Beyond Cecil the Lion: Trophy-Hunting Industry in Africa Explained

PHOTO: This undated stock photo shows an elephant head with ivory tusks and other hunting trophies in a taxidermy store in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.Getty Images
This undated stock photo shows an elephant head with ivory tusks and other hunting trophies in a taxidermy store in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

The trophy hunting industry in Africa is receiving new attention as Zimbabwe officials are calling for the extradition of the American dentist who recently admitted to killing Cecil the lion, sparking worldwide outrage.

Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist, said in a statement earlier this week that he "deeply" regretted the pursuit of the early July hunt in Zimbabwe that "resulted in the taking of this lion." He added that he "had no idea" Cecil the lion was a "known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study."

"I hired several professional guides and they secured all proper permits," Palmer said in his statement. "To my knowledge, everything about this trip was legal and properly handled and conducted."

Though there is intense interest in Cecil's killing in particular, wildlife and conservation officials say hundreds of lions and other big-game animals -- some of them endangered -- are hunted, killed and brought back as trophies to the U.S. every year.

Trophy hunting expert Peter LaFontaine, who works as a campaigns officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), spoke to ABC News to explain the basics of trophy hunting and the ongoing controversies about the industry beyond the killing of Cecil the lion.

What is trophy hunting?

Trophy hunting is the legal practice of selectively hunting wild game animals, usually larger animals and usually to take back home taxidermied parts of the animal such as the head or carcass for display as a "trophy," LaFontaine told ABC News. Poaching, on the other hand, is the illegal version of killing wild game.

"Trophy hunters usually bring back the skin, head, tusks or fur for display and to brag about to fellow hunting buddies," LaFontaine said.

Who goes trophy hunting?

"Trophy hunters are typically not going to be your average white-tailed deer hunter," LaFontaine said. "Most of the folks who do this are men from a wealthier subset. These are people who, for vacation, go to an African country and pay up to tens of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to kill a lion, rhino or elephant that they can bring back home."

PHOTO: In this undated photo provided by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Cecil the lion rests in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe.Wildlife Conservation Research Unit/AP Photo
In this undated photo provided by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Cecil the lion rests in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe.

LaFontaine added that trophy hunting is controversial for the way some believe it repeats systems of colonialism.

"When the government tells a local man in Chad that he can't hunt but then allows a rich, white hunter from Texas to hunt, it's a really terrible message to send," he said. "It's colonialistic and sends mixed signals to locals who see hunting is OK when a rich, white guy does it but not OK when a local does it."

How much does trophy hunting typically cost?

Costs, which can include fees for permits, guides, equipment and travel widely vary but can go up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the animal a hunter wants to kill, according to LaFontaine.

A $350,000 permit to hunt a rare black rhino was sold last December, international hunting organization Dallas Safari Club announced, adding that the permit was sold on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Namibia in full compliance with CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protocols.

African Sky Hunting, a company that offers more typical safari hunting packages, sells 10-day elephant hunting packages in Zimbabwe for $14,600 for one hunter and $3,800 for each person who wants to observe the hunt.

Where do most hunters go for big-game?

Because larger game animals like elephants have been mostly "hunted out in northern African countries," LaFontaine said southern and eastern African countries, including Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia are popular destinations for trophy hunters.

He added that most hunters go on game parks on private land, or on game reserves designated by the government of the country in which one goes hunting.

PHOTO: Professional hunters react during a hunt for game at the Iwamanzi Game Reserve in Koster, in the North West Province, June 6, 2015.Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Professional hunters react during a hunt for game at the Iwamanzi Game Reserve in Koster, in the North West Province, June 6, 2015.

What animals are most popularly hunted?

African Sky Hunting offers packages for buffalo, elephants, lions, crocodiles and hippos, which are all popular large game for trophy hunters, according to LaFontaine, who added that white rhinos are also a popularly hunted animal.

What is the typical process one goes through to be able to trophy hunt?

"Typically, you would have to hire a guide who would be very familiar with the park or reserve you're hunting in," Lafontaine said. "They usually work with outfitters or you can hire an outfitter yourself, and they supply things like tents, the jeep you go out in and the equipment you need."

"You also need to get a permit from CITES, which is an international treaty that governs international trade of wildlife, to export the animal you want to bring back home," he said, adding that most outfitters and safari hunting companies are "full-service operations" that help with the paperwork for obtaining permits.

"To bring back certain animals to the U.S., you also need a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service" LaFontaine said. "Unfortunately, lions are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, so you don't need a special permit to bring back lions."

How many animals are hunted every year?

Hundreds of large animals including lions, elephants and rhinos are hunted in African countries every year, LaFontaine said, adding that CITES keeps a database of permits given out to trophy hunters. However, he said he believes the numbers are a low estimate because of the poor record-keeping some countries have.

Between 2009 and 2013, parts of over 1,962 captive-bred African lions were imported to the U.S., according to a legal brief filed by the IFAW, along with other animal welfare organizations, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service and obtained by ABC News.

PHOTO: This photo taken between 1920-1930 shows hunting trophies in Sudan, Africa. UIG via Getty Images
This photo taken between 1920-1930 shows hunting trophies in Sudan, Africa.

Between 2003 and 2013, 15,518 African elephants were imported as sport-hunted trophies globally, and the U.S. accounted for about 7,500 of the trophies, according to the same brief.

The number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish across the globe is, on average, about half the size it was 40 years ago, according to a report released by the World Wildlife Fund last October.

Exploitation, including hunting and fishing, was the biggest contributor to the drastic population decrease, the report said, describing hunting and fishing as “intentionally for food or sport, or accidentally, for example as bycatch."

The big hunting-conservation debate

Though many conservationists and wildlife advocates are calling for more limitations to be put on trophy hunting, especially the hunting of endangered species like lions, hunting advocates argue that the revenue the industry generates promotes conservation and the recovery of endangered species.

International hunting organization Dallas Safari Club (DSC) recently announced that in the past five years, "DSC has granted more than $5 million for various conservation, education and hunter advocacy efforts worldwide," much of which was "awarded for lion research and conservation initiatives."

DSC added that it was a financial supporter of lion conservation efforts by Oxford University, which was responsible for collaring and studying Cecil the Lion in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

"In 2013-14, DSC awarded $20,000 in grants to Oxford [University] for lion initiatives in and around Ruaha National Park in Tanzania," the group said.

However, LaFontaine said that many wildlife advocates believe money generated by the trophy hunting industry doesn't actually go into the right hands.

"What happens in practice, most of the time, that money goes straight to corrupt government officials or outfitters and doesn’t actually wind up back in hands of local community where hunting goes on, and they then aren't incentivized to protect wildlife and conservation areas," he said.