On the first day of a trip to Zimbabwe, in 2008, at the height of Robert Mugabe’s campaign of land seizures, directed at his country’s minority population of white farmers, I met an American hunter. A friend and I had driven up from Johannesburg, and entered the country by crossing the Limpopo River that afternoon. We planned to spend the night in a lodge in a wildlife preserve a few hours from the border. A hunting guide, the sort of man who used to be called a “white hunter,” lived nearby, and he and his client came to the lodge for dinner.
They looked exhausted, especially the American. They had spent the day hunting for hippo, and had begun before dawn. As they told it, they had lain in wait at a concealed spot on the shores of the Limpopo, but it wasn’t until mid-afternoon that the American, who called himself Dick, was able to make a shot. He had fired a single round with his rifle, a powerful .375-calibre elephant gun, into the brain of a good-sized bull. The shot had killed the hippo, and it had remained where it died, out in the middle of the river. They had spent the remaining daylight hours arranging with some men in a nearby community to retrieve the carcass for them the next morning. In return for their labours, the local men would be given the meat; the American would take the hide and the head.
Dick was dressed from head to foot in khaki hunting clothes. He had neatly combed brown hair and a clean-shaven face and a slightly overfed look. He wore a bush hat, one side of the brim turned stylishly upward. He also had a black eye; apparently, he had held his gun incorrectly, and when he fired it, the recoil had brought the stock violently back up into his face. When I asked Dick what he did for a living, he said that he was “in health care.” He wanted to have some gun cases made from the hippo’s hide, he said, but hadn’t resolved whether to have the head mounted, or just to keep the skull. His decision was a matter of space as well as cost. His trophy room was already quite full. He had hunted in Zimbabwe before, and on his last trip, had killed a nyala buck—quite rare—and had had it fully mounted. That had been expensive. Either way, Dick explained, he would have the hide salted and preserved in Zimbabwe. It would then be flown back to the United States, where it could be dealt with by his taxidermist, in Atlanta.
As we have learned in the past week, Cecil the lion, too, was duly ‘caped,’ or skinned, and beheaded by Walter Palmer, the dentist who shot him, and his entourage. As a result of the scandal, the business of trophy hunting, estimated to being worth some two hundred million dollars yearly to the African countries that allow it, has been under relentless international media scrutiny. There have already been consequences, with a slew of airline companies announcing they will henceforth no longer fly wildlife trophies; Delta, which has several direct flights between Africa and the United States, joined them on Monday. Zimbabwe has also, for the time being, banned the hunting of lions, leopards, and elephants in the vicinity of Hwange National Park, which had been Cecil’s home. The measure seems a cynical exercise in public relations by a government that has never cared for its wildlife patrimony. (Robin Wright has also written about Zimbabwe and the controversy over Cecil.)
In 1980, when Mugabe took office, Zimbabwe had the largest surviving population of black rhinos in Africa, with an estimated seventy-five hundred. Today, there are an estimated four hundred and fifty left. The elephant population has been plunging severely due to poaching, and is believed to have dropped by half, from eighty-four thousand to forty-seven thousand, between 2007 and 2012 alone. The number of lions in all of Africa, estimated at seventy-five thousand in 1980, is now believed to have dropped across the continent by more than half. There are about sixteen hundred lions in Zimbabwe today, and each year the government allows fifty to seventy of them to be killed by hunters like Palmer.
We are, as we all know, in an age of extinction, but nowhere is this more true, in terms of iconic mammals, than in Africa. A few days after Cecil was killed, the death in captivity of a northern white rhino was announced; there are now only four known to be in existence. Photographs are periodically published showing these last few magnificent beasts huddled together, surrounded by a protective posse of men with guns, a cruel reminder that it is, after all, men with guns who have killed them off. Within four or five years, no doubt, they will all be gone.
Last week, fifteen elephants were found dead in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park, butchered by poachers for their ivory. The conservation groups studying poaching trends in Africa concur that the scale of elephant and rhino poaching in Africa has to do with the “Asian market”—principally the Chinese ivory trade. Africa’s small population of forest elephants is dwindling especially rapidly because, by all accounts, their ‘pink ivory’ is especially prized by the Chinese. (Peter Canby wrote about forest elephants in the May 11, 2015, issue of the magazine.)
The lion has traditionally been less a source of alarm to wildlife-conservation groups, but in the last few years, in light of the startling drop in numbers, it is increasingly regarded as a threatened species. The decline is attributed mainly to human-population increases and dwindling natural habitats, which have led to them being viewed increasingly as problem animals by farmers and ranchers, who poison and shoot them. Sports hunters like Palmer represent only a part of the decrease in the lion population, but they do contribute to it. (The only country where the numbers aren’t falling is South Africa, where wildlife breeding and hunting is a well-managed big business, and the most sought-after trophy species, including lions, are bred for the purpose of eventually being killed. An estimated two hundred and sixty such lions are shot per year in South Africa. This form of hunting is called “canned hunting,” and generally looked down upon by purists, who prefer to stalk truly wild game in truly wild areas.)
The example of how hunting and wildlife conservation have gone hand in hand in the United States has long been cited by those making the case that hunting is the solution to the survival of African wildlife as well. That was the argument made by Corey Knowlton, the Texan hunter who paid three hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the privilege of killing a black rhino earlier this year in Namibia. But such arguments are hollow when one takes into consideration countries like Zimbabwe, ruled by an aged kleptocrat, or the Central Africa Republic, which is wracked by war.
Wars are culpable for much of the killing of wildlife in Africa. Soldiers kill for food to survive and for money—Kenyan elephant ivory is a key commodity for the extremist Somali militia that calls itself the Shabaab. Poverty and corruption also play a role in eroding protections for endangered wildlife. In Zimbabwe, the wholesale plunder of the nation has been officially sanctioned, and the effect on wildlife has been, in many ways, as devastating as a war. Corruption further erodes protection for endangered wildlife. Police officials, judges, and national-park rangers are often eager recipients of bribes, and represent a major part of the problem in Africa’s wildlife wars.
On a reporting trip I made to Angola, in 2000, twenty-five years into that country’s civil war, I saw a country that was once teeming in wildlife with little left in evidence. After the war ended, in 2002, Angola restocked its reserves, controversially, with captured elephants and other wild game from the breeding farms of South Africa. So did Mozambique, which similarly saw its wildlife decimated in its own long civil war. In Sudan’s wild Nuba Mountains, which are still a war zone, where I journeyed in 2012, the only wildlife I saw in two weeks were rats. Last year, I visited the Central African Republic, which has been undergoing a violent sectarian upheaval that led observers to fear that the country was sliding towards genocide. Waiting for my flight out, I noticed a group of Europeans in hunting gear who were also leaving the country, joking and comparing iPad photographs of their kills. Just outside the tiny terminal was a city seething with human misery; at the edge of the runway tens of thousands of people displaced by war lived in conditions of extreme hardship. The airport itself was only safe because it was guarded by French peacekeepers. And so on.
If, as so many hunters insist, African wildlife conservation depends on the continuation of lucrative hunting safaris, they might best stick to countries that are at peace, or which enjoy a semblance of rule of law. (The outfits operating in places like the C.A.R. and Zimbabwe might consider changing their offerings to photographic safaris rather than shoot-to-kill tours, at least for the duration of their country’s extended crises.) Otherwise, when wealthy foreigners make it a habit to fly into countries where the overwhelming reality is one of desperate poverty, official corruption, and rapidly declining wildlife populations due to poaching, war, or whatever else, then the killing of wildlife for trophies is more than unseemly. It is destructive. Some might even call it immoral.