter killed. Photo by Brent Stapelkamp.

The HSUS and Humane Society International have long pushed for an end to trophy hunting and are devoting additional resources to tackle the problem abroad and at home. The majority of big game trophy hunters are American. In 2014, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data, U.S. hunters imported the remains of more than 70,000 animals, including 741 African lions and 671 African elephants.

“They’re after the very species of animals who are suffering the most,” says Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife for HSI, adding that “killing one lion is not enough. It’s killing and killing and killing, for no reason at all.”

To stop the flow, The HSUS, HSI and other animal protection groups persuaded 45 airlines to create or confirm bans on carrying trophies after the Cecil controversy erupted last year. The HSUS and HSI are now seeking to expand that list, putting pressure on South African Airways as well as UPS and FedEx. (In response, the Dallas Safari Club and Texas trophy hunter Corey Knowlton, famous because he paid $350,000 to shoot an endangered black rhino in Namibia, are suing Delta.)

Even before Cecil’s killing, the HSUS and other groups were working to block a piece of the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act that would allow 41 American trophy hunters to import the skins and severed heads of polar bears they killed after a 2007 Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to list them as threatened but before the actual rule came out in 2008.

The HSUS and HSI are also working to ensure that the Fish and Wildlife Service strictly scrutinizes applications from hunters to import trophies of African lions and elephants. For example, each lion whose remains hunters want to import would have to be from a healthy population that is well managed. And they would have to show that the money they pay to hunt lions is spent in ways that benefit the species. In other words, they would have to prove that trophy hunting really does promote conservation.

  • Between 2005 and 2014, nearly a million animals were killed so American hunters could take home their heads and skins and other body parts. Most trophies were exported from southern Africa. Click to see the entire map. Jennifer Laumann/The HSUS

No one has tried to make those arguments for Cecil’s killing. Trophy hunters and the groups that represent them were quick to distance themselves from Palmer last summer, pointing out his hunt was illegal, essentially poaching. There was no “lion on quota”—no permission to shoot any lions—for the private land bordering Hwange National Park where Palmer, who reportedly paid $50,000 for the hunt, shot Cecil with an arrow, allowed him to suffer overnight, then finally killed him.

Apart from the location of Cecil’s killing, however, the rest of the hunt was legal. In Zimbabwe and other countries, if you have a license and permits, it’s legal to hunt lions, whose populations continent-wide have fallen by 73 percent during the past 35 years. It’s legal to hunt some wildlife with arrows, increasing the likelihood animals will be merely wounded rather than quickly killed. It’s legal to lure animals out of protected areas with bait, just as Cecil was baited with an elephant carcass. It’s legal to kill research animals like Cecil, who was wearing a radio transmitter collar. And for all Palmer’s professed regret that he killed a famous lion, it’s perfectly legal to kill named, much beloved animals.

Actually, it’s just those sorts of magnificent animals trophy hunters go for: black-maned lions like Cecil, who was Hwange’s star attraction, or the huge “tusker” elephant shot in October by a German tourist. Animals who might otherwise draw hundreds of thousands of ecotourists and millions of dollars over their lifetimes. Animals whose value alive exceeds anything wealthy hunters pay to kill them. That’s trophy hunting.

Trophy hunters usually select the biggest and the strongest male animals—not females, who are generally smaller, or the sick or weak or young, as nonhuman predators tend to do, according to studies that have looked at trophy hunting’s effects on wildlife. This upends the process of natural selection, in which the fittest survive to reproduce and pass on their genes, and throws off gender ratios. The studies found that in this way human “super predators” harm the health of animal populations.

  • A trophy hunter props up the head of a zebra he killed for the obligatory photo. Photo by The HSUS.

David Macdonald, head of the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) that tracked Cecil’s movements through his collar, says male lions regularly move out of Hwange National Park and are just as regularly killed by trophy hunters. Before 2006, the lion quota, or number hunters are allowed to kill per year in the vicinity of the park, stood at 60. After a 2006 to 2008 moratorium on trophy hunting, based on evidence from WildCRU scientists, the government lowered the quota to four to six. Macdonald believes this reduced level is sustainable. But illegal hunting almost certainly also goes on, he says, meaning too many lions are most likely being killed for the park’s population to remain stable or increase.

