It's worse than Walter Palmer and Cecil the Lion: Inside the sick, bizarre world of trophy hunting

When clients pay thousands to kill exotic species, guides face pressure to deliver the goods--even breaking the law

Published July 30, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

  (Screenshot, Youtube)
(Screenshot, Youtube)

Minnesota dentist and trophy hunter Walter Palmer ignited worldwide outrage after killing the beloved Zimbabwe lion named Cecil. Hundreds have left angry reviews of his dental practice on Yelp and a Care2 petition condemning his actions has racked up more than 200,000 signatures. Focusing this rage on Palmer overshadows the bizarre practices and unscrupulous conduct that are a big part of business as usual throughout the trophy hunting industry. When wealthy clients pay thousands to kill exotic species, professional hunting guides face enormous pressure to deliver the goods even if that means breaking the law. Trophy hunters maintain that they hunt for the benefit of nature, but when the interests of profit and animals collide, abuse is inevitable.

The practice of trophy hunting originated as a way for humans to demonstrate power over large, dangerous animals, but now that modern high-powered weapons can subdue even the largest animals, the trophy hunter’s focus has shifted from animals that are dangerous to those that are rare. Several game preserves in Africa specialize in breeding mutant versions of popular big game animals, such as white lions or the so-called golden wildebeest. Killing a golden wildebeest costs $50,000, 100 times as much as a wildebeest of a typical color.

Like the “great white hunters” on safaris of the past, today's trophy hunters are corporate types who may spend tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to kill a single animal. And the bigger and rarer and more beautiful the animal, the more a trophy hunter wants to kill it: An African lion hunt starts at around $39,000. For $60,000, power brokers can bag a bull elephant.

Palmer issued a statement claiming that he regrets killing Cecil and that the hunt was, to his knowledge, 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. “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”

That’s one of the problems with the trophy hunting industry: Exorbitant prices can pressure hunting guides to deliver a “successful” hunt no matter what. Hunters want to feel that their experience is real and that the hunt has not been staged, but when a hunt costs as much as a new luxury car, guides must practically guarantee that clients will take home the trophy they want. This leads guides to undertake unscrupulous and even unlawful methods to tilt the odds in their favor. Palmer’s guides allegedly used bait to lure Cecil away from the safety of Hwange National Park and illegally disposed of the lion’s radio collar. American hunting ranches use bait stations to concentrate animals and cameras to monitor their whereabouts. On African big game safaris, some hunting guides use bush planes to herd animals into firing range of a waiting hunter.

Nonetheless, the myth of an even playing field is attractive to hunters. Hunting guides market the animals as dangerous game, though very few hunters in recent memory have been harmed by their quarry. One outfitter warns potential customers to “use premium grade ammunition only as your life could depend on it.”

Palmer’s website, which has since been taken down, described him as someone who enjoys “anything allowing him to stay active and observe and photograph wildlife.” Trophy hunters argue that their pastime helps to conserve wildlife, but the reality of trophy hunting's success as a tool of conservation has been mixed: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for the first time in history, may list the African lion as an endangered species—a move that could ban American hunters from importing lion trophies—citing overzealous hunting as one reason for the big cat's decline. Hunting outfitters are urging clients to kill the animals while they’re still around to kill: “The time to book your South Africa Free-Range Lion Hunt is NOW while you still can!”

Yet after Kenya banned trophy hunting in 1977, big game numbers in that nation plummeted by more than 70 percent and have yet to recover. After the ban made big game preserves unviable, landowners sold these properties or converted them into farms. In his book "Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa's Wildlife," Glen Martin blames animal rights activists for spearheading the short-sighted ban: “If African wildlife is to survive—let alone thrive—local people must value it,” he wrote. “In other words, they must be allowed to gain both income and meat from it in a sustainable fashion.”

Some trophy hunters argue that hunting will never pressure desirable animals into extinction; as animals become rarer, so the argument goes, the privilege of hunting them becomes more and more expensive, until not even a vast purchasing power can buy it. But rarity itself makes animals more desirable and causes collectors to value killing them even more, a phenomenon Franck Courchamp calls the anthropogenic Allee effect: “The human predisposition to place exaggerated value on rarity fuels disproportionate exploitation of rare species, rendering them even rarer and thus more desirable, ultimately leading them into an extinction vortex.”

Wealthy hunters don’t need to travel to Africa to shoot exotic big game animals. Hunting preserves in the U.S. offer the chance to kill a dizzying array of species, including fallow deer, antelope, zebras and even exotic breeds of domestic goats. Most were bred specifically to be killed, but some game farms purchase animals from exotic animal auctions and even zoos.

In 2014, the Indianapolis Star conducted the first comprehensive investigation into America’s trophy deer hunting industry. A team of three investigative journalists submitted public records requests to all 50 states and the federal government, examined a mountain of peer-reviewed research, and conducted more than 100 interviews with biologists, wildlife officials, deer breeders and trophy hunters. They concluded that the trophy deer hunting business “costs taxpayers millions of dollars, compromises long-standing wildlife laws, endangers wild deer, and undermines the government's multibillion-dollar effort to protect livestock and the food supply.”

The investigation revealed compelling evidence that the trophy deer industry sped up the spread of chronic wasting disease, a disease similar to mad cow, which is always lethal to deer. Chronic wasting disease is now found in 22 states, and its spread coincides with the rapid growth of the trophy deer industry: In half of the states where chronic wasting disease is now found, the first outbreaks appeared on captive deer breeding operations.

