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Saving Wildlife

A Complicated Issue

The killing of Cecil the lion, who was baited and lured out of a protected refuge in Zimbabwe last year by a trophy-hunting Minnesota dentist, caused a worldwide uproar. But it also brought to the forefront related issues that have a broader impact on wildlife: poaching, retaliatory killing, captive hunting and habitat loss. 

Poaching, the illegal taking of imperiled wildlife in violation of federal or international law and its effect on already decimated populations, is fast becoming a global outrage. Yet what to do about it is a complex issue involving international conservation groups, wildlife advocates and experts, hunters and countries that depend on the revenue from tourism. 

“Trophy hunting is not the discussion conservationists are focusing on right now,” says Bob Chastain, president and CEO of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. “More important when addressing declining species is game management, poaching and habitat loss.” 

Not all agree on the best practices. Some claim money from managed, responsible hunting with allowable trophies benefits conservation. Others believe hunting is hunting, no matter what it’s called. Although the “Big Five”—elephants, rhino, lions, leopards, and buffalo—are Africa’s most coveted and sought-after trophy animals, especially by the criminal wildlife trade, many other animals are also being targeted.

The situation is dire, and the numbers speak for themselves. 


Increased demand for ivory has driven elephant poaching across Africa to crisis proportions in the past decade. Poaching claimed more than 20,000 elephants in 2015. Mass slaughters by African militant groups are on the rise.

In the U.S., recent ivory crushes sent symbolic messages against ivory trafficking. In 2013, the first crush by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was held in Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, where six tons of confiscated ivory in all forms was reduced to gravel. This was followed last year by a massive crush of one ton of ivory in Times Square. 

Still, it’s a sad fact that the U.S. remains the largest market for ivory in the world, second only to China. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the recent ban on the import/export and sales of African elephant ivory, “will…help to ensure that the U.S. ivory market is not contributing to the poaching of elephants in Africa.” Effective as of this July, the new rule does, however, include a litany of exceptions and exemptions. 

“Poaching and trophy hunting are not justifiable,” says Mari Sinton Martinez, a member of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Board of Directors, and the council of the African Wildlife Foundation, Africa’s oldest and largest conservation organization. “The AWF believes there’s a fine, green line between poaching and hunting.” 


No less tragic is the continued hunting and poaching of rhinos, which have now been declared a critically endangered species. Increased demand for their horns in China and Viet Nam for use in their traditional folk medicine has pushed them to dangerously low numbers. 

The northern white rhino is teetering on the brink of extinction, and in 2011 the West African black rhinoceros was officially declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest conservation network.

In 2015, more than 1,300 rhinos were poached in South Africa – a 21 percent increase from the previous year. Currently, Save the Rhino International estimates the population is slightly more than 5,000.


It is estimated that in the 1960s, there were 200,000 lions in Africa. Today, there are approximately 20,000 left—90 percent less than a century ago. According to National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, which supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild, there are two primary reasons for the decline of lion populations: retaliatory killing by local communities protecting their livestock, and poachers trapping for bushmeat. Add to that canned (captive) hunts.

Effective January 22 of this year, lions are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. But this protection does not ban the importation of trophies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which implements ESA, says, “This rule will allow for the importation of [lions], including sport-hunted trophies, from countries with established conservation programs and well-managed lion populations.” Hopefully, this will mitigate the sad fact that over half of all lions killed for sport in Africa are shipped to the U.S. 

Since Cecil’s killing, many U.S. states have begun introducing legislation in support of Cecil’s Law against the importation and distribution of animal trophies. 

In Colorado this year, HB 16-1341, a bill to prohibit the importation and trafficking of any animals threatened with extinction, or their parts or products, was postponed indefinitely (killed) in the Senate committee. 

Representative Beth McCann, a sponsor of the bill, believes it was defeated because Bill Cadman, the senate’s president, viewed it as bringing about more regulations of business, which he doesn’t support. Also, “Many people don’t see the protection of endangered species as a priority for Colorado.”

The Humane Society International recently reported that in the last decade, more than 1.26 million wildlife trophies were imported into the U.S., including 32,500 of Africa’s Big Five: 5,600 lions, 4,600 elephants, 4,500 leopards, 335 southern white rhinos, and 17,200 buffalo.

What do these elite and questionable hunts cost? According to the HSI and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: lions, $50,000; elephants, $70,000; leopards, $35,000; white rhino, $160,000; buffalo (non-threatened), $18,500.

Some Significant Sites

Responsible and sustainable coexistence with wildlife worldwide, is it even possible? Only time will tell.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo: http://www.cmzoo.org/index.php/conservation-matters/animal-conservation/african-elephants-rhinos 

Killing for Trophies: http://www.ifaw.org/sites/default/files/IFAW_TrophyHuntingReport_US_v2.pdf 

Trophy Hunting by the Numbers: http://www.hsi.org/assets/pdfs/report_trophy_hunting_by_the.pdf 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/lion.html 

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List: http://www.iucnredlist.org/news/best-practice-in-wildlife-law-enforcement-in-subsaharan-african-PAs 

New Efforts to Safe African Lions: http://wamu.fm/29JTYRU