Not such a wild conservation idea?

by and

It is late afternoon, and over sundowner drinks in the hunting lodge the talk around the table is of lions. Or, to be more specific, one particular lion — “Old Black Mane,” the night raider, cattle killer, and terror of the local tribesmen. Man eater!

And then, there he is, muzzle smeared in blood, the crouched over its kill, a young male springbok.

The hunters are tourists, a married couple from the United States — plump, prosperous, middle-aged, and dressed rather absurdly in Hemingway khaki. They listen wide-eyed as the dark South African night closes in and their Afrikaner hosts spin ever more chilling tales.

Tomorrow the tourists are to confront Old Black Mane, and rid the area of the deadly cloud of fear that hangs over it. And at the same time acquire a trophy that will set tongues wagging back home.

Morning comes. Tension mounts. Trackers assemble, clad in tribal clothes. Engines rev, and the expedition departs.

If the lion looks a little wobbly that’s because it’s heavily drugged. If it appears fearless that’s because it has been raised from its infancy in the company of humans. These are two points that the hunting outfit neglected to mention the previous evening. And as for all the hoo-ha of the tracking, that is pure theater. The trackers know precisely where the lion is. They put it there personally (along with the dead springbok).

Bang! Bang! Old Black Mane is dead. The cameras come out for heroic poses. Money changes hands, the lion is hauled off to a refrigeration unit to await the taxidermists, and the Great White Hunters depart for the airport in triumph.

Welcome to the world of vanity, lies, exploitation, gullibility and hard cash that is the “canned lion hunt.” Leopard? Lion? Cheetah? You want its head on your study wall or grinning savagely above your La-Z-Boy reclining seat as a testament to your testosterone? Not a problem. Africa’s canned hunting outfits will make sure it gets there. All you need is a fat fistful of dollars.

And if you don’t want to bother with all the safari fairy stories, that’s not an issue either. You can simply order and select your lion in advance on eBay, then invent your own legends at home.

Animal Interiors, for example, a self-proclaimed “eBay PowerSeller” based in Maryland, U.S., offers a range of lions — “in different sizes” — competitively priced from $6,500 for a large female (no mane means that there is less demand for females, although as they do most of the hunting in the wild they are potentially more dangerous) to $42,000 for a 12-year-old male.

And it doesn’t stop there. Taxidermists are adept at cosmetic surgery. If the skin or mane color is not to the client’s liking, a Windhoek-based taxidermist assured me, he has artists who can use dyes to “correct things.”

“I’ve even done a pink springbok for one guy,” he said while showing me round a series of workshops crammed with workers applying false eyelashes to kudu antelopes and chiseling foam stuffing to make a leopard look as if it was charging (as opposed to running away), and elephant hides slowly softening in tubs of odd-looking liquids.

If the horns on a trophy are too short or are not the right shape, or a leopard’s teeth don’t look long and sharp enough, he keeps a large stock of replacements. If the hunter has failed to actually shoot anything he can even just buy a trophy to take home and lie about.

While canned hunts and zebra nose jobs might seem a sad joke, there is, however, a very serious side to trophy hunting in Africa.

Some conservation groups (and all animal-rights organizations) reject the practice outright. But with Africa’s increasing human population placing ever-greater pressure on the wildlife habitat, a growing body of conservationists are espousing trophy hunting as a means of not just protecting the environment, but also helping impoverished local communities.

The bottom line is that hunters are not just rich but prepared to pay very large amounts for their trophy animals. If this is shared equitably with local residents, it provides a convincing incentive to conserve wilderness and desist from poaching.

At a recent symposium on lions held in Johannesburg, David Erickson, director of the Cullman and Hurt Community Wildlife Conservation Project, presented the projects work as a case in point. In Tanzania, a single hunting operator can provide direct benefits to 100,000 people in 33 villages. In its 15 years, the project has already raised over $2 million for local communities, money that has been spent on “the construction of 34 schools, 12 medical dispensaries and mobile medical units, operating three full-time anti-poaching patrols and organizing scientific studies on leopard and lion populations.”

In the case of lions, experts say hunting may even offer the most viable conservation strategy for ensuring the survival of the big cats outside the protective boundaries of national parks.

For a hunting safari to operate with any hope of commercial success it must have access to a protected area of sufficient size to maintain the lion’s prey base. This inevitably results in a secure habitat for countless species that might otherwise be pushed aside by encroaching cattle ranching or subsistence agriculture (practices that often degrade the land through over-grazing and deforestation).

One thing that does not work is the co-existence of hunting concessions and regular safari photo tourism in the same area, as I have witnessed first hand on several memorable and ghastly occasions.

In one instance, a British family with a 12-year-old daughter were in a hide watching a kudu drink at dusk. Right in front of their noses, a shot rang out, a truck rolled up, and the thrashing antelope was executed and hauled away. The tourists were appalled, the young girl was in tears and the incident had clearly soured their entire African adventure.

Personally, I still have not made my mind up regarding hunting. The canned variety is clearly beyond the pale, but the “hunting for conservation” statistics are compelling. For my next column I plan to visit a self-proclaimed “ethical” hunting area bordering Namibia’s Etosha national park — look out for a report on the park next month.