Lion Hunters Speak Out About Their Controversial Bloodsport

In the wake of Cecil the Lion's tragic killing, two lion slayers defend trophy hunting.
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In the wake of Cecil the Lion's tragic killing, two lion slayers defend trophy hunting.
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The most hated hunter on the planet is squarely in the crosshairs of Internet fury—but some of Minnesota dentist Dr. Walter Palmer’s fellow lion slayers are defending their wildly controversial sport in the wake of the tragic thrill-killing of Cecil the Lion.

Palmer wrote a letter of apology to his patients in which he claimed "local professional guides" told him that Cecil, a 13-year-old protected lion who was one of the most famous animals in Zimbabwe's  Hwange National Park, was fair game during a hunting safari. According to published reports, Palmer paid $55,000 to track and kill the lion. He allegedly first shot and wounded Cecil with a crossbow after the animal was lured out of his sanctuary with an animal carcass tied to a vehicle, before finally killing him 40 hours later with a high-caliber rifle shot.

Cecil, who wore a GPS collar monitored by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, was later skinned and beheaded. Palmer has since shuttered his dental practice and gone into hiding to escape the resulting global outrage over Cecil's death, and is now wanted for questioning by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Zimbabwean authorities.

The reaction to Cecil's killing was swift and, many would say, appropriately brutal, with PETA calling for Palmer to be hanged and a slew of disparate celebrities—including Jimmy Kimmel, Cara Delevingne, Ricky Gervais, Mia Farrow, Kaley Cuoco, Behati Prinsloo and Newt Gingrich—tweeting their disgust.

Palmer, 55, an avid trophy hunter who has previously killed a wide range of exotic animals including a polar bear, a wolf, a walrus and a rhino, and was said to have had a "very large elephant" on his hit list, poses with Cecil's lifeless body here (he's on the left):

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By all accounts Cecil should never have been targeted, but trophy hunters are still defending the killing of lions on legally-sanctioned  trips. Dennis Campbell, executive director of Grand Slam Club-Ovis, a hunting and conservation group based in Alabama, confirms that Palmer was a member of his organization, and blamed the disgraced dentist's hunting guides for the tragedy.

 "I’m not happy about the lion being killed," Campbell tells Maxim. "I’m not happy about the landowner allowing it to happen. I’m not happy about the professional hunter [Palmer], either. But there is a misconception out there: Cecil was not a pet. He was a free ranging lion.“

“If [Palmer] knew that he did not have a legal permit to hunt that lion, that would be wrong," Campbell adds. "But I think that responsibility falls squarely on the landowner. If someone lied or misled Walter, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” (The Zimbabwean farm owner and a professional hunter who are accused of helping Palmer both appeared in court on Wednesday to face poaching charges. Palmer is also being sought by Zimbabwean officials.)

Campbell says he has twice shot and killed lions during legally sanctioned hunts in Africa—one in Tanzania, the other in South Africa. The skins of both lions were stuffed by a taxidermist and are on display in the Grand Slam Club museum in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Both times, they were killed with a large caliber hunting rifle,” Campbell recalls. “I dispatched the animal with one shot on both occasions. These lions are not endangered. I think that’s something people need to understand.”

Big game hunters and some conservationists have long argued that the selling of expensive hunting licenses can help pay for efforts to protect the lions, as well as inject money into the local economy.  A 2009 report from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said that legal, regulated hunting can sometimes aid conservation efforts, but that its record produced "mixed results."

“When it’s done with a legal permit, it’s fully sanctioned by the country and by the local community, and they are benefiting from the dollars that come in from that hunt," Campbell says. "I’ve been to Africa a lot. People are criticizing this who have never been there. Hunters provide a lot of money for the locals. “

But Jeff Flocken, North American Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, one of several groups who have pushed for African lions to be put on the endangered species list, says there's absolutely no reason they should be killed for sport. 

“This philosophy — that you have to kill an animal to save it — does not make sense morally, economically, biologically, or from a conservation-incentive point of view, particularly when talking about imperiled species, like African lions, elephants and rhinos," Flocken says in a statement.

"Proponents of trophy hunting say that the practice helps to fund conservation efforts through large permitting fees and other costs, but studies show that almost none (around 3%) of this money actually filters down to local communities where the hunts take place. This is 2015—we don’t need to kill an animal to save it.”

Campbell, meanwhile, says trophy hunters target older male lions who are no longer part of a pride and have stopped breeding. But he adds that even aging lions are extremely dangerous.

“A lion can kill you, and do it very quickly," he says. "You’ve only got to be close to it once to realize what a powerful, top-of-the-food chain predator they are. I can assure you that if you invaded Cecil’s space, Cecil would have killed you. Does that give a person the right to shoot that lion in an illegal or unethical way? Obviously not. And I’m sure Walter regrets it.

“With my lions, I know the money went to the local economy. I was able to hunt with the locals. I’ve personally donated millions of dollars to conservation. People can call me a killer and a murderer and all those things, but I’ll put my record up against theirs any day.”

Campbell acknowledges that Palmer’s grisly method of killing Cecil—in which he first maimed the big cat with an arrow before tracking and fatally shooting him nearly two days later—is troubling even to hardened lion hunters.

“That’s a hunter’s nightmare, not killing the animal quickly and humanely,” he says. “You have to prepare yourself for that to never happen. That part is a little unpalatable to me. [Palmer is] a seasoned hunter. He knows exactly how to take an ethical shot. It sounds like he made a mistake.”

John Jackson, a New Orleans-based lawyer, hunting advocate and past president of Safari Club International (which, incidentally, has suspended Palmer from its ranks) insists that the majestic predators are far from beloved by the locals who live among them.

“The local people have no tolerance for lions, because they are a complete nuisance,” Jackson says. "They only eat meat. They eat cattle, they kill livestock. And when they do, they are tracked and killed    by the local people within hours."

Jackson then vividly recalls the only time he tracked and killed a lion, when he was trophy hunting in Tanzania in the mid-1980s.

“I came upon a lion,” Jackson says. “It was an old male, kicked out of the pride. It didn’t have much life left. His skin was hanging, it was losing body weight. It was trotting off. The game trackers I was with, who are licensed by the government,  told me to take the shot. I shot it, and a tracker went over to make sure he was dead.

"Well, he wasn’t dead. He jumped up at us. I shot him in the air, right through the brain. Then it was all over with. We took him to camp, and a thousand people chanted and celebrated and danced for two days. This was a presumed maneater. They didn’t eat it, because it ate people. I brought the skin home and had the taxidermist mount it.

Jackson pauses for a moment, then adds: "It’ll be in my living room for the rest of my life.”

Photo: Trophy Hunt America