Breeding trophy deer for captive animal hunting operations is now a billion-dollar industry. Modern trophy deer farms use breeding techniques borrowed from the commercial cattle and horse breeding industries: synthetic hormones, special feeds, artificial insemination. Notorious trophy bucks with massive racks can be worth $1 million or more. They have carefully documented pedigrees and names like “Cardiac Kid,” “Ballistic” and “Federal Express.” Trophy deer farms sell chances to kill so-called shooter bucks to the tune of $20-, $30- or $40,000 each. The deer grow antlers so freakishly huge they struggle to raise their heads. X-Factor, once touted as the world’s biggest deer, had a rack measuring 580 inches according to the deer breeders’ antler scoring formula—nearly twice the size of the world record wild whitetail.

In less than 40 years, deer breeding—which started as a backyard hobby—ballooned into an industry that operates primarily to give wealthy and busy clients the opportunity to kill trophy-size animals with a minimum of effort. The trophy deer breeding industry comprises at least 10,000 farms and hunting preserves in the U.S. and Canada. Over half of the states that permit the hunting of captive wild animals have few or no regulations regarding how captive wild animals are killed. Humane slaughter laws govern the killing of livestock, and wildlife laws regulate the hunting of free-ranging wild animals, but anything goes on some hunting ranches.

Among hunters, there is no bigger controversy than that surrounding the killing of animals raised in captivity for what some decry as “canned shoots.” Some taxidermists (many of whom are also hunters) won't even accept captive-bred trophies into their shops. A number of hunter organizations oppose captive wildlife hunting operations as cruel, potentially dangerous to local wildlife populations, and an affront to the heritage and philosophy of “fair chase” hunting. Peter Flack, a trophy hunter with 53 years of experience, condemned the practice as “shopping and shooting.” Now more than ever, the process of booking a trophy hunt is like shopping for a new car; clients can even choose the animal they wish to buy from photos on a hunting ranch’s website.

Why would anyone pay $50,000 to kill a lion? What do trophy hunters get out of the experience? Theories of consumer behavior help to explain what, for many people, is an impulse that’s impossible to understand. In his landmark book "Culture and Consumption," Grant McCracken described a phenomenon he called “displaced meaning”—the tendency to anticipate and purchase objects not out of a desire for the item itself, but to gain access to meanings the object symbolizes. These objects serve as a “refuge for personal ideals.” By keeping lists of animals they plan to hunt, trophy hunters engage in a form of displaced meaning; they anticipate how their next trophy will enhance their lives, and there is always a new kill to look forward to.

McCracken also argued that very wealthy people face a dilemma when they are able to purchase everything they want. Longed-for objects, placed suddenly within reach, lose their powerful allure. “When anything can be bought on a whim,” he argued, “there can be no location in space or time that can be used as a refuge for personal ideals.” The solution is to seek what is rare, because when an item is rare, not even a vast amount of money will bring that object within reach. Just as the wealthy art collector can look forward to the day when she has every painting by her favorite artist in her collection, the sheer number of available trophy species—in rare colors and certain subspecies—offers the wealthy hunter an infinite way to keep anticipating. It isn’t enough for some trophy hunters to kill one or two species of spiral-horned antelope. Some want to kill one or more of each of Africa’s spiral-horned antelope, or even different varieties of the same species.

Palmer’s profile in the Safari Club International’s record book lists 43 kills, including deer, moose, buffalo, a mountain lion and a polar bear. Egged on by outfitters to add certain species to their “collections,” trophy hunters spend thousands of dollars per hunt to have their quarry preserved by taxidermists and displayed in elaborate trophy rooms. They dream of killing the “Big Five” of African wildlife and the “Grand Slam” of North American sheep. Just as birders have a “life list” of bird species they have seen or hope to see, trophy hunters keep lists of animals they plan to kill.

“Harvesting is how they refer to hunting,” said photographer David Chancellor, who spent several months photographing trophy hunters in the United States and abroad. “They’ve already gone for the big five, and now they want every spiral horned antelope…and they spend a considerable amount of time and money going after that.”

Chancellor also noted differences in how men and women approach animals right after killing them: “When they approach a kill, most guys high five or have a cigar,” he said. “Women will, almost without exception, sit by the animal, touch the animal. Some say a prayer. Some cry. Some walk with their head in their hands.”

Perhaps that’s what’s so hard to understand about trophy hunters like Palmer—not the thousands of dollars they spend to kill wildlife nor their intense desire to destroy what is rare, big and beautiful. It’s not even the “dream hunts” one nonprofit provides, Make-a-Wish style, to dying children. It’s that so many trophy hunters do seem to genuinely love animals. Certainly they know a great deal about the animals they kill and speak in tones of reverent awe when describing their beauty. Many if not most trophy hunters have a favorite animal. It's just that a trophy hunter’s favorite is very often the same animal they most want to kill.

By Meg Brown

Meg Brown is a graduating student in Iowa State University’s master of fine arts program in creative writing and environment, where she studies animal-centric subcultures. She lives in Iowa with a good dog and two bad cats.


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Cecil The Lion Editor's Picks Endangered Species Exotic Species Hunting Trophy Hunting Walter Palmer