By Taylor Mooney, CBS News
Trophy hunters have repeatedly sparked outrage by posting pictures of their kills on social media. Images of Tess Talley standing in front of the giraffe she shot, or Walter Palmer with a dead Cecil the lion, readily come to mind. Around 80% of trophy hunters worldwide are Americans, and public anger at the deaths of such majestic creatures has sparked a push for the government to do something to stop it — even though some maintain the anger is misplaced.
In April, Congressman Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, introduced the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing Importation of Large Animal Species Act, otherwise known as the CECIL Act. The bill would prohibit all importation and exportation of species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including species proposed to be listed, in order to prevent a surge in hunting of the animal prior to its official listing.
The bill would impose a total ban on importing hunting trophies of elephants or lions taken in Tanzania, Zimbabwe or Zambia. It would also ban the import of other sport-hunted trophies of “threatened species or endangered species” unless the country where it was hunted adequately provides for the species’ conservation.
At a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday, six experts testified about the potential impact of the bill before the House subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife. Among those supporting the legislation was Iris Ho, the Wildlife Program Manager of Humane Society International, who argued that other forms of tourism offer more stability to African economies than trophy hunting.
“Trophy hunting contributes to just 0.0% of the annual GDP of eight countries surveyed in 2017, supporting only 7,500 jobs. To put this in perspective, a recent report puts non-consumptive tourism supporting 24 million jobs, generating $48 billion in expenditures for Africa and protected areas,” Ho said.
But other witnesses disagreed, arguing that in many cases trophy hunting can be part of an effective conservation strategy and that limiting it would only hurt conservation efforts. Catherine Semcer, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana, was the first on the panel to oppose the bill on these grounds.
“The trophy hunting programs of African nations have a demonstrated track record of making wildlife habitat an economically competitive land use, and preventing conversion to agriculture,” Semcer said. “These programs conserve nearly 350 million acres of habitat, a figure that exceeds the total area of sub-Saharan Africa’s national parks by 22%.”
CBSN Originals explored both sides of the debate in the documentary “Trophy Hunting: Killing or Conservation?”, traveling to the Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe, a private hunting reserve. At 1,200 square miles, the grounds are about the size of Rhode Island. The conservancy teems with a wide variety of big game species including lions, leopards and elephants. Hunting guide Pete Fick says trophy hunting has been critical to keeping the populations there healthy.
“We try to manage this entire area for all of our species. Not just about the elephant, the rhino, the lion, giraffe, whatever it might be — it’s about everything,” he said. “An area can only maintain X amount of elephant, like all of our animals. You can’t just let the elephant population just grow and grow and grow and grow.”
During Thursday’s hearing, Dr. Patience Gandiwa, executive technical advisor of Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, also spoke in opposition to the bill, arguing that the legislation was not “constructed in the spirit of advancing conservation efforts” and would actively harm those efforts in rural communities where tourism is not a robust or sustainable source of revenue.
Gandiwa acknowledged that the systems are not perfect and corruption is bound to exist, but she argued that because trophy hunting can demonstrably assist in conservation efforts, it should remain an option.