Lion icon's killing thrusts light on trophy hunting

The killing of Cecil the lion this month in Zimbabwe has turned attention to Africa's $200 million trophy industry.

Zimbabwe announced Friday that it would seek the extradition of American dentist Walter Palmer to hold him "accountable" for killing the famous lion.

The southern African nation's economy is struggling more than a year after President Robert Mugabe, 91, won a disputed election in July 2013. Poaching is rampant and abuses of commercial hunting are common, according to Adrienne LeBas, an assistant professor of government at American University.

"We shouldn't be talking about Cecil the lion divorced from the broader socio-political environment in Zimbabwe, which is a direct reason that we are seeing the collapse of conservation and really the collapse of these wildlife populations which had once provided tourism revenues and livelihoods for many Zimbabweans," LeBas, who has lived in Zimbabwe, said.

Palmer and his paid guides reportedly lured Cecil out of the park where he was protected. A spotlight was shined on the lion and Palmer shot him with a bow and arrow, wounding the lion and then tracking him for 40 hours before killing him with a gun.

Palmer, who is in seclusion, reportedly said he relied on his guides to ensure a legal hunt.

But the dentist is not necessarily finding his fellow hunters to be all that empathetic.

The pro-hunting Safari Club International, which prides itself on its commitment to conservation and its advocacy of "legally hunting practices" has suspended his membership. And others who participate in the sport argue that Palmer doesn't represent them.

"It's real bad," said veteran big game hunter Brock Andreola. Palmer probably took his first shot at Cecil from a distance of about 75 yards, and "you can see a collar on an animal at 75 yards," Andreola said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the situation and has called for Palmer to contact its office.

An estimated 300 lions are legally killed each year in Africa, down from about 600 in 2009, due to hunting quotas and bans in some countries along with 43 percent decline in the number of lion pups, Mike Hoffmann, a senior scientist at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said.

"Generally hunters really respect those animals," Andreola said. "We provide a lot of money to those governments to be able to provide game scouts. Poaching is the problem, not international hunting."

His view is echoed by Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, who noted in a blog post that: "Allowing some level of hunting can, in theory, give hunters, ranchers and other people close to the wild resource a stake in preserving the species and the entire ecosystem and managing it sustainably."

Critics such as LeBas, however, argue hunters inflate the economic impact of their industry on the continent.

Though LeBas doesn't think that commercial hunting is the answer to sustaining Africa's animal population, she isn't opposed to all hunting. Government-managed culls have been shown to be effective, though there is concern that this may encourage demand for illicit animal products such as ivory, she said.

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