The sound of a 12-pound double rifle cracks open and echoes eerily across the savannah. A 600-grain bullet has just left a rifle at about 762 metres per second and entered into the torso of an elephant bull who had stopped to inspect an acacia tree. The largest land animal on earth looks ahead, stunned, and within seconds it lurches and falls to its knees.
Silently, he crumples to the ground, lifeless. Without chase or warning, not even a struggle, one of the world's most threatened animals is dead. The 14-day elephant safari hunt, which cost the hunter $80,000, has finished, its mission fulfilled.
The trophy hunting industry in Africa is said to be worth USD $200 million and continues to attract a swath of international visitors with a penchant for shooting. Most come from the U.S. and arrive on African soil with the intent to hunt big game- and bring home a piece of it.
Photos of hunters posing next to dead game are regularly posted on social media, many of them wearing triumphant grins.
With their proud demeanor, it's not hard to see that many hunters believe these animals are trophies- a symbol of achievement, or bravery, or both.
The United States accounts for a staggering 71 percent of the global import demand for trophies. Within a 10-year period, 126,000 animal trophies from hunting safaris were imported into the U.S alone. Trump's administration recently announced a decision to lift the ban on importing elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, which sparked a worldwide furore and vocal opposition from many.
The main arguments were clear: that killing wildlife for sport is both unethical and doesn't contribute towards conservation. Lifting the ban would encourage trophy hunting, potentially fuel the black market trade in wildlife products, and further threaten the species that are already struggling to survive. After a few days, Trump placed the decision on hold for review -- perhaps also due to Zimbabwe's recent takeover by the military -- to more closely investigate the conservation impact of the ban. The elephants had been bought more time.
Countries including Australia, France, and the Netherlands banned lion and other trophy imports, some in response to the heavily publicised death of Cecil the Lion who was shot in an organised hunt in 2015. Delta Airlines and American Airlines also moved to ban the transportation of wildlife trophies.
There's clearly some leadership and progressive change happening at the fore, but the question is how fast other companies and countries will follow suit, before the state of the world's wildlife is thrown into an even more fragile predicament.
Opposition from staunch advocates of hunting claim that the industry can positively impact on conservation through well-managed and transparent operations. While this has been evidenced by a handful of companies, the majority doesn't operate in such a manner and contributes very little to local community development and conservation.
A report by Economists at Large shows that companies invest only 3 percent of their revenue back to communities, and for government agencies that are mired in corruption, in many cases none of the funds reach the community. Instead, they're often kept by corrupt government officials, who also allow for wildlife products to leak into the black market, including ivory.
The widely-stated claim that the industry contributes a significant amount to national development is also questionable. The Economists at Large report showed that trophy hunting contributed to less than 1% of tourism revenue in 8 African countries; along the same lines, the Humane Society International found contributions were, at most, 0.3 percent of the region's GDP.
At the end of the day, if wildlife numbers are increasing as a result of trophy hunting, we're not seeing it. There's a host of other challenges that the wildlife face, including habitat loss, retaliatory killings by pastoralists and poaching. Their struggle to survive is simply exacerbated by the existence of commercial hunting.
Commercial hunting also sends out messages that are fraught with ethical issues: that killing an animal for entertainment is acceptable; and that it's illegal for a local to kill an endangered elephant for crop damage, but legal for a wealthy foreigner to shoot for sport. Commoditising wildlife voids us from any form of decency and speaks more about the superiority we believe humans have over animals.
The furore from opponents of trophy hunting cannot be dismissed. Killing for conservation doesn't work in the majority of cases, and even if the theory proved to be the best conservation approach, morally, it's fundamentally flawed. We need to go beyond what appears to be the 'economically viable' solution and adopt a more balanced and ethical approach to protecting wildlife- banning commercial hunting, supporting locally-driven conservancies, improving education and promoting sustainable wildlife tourism.
As the world debates, dwindling populations of animals roam the savannahs of Africa, completely unaware that there is a literal price tag on their heads. Though that tusk, that horn, that skin rug is no trophy at all – but a representation of cowardice, selfishness, greed and a complete disregard for life.
Killing isn't conservation.