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The Controversy Over Trophy Hunting in Africa

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A kudu bull is carefully posed for the hunter's selfie.

A kudu bull is carefully posed for the hunter's selfie.

Hunting Controversy

There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to humans killing wildlife; some people love doing it, and others find it abhorrent. In this article, we'll dig deeper into the controversy over hunting—specifically trophy game hunting on the African continent.

Cecil the Lion and Walter Palmer

In July 2015, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer became public enemy number one in the wildlife-preservation community. He and his hunter guides lured an old and beloved lion named Cecil out of the protection of the Zimbabwean game reserve in which the big cat lived.

Palmer, hiding in the branches of a tree, shot the animal with a crossbow bolt but only succeeded in wounding it. No doubt Cecil suffered until he was finished off almost two days later.

There was a ferocious backlash when images of a grinning Palmer kneeling beside his kill appeared on the internet. But Walter Palmer had done nothing illegal under Zimbabwe’s wildlife protection laws. He was simply using a system that thousands of other hunters use.

Possible Corruption in Africa’s Big Game Industry

Lions don’t come cheap; Walter Palmer paid a reported $54,000 for a permit to bag Cecil; travel and guiding costs were extra. The permit for a white rhinoceros is about $125,000. The critically endangered black rhinoceros sets the hunter back a good deal more. Texas hunter Corey Knowlton bid $350,000 to kill one of these animals in Namibia.

In theory, the money hunters pay for these permits goes to fund conservation efforts. But, in a country like Zimbabwe under the corrupt former dictator Robert Mugabe, who was in power when Palmer got his lion, what were the chances any of that money reached the game parks?

Mugabe had a fondness for hard currencies, such as American dollars, that could be diverted to certain banks noted for their discretion about where their depositor’s money came from.

A hunter poses for a selfie with a dead hippo.

A hunter poses for a selfie with a dead hippo.

The value of the big game hunting industry in Africa is murky. Africa Check says it’s worth about $200 million a year but adds that this estimate is based on a single credible account that came from the academic journal Biological Conservation in 2006.

Safari Club International is a pro-hunting group. It commissioned a study that found that trophy hunting in southern Africa pumps $426 million a year into local economies and supports 53,000 jobs.

Not so, says the Humane Society International. A study it commissioned found annual economic benefits of $132 million and job creation of about 11,000.

Depending on whose numbers you believe, the trophy-hunting business accounts for less than one percent of the gross domestic products of the countries that engage in it.

Theodore Roosevelt bags a rhinoceros in 1909.

Theodore Roosevelt bags a rhinoceros in 1909.

“The big beast stood like an uncouth statue, his hide black in the sunlight; he seemed what he was, a monster surviving over from the world's past, from the days when the beasts of the prime ran riot in their strength, before man grew so cunning of brain and hand as to master them."

— U.S. President and big-game hunter Theodore Roosevelt, writing about a rhinoceros he shot

Reasons for Trophy Hunting

Dr. Chris Darimont of Canada’s University of Victoria has studied the motivations behind big-game hunting. He believes it has a lot to do with status. A trophy hunter is signaling to his peers that he is happy to absorb the enormous cost of killing a leopard or elephant. This is fairly primal because “Status is universally important for men to ward off competition and attract mates.”

It’s questionable whether big game hunters dig deep into their own psyches to find their motivation. For those that are honest enough, they will say it gives them pleasure to bring down a dangerous wild animal. However, most trophy hunters say they shoot wildlife to conserve wildlife. That sounds like a bogus argument, but there is something to it.

A Cape buffalo becomes a trophy.

A Cape buffalo becomes a trophy.

Take the case of Corey Knowlton’s black rhinoceros. According to CNN, “The Namibian government said it allowed the killing of the bull rhino because the older male could have actually hurt younger males needed to repopulate the species.” So, taking out the old guy strengthened the gene pool of the remaining animals.

That might be the case with Knowlton’s black rhinoceros, but trophy hunters don’t want a worn-out old lion with a moth-eaten coat; they want the biggest, healthiest young males of a species. That weakens the gene pool.

Canned Hunting

There are commercial operations in which animals are bred to be killed; this is called canned hunting and is frowned upon by people who call themselves “real” hunters. Will Travers, President of the wildlife charity Born Free Foundation calls this hitting “the bottom of the barrel.”

Animals such as lions are raised in captivity and then released into an enclosed area so a “hunter” can make their kill. These businesses usually offer a guarantee that if you don’t kill what you want, you don’t pay. The trade is so lucrative that some farmers have given up raising cattle in order to switch to wildlife.

One such operation is Africa Hunt Lodge in South Africa, which offers a list of more than 50 species available for killing, from African Porcupines ($200) to zebras ($1,000). On top of that, hunters pay $345 a day for accommodation and guiding.

Rosie Cooney is with the International Union for Conservation of Nature. She told the BBC that “Southern Africa’s seen large-scale recoveries of wildlife in the 20th century, built around hunting.”

Opposition to Trophy Hunting

Those who find big-game hunting repugnant vastly outnumber those who engage in it. As the BBC puts it, “For some, there is a moral objection to the killing of animals for pleasure, for others an understandable emotional response to images of hunters posing with their kills or concerns over conservation.”

When news of a successful kill breaks, the hunter gets torn apart on social media. Just ask Corey Knowlton. His rhino hunt was filmed by a CNN crew, and as a result, Knowlton has faced lawsuits, online criticism, and death threats.

Comedian Ricky Gervais responded to the argument that Knowlton’s money and that of other trophy hunters helped conservation: “If they really wanted to do a good deed they would donate the money and not shoot the animal. They would be heroes then. As opposed to murdering scum.”

Bonus Factoids

  • The prized “Big Five” are the big-game trophies that are most sought after. They are lion, cape buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, and leopard.
  • According to NBC News, between 2000 and 2015, “1.2 million animals, including endangered and threatened wildlife, were killed abroad by American hunters.”
  • According to Born Free, an elephant is worth $1.6 million in revenue over its lifetime from photographic tourism as compared to a top price of $60,000 as a trophy at Africa Hunt Lodge.
  • Unbowed by the criticism over killing Cecil the lion, dentist Walter Palmer was in Mongolia in 2020, having paid $100,000 to kill an endangered Altai argali ram.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor