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Lion trophy hunting - cost/benefit wins over ethics


                                                        Big trophy, good price, no sweat

The good news is that trophy hunting numbers (when comparing the last five year period 2002-2006 to the most recent five year period 2007-2011) have decreased for wild lions in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The bad news is that “trophy” hunting of captive bred lions (“canned hunting”) in South Africa is on the increase. Here we explore some of the possible reasons for these trends.

The decrease in wild lion hunting

Overall, hunting of wild lions in Tanzania and Zimbabwe has dropped by an average of 45% over the past five years (Table 1). In their heyday Tanzania exported an average of 261 wild lions per year (1994-2003) and Zimbabwe an average of 139 wild lions per year (1990-1999). These two countries are still by far the biggest exporters of wild lion trophies, but there seems to be a waning interest among lion trophy hunters from the five major importing countries (Table 2).

This drop can be explained as follows:

a) Cost. Hunting wild lions is expensive, and given a cheaper option in South Africa with “canned hunts”, cost-conscious hunters looking for bargains might be avoiding safaris that can set them back $100,000 to settle for a trophy that will cost far less than half that.

b) Availability. Both Tanzania and Zimbabwe have allowed shooting of lions at an unsustainable rate in past years, with the result that fewer and fewer lions occur in hunting concessions. In Tanzania, hunters were consequently shooting lions as young as two years old, a practice that is now no longer “allowed” by the Government though enforcement is another matter. In Zimbabwe, hunters lure lions out of protected areas to be shot, and shoot lions within protected areas with complicity and corruption of the wildlife authorities. Allegedly, some hunting concessions in Zimbabwe are now so depopulated of trophy lions that they are importing captive bred lions from South Africa to be shot.

c) Success rate. Clients must pay for their safaris (but not the trophy fees) whether or not they manage to shoot a lion. Some hunters, a small minority, are willing to spend money on successive trips to finally shoot “their” lion, but the word does get out among the hunting community when increasing numbers of would-be lion hunters keep returning empty-handed.

The increase in hunting of captive bred lions in South Africa can be explained as follows:

a) Cost. As mentioned above, it is far cheaper to shoot a lion in South Africa than anywhere else as these are “put and take” hunts – the lion is supplied by a breeder, put in a fenced enclosure, and taken by the hunter. Female lions can be shot for about $4,000 - $5,000, and males start from about $15,000 (depending on the “quality” of the trophy – shooting an inbred white lion can cost $30,000).

b) Availability. There is no problem with availability, as each hunter is pre-assigned a lion before they arrive. The level of availability is only determined by the rate at which breeders can supply trophy quality lions from a captive population estimated at about 5,000 animals. Some operators even provide pictures and prices of the lions available to prospective clients.

c) Success rate. Any “canned” lion hunter is guaranteed success, as every lion available to be bought is assigned to a particular client. There is no hunting season. The hunting operators generally “demand” a seven to ten-day safari, and the “hunter” might not be provided with the lion to shoot until some days have passed. The first few days are spent “searching” for the lion by the gullible client on the larger game ranches, but when the lion is set out in the right area, the client is taken straight there. Lions might have only been transported the evening before, and are generally provided with a bait to keep them fixed in a particular spot. As these are lions very used to humans, clients can generally walk right up to their target to take an “easy” shot.

d) A variety of weapons and tactics. “Canned” lion hunters can shoot lions from their car or only have to walk a short distance to bag their trophy. “Canned” lions can be shot by rifle, bow, black powder rifle, crossbow or handgun. “Canned” lions can be shot in small enclosures or on fenced ranches.


Lion trophy hunting is touted by proponents as being a conservation measure – if lion hunting is stopped, large swathes of trophy hunting concessions in Tanzania, for example, will no longer be commercially viable. This will mean, according to the hunting operators, that all such hunting concessions will inevitably become havens for poachers and cattle. The newly appointed Director of Wildlife in Tanzania was motivated to write an Op-Ed article for the New York Times (Saving Lions by Killing Them), specifically quoting the need by Tanzania for income from lion trophy hunting. Sadly he got all his numbers wrong. He states that “an average of 200 lions are shot each year, generating about $1,960,000 in revenue”, likely salivating at the prospect. Actually, we can see that not only has lion hunting decreased by 44% over the past five years, but in 2011 a provisional total of only 57 lions were shot for an income to Government (trophy fees) of $456,000.

Is it worth continuing lion hunting in Tanzania for the sake of 57 hunters going home with their trophies balanced against an uncertain future of the species exacerbated by excessive hunting offtake in the past? What is the future of lion hunting in Tanzania now that bargain basement hunting is available in South Africa?

Also, what does this say about all the “hunter-conservationists” we read so much about? They supposedly shoot lions to benefit the species by spending lots of money to employ people and benefit communities, build schools and clinics, and put funds in Government coffers to be used for wildlife protection. But if they are defecting at a great rate from such high moral stances to shoot captive raised lions in South Africa, how serious about conservation were they in the first place? It is beginning to look like all they cared about was a lion trophy by any means or standards - underage, lured from a protected area, or captive-raised?  

Picture credit:

Table 1: Total number of lions hunted in the three top lion trophy export countries during the five year periods 2002-2006 and 2007 to 2011. Changes between the most recent and the previous five year periods are shown in the last column.

Export Country

Total 2002-2006

Total 2007-2011

% change




Down 44%




Down 46%

South Africa



Up 122%

Table 2: Change in export numbers from Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa from the five year period 2002-2006 to the most recent five year period 2007-2011 to the listed importing countries.

Importing country

Tanzania exports

Zimbabwe exports

South Africa exports


Down 29%

Down 27%

Up 109%


Down 19%

Down 85%

Up 209%


Down 85%

Down 44%

Up 168%


Down 56%

Down 77%

Up 85%


Down 49%

Down 40%

Up 65%

Please support our work if you can to conserve the remaining fragile lion populations. Thank you.

Posted by Pieter Kat at 17:13

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