Last Updated Sep 30, 2015 12:42 PM EDT
Members of Safari Club International -- the hunting organization that until recently Minnesota dentist and trophy hunter Walter Palmer belonged to -- are behind the killings of tens of thousands of animals, "including those on the brink of extinction," animal protection advocates say in a new report.
Competitions run by the 43-year-old organization based in Tucson, Arizona, contribute to the killing of lions, African elephants and other endangered species, according to just-released findings by the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International.
And while many people find it objectionable to kill animals purely for sport, the practice itself is not against the law.
"Just because a species is protected doesn't mean trophy hunting is not allowed," said Gavin Shire, public affairs chief at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Our responsibility is making sure the appropriate laws that govern imports, wildlife products and wildlife are followed."
SCI hunters have killed more than 2,000 lions, 1,800 leopards, nearly 800 elephants and 93 black rhinos over the past 60 years, according to the report, which is largely based on an SCI database that's available to anyone who pays the hunting group's membership fee.
"The trophy hunting industry has expended substantial resources pressuring the federal government and range countries (including years of litigation) to ensure that permits are routinely granted for the export and import of trophies to and from countries around the globe," the report said.
"Safari Club International is committed to wildlife conservation," Chip Burkhalter, SCI's director of public affairs, wrote in an email. "100 percent of net proceeds from the SCI Record Book and World Hunting Awards Department are dedicated to anti-poaching and conservation projects."
SCI offers awards in dozens of categories, including those for killing the most species in the most-distant places and for killing multiple species of bears, big cats and moose around the globe. The SCI's most coveted prize is the "World Hunting Award," or so-called "Super Bowl-ring" of hunting. It's a gold and diamond-crusted ring so far bestowed on 94 hunters who have killed a collection of dozens, if not hundreds, of animals.
Before Palmer's SCI membership was suspended after he killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, he had won a "Continental" award from the hunting group for killing a dozen animals in North America and was edging closer to a "grand slam" awarded for killing an African elephant, a leopard and a Cape buffalo.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still investigating Palmer, also the recipient of a "North America 12" award from SCI in 2012, which required him to kill 12 animals of 41 species, including a bear, a mule deer, a white-tailed deer, a caribou, a moose and an elk, according to the report.
"With hunting, particularly trophy hunting, there's sometimes a clash between conservation, which considers species as a whole, and animal welfare, which considers individual animals," said Shire. "As the nation's conservation organization, our mandate is to look at how we can improve the conservation of species in the wild."
The Safari Club on its website and other hunting groups, including the National Rifle Association, argue that the money hunters pay for their licenses -- and in some cases ammunition and guns -- goes to fund conservation, a factor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers in granting hunting permits.
However, the humane societies reject that notion in the report.
"Safari Club International's own meticulous record keeping dispels any doubts that, for them, hunting is about competition -- not conservation. Entries often include macabre photos of the dead animals, with its head propped up on a stick. Animals are sorted and ranked based on size, as well as by "MOK" -- method of kill."
The SCI's Burkhalter lashed out at the Humane Society, saying the group "solicits donations to support animal shelters, yet spends only 1 percent of those funds in support of local shelters -- the majority of this money raised by HSUS is actually used in anti-hunting advocacy campaigns across the United States."
The Humane Society countered that it does not operate as "a pass-through for grants to other organizations," and spends 80 percent of its funds on programs to rescue and protect animals, including those living in poverty or caught up in dog-fighting rings.
The HSUS also works to eliminate what it called "unfair sport hunting practices," including the use of body-gripping traps and snares, bear baiting and "captive-hunting on fenced properties--practices that many hunters and The HSUS agree are abusive and unacceptable," the group emailed in a statement.