In Hwange, WildCRU studies how lions use the land and interact with humans in the hope this information can help preserve the species and benefit people who live alongside the animals. WildCRU created and funds a network of young men called the Long Shields, who alert communities to approaching lions. Because of this, livestock deaths have fallen 60 percent, reducing reprisal killings of lions. Against trophy hunters, though, the Long Shields are powerless.

One-third of Cecil’s territory extended beyond Hwange’s boundaries. About six months before his death, Macdonald says he saw the 13-year-old lion for the last time, headed toward private land. “I watched him wander toward the edge of the park [and] I’m saying, ‘Please, Cecil, turn around.’ ”

When he heard the news of Cecil’s death, Macdonald says he was deeply upset. However, he says he neither condemns nor condones trophy hunting. The evidence that it can contribute to conservation and economic development needs further analysis, he says. There’s a big debate among wildlife biologists over where and in what circumstances trophy hunting might help conserve species, says HSI’s Telecky.

It certainly does not help in Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, a prime destination for trophy hunters. There, Joubert, the filmmaker, saw corruption and poor management eat up money that was supposed to pay rangers’ salaries. Rangers begged for bullets to do their jobs but couldn’t say where theirgovernment-issued ammunition had gone. Poaching was out of control. Elephant numbers dropped from 120,000 in 1990 to 13,000 today, and other populations followed. Today, says Joubert, “the wildlife is near collapse.”

The career of University of Minnesota researcher Craig Packer, who spent years studying the effect of trophy hunting on Tanzania’s lions, bears this out. Packer found that the age of lions targeted by trophy hunters is crucial. If the lion killed is the father of cubs, another male will usually claim his territory and, in the process, kill the cubs. Rivalries between two or more males seeking to claim the position of the dead animal may further disrupt the social order of the pride, costing more lives. So Packer recommended that hunters target only males 6 years or older, who presumably would no longer hold the dominant position in a pride (though Cecil did).

But Packer’s recommendations were not followed in Tanzania, even after the parliament passed a law limiting trophy hunting to older lions. Instead, hunters continued to routinely shoot males who were just 2 or 3 years old. And in numbers that were too high—quotas were set to maximize revenues. Between 1993 and 2014, Tanzania lost 66 percent of its lions, according to a new assessment. When Packer tried to privately alert the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency employee publicly posted Packer’s email. Almost instantly Packer lost the reason he had been so quiet in his criticism: permission to do research in Tanzania. He now works in South Africa.

In neighboring Namibia, where the U.S. Agency for International Development has given $40 million to trophy hunting conservancies, Packer says the “sport” has helped lion populations increase in some carefully managed reserves. He says this is due to private land ownership and low levels of corruption. Telecky says it could also be due to the USAID subsidy and low population densities. Trophy hunting cannot be relied on to help conserve wildlife populations across the continent.

Packer says SCI members approach animals far differently than those of traditional U.S. hunting groups that actively preserve habitat for future generations. Their short-term attitude treats wildlife as a commodity for their own personal use, he says. In his book, Lions in the Balance, Packer tells of being called to the home of a wealthy U.S. trophy hunter who had killed at least 50 African lions. The man was frustrated by the Tanzanian age limit, which was preventing him from killing even more.

“It’s a deliberate masking; it’s a charade,” says Packer. “It is sick—it is totally sick.”

An HSI-funded study by Economists at Large looked at the claim that trophy hunting provides $200 million for conservation in Africa and found that on average hunting companies contribute just 3 percent of their revenues to local communities and that the industry overall accounts for less than 2 percent of the GDP of African countries that allow trophy hunting. In Tanzania, Packer says the per capita benefit to individual citizens has been insignificant: equivalent to the price of a single egg.

Not only Botswana, but also wildlife-rich Kenya, Rwanda and many other countries do not allow trophy hunting, funding conservation through ecotourism, Telecky says.

CAMPFIRE, a USAID-funded program administered, in part, by the World Wildlife Fund from 1989 to 2003, was supposed to protect animals in Zimbabwe by letting members of local communities manage wildlife and reap the benefits from trophy hunting. In reality, as an HSUS investigation helped reveal, only 5 cents of every dollar USAID reached local people.

