Trophy Hunting Is Never Really About Conservation

Cecil the lion was killed by Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist who reportedly paid more than $50,000 for the hunt, and who took Cecil's head home as a trophy, according to The Washington Post. Now, Palmer is being sought by the Zimbabwean government for an illegal hunt-and-kill, though he claims that he believed the hunt was entirely legal. Both Palmer's professional guide and the landowner who helped lure Cecil out of his home in the Hwange National Park so that he could be killed are set to appear in court Wednesday on poaching charges. Palmer claims that he had no idea that Cecil was such a well-known and beloved big cat, and that ignorance shows why trophy hunting is never about conservation, as some hunters claim.

Palmer apparently has a well-documented history as a big-game hunter, and he's represented it proudly in newspapers such as the New York Times. He's killed a leopard, a rhino, a bear, buffalo, another lion, and even a polar bear, according to the Post. And unfortunately, this isn't the first time Palmer has been caught in a potentially illegal hunting situation. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to lying to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about killing a black bear in Wisconsin. He told authorities that he shot the animal inside protected hunting grounds even though that wasn't true. He was sentenced one year of probation and fined close to $3,000, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

What does all of this mean? It shows that Palmer has broken the law to hang another head on his wall, which is pretty terrifying. Hunting is often defended in the name of population control, and it often attempts to retain some kind of respect for resources and the environment by using the meat and skins of the animal. But trophy hunting — the kind that Palmer has broken world records doing — often doesn't do either of these things. In fact, Palmer and his two guides left behind Cecil's carcass after they cut off the lion's head. Further, scientists have predicted that lions could face extinction as soon as 2050, according to Scientific American, so there's no need for population control.

Given all of these facts — the ethics that many hunters live by, and the dwindling population of lions — why did Palmer, a seasoned hunter, claim not to know that the lion was beloved? Also, if he had so much experience with big-game hunting, why did he choose to continue hunting a species that is struggling to survive?

The simple answer is that he didn't care enough to research the facts, and that's the unfortunate truth behind a number of trophy hunts. This carelessness perfectly explains why trophy hunting can never be defended in the name of conservation. Palmer hasn't himself tried to defend this hunt as one done for conservation, which makes it easier to see it for what it was: a way for him to spend a lot of money on an exotic trip and then come home with a new, brag-worthy wall trophy. Jimmy Kimmel said it best when he questioned how someone could actually get joy out of shooting a lion to hang its head "over the fireplace in his man cave so his douchebag buddies can gather around it and drink scotch and tell him how awesome he is."

In other cases, though, it's harder to see through the intentions of trophy hunters. For example, Kendall Jones, the Texas cheerleader who posted photos on Facebook of her posing with endangered animals that she claimed she killed, defended herself from online threats with the argument that she was helping control the population of leopards that kill cattle in local villages, according to USA Today. But here, yet again, we see the same problem that can easily been seen in Palmer's case: Simply put, Jones doesn't know what she's talking about. Sure, maybe killing leopards helps local villages that are struggling to keep cattle populations alive. But what about the rhinos, zebras, lions, and even elephants that she's killed? (I've never heard of zebras attacking people, and most rhinos and lions live in protected parks.)

The answer is in the Facebook photos Jones posted. Hunting is nothing more than a way for her to boast about taking down big animals with a high-powered rifle and brand herself as a badass cheerleader with a "wild side." As further proof that she cared more about her image than the animals, she signed a deal with the Sportsman Channel to do a show about her badassness, according to USA Today. If she actually cared about conservation and wanted to stand up against poaching, you think she would've been a bit more humble and self-reflective after a hunt.

In 2006, the New York Times investigated a series of poaching attacks and unlicensed big-game hunts in the Northwest. Jim Kropp, the wildlife law enforcement chief for Montana, described trophy hunters' attitudes toward big-game hunting as "a fixation on possessing or obtaining trophy-class animals":

People will go to any length to have these things in their possession. It’s big antlers and big egos.

And that's honestly what it comes down to. Trophy hunters — especially big-game hunters with money — will go to almost any length or dollar amount to bring home a brag-worthy head. The death of Cecil shows that trophy hunters often don't care about the impacts of their hunts. When they actually claim to be aware of the impacts, like in Jones' case, their claims are buried beneath the mile-wide grins they sport while standing over an animal's dead body.

Images: Bryan Orford/YouTube