Airlines Put Hunting Trophies on Infrequent-Flyer List

Safari hunting has suffered a few setbacks recently. Ever since American dentist Walter Palmer bungled the killing of a well-known Zimbabwe lion named Cecil in 2015, international outrage has stung the industry, resulting in a sharp decline in the African safari hunting business.

The public criticized the overall unsavory character of trophy hunting—killing impressive “trophy quality” animals as a form of recreation. Data then started to reveal that most of the hunted animals are nearly tame, either because they are hand reared or at least raised in an enclosed area with frequent exposure to humans. Most trophy hunts in Africa are “canned hunts”—conducted within a fenced enclosure. There is no possibility for the animal to escape.

Trophy hunters might like to return home and brag about stalking dangerous animals across an exotic landscape, nights beneath a starry African sky and days trekking beneath the searing African sun. But in reality, there’s greater challenge in shooting a rabbit in the Pennsylvania woods. In most cases, the African hunting guide already knows which animal will be shot long before the hunter arrives at the camp. And it is not unknown for the safari operator to inject a dose of acepromazine or some other tranquilizer into the doomed creature and set out bait to attract the animal to a particular killing zone shortly before the hunter arrives. It’s all a big pay-to-slay farce motivated by narcissism, dazzle, and an aberrant psychological yearning to provoke envy at home.

Revelations about abuses in the safari hunting camps—a bit too much alcohol, overassertive personalities, incompetence with weapons, and other disagreeable factors—stoked indignation even further. Distraught governments, businesses, and individuals started to take action. Government agencies were subjected to pressure from two sides—wildlife protectionists demanding prohibition of hunted trophies, and hunting organizations insisting that imports continue. In North America and Europe, where the very large majority of trophy hunters live, government responses have tended to vacillate and are liable to change overnight.

A more consistent response has come from the airline industry, with major airlines announcing they were discontinuing the carriage of hunting trophies. These were simple business decisions.

The major US airlines—Delta, United, and American—all discontinued carriage of hunting trophies from Africa’s “big five” (elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, leopards, and buffaloes). Delta wins special applause because it stood up to a lawsuit by trophy hunting groups. Eventually, it won the case and the appeal. This victory is important because Delta flies to four African destinations, including Johannesburg, where the pressure to carry hunting trophies back to the United States is most intense.

For some time, European airlines such as Air France, KLM, British, and Lufthansa have had even more comprehensive policies against transport of trophies. KLM, for example, has refused to accept any hunting trophies since 1998. So it’s difficult for the trophy hunter to load his carcass on one of these airlines and return to the United States via Europe.

Some other airlines go even further. Hong Kong–based Cathay Pacific Airlines consults with conservation and animal protection societies before determining wildlife carriage policies. Today, it refuses to carry any hunting trophies whatsoever. It also forbids carriage of cetaceans for amusement or performance purposes. It declines carriage of animals going to laboratories and greyhounds intended for racing. Ivory and shark fins are also prohibited.

Faced with airline embargoes, trophy hunters have a predicament. Sure, they can purchase a license to kill trophy animals in some countries, and they can wrangle permits to import many of those trophies into the United States and elsewhere. But how do they get the carcass home when most airlines won’t accept dead wildlife as cargo?

There are a few holdouts. South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines are two carriers that continue to accept hunting trophies. Government-owned South African dithered on the trophy issue after the Cecil incident—first announcing a ban on carriage of trophies and then reversing itself a few months later, after being vigorously lobbied by the country’s professional hunters’ association. Ethiopian seems to have a policy of dodging the question: no policy statements, no media releases, no response to questions from AWI. Most recently, Ethiopian made its bad reputation that much worse by transporting 30 juvenile elephants from Zimbabwe to zoos in China.

But these carriers have only limited penetration in the United States. Ethiopian Airlines might carry a lion trophy from Africa to Washington’s Dulles International Airport—but then what? Who will carry the lion’s head from Dulles to Dallas, Dubuque, or Duluth? Yes, for the persistent, ways can be found. But they’re complicated and somehow inconsistent with the image of a triumphant trophy hunter marching home with his conquered trophy. It’s more like sneaking in the back door.

So in recent years, the nimrods have had to find something else to do with their time, and the African safari-outfitting companies have suffered loneliness and financial decline. They’ve pestered the airlines, for certain, but to no avail. So then they tried to get someone more influential to pester the airlines, but that fizzled also. They tried to persuade the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to approach the CEOs of major airlines and explain to them how useful and important trophy hunting is.

Zimbabwe produced a document, aired at the most recent CITES Standing Committee meeting in Geneva, protesting that “the recent decisions of several airlines and maritime shipping companies to stop transporting/carrying legally acquired wildlife products and specimens are having undesirable and significant negative impact.” That document also said, “We believe CITES promotes sustainable and legal international trade in a way that insures species survival.” That last sentence is dangerous because it asserts that the regulator of international wildlife trade should be the facilitator of such trade—and that can lead to catastrophe.

