How to save lions in Africa? Hunt them, conservationists say
Before the two hunters from Texas had breakfast, Stewart Dorrington drove through his 12,000-acre game ranch. As the early-morning sun cast a soft glow on the landscape, turned a wintry pale brown, buffalo wandered in the tall grass, and giraffes appeared in a cluster of trees.
Dorrington drove on, pointing to a blind where his American clients would wait for a target to shoot with their bows. He moved on, past a house rebuilt after a fire during his mother’s childhood, then a dam raised by his grandfather, memory and longing melting into the South African bushveld.
Then kudu antelopes sprinted across a clearing. Dorrington quickly turned to the business at hand.
“My trophy hunting price is $2,500” for a kudu, more than 10 times what he would sell one of the animals for meat, he said.
“You stop trophy hunting, the live market is going to change completely; it’ll go to meat value, really,” less than 60 cents a pound, he added. “So that will deprive the national parks and the provincial parks of a lot of their budget.”
Many scientists agree with him.
Despite intensifying calls to ban or restrict trophy hunting in Africa after the killing of a lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe, most conservation groups, wildlife management experts and African governments support the practice as a way to maintain wildlife. Hunting, they contend, is part of a complex economy that has so far proven to be the most effective method of conservation, not only in Africa but around the world as well.
While hunting is banned in government parks here in South Africa, animals inside their boundaries are routinely sold to game ranches when their populations are considered excessive, generating money to maintain habitats and fight poachers.
And because trophy hunting is legal in private game reserves, the animals end up fetching higher prices than they would in being killed for food or other reasons, conservationists contend. Lion hunts, one of the most lucrative forms of trophy hunting, bring in between $24,000 and $71,000 per outing on average across Africa, according to a 2012 study.
In southern Africa, the emergence of a regulated trophy hunting industry on private game ranches in the 1960s helped restore vast stretches of degraded habitats and revive certain species, like the southern white rhinoceros, which had been hunted almost to extinction, conservationists say.
A similar shift occurred in the United States decades earlier when the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 allocated the proceeds from hunting to bring back lands and animals, they argue.
“There’s only two places on the Earth where wildlife at a large scale has actually increased in the 20th century, and those are North America and southern Africa,” said Rosie Cooney, a zoologist who is the chairwoman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group. “Both of those models of conservation were built around hunting.”
Opposition to trophy hunting by animal rights groups grew after Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion who had been collared and tracked by researchers for years, was killed by an American dentist from Minnesota.
The Zimbabwean professional hunter who organized the hunt is scheduled to appear in court next month. Zimbabwe’s government, which has long had antagonistic relations with the West, has called for the American hunter’s extradition, and this week President Robert Mugabe blamed foreign “vandals” for the lion’s death.
As condemnation spread across social media, several airline carriers announced that they would stop transporting parts of certain animals killed in trophy hunts. The carriers included Delta, American and United, airlines headquartered in the United States, the biggest source by far of trophy hunters in Africa.
The governments of South Africa and Namibia, a country regarded as a model for hunting programs that benefit local communities, decried the moves.
“This will be the end of conservation in Namibia,” the country’s environment and tourism minister, Pohamba Shifeta, said last week, according to the Namibia Press Agency.
Animal rights groups say it is simply unethical to kill animals in the name of conservation. They contend - and most conservationists agree - that there are problems with trophy hunting. Proceeds from hunting are not always funneled into conservation efforts. Unlike those in Namibia, hunting programs elsewhere, including a long-existing one in Zimbabwe, fail to bring full benefits to local populations.
Trophy hunting is allowed in more than 20 African nations though the rules vary greatly. In many places, permits are sold to hunt specific animals, often ones past breeding age. Quotas are set to maintain the populations of certain species while the hunting of endangered ones, like the black rhinoceros, is illegal or severely restricted.
