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Cecil The Lion Slaying: Why Hunters Are Defending The African Lion Hunt

07/29/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/28/2016 05:59 EDT

A Minnesota dentist's killing of a popular Zimbabwe lion has not only sparked online outrage about the animal's death but prompted condemnation about the hunt itself.

Authorities allege that Walter Palmer, who is wanted on poaching charges, lured Cecil, a well-known and protected lion, from a protected area in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, and shot him with a crossbow in early July. Palmer allegedly tracked the injured lion for 40 hours before fatally shooting it with a gun.

cecil lion

Walter Palmer poses with a lion he killed (not Cecil). Credit: REX Shutterstock

Although Palmer's actions are under investigation, hunting lions is legal in the area. While two hunters who spoke to CBC News said they didn't know enough about Palmer's case to comment, they are defending the hunt as a way to preserve the lion population and as an economic benefit for the local villages.

"There's a saying in Africa: if it pays, it stays," said John Martins, owner of the Florida-based Discount African Hunts, a hunting broker company that specializes in African safaris.

With an ever-increasing African population, the chances of animal-to-human contact grows, meaning lions pose a threat to the local villagers and their precious cattle livestock.

'Not going to co-exist with those animals'

"Unless that village receives some compensation for the hunting of these animals, they don't have any value. And if they don't have any value they'll be gone. They'll kill them and eat them all.

"They'll either perceive them as a threat that are taking their wealth or killing their kids, or they're eating their food. So it's a threat. Unless there's compensation for that, they're not going to co-exist with those animals."

Hunters will pay anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000 US to hunt a lion. (Palmer reportedly spent $50,000 to hunt Cecil.) Although government corruption remains an issue, the money from the hunts is supposed to go, in part, to the local villagers and to the government for conservation efforts. A portion is also allocated to anti-poaching patrols.

"Most of that anti-poaching is funded by hunters and it's done by operators to protect their areas to make sure they have adequate number of animals to hunt," he said. "An operator doesn't go in and shoot all his animals or he won't have anything to hunt."

Quotas are set up by the government based on scientific research on sustainable usage, Martins said. Zimbabwe won't issue permits without conducting population studies, taking into account the number of lions they're seeing, and the number killed the previous year.

Martins suggested that much of the controversy comes from people who haven't been to Africa, haven't spent time in these remote villages and who don't understand the dynamics of the human/lion interactions.

"It's really the people of Africa and poachers that are going to be the final straw to these animals," he said. "Not the hunters."

Lion's share goes to community

Rob Dunham, an Edmonton-based professional outfitter and hunter whose trips include African lion hunts, agreed that the money raised by these hunts is a great economic benefit fo the local people and communities, many of whom own the permits.

"To excuse the pun, the lion's share often goes to the community," he said.

He said there are strict rules governing the hunt and that a government game scout must accompany a group every time their vehicle leaves camp.

As well, it is forbidden to kill a male lion if it's accompanied with a pride, as the next dominant male would then swoop in and kill off all the offspring. Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told CBC Radio's As It Happens that a lion will likely kill Cecil's six cubs.

Jeff Flocken, North American regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, blasted the hunting of lions, saying that just because it may be legal, doesn't make it right.

'Mounted on some wall'

Flocken questioned the economic rewards from the pricey hunts, saying that studies have found that only three to five per cent of the money being spent actually ends up on the ground. The revenue from hunting pales in comparison to the money that comes in from nature tourism — millions from hunts, but billions for nature tourism, Flocken said.

"And the nice thing about that is you can see those animals again, again and again. When you kill it, it ends up mounted on some wall back in Texas," he said.

He agreed that more non-lethal methods need to be devised to help communities deal with the threat of lions.

"But killing the lions is not the answer."

He said the lion population has declined 60 per cent over the last 30 years due to habitat loss, retaliatory killing and unsustainable trophy hunting. And he's been petitioning the U.S. to classify lions as an endangered species.

While there may be rules for hunting lions, the killing of Cecil shows there are ways to get around the system, he said.

"We are killing animals for sport that are endangered, that are threatened with extinction and it's just not necessary. It's 2015. Saying we have to kill an animal to save it doesn't make sense."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated the lion was killed by a crossbow. In fact, the lion was wounded by a crossbow, and killed with a rifle.

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