Nowhere in the text of CITES is there a word about promoting wildlife trade. Article 2 of the treaty defines its fundamental principles, and they are entirely focused on regulating trade in species that are listed on its appendices. The dangers of regulators becoming facilitators are profound—just remember 2008: The US government–sponsored financial service corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made it much easier for subprime borrowers with terrible credit histories to get very large real estate mortgage loans. At about the same time, regulators at the Federal Reserve Bank relaxed controls on the financial services industry and facilitated its ability to make ever-riskier transactions. The regulators became facilitators and both the real estate and the financial services industries crashed, with terrible consequences for many people.

The lesson should be applied to wildlife regulators, whether CITES, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or state wildlife agencies: There is serious danger when such entities get too cozy with the interests they are mandated to regulate. Fortunately, the CITES parties politely and adroitly sidestepped the Zimbabwe proposal to pressure airline CEOs.

The Zimbabwe strategy also seeks to tarnish animal welfare interests as somehow being misanthropic. They have protested that blocking transport of hunting trophies damages the livelihoods of poor people in rural African communities. It is a common refrain from apologists for trophy hunting that animal welfarists don’t care about people. That’s a big lie. Quite the contrary, it’s the trophy hunters who don’t give two hoots about whose toes they step on while stalking their prey.

It’s part of the charade, seeking sympathy by using spurious arguments about how important trophy hunting is to impoverished communities in rural Africa. Otherwise, who in their right mind could possibly sympathize with a wealthy foreign hunter who botched the bow-and-arrow execution of a habituated lion?

Just what type of rural livelihoods does trophy hunting support? Well, there’s the lady who does the hunter’s laundry, and the fellow who serves the hunter’s “sundowner” whisky at the end of the day, and the people earning minimum wage for sweeping up the camp and washing the dishes. Not much more. People in rural villages normally receive about 3 percent of the money paid by a trophy hunter for a safari. The big profits are distributed between the safari outfitters who arrange the hunts and the government offices that sell the hunting permits. So it should be expected that it’s the outfitters and governments that are shouting the loudest right now.

If the safari hunters were truly interested in supporting the livelihoods of rural Africans, they could follow the example AWI is setting in Senegal. (See AWI Quarterly, fall 2017.) Let them pay to employ local people to build infrastructure and pursue other tasks needed to protect wildlife. And they could also provide ancillary projects, such as creating a village vegetable garden and assuring better water conservation for wildlife, domestic animals, and people. This is work that has a more benevolent impact on livelihoods while promoting a quality of life that encourages rural people to live in peace with nature and wildlife.

The trophy hunter’s deceit about livelihoods is a subterfuge that extends to all commercial exploitation of wildlife. Similar arguments are applied across the several industries that depend upon trapping or killing wild animals for commercial profit. Those Gucci women’s python boots retailing at $3,850 were made from a python skin that the wholesaler sold for about $220. The snake hunter earned about $20 for catching and killing the snake. It’s pretty clear who has the better livelihood in this business. The system isn’t set up to provide living wages to the poor.

Similar mark-ups are common across the wildlife trade spectrum. A local hunter in the developing country normally receives about 1 or 2 percent of what an item is sold for at retail. That other 98 percent is banked in the accounts of businesses in industrialized countries.

Assertions about trophy hunting providing conservation benefits are also without merit. For example, some trophy hunters claim they target only post-reproductive males. They say they hunt only the older bulls who no longer contribute to the population recovery of a species. The loss of these unproductive bulls, so the story goes, simply provides more space and resources for the younger generation and its efforts to reproduce.

More than a few grains of salt are necessary to make such flapdoodle palatable. Older males usually make terrible trophies. Usually they’re battered, scarred, and a bit gaunt. Horns and tusks of older males are often cracked and chipped. Manes tend to be tattered and matted—all the consequence of a long life in the wild. A robust male early in his prime usually makes a much more attractive trophy.

Trophy hunters almost invariably seek the individual animals with the largest, cleanest, and most symmetrical horns or tusks, or the biggest, most impressive manes, or other characteristics that define them as “trophy.” Very often, these impressive characteristics are precisely what would otherwise help them survive. Trophy hunting effectively removes these animals, along with the important genes that would help determine the size and proportions of horns, tusks, and manes of future generations.

Wildlife enthusiasts are certainly aware of these issues and have been campaigning to stop the abuses associated with trophy hunting. Initiatives such as persuading governments to prohibit the import of such trophies have met with sporadic success, however. Politics tends to be somewhat unreliable. Citizens have seen their own governments change policy and rules with alarming ease and very little consultation.

Airlines thus represent a more reliable pathway to change. If airlines refuse to carry trophies, most hunters won’t go through the effort of traveling great distances to kill a trophy animal that they can’t take home and brag about.

But airlines need to be encouraged. If the airline you fly with refuses to carry wildlife trophies, please write a letter to its CEO and applaud its policy. And if it doesn’t have such a policy, write a letter to the CEO anyway stating that it is in the interest of the airline, and the interest of the world’s living treasures, to decline the carriage of trophies. It’s up to us to assure them that their customers care, and are paying attention.