Lion Hunt Photo Touches Off Heated Conservation Debate

Big game hunter Melissa Bachman sparks controversy on Twitter.

For Melissa Bachman, a tweet may be worth a thousand insults.

The Minnesota-based big game hunter and Outdoor Channel TV personality has stirred up controversy by posting a picture to Twitter of herself and a dead lion. Bachman tweeted, "An incredible day hunting in South Africa! Stalked inside 60-yards on this beautiful male lion...what a hunt!"

Many outraged people have taken to social media to condemn the picture, often with harsh words for Bachman. A small sample:

To be sure, others have defended Bachman's right to hunt, pointing out that controlled lion hunting is legal in South Africa (safari hunting was recently outlawed in Botswana).

But that didn't stop opponents of lion hunting from launching a petition on Change.org, asking the government of South Africa to deny future entry to Bachman, whom it says is "an absolute contradiction to the culture of conservation." That petition has more than 300,000 signatures so far.

Responding to Criticism

The group that facilitated Bachman's hunt, Maroi Conservancy, is a private preserve of 21,000 acres (8,500 hectares) along the Limpopo River in South Africa. Established in 1993, the preserve offers safari hunts of various animals.

In response to criticism over Bachman's photo, the Maroi Conservancy posted a note on its Facebook page saying, "Our motto is 'conservation through sustainable hunting.'" The conservancy said meat from animals shot on site is distributed to the local community. Funds raised through hunting are used to shore up fences and guard against poachers, the note added.

The conservancy wrote that it had recently hosted Bachman, who had expressed her desire to shoot a lion. "There are no lions on Maroi as they do not occur here naturally," the group noted.

So the Maroi Conservancy arranged for Bachman to work with another hunting outfitter in Zeerust, in North West Province. "We did not benefit financially by this hunt," the group argued.

Bachman received the necessary government permits, and "the lion was not drugged or enclosed in a camp. It was free roaming on more than 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres). Melissa is a professional hunter and in no way is she involved in dubious practices," they wrote.

The group said that it will not apologize for facilitating the hunt, and added, "As for all the negative commentary towards us, please consider how much you have contributed to conservation in the past 5 years. If you are not a game farmer and struggling with dying starving animals, poaching and no fences in place to protect your animals and crop, please refrain from making negative derogatory comments." The conservancy claims there are more animals in South Africa now than 100 years ago, thanks in part to money raised through regulated hunting.

The Heated Hunting Debate

Bachman's story touches on a controversy that has been brewing across Africa and beyond. Those who support limited hunting of big cats argue that money raised through fees and expeditions can be invaluable in conservation efforts. In the other camp, people argue that every lion is precious and should be protected, even if the species has not been officially declared endangered (there are thought to be 32,000 to 35,000 lions living in 27 African countries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent recent months debating whether to upgrade the animal's status).

National Geographic News recently featured a pair of essays that looked at both sides of this debate. Melissa Simpson, director of science-based wildlife conservation for the Safari Club International Foundation, wrote in September that wildlife officials need money more than anything else in order to save lions from their biggest threat, poaching. That money can be best supplied by controlled hunts, each of which can provide up to $125,000, Simpson argued.

She pointed to the example of Tanzania, which generated $75 million through lion hunting from 2008 to 2011. Simpson wrote that although non-hunting photo safaris also have contributed to conservation efforts in Tanzania, 11 out of 15 wilderness areas could continue to operate only after being subsidized by hunting revenue.

"As with the regulated hunters in the United States, the regulated hunters in Africa make a vital contribution to conservation efforts, primarily through the revenues their hunting expeditions generate for local communities and wildlife resource agencies," Simpson wrote.

Jeff Flocken, North American director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, wrote in July that lion hunts "are unsustainable and put more pressure on the species." Flocken noted that about 600 lions are killed by "safari" or "trophy" hunters a year. About 60 percent of those animals are killed by Americans, he added.

Flocken noted that trophy hunters tend to be most interested in killing big males, which he said could impact evolution of the species by eliminating some of the healthiest genes.

When a dominant male is killed, it can also lead to more deaths, Flocken wrote. Other males in the area may fight to the death to take over the pride. The winner then may assassinate any cubs sired by the previous leader.

Breeding Male?

When it comes to Bachman's picture, media reports suggest that she had indeed shot a male in his prime. National Geographic reached out to Bachman for comment but has not heard back. We also sent the picture to a big cat conservation biologist, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of this story.

Our source confirmed that the lion in the photo looks to be of breeding age, but added that the question is really irrelevant. "All lion hunting in South Africa is done on private reserves," they said. "Just because you can't see the fence doesn't mean it's not a canned hunt. It's a completely artificial industry, where these animals are bred, sold, then released in paddocks to be shot."

The lion was most certainly not a breeding member of a wild population, so its death should not directly affect the status of the species, our source added. "On an organismal level, shooting a lion is indefensible," they said. "But on a conservation level, it's a double-edged sword. There simply is not enough money for conservation, but there is a lot of interest in hunting."

Taking aim at hunters, Luke Hunter, vice president of big cat conservation group Panthera, wrote in March, "The entire process that allows hunting big cats in Africa needs a complete overhaul to purge its widespread excesses and enforce far stricter limits on which lions can be hunted and how many. That would force hunters to produce the conservation benefits of which they constantly boast but only rarely produce."


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