Hunters fight back after Cecil the lion killing

Johannesburg (AFP) - Bucking against international outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, professional hunters argue that their industry follows strict rules aimed at preserving wildlife and supporting local people.

While many hunters acknowledge Cecil was likely killed illegally, they say the vitriol directed towards them is misplaced.

"Animal lovers tend to forget the benefit that can be derived by properly managing a resource," said Emmanuel Fundira, president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe (SOAZ).

"They can't see it because their focus is on the sentimental value of trying to protect the animal.

"It's a different ball game altogether in Africa because the social benefits from hunting are huge."

Zimbabwe issues an annual quota approved by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) for the number of lions that can be hunted -- not usually more than 30, according to Fundira.

A hunter must have a permit, must only hunt in daylight, on private land, or approved state land, and be accompanied by a park ranger. No hunting is allowed in national reserves.

Usually, a lion hunt costs from $60,000 to $120,000 (55,000 to 110,000 euros) and takes place over seven to 21 days. Under certain conditions, bait is allowed.

The weapon of choice is a rifle, but a select few pay a premium for a bow and arrow kill.

"You pay an extra $3,000 to hunt using a bow and arrow," Fundira explained, adding that such hunts were "extremely exceptional".

Cecil was allegedly lured from a national reserve outside regular hours and shot with a bow and arrow.

It is unclear whether the hunter, American dentist Walter Palmer, had all the necessary permits.

Hunting fees are meant to be ploughed back into maintenance of the land and to pay local staff, though transparency is often poor.

- Rogue outfits? -

Hermann Meyeridricks, who heads the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, said the case of Cecil was unrepresentative.

"One must not confuse the benefits that hunting brings to communities across Africa with an illegal activity, such as what appeared to have been the case in Zimbabwe," Meyeridricks said.

"If ever we hear of non-adherence we will pass it on to the relevant authorities," he said.

Meyeridricks believes hunting can even contribute to conservation efforts.

"The idea is that hunting positively aids conservation by providing a reason to keep a healthy number of lions... alive," he said.

The hunter admitted that while the Cecil debacle is regrettable, it was in some ways inevitable.

"You have your rogue outfitters or elements in every industry, and the hunting industry is not any different," he said.

But conservation activists disagree that the case of Cecil is unique, highlighting the decline of lion population on the continent and condemning the hunting industry for facilitating Cecil's slaughter.

"The loss of Cecil is absolutely reprehensible, and sadly, this case is not an anomaly," Luke Hunter, the president of Panthera, a coalition of big cat academics dedicated to conservation, said this week.

Recent surveys suggest that in the past two decades lion numbers have decreased from 30,000 to around 20,000, according to Panthera.

"Many people around the world are unaware that what happened to this lion is happening all over Africa," Hunter said.

"Illegal killing of lions is a real threat to the species' survival."

Chris Mercer, founder of Campaign Against Canned Hunting, a South African non-profit wildlife charity, described Cecil's death -- reputedly 40 hours after first being shot -- as "a typical lion bow hunt".

"Don't let the hunting industry persuade you that the Cecil incident was some rotten apple in the barrel," he said.

Mercer, a 69-year-old who has been campaigning against lion hunting for 16 years, said that he fears the South African government and others on the continent are too sympathetic to the hunting lobby.

"If they put that money into conservation they won't garner votes, that's why wildlife is collapsing," he said.