The reaction was as instant as it was intense. When the US television host Melissa Bachman posted a picture of herself, gun in hand, grinning next to the huge, beautiful, but supine and dead lion that she had just killed, she had to close her Facebook and Twitter accounts almost immediately, as the messages of unbridled hate engulfed them.
Hundreds of thousands signed an online petition to urge South Africa, where the hunt took place, to ban her from visiting the country. Bachman, who has described herself as “an avid hunter”, has been dubbed the most hated woman in South Africa.
In the court of public opinion, Ms Bachman’s guilt was beyond question. But she had broken no laws. The lion, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List is “vulnerable” but not endangered.
Big-game hunting is legal in South Africa, and its supporters argue that the money it generates has a vital role in conservation. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees. Much of conservation is driven at least partly by compassion - to protect rare, remarkable species for future generations. Many are understandably of the view that finding a place within that conservation effort for the legal shooting of the very animals that are being protected, can never be the correct policy.
In Kenya, big game hunting is illegal. It has been since the 1970s, and the concept of reintroducing legal hunting remains anathema to many. East and central Africa’s conservation problems are different from those in wealthier southern Africa, and their elephant numbers are greatly fewer, too. Rampant corruption would make it difficult to control an industry that could be open to abuse, while an influx of rich foreigners permitted to kill animals for big money would infuriate impoverished local communities banned from hunting for bushmeat.
“No matter how good something looks on paper – in that the money will go back to conservation – if you can’t police the laws, then you can’t make it work,” said Susie Weeks, who runs the conservation charity Mount Kenya Trust. “That goes for everything in a country rife with corruption.”
She points to the example of Tanzania, where a handful of disreputable safari companies have, she says, allowed the wealthiest hunters, particularly from the Gulf states, to hunt outside set boundaries, and even kill animals that are not approved.
Some private conservancies in Kenya have used money generated from high-end tourism – where a stay in a luxury lodge can cost upwards of $700 a night – to fund anti-poaching squads and upgrade fences, but the government-run national parks generally remain too underfunded and ill-equipped to tackle poaching with any degree of success. In areas where Space for Giants operates, the charity The Independent is supporting with its Christmas campaign, poaching has fallen by 64 per cent, making it among the most successful on the continent. But its work is expensive.
A surge in poaching in the past three years has pushed some conservationists to warn that wild elephant herds may not exist in Kenya within a decade. Official figures suggest that 384 elephants were killed by poachers last year, but the actual number slain is thought to be two to three times higher than that.
Wealthy foreigners flock to Africa every year in search of the ultimate big game trophies, and will pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege. Hunting remains legal in countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Namibia.
The pro-hunting lobby argues that the money is ploughed back into conservation and anti-poaching measures, and ensures the survival of a species that might otherwise be poached out of existence. “If we don’t generate the funds out of [hunting], everything would be killed,” said Hannes Nel, who owns the Maroi conservancy in South Africa that hosted Ms Bachman during her stay in the country. “As soon as something has a value, it is worthwhile looking after it.”
The figures involved in legal big game hunting are huge. According to African Sky Hunting, a South African company that organises trophy hunts, an elephant carries a $35,000 price tag, a lion a $22,000 tag, and a leopard $15,000. “The problem with consumptive utilisation [as legal hunting is known] is that it turns animals into commodities,” said Max Graham, the CEO of Space for Giants. “And it results in farmed, fenced landscapes. What you risk losing, ultimately, is the wild.”
The money, argues Nel, goes back into the wildlife, protecting the animals’ natural habitat from being converted into other uses, such as agriculture, while paying for anti-poaching units and equipment. But killing an animal to try and save its home will for many always be a bridge too far.