Meanwhile, some communities were forced to move so their land could be used for hunting. And the program was cited as a reason for allowing exceptions to the global ban on ivory trade and an argument against threatened and endangered listings that would block the import of trophies to the U.S.

In Africa, revenue from trophy hunting and ecotourism is often expected to pay for wildlife protection, with little government or other outside funding for parks and reserves. But Packer says the two combined do not and cannot pay for conservation.

It's a charade. It's sick—it's totally sick." - Craig Packer, wildlife researcher

Last year, WildCRU was running out of money to continue its study on the Hwange lions, Macdonald says. The research will go on because of Cecil’s death, which drew 4.4 million visitors to the WildCRU website and inspired 13,000 of them, mostly Americans, to donate a million dollars in all. That’s what 10 trophy hunters would pay to kill a lion of Cecil’s majesty (the head of the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association said that normally people pay $100,000 to kill such an animal).

Just 20,000 African lions remain on the continent, mostly in southern regions, where human populations are less dense, according to the latest reports. As members of what may be the last generations to witness them roaming free in the wild, we must answer a question. Are we going to save the lion and other animals—preserve them alive, not just for the very rich to kill in reserves, but for all people to enjoy and, taking a step away from the human point of view, for themselves?

If the answer is yes, then we are going to have to support ecotourism, by taking photo safaris and encouraging wealthier nations to help African countries develop this sector of their economies. We are going to have to donate money from our own pockets. And we are going to have to abandon once and for all the flawed notion that it is necessary to kill animals from threatened species in order to save them. We are going to have to use Cecil’s death as a turning point. If not, someday soon, maybe while Slack’s grandson is still alive, those marvelous animals, those beautiful creatures will be gone from unfenced Africa. Future generations will have only taxidermists’ mounts, like the kind in Slack’s museum. And all the money in the world won’t bring back one real, live, wild lion.

Mountain lions are in danger in North America. Photo by Thomas Mangelsen/Minden Pictures.

Easy Targets

As carnivores rebound in the U.S., trophy hunters kill them

Trophy hunting takes place in North America as well as Africa, and it’s every bit as political and destructive here. Look at the mountain lion.

In the Pacific Northwest, trophy hunting is often presented as a way to “manage” mountain lion populations recovering after years of unregulated killing nearly wiped them out. Trophy hunters argue that renewed killing will reduce the number of mountain lions who harm livestock and prey on animals like elk and deer. But the science does not back this up. Robert Wielgus of Washington State University has found that increased trophy hunting in Washington state increases attacks on livestock, predation on protected species and conflicts with people. The response to his research? Wielgus and his graduate students have gotten death threats.

I am a predator—I enjoy hunting—but I don’t kill animals to put their heads on my wall. And the people who do that are not hunters; they’re pathological killers.” - Robert Wielgus, researcher

What Wielgus has discovered over 17 years of study, published in article after scholarly article, echoes Craig Packer’s findings about African lions: When a trophy hunter kills one mature male in an area, several teenage males will move in. The younger males are less experienced hunters and more likely to prey on livestock. Because there are more of them, they will also kill more elk. And, indirectly, they will cause female mountain lions to kill more rare mule deer and endangered mountain deer: Young males will kill the kittens of the dead males, causing females to move to areas where these deer live to have new litters and raise their young.

The dynamic holds for mountain lions elsewhere and for large, solitary carnivores overall, whether in North America or Africa, Wielgus says. Trophy hunting has a host of unintended effects, damaging ecosystems and destabilizing populations. “I am a predator—I enjoy hunting—but I don’t kill animals to put their heads on my wall,” he says. “And the people who do that are not hunters; they’re pathological killers.”

Despite mountain lions’ vulnerability, The HSUS has had to fight proposals to allow cougar hunts or increase quotas across many western states. “And for what?” says Wendy Keefover, HSUS carnivore protection manager. “For body parts. Trophy hunters use the head and the hide, and they throw away the rest.”

Find out whether your state allows the trophy hunting of native carnivores.

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