Thoughts on African Lions, Big Game Trophies, and Hunting in America

Thoughts on African Lions, Big Game Trophies, and Hunting in America

I was at my fishing shack in Alaska on an 8-day trip, mostly (and blissfully) off the grid, when the Cecil the lion controversy exploded. When I finally got a connection to my email I was greeted with many requests for interviews and a lot of fretting from friends who were wondering how this might derail some of the positive gains that have been made for hunting and wildlife conservation here in the U.S. over the past few years. Admittedly, I was almost glad to have missed it. But once I got home, I realized that missing this incident was not an option. The misguided and perhaps criminal activity of an American hunter on foreign lands will likely continue to have huge ramifications for hunters everywhere.

I’ve been struggling with this for days, trying to organize my thoughts and opinions. Here are just a few:

1) Yesterday I was talking to a producer from a TV show on a major network and we were kicking around some ideas of interesting things for him to film in Montana. I suggested a buffalo hunt with the Crow tribe. He dismissed the idea due to the social “climate” that surrounds hunting at this particular moment. I wanted to point out that we’re talking about an indigenous people hunting for an animal that would not exist on their reservation if it weren’t for their keen interest in hunting and eating it, but it was clear that he’d already made up his mind. That goes to show just how far we’ve fallen in the past week.

2) People tend to express outrage over the amounts of money that American and European hunters will pay for African big game. Somehow, in their minds, it makes the crime even worse. This puzzles me, especially considering the colonial history of Africa. For a couple hundred years, European cultures looted Africa without paying a cent for anything that they took. Now it’s frowned upon if you pay handsomely for the resources. If the dentist had paid fifty bucks instead of fifty thousand to kill that lion, would it be worse or better?

3) When you kill an animal and leave the meat lying wasted in the dirt, you’re not just walking away from your responsibilities to the animal. In a not-so-roundabout way, you’re also walking away from your future hunting rights.

4) It doesn’t matter if you’re a traveling hunter or you only hunt the family farm, you have an obligation to learn the historical, ecological, and social context of the animals that you’re hunting. I know from personal experience that you can’t leave this sort of thing up to your guide, because a guide’s understanding of the situation on the ground might be clouded by financial concerns or just plain stupidity. Make careful decisions about what and how you hunt. Don’t justify questionable actions by telling yourself that you’re doing things how the locals do it. Believe me, a lot of locals are assholes.

5) I’m starting to fear that many Americans, and much of our media, are intellectually unwilling to grapple with the complexities of wildlife management and conservation, especially in Africa. Particularly vexing for them is the role that money plays in incentivizing land managers to preserve wildlife habitat and species as a commodity. I thought of this last night, when a neighbor mentioned the African lion situation to me. Taking for granted that I was as shocked by it all as she was, she mentioned the power of social media to change things for the better—in this case, getting rid of trophy hunting in Africa. I recalled all the times that people praised social media as a catalyst for the events commonly known as the Arab Spring. There you had millions of well-meaning Americans applauding the downfall of dictators that, a few months earlier, they wouldn’t have been able to name. From the ashes of those regimes rose a world of chaos, power vacuums, bloodshed, and an unstoppable slide toward militant theocracies. If you get rid of hunting in Africa, you’re gonna see an equally bleak future for wildlife on that continent. By then, though, we’ll all be tweeting about something else.

6) The problem with all this talk about “trophies” is that the word is very difficult to define. Somehow, in the popular lexicon, it’s come to imply that an animal’s been wantonly killed for nothing more than its hide or head. But what about the other kinds of trophies, such as the skull of a bear that belonged to an animal that fed your family? I have many such trophies in my home, and I look upon them with pride. They are totems, full of symbolism, and displaying them is a way of paying tribute to wildlife and wild places. Historically, hunters have always honored their prey with such displays. The oldest pieces of representational art in the world are depictions of prey drawn on the walls of caves by hunters. Eskimo hunters in the high Canadian Arctic would bring home the heads of polar bears and keep them in their lodges so that the bear could see what a good man it was that killed him. They figured that the bear would spread the word, telling his kin that the hunter was a worthy man and that they could feel comfortable giving their lives to him. This is something that modern hunters should keep in mind. If the animal heads on your wall could look at you, would they see an honorable hunter or a slob?

7) If the recent airline trend of banning the shipment of “trophies” expands to include other species and continents, and it very well could, that’ll hurt rather than help well-meaning hunters in their quest to properly utilize their kills. If government agencies allow the harvest of wild animals as renewable resources, which is their right and duty, it doesn’t make sense to ban the transport of those same animal parts. Is a set of antlers in a dumpster somehow preferable to a set of antlers hanging above a fireplace?

8) For years I’ve been talking about the strategic rift that lies between me and a handful of other outspoken hunters. It has to do with the idea of dividing our ranks. They say that hunters need to all stick together, regardless of our individual ethics and creeds, because divisions will only serve to weaken us. They say that we need to embrace all hunters regardless of their actions, “because we’re all in the same boat.” I disagree with much of what these guys say, though they are clearly right about us all being in the same boat. Unfortunately, though, some hunters insist on shooting holes through the hull. With them on board, we won’t stay afloat for long.

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