BUSINESS
07/31/2015 03:53 pm ET

The Economic Argument For Killing Cecil The Lion Doesn't Hold Up

Trophy hunts can mean big money for countries that allow them. But the cost to animal populations isn't worth it.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Internet's been in an uproar this week after news spread of the killing of Cecil the lion by an American dentist. Yelp reviewers called the man a murderer, locals set up a memorial outside his closed office in Bloomington, Minnesota, and officials in Zimbabwe, where the hunt took place, are calling for the man's extradition.

Walter Palmer, who paid around $55,000 to kill Cecil, may face poaching charges for shooting the lion with a crossbow after it was lured out of a protected national park. Palmer said in a statement to a local paper that he believed his hunt was legal. "I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt," he said.

Trophy hunts are lawful in many parts of Africa, including South Africa, Namibia and Tanzania, and buyers can shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to pursue wildlife. Zimbabwe makes around $20 million each year from the sport, or about 3.2 percent of its tourism revenue. An estimated 600 lions are killed legally every year by wealthy tourists. 

Some argue that the fees earned from regulated hunting can be pumped back into conservation efforts. Last year, the World Bank allocated $700,000 to Mozambique to promote sport hunting as part of a $40 million conservation fund. But populations of lions, as well as other highly prized game, are already suffering, as resources are depleted and natural habitats vanish. Many conservation advocates regard the sport as needless killing, with hunters valuing dead animals higher than live ones. 

“If you’re just giving money to kill an animal, it doesn’t make you a conservationist,” said Jeffrey Flocken, a regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “We don’t have to kill an animal to save it."

Some studies have found that only around 3 percent of the permit fees and hunting revenues go back to local communities. Instead, the profits are reaped largely by the national governments and foreign outfitters who arrange the hunts.

Nearly all of Africa's "big five" game animals -- elephant, black rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard -- are threatened in some way. Rarity seems to heighten the frenzy to hunt these creatures.

Black rhinos are endangered and currently number under 5,000; but that didn't stop a Texas hunter from paying $350,000 two months ago to kill one. Recently, studies found that ivory poachers had illegally slaughtered 100,000 African elephants in a span of three years, and that the population in the central region of the continent has more than halved in the last decade. There's been a 42 percent drop in lion numbers in the past two decades, and just 400 remain in West Africa. 

Conservation relies on sustained funding, and in some cases, hunting permits can help conservation, said Evan Hjerpe, director of the Boise, Idaho-based Conservation Economics Institute. But it can be difficult to track where the money goes.

“Trophy hunting can maximize the price of permits, but it can create conservation backlash,” Hjerpe said. “Hunters are targeting the largest and most beautiful species, and that may impede other strains of conservation funding. If certain funders don’t like that there’s a trophy hunt going on, they may withdraw funding for that program. It’s a sticky situation.”

There are other ways to balance economic interests with conservation efforts, activists note. Nature tourism, which offers visitors wildlife photography opportunities, can be significantly more profitable than poaching: One report found that an elephant brings in over $1.6 million in ecotourism revenue, compared to the $21,000 that its ivory might fetch on the black market.

In addition, most people find regulated sport hunts distasteful. A 2011 poll commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that 70 percent of Americans would pay to view a lion, while fewer than 7 percent would pay to kill a lion.

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