Is canned hunting the answer?
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 demanded shorter hunt times and an assured kill, for which they were prepared to pay top dollar. In South Africa, a solution was to farm lions like cattle.
There are no completely trusted sources on the numbers of lions in captivity in South Africa. The reason is that not everyone who breeds predators is obliged to be a member of the South African Predator Association (SAPA) and not everyone that is a member provides reliable or updated stats.
Provincial governments, which ought to have some sort of record, don't and they seem to rely on the figures from SAPA and hunting bodies. It's head, Pieter Potgieter, estimates the number of captive predators between 6,000 and 8,000. Most of these, around 7,000 are lions - the others are tigers, cheetah, leopard, dogs and exotics held in around 200 facilities.
Over the past decade, however, 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 captive-bred 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 such hunting is no longer 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, it has led to a groundswell against all trophy hunting.
Australia recently banned the import of lion parts or trophies, airlines are refusing to transport them, Born Free USA called on concerned citizens to write to the US 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.
The question we're left with, apart from the psychology of these strange people who kill for pleasure, is whether trophy hunting is, in the broader sense of the word, sustainable. To answer that, it's necessary to get behind hunters' claims of preserving wilderness with money for trophies and public outrage at colonial-style killing safaris by rich white men.
Preserving wild lands for hunting is a way to maintain higher levels of biodiversity and, in certain situations and certain places, the damage caused by trophy hunting is limited, though this may change as populations decline. But, in pursuit of the Big One, hunters very often cheat, crippling sustainability of prey species.
Coming on top of human land encroachment and poaching in Africa, hunting for fun is becoming increasingly problematic. And we are left with a conundrum that needs to be at the center of any discussion about trophy hunting: outside of game parks, is the only way to sustain wildlife in Africa to allow rich foreign hunters to kill it?
Humans are in the process of bringing about the Earth's sixth extinction of life forms. From an African population of more than a million lions in the mid-19th century, there are maybe 20,000 left in the wild. Around 36,000 elephants are falling to rifle bullets each year and over 1,000 rhinos were poached in the species' heartland of Kruger Park last year. In the face of such declines, can we really afford to kill, for personal pleasure, even one of this planet's wild creatures?
* This includes biltong hunting as well as trophy hunting so we're not comparing like for like.