In South Africa, home to the biggest hunting industry on the continent, it is legal to hunt most big game animals inside private ranches, including the Big Five: lions, white rhinoceroses, elephants, leopards and buffaloes.
But some practices have drawn widespread criticism. In South Africa, animals are sometimes moved between game ranches to satisfy clients, a practice known as “put-and-take.” A more serious problem in recent years - the so-called canned hunting of lions bred in captivity - has hurt the reputation of South Africa’s hunting industry and split its members.
Despite trophy hunting’s problems, most conservationists believe the positives still outweigh the negatives. The reality in Africa, they say, is that most animals, including elephants, rhinos and lions, are not killed by trophy hunters.
Instead, they are killed by local residents for meat or in clashes as wild habitats shrink, Africa urbanizes and the continent’s population grows at the fastest pace in the world. But above all, the animals are illegally slaughtered by highly organized, heavily-armed poachers who sell ivory and organs, mostly to Chinese markets.
“Most of the illegal offtake results from illicit wildlife trafficking,” said Jimmiel Mandima, an ecologist and program director at the African Wildlife Foundation.
Mandima, who led the foundation’s efforts in his native Zimbabwe for nine years, described killings like the one that claimed Cecil as a “less frequent occurrence.”
“A lot of the professional hunters tend to follow very strict procedures on how they do their hunting,” he said, noting that the enforcement of trophy hunting regulations varies by country.
Animal rights groups hope to curb trophy hunting by pressuring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to classify lions as an endangered species, which would make it difficult for hunters to take lion trophies into the United States. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, the most comprehensive catalog of the world’s threatened species, ranks lions as “vulnerable,” below “endangered” and “critically endangered.”
Overhunting has decreased the number of lions in some areas, especially Tanzania, according to a 2012 study by researchers affiliated with universities and Panthera, a New York-based wild cat protection group. Still, the researchers concluded that overhunting was a smaller risk than a blanket ban.
One of the study’s authors, Vernon Booth, a Zimbabwe-based ecologist who has worked in wildlife management for 30 years in Africa, said lions were now protected because of the high value attached to them as trophies. Locals tolerate them because of the income that trickles down. Without the trophy hunt money, locals would increasingly poison lions, which are considered dangerous to people and livestock, he said.
“If there is a complete ban on lion hunting, the tolerance levels for lions would just plummet,” Booth said. “And in wild areas outside of the protected areas, lions would be exterminated, and very quickly.”
“Even though hunting may seem unpalatable to a lot of people around the world, it is actually very, very necessary,” he added.
For many, trophy hunting recalls some of the most unsavory aspects of Africa’s colonial past. A framed photograph in the dining hall of Dorrington’s game ranch here shows two white hunters towering over a black man holding their freshly-caught game. One of the white men rests his left hand on the black man’s head, as if petting him.
Trophy hunting is often difficult to detach from an era of unquestioned white privilege in Africa, Dorrington, 56, said.
“It’s something for the elites, the rich whites, to play on,” he said of game ranches. “And that’s one of the challenges, to get benefits from wildlife to the black population.”
Dorrington said his game ranch, less than 200 miles northwest of Johannesburg, employs 12 full-time black workers and donates to the local community and school. Like many cattle ranchers, Dorrington began transforming his land, which his great-grandfather secured in 1918, into a game ranch in the 1980s, specializing in bowhunting.
Dorrington spends a few months a year marketing in the United States, the source of 95 percent of his business. His customers spend an average of $7,000 per trip and kill between 120 and 140 animals a year, he said. After kudu, the most popular animals are impalas and warthogs, for which he charges $400 and $350 per animal.
All three animals are popular because they make attractive trophies, he said, explaining why the airline ban could hurt his business.
“You see that tsessebe?” he said, nodding at an antelope-like animal whose trophy price is $2,200. “They’re not a very pretty animal, but they’re rare. We’ve got too many of them. If I find a hunter that wants one, I’m very happy.”
--2015 New York Times News Service