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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Trophy Madness, As Seen on TV

The world has reacted in outrage to a photo of TV host Melissa Bachman posing next to a dead lion she had shot and killed in South Africa, and the entire episode has shined another spotlight on the disturbing subculture that seeks to exploit imperiled species by shooting them for trophies—and filming it for TV entertainment. There seems to be a trend in trophy hunting reality shows that attempt to glamorize this killing, essentially amounting to a series of wildlife snuff films—and the animals are paying the ultimate price.  
Whether it’s Bachman and her lion or the recently canceled “Under Wild Skies,” in which NRA lobbyist Tony Makris shoots an African elephant in the face in Botswana and celebrates with a bottle of Champagne, these programs glorify a shameful trophy hunting industry that is harming wildlife populations and conservation efforts around the globe and putting human selfishness on display in the most disturbing way.
BachmanTrophy seekers aren’t focused on population management or putting food on the table. Instead they seek out the rarest and most iconic species they can find—often to get their names in the Safari Club International record books, which give awards such as the “Grand Slam” and “Inner Circle” for shooting a prescribed list of animals. For example, the “Trophy Animals of Africa” award requires the hunter to kill 79 different African species to win the highest honor. It doesn’t even matter whether the trophy was from an endangered wild animal or captive-raised one; in fact, Bachman’s lion was likely comfortable around photo-snapping tourists and shot on a canned hunt—at a fenced-in facility where shooters kill native and exotic big game animals trapped within enclosures.
This Orwellian concept of shooting endangered or rare species in order to save them still gets traction in some circles. Last month the Dallas Safari Club’s decision to auction off the opportunity to kill a black rhino—one of the most endangered species on the planet—came under fire. They justified it by saying the money raised at auction would go toward rhino conservation on the ground, but you don’t have to shoot an endangered animal in order to give philanthropically to conservation efforts. The groups truly interested in saving the rhino are funding anti-poaching efforts and working to reduce the demand for rhino horns.   
And other forms of hunting majestic creatures for their heads and hides continue on our side of the globe. Congress is still considering ill-conceived legislation that would allow American trophy hunters to import sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada, even though the polar bear is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Allowing a series of so-called “one-time exemptions” for individual hunters just encourages them to kill more imperiled animals around the world and put them in storage until they get an import allowance from their political allies sometime down the road. Just this past week, despite significant opposition from hundreds of thousands of residents, Michigan began its first-ever trophy hunt focused on a declining population of wolves—a hunt based on fraudulent claims about wolves haunting daycare centers and staring at people through glass doors, which never happened (and most of the livestock depredation occurred on one reckless farm that left cattle carcasses out to attract wolves).
The public generally supports some forms of hunting, especially for food. But relatively few people have tolerance for trophy hunting in its purest form and the irresponsible killing of rare creatures. Following the controversy surrounding Makris’ elephant kill, NBC Sports wisely removed his program from its line-up, and last year following revelations about Bachman’s blood-lust hobby, National Geographic dropped her as a contestant from an Alaskan survival show. It’s a sign that these wildlife killing shows don’t have a place with mainstream audiences.
While Bachman’s hunt apparently was legal, the fact is that African lions are threatened with extinction in the wild. The HSUS, Humane Society International, The Fund for Animals, and other organizations have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the African lion as an endangered species because its population has declined by more than half in the last 30 years and it occupies only one-quarter of its historic range. The U.S. is the world’s largest importer of African lion parts, as hunting trophies and for commercial purposes.
We must turn around the decline of these species, and callous trophy killing is part of the problem, not the solution. As we struggle to recover dwindling populations of wildlife before it’s too late, TV and film producers would do well to focus on celebrating the natural beauty of the animals and the critical efforts to protect them in the wild—and put aside their strange desire to showcase the killing of animals just for a trophy over the mantle or a name in the record books.


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