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Trophy Hunting

© VIER PFOTEN | Andreas Schultz

Every year, hunters from Europe and the United States travel to Africa to participate in “trophy hunting,” the act in which hunters bring home dead animals to display as trophies and souvenirs on their walls. Most of the "Big 5" – elephants, lions, rhinoceros, buffalo, and leopards – can be hunted in Africa…for the right price.


For bragging rights, trophy hunters seek to kill the most impressive animals in the group, namely the largest breeding-size males. Bull elephants with the biggest tusks and large lions with dark manes like Cecil are the preferred targets. These animals’ deaths create a severe disruption in the social structure and survival of the group, along with the loss of genetic material that's vital to the healthy continuation of the species. As threatened and endangered species, the survival of these individual animals matters. Further, the decline in large mammals, like elephants, and in top carnivores, like lions and wolves, affects ecosystems and climates, hurting the health of the planet we depend on.


In a display of power and status, trophy hunters do not need to be skilled, knowledgeable, or experienced to catch and kill a big trophy animal – they just need the financial means to pay for it. Hunting outfitters provide the equipment, supplies, logistics, accommodations, and trained guides needed for a kill. The kill can be made even easier by using bait to lure animals into the open (as was done with Cecil) or dogs to corner and chase an animal to exhaustion. An easy kill for the hunter does not mean a quick kill for the animal – this was seen with Cecil in 2015. Cecil was lured out of a protected park in Zimbabwe with the bait of an elephant carcass placed outside the park, and shot with a bow and arrow by American hunter Walter Palmer. Investigations of the incident revealed Cecil died a slow and agonizing death that lasted over 10 hours before he was shot and killed; he had desperately tried to flee where he was shot, but made it less than a quarter of a mile from the site. Hunted animals are often left wounded and in severe pain before the final shot.


For years, FOUR PAWS has been fighting a particularly gruesome form of trophy hunting called canned hunting, where an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 lions are born and raised on over 200 breeding farms across South Africa. Popular with U.S. and European hunters, the only purpose for these captive-bred lions is to be shot and sold as trophies for paying customers. Habituated to humans, the lions are released into fenced enclosures with no chance of escape. Sometimes the animals are drugged or sedated to further guarantee a kill for the hunter. As an expensive sport, canned hunts are viewed as cheaper and less time-consuming than traditional trophy hunts, adding more "bang to your buck" for the busy traveling hunter.


Illusion of Conservation

Supporters of trophy hunting, and even canned hunting, proclaim their activities support conservation. Yet, despite the extravagant fees hunters pay to bring home a prized trophy – hunts can range from $24,000 to over $71,000 for an African lion, there is no legitimate evidence that any trophy hunting dollars trickle down past unstable governments or corrupt officials to create viable conservation efforts on the ground. Even without corruption, studies have shown that the amount of money generated by trophy hunting pales in comparison to the amount of money brought into countries through tourism and wildlife watching.


Pro-trophy hunting organizations, such as Safari Club International (SCI), Dallas Safari Club (DSC), and the National Rifle Association (NRA), have long used their wealth, power, and privilege to lobby for more hunting rights and less regulations or restrictions on trophy imports. Under the Trump Administration, their influence over the government has reached new heights with the U.S. Department of the Interior's (DOI) establishment of an advisory council focused solely on promoting the "economic benefits that result from U.S. citizens traveling to foreign nations to engage in hunting." Almost every member of this new council, called the International Wildlife Conservation Council, is either a hunter with a vested interest in trophy hunting or represents pro-trophy hunting organizations like SCI and the NRA. All support trophy hunting in Africa and lack knowledge on true wildlife conservation efforts and the poaching crisis happening in Africa. Notably absent from this council are biologists and economists, individuals who would provide critical input on the biological sustainability of trophy hunting and its relationship to conservation efforts.


In analyzing the benefits of trophy hunting to conservation, especially for species in Africa, a 2016 investigative report by staff within the House Committee of Natural Resources found that "In many cases, the laws, institutions, and capacity necessary to make trophy hunting benefit conservation are lacking." Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has acknowledged that poorly managed trophy hunting can undermine conservation efforts. Cases of this have been seen with both the African lion and African elephant, among other endangered and threatened species. Given the various trophy hunting restrictions and bans (of lion hunting at various times throughout the past several decades in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and elsewhere; restrictions on imports of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania into the U.S.; bans on trophy hunting in Kenya and Botswana; restrictions on leopard trophy imports from South Africa) there is clear evidence that trophy hunting can be devastating to wildlife.


U.S. Trophy Imports

The U.S. remains the largest importer of animal trophies. Although African elephants and lions are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), FWS decided to remove import bans for both species in 2017, allowing elephant and lion trophies to come into the U.S. from countries that were previously deemed unable to properly protect those species. Interestingly, it was SCI and not FWS that was the first to announce the lifting of the ban on elephant trophy imports; this is because the DOI, which oversees FWS, had informed SCI of its decision first, not the American public.


In today’s world, the continuing decline of African elephant and lion populations warrant the need for more protection, not less. According to the Great Elephant Census project, elephants in Zimbabwe have declined six percent over recent years. In Zambia, elephant numbers have declined from 200,000 in 1972 to a little more than 21,000 last year. In the past 20 years, the African lion population has decreased 42 percent, leaving less than 20,000 lions remaining in the wild today. Instead of positively enhancing the survival of these species as required under the ESA, the continued hunting and poaching of African elephants and lions in these countries has been devastating to those populations, and the U.S. should not be a contributing factor to the loss of these amazing species.  The singular focus on such a controversial and poorly-managed activity as trophy hunting ignores the complexity of wildlife conservation and hurts conservation efforts that truly improve wildlife populations, protect individual animals, and benefit the communities that live around wildlife habitats.


FOUR PAWS believes trophy hunting is an unacceptable use of natural resources and is highly offensive to the global human populations. In fact, 86% of Americans oppose hunting big game and 56% oppose hunting animals for sport altogether.  After the media backlash towards the American that shot Cecil the lion and the recent public outrage regarding elephant trophy imports, it is clear that most Americans do not support trophy hunting.


Soon after the 2017 announcement, President Trump called trophy hunting a “horror show” and postponed the reversal of the import ban. Unfortunately, this stand didn't last. The decision to lift the import ban on African elephant and lion trophies was announced quietly in a memorandum by FWS on March 1, 2018. Now, instead of placing a country-wide ban on trophy imports, like FWS did in 2014 against all elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe, bans on countries (like Zimbabwe and Zambia) have been removed and all permits submitted by hunters to import trophies will be reviewed by the agency on a “case by case basis.” A lack of transparency surrounds this ruling and exactly how the permits are to be merited remains deliberately vague.


Take Action

With African wildlife in peril, the use of trophy hunting as a means for conservation only worsens the situation. Join us in asking DOI Secretary Zinke and FWS Deputy Director Sheehan to ban trophy hunting imports for African elephants and lions, and focus on more responsible and sustainable wildlife conservation activities.


Sign our petition today!



International Wildlife Conservation Council


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Memorandum on the Withdrawal of certain findings for ESA listed species taken as sport-hunted trophies


Official comments submitted by FOUR PAWS to FWS regarding the creation of the IWCC