But trophy hunting today, especially of the so-called big five in Africa (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and Cape buffalo), brings with it a larger set of moral and financial questions. Roughly 18,000 trophy hunters who come to southern and eastern Africa each year contribute $436 million to the region’s GDP. The Humane Society International says the amount for that region is at most $132 million, or .03 percent of GDP.
The animals that roam Africa have become commodified, part of a new consumerism, marketed and sold, their brands pitted against each other, their continued existence now a question of human demand, whim, and calculation. Wild game is the continent’s version of crude oil—and it too will run out someday.
Africa once seemed to have “an inexhaustible supply of nature,” says American lion biologist Craig Packer, who has lived and worked on the continent for more than 40 years. But, he says, from 30,000 feet you would see that the habitats are shrinking. “Lions really are becoming more of an endangered species, and hunters should really not shoot these animals for sport unless they can provide positive evidence that they’re having a salutary effect on lion conservation.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which monitors animal populations, reports that the number of lions in five populations in Tanzania fell by two-thirds from 1993 to 2014.
Biologists make the same argument against the hunting of other big game, including elephants, whose numbers across the continent have fallen sharply in recent years.
Within the hunting community our hurry-up, have-it-all mentality—our ceaseless consumptive entitlement—has begun to manifest itself in troubling ways. Eschewing the time and cost of an African trophy hunt involving fair chase, some hunters have turned to canned hunting—the killing of often habituated animals in confined areas—baited hunting, herding animals with helicopters, or the shooting of their prey from the back of Land Cruisers. In Tanzania there have been reports of foreign hunters gunning down animals, including pregnant females, with AK-47s. In a hunting area called Loliondo that the government has leased long term to officials from the United Arab Emirates, local Maasai have reported transport jets leaving with game of all variety, dead and alive. Social scientists writing recently in the journal Biology Letters describe a kill-and-tell generation of hunters exhibiting “show-off behavior” by propagating their own kill shots on social media. In South Africa, which has some 2,000 wild lions, canned lion hunting has grown into a more than $100 million industry, with in excess of 200 facilities raising about 6,000 of the big cats for easy killing. The young lion cubs are taken from their mothers and brought to petting zoos. When male lions grow into adulthood, many are shot and killed for “hunting” fees that are much lower than the cost for a wild lion on a standard 21-day hunt ($5,000 to $15,000, versus $50,000 and up). And the trophy is virtually guaranteed.
Canned hunting has another deleterious effect. While hunters happily take the pelt and head, and the claws and teeth once were sold in the tourist shops of Nairobi and Zanzibar, today the bones are most in demand—shipped to Asia either to produce traditional medicines or to be repackaged as “tiger bone wine,” made from crushed bones and Chinese herbs and marketed to the upper class as a health tonic and aphrodisiac. This year South Africa authorized the export of up to 800 lion skeletons, and the worry among biologists, conservation groups, and animal-rights activists is that by legitimizing and allowing the trade, the country is spurring more demand for lion bones and more killing of the continent’s remaining 20,000 or so wild lions.
In the Selous Game Reserve ecosystem, a prized trophy hunting destination, aerial surveys estimate the elephant population at some 15,000, down from perhaps 50,000 as recently as 2009. “Why has the Selous been such a killing field?” says Katarzyna Nowak, a conservation scientist associated with the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, in South Africa. “If hunters are coming in from all around the world, and you’re really pumping money earned from trophies back into the Selous for conservation and antipoaching, where have all the elephants gone?”
A promotional video that surfaced in 2014 shows a hunting company, Green Mile Safari, guiding hunters from the United Arab Emirates on a disturbing shooting party. The minister of tourism and natural resources said the party violated a host of laws by, among other things, firing automatic weapons, hunting female and young animals, and allowing a minor to hunt. The government banned Green Mile from conducting hunts in Tanzania in 2014 but reissued the company’s license last year, leading to accusations of corruption. No arrests were made
“If we are not able to convince the majority of people that hunting is morally in order,” says Kai-Uwe Denker, a renowned professional hunter in Namibia, “there is no future for us.” In the face of bad publicity and bad behavior, some hunters have fallen back on an economic argument—that their presence in Africa provides jobs, that it’s a viable strategy for poverty alleviation. But Denker disagrees. “I see a very big danger in promoting only the financial side. Livelihoods, income generation, job creation—this is an additional thing. You cannot justify immoral things with money.”
Critics say that no country should be in the business of selling and profiting from dead animals. When coffers run low and funds are needed, they say, hunting quotas get raised without regard for the animals’ population numbers. And in those hunting areas where funds aren’t reinvested, there’s no wildlife left to hunt. That could explain how 40 percent of Tanzania’s designated hunting areas have been emptied of game animals during recent decades.
Craig Packer sees the conservation of African wildlife in practical terms: If hunters were shooting lions “for a million dollars and returning a million per lion directly into management, they would be on solid ground. But lions are shot for tens of thousands of dollars, and very little of that money goes back to conservation.” With two billion dollars a year we could save and protect the wildlife in Africa’s national parks, Packer says. But that would have to come from international partners such as the World Bank, eco-philanthropists, and nongovernmental organizations.