The killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American trophy hunter has fanned the flames of the controversy surrounding sport hunting. A familiar claim made by people opposed to sport hunting is that sport hunters “like killing things,” that is to say they enjoy killing for the sake of killing. This claim typically leaves me at a loss for words as it is so egregiously wrong. Yes, I enjoy hunting, but no, as hard as it is for you to believe, I do not like killing things. While most of my hunting expeditions are in pursuit of game birds I enjoy big game hunting too. To date my big game hunting experience is in the pursuit of the whitetail deer. My introduction to the sport of whitetail deer hunting was by Jason, one of my hunting buddies and a seasoned deer hunter, in 2011. It was not until my second season in November 2012 that I shot my first whitetail deer. It was a happy and exciting moment for me; the successful conclusion of the hunt with a whitetail deer harvested and secure in the knowledge it was a fair chase as the deer we hunt are wild, not the least bit habituated to humans.
That the hunt is a fair chase cannot be stressed enough for the North American sport hunter. Fair chase as defined by the Boone and Crockett Club is “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a way that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.” (Boone and Crockett Club) With this in mind, Jason and I obtained permission from landowners to hunt on their property. We took the time to scout the area in the months before the hunting season opened and carefully placed the deer stands ourselves. During my first season in 2011 I saw a deer. She approached from behind and while my heart raced as I anticipated making the shot, ultimately, I passed up the shot as the deer remained partially obscured by pine boughs. I did not want to risk a poorly placed shot so I sat patiently, waiting to see if the deer would step clear of the pine boughs. Eventually, the deer wandered off into the thicket, unharmed. Though I did not get the deer, it was a most exciting hunt.
Big game hunting in Africa is well beyond my modest means, but even if I can afford the staggering fees to hunt a big game animal in Africa, I am not interested. Though the details of the hunt (was it a legal hunt) that resulted in the killing of Cecil the lion remain unknown, I remember reading in George Reiger’s book The Wildfowler’s Quest (1989), the chapter he included on fowling in South Africa. Reiger noted:
I suspected at the time, and I know now, that much of what passes for big-game hunting in Africa today is carefully staged theater rather than genuine sporting adventure. At a game reserve in Zululand, photographer Ken Garrett and I were taken right up to a trophy rhino placidly browsing on a hillside. The game rancher told us he maintained a detailed stud book on all his rhinos, and that this particular animal–after producing X number of progeny and Y number of “photographic opportunities” for tourists and professional film-makers–was scheduled for slaughter by a “sportsman” in two months time. (The Wildfowler’s Quest, Nick Lyons Books, 1989: p. 116)
Reiger detailed the rhinoceros hunt that follows, observing:
After a breakfast during which the white hunter sets the stage with much stimulating talk about having the right omens for a successful hunt, he takes the client out to where he knows the rhino is waiting. The two men “stalk” the animal, and the client kills it. The trackers and skinners surge around the client and congratulate him as the truck makes its unobtrusive entrance, cranks the rhino up onto its flatbed, and takes the beast back to the reserve’s abattoir. In a dazed and euphoric state, the client tips everyone lavishly, thanks the rancher for a sensational hunt, and is on his way back to Houston or Hamburg immediately after lunch. (The Wildfowler’s Quest, Nick Lyons Books, 1989: p. 117)
If this is the typical scenario in hunting big game in Africa, it is about as far removed from a fair chase as it gets and in my opinion the hunter taking part is doing little more than killing for the sake of killing. Still, Reiger was careful to point to the reality behind the hunting of the trophy rhino, conceding “the world’s zoos already have enough white rhinos, and truly wild habitat in Africa is increasingly a matter of memory. Old animals must die to make room for younger stock, and fees paid by foreign sportsmen help perpetuate rhinos.” (The Wildfowler’s Quest, Nick Lyons Books, 1989: p. 117-118) For those who can afford big game hunting expeditions in Africa to hunt trophy animals in the way described by Reiger it remains a legal past time and, as he noted, helps perpetuate African wildlife. That said, in the end it is a matter between hunters and their conscience to decide whether the African trophy animals they shoot in this way is in a fair chase and whether this is hunting or simply killing for the sake of killing.
Posted by Geoffrey