07/09/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Lions, Liars And Masters Of The Universe

In this undated photo provided by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Cecil the lion rests in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. Two Zimbabweans arrested for illegally hunting a lion appeared in court Wednesday, July 29, 2015. The head of Zimbabwe’s safari association said the killing was unethical and that it couldn’t even be classified as a hunt, since the lion killed by an American dentist was lured into the kill zone. (Andy Loveridge/Wildlife Conservation Research Unit via AP)

Last month's killing of Cecil, a 13-year-old black-maned lion, by American dentist Walter Palmer, was met with global outrage and condemnation. However, this incident cannot just be treated as another sign of American (or White) exceptionalism (read sickness) because behind it is a much larger and thriving trophy industry.

A few facts will make the size and destructive power of this industry clear. Americans travelling to Africa make up more than 60% of the foreign-participated lion trophy hunts, according to John Jackson, president of the lobbying group Conservation Force. Eric Jensen, a University of Warwick professor who studies public engagement in wildlife issues, elaborates that the trophy industry caters to a certain need for dominance, of proving "masculinity" by hunting large animals.

"A kill in a fenced-off property is a relatively cheap USD 20,000, but the going price for targeting an animal on its own turf is USD 75,000. "

No wonder then that the lion population, which was once estimated to be around 200,000 in Africa, has dwindled to just about 30,000. While the trophy industry is not responsible for every death, it is worth noting that in Zimbabwe, 34 out of the 62 lions tagged died and, 24 were shot and killed by sport hunters. This small piece of statistics shows the damage this industry is doing to the conservation of the majestic animal in Africa.

The trophy industry is well organised, with a PR arm that spins tales of hunting contributing to the local economy. It is different story that the actual research indicates that only 3% of trophy industry revenue flows back to the local economy.

According to the Washington Post, one of the industry players, Safari Club International has a website which carries a record book that registers its members' kills of lions and other big animals so that anyone can track their kills and compare their rankings with other hunters. This record book, apparently, contains a list of over 2000 lions killed till date. The website also bears the false claim that "The African lion is one of the most challenging and dangerous hunts." The reality is that adult lions are not particularly frightened of humans (or shall we say they are trusting?) and are no match for "hunters" accompanied by a retinue of locals and professionals. It doesn't take much "bravery" to get close to and kill a lion with this set-up.

Once, a Masai tribesman in his late 40s told me of having killed six lions in his lifetime with bare hands and a machete, all in self defence during various encounters while traversing through the jungle. He did what he had to for survival, but even then his words were tinged with regret.

But let us return to the purchased "bravery" of hunters travelling to Africa. The "product" is available at different price points. A kill in a fenced-off property is a relatively cheap USD 20,000, but the going price for targeting an animal on its own turf is USD 75,000. And in order to secure supply lines, the mothers are isolated from their cubs to jumpstart ovulation.

"What is surprising is the fact that there was not even a whimper from India's animal welfare fraternity."

Of course, the trophy industry is not centred on lions alone, and offers a wide menu to demanding customers. According to the League Against Cruel Sports, hunter-tourists have slaughtered more than 9,000 bears, 2,500 highly endangered leopards and nearly 4,000 African elephants over the past 15 years. An estimated 15% of Canada and Alaska's wolf population of 6,000-7,000 is killed annually. Many of these are shot from helicopters!

Once drones and droning becomes cheaper, a hunt from the comfort of the drawing room will be on offer. Amazon will then deliver the carcass at the doorstep and the "brave" hunter can give his victory pose in his backyard! For a modest fee, an artist will Photoshop an African backdrop. An innovation like this will make hunting in Africa a low-end product and expand the market.

On the brighter side, the death of Cecil has created such a public uproar that the dentist had to close his practice and move elsewhere.

What is surprising is the fact that there was not even a whimper from India's animal welfare fraternity. Neither SPCA nor PETA nor any individual registered protest. Most often, these are the very people who shout themselves hoarse whenever anyone decides to do something about the burgeoning population of skeletal stray dogs that endanger children and pedestrians and cyclists in neighbourhoods. For a nation full of animal lovers, including Cabinet Minister Maneka Gandhi, is it ignorance, neglect or amnesia? Pardon me for being cynical in suspecting the silence to be a conscious choice, because for the global elite, which is the section to which most vocal Indian activists belong, any criticism can sound like treason. After all Cecil was a poor Zimbabwean.

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