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Death Of Beloved Lion Heats Up Criticism Of Big Game Hunting


The outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion is still growing. Zimbabwe will ask the United States to extradite Walter Palmer. That's the American dentist who lured the lion off a game reserve and killed him. The White House has received a petition with over 130,000 signatures demanding Palmer's extradition. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, companies that organize big-game safaris are also feeling the heat.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Cecil's killing has turned an international spotlight on big-game hunting. It is a thriving industry, with more than 1,000 organizations worldwide. George Hinton is with Hunting Legends in Pennsylvania. The company runs safaris on thousands of acres in South Africa. Its website is filled with pictures of lions, and there's a price list. An elephant can cost you $60,000 plus daily rates, a male lion in its prime, $35,000. Hinton says white rhinos are also available.

GEORGE HINTON: Our clients come to us. And they tell us what type of an adventure they want to have. And if we can accommodate them, we will. It's all done legally. We have professional hunters, trackers, skinners, game people. I mean, we employ a lot of people. This industry is huge.

NORTHAM: Hinton is seething over how Walter Palmer killed Cecil, luring the protected animal out of its habitat even though he was wearing a GPS collar as part of research by Oxford University. Hinton says it's damaging to the big-game companies like his.

HINTON: We get the proper permits. We do our due diligence to make sure that everything goes the way it's supposed to. You know, and then this happens. And we're thrown into the barrel with this knucklehead. You know, he's not a sportsman.

NORTHAM: Websites for various big-game companies highlight the thrill of a challenge, calling it the experience of a lifetime. The International Fund for Animal Welfare in a 2011 report said more than 18,000 tourists travel to Africa every year to go big-game hunting. More than half are American. Jeff Flocken, a regional director for the advocacy group, says those hunters are returning to the U.S. with their trophies.

JEFF FLOCKEN: We import about 440 African lion trophies on average every year. Currently, the African lion is not listed as an endangered threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

NORTHAM: Big-game hunting organizations worry that the collective outrage over Cecil's killing could push the federal government to ban the importation of trophy animals. Flocken says the lion's death has shocked the general public. He says the International Fund for Animal Welfare recently polled Americans about big-game hunting.

FLOCKEN: Over 95 percent were against hunting any endangered species for sport. Americans don't think this should happen. Most of them don't even know it's happening.

NORTHAM: Mike Hoffmann, with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, says it's important to distinguish between illegal poaching, which he says is the real driver behind the decline in wildlife numbers, and legal trophy hunting, where people will pay a high price to hunt elephants, lions and the like.

MIKE HOFFMANN: And when it's well-managed, a lot of that income goes back into conservation and goes into supporting local communities and so on. But, of course, there's a lot of trophy hunting which is not necessarily well-managed. And that can be extremely detrimental and have a very negative impact on populations.

NORTHAM: Hoffmann says some countries have introduced quotas or outright bans. But he says the rate the numbers are declining is not sustainable. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.