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Public outcry draws a bead on trophy hunting

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The death of Cecil the Hwange lion and a new documentary film have catalyzed a worldwide rethink on trophy hunting. By Don Pinnock

Deep in the ancient part of our brains is a memory of being hunted by lions. Both our species emerged in the crucible of the great East African savanna – they were lords of the plains and we were their prey. Weak and defenseless, we cooperated to survive, invented language, then writing and technology. We made weapons and reversed the equation: lions are now our prey.

Today, relentlessly, we are wreaking revenge on the predators of our past. In the mid-19th century there were more than a million lions in Africa; today there are around 20 000. According to National Geographic filmmaker Derek Joubert, the continent has lost 95% of its lions in the past 50 years. ‘It’s a bloodbath out there. It’s effecting the very fabric of this continent.’

In Africa, hunting on land owned or used by humans has always been seen as a right. African peasant farmers kill lions that threaten their livestock, young Masai men graduate to warriorhood by spearing a lion and commercial farmers hunt antelope for biltong and the pot. Until the beginning of the 20th century this was, to a degree, sustainable. But as land use increased and wilderness declined, the number of undomesticated animals began to plummet.

In the past 20 years, the commercialization of hunting has added a new dimension which, unfortunately, tends to bracket farmers bagging an impala for biltong with the likes of Walter Palmer, who lured Cecil the Lion out of Hwange National Park and shot him with a crossbow.

Although the killing led to a firestorm of international protest, Palmer was just one of an estimated 9 000 hunters who visit Southern Africa each year to kill animals. Quite unexpectedly, Cecil’s death sparked widespread distaste for all trophy hunting. Outspoken Kenyan environmental activist Paula Kahumbu has called it the most prevalent hangover of colonial oppression.

‘Trophy hunting is, and always has been, a rich white man’s sport,’ she writes. ‘Formerly, most hunters were from Europe. Now the balance of power has shifted and today 60 percent of all lions killed for sport in Africa are shipped to the USA as trophies.’

Lions have always topped the list of desirable prizes. As their population in the wild declined, the status of having a perfect lion to hang on the wall and brag about increased. Being mostly both rich and busy men, foreign hunters also demanded shorter hunt times and an assured kill, for which they were prepared to pay top dollar. How better to meet this demand than by farming lions like cattle and claiming it to be conservation?

Over the past decade there have been disturbing leaks about the conditions under which these so-called ‘canned lions’ are bred. A film just released, Blood Lions, reveals the shocking realities behind this burgeoning business. Possibly as a response, the president of South Africa’s Professional Hunters’ Association, Hermann Meyeridricks, sent an email to its members stating that PHASA’s position on lion hunting ‘is no longer tenable’. He says there has been little progress in getting the government and predator breeders to ‘clean up’ the industry.

He also acknowledges that opposition to the hunting of captive-bred lions is not restricted to ‘just a small if vociferous group of animal-rights activists’ but that ‘the tide of public opinion is turning strongly against this form of hunting.’

As a public relations exercise, captive-bred lion shooting (it can hardly be called hunting) has been a disaster. Added to the international fury about the killing of Cecil, a groundswell is rising against trophy hunting.

Australia recently banned the import of all lion parts or trophies, airlines are refusing to transport them, Born Free USA called on concerned citizens to write to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service urging them to stop all lion trophy imports and Europe’s Nordic Safari Club has removed all lion trophies hunted in South Africa from its official record books.

Following the killing of Cecil, the South African NSPCA expressed disgust at the ongoing cruelty involved in trophy hunting. ‘Conserving animals does not mean killing them!’ said the society’s manager of its Wildlife Protection Unit, Ainsley Hay.

‘How much of the money paid to kill Cecil went anywhere other than into the pockets of the professional hunter and the landowner? How on earth can it be claimed that this is conservation? We’re relieved that at last the public is seeing the truth behind it.’

Damian Aspinall, director of the Aspinall Foundation, called for an international agreement to outlaw big-game hunting. ‘Apologists claim that hunting has something to do with conservation,’ he said. ‘That is patently untrue.’

‘There is no ecological justification for trophy hunting,’ says Kahumbu. ‘Arguments can be made (but also disputed) in favour of hunting as a means of controlling populations of common animals such as deer. But trophy hunters are not interested in common animals. For them, the rarer the better. The ultimate, orgasmic experience for a trophy hunter would be to kill the last individual of a species.’

Blood Lions is the result of years of research by journalist and conservationist Ian Michler. He began investigating canned lion hunting in 1999 and, in 2014, assembled a film crew.

‘It’s just about breeding wildlife as intensively as they can to make as much money as they can,’ he says. ‘Canned hunting took place in South Africa because of private property laws. If I own the land I can do whatever I want to do behind the fence.

‘Hunters say they come to enjoy the experience of the wild, of being in the bush. Are they coming to shoot domestic animals? What kind of legacy is that?’

The owner of a predator sanctuary, Paul Hart, says the claim by lion breeders that they’re assisting conservation is false. ‘Captive-bred lions have absolutely no conservation value whatsoever. South Africa’s captive lion population is inbred and genetically tarnished. Reintroducing them into the wild would be disastrous.’

Eco-tourism consultant Colin Bell has questioned the economic value of the canned hunting industry. ‘The tourism industry in SA is worth about R95 billion a year,’ he says. ‘It’s a big chunk of our GDP. Of that the hunting industry is about 1.2 billion or 1.5%.

‘The canned lion industry is a portion of that – around R122 million. One in seven South Africans depend on the tourism industry to put food on their table. My concern is that the canned lion industry can potentially damage Brand SA in such a bad way. Why risk the livelihood of one in seven South Africans for the benefit of a few individuals?’

In Blood Lions, environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan takes the long view:

‘Nowhere in the universe have we found any life at all, let alone the incredible community that we’ve been born into. The fact that we choose to devastate it is a fundamental error. Stopping that will start with stopping things like canned lion hunting.’

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