A long time ago, when Stephen Slack was just five or six, 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 on a 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.
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.
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 restrictions on imports of trophies from other species.
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.
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.
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.
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, the 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.