Airlines Take Flight from Trophy Hunting; When Will Congress Get on Board?

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The tragic death of Cecil the lion--senselessly shot by an American dentist with a bow and arrow and left to suffer for hours before being shot again--has exposed the pay-to-slay subculture of wealthy people who spend a fortune to kill the grandest, most majestic animals in the world. The public outrage shows no signs of slowing down.

Virtually overnight, a cascade of major airlines has banned the transportation of spoils from the trophy killing industry--principally elephants, rhinoceros, lions, leopards, and buffalo, or the "Africa Big Five" sought for self-aggrandizement in the Safari Club International record books. Delta, United, American and others are all in flight from the destruction and death meted out by trophy hunters on the African continent.

But when will Congress get on board? Even now, there are lawmakers working quietly to appease the bullies and fat-cats of the trophy hunting corps. While most of the world is convulsed over Cecil, some members of Congress are springing into action to grant special favors for one of the smallest and most elite groups of trophy hunters in the world.

Walter Palmer is now a household name. What isn't so widely known is that there are thousands of ultra-wealthy trophy hunters just like him, and that 41 of them are lobbying Congress for a wholly unprincipled bail-out that would blow a hole in the heart of the Endangered Species Act.

Bills in the House and Senate--the "Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act" sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and the "SHARE Act" sponsored by Reps. Rob Wittman, R-Va., Tim Walz, D-Minn., Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., and Gene Green, D-Tex.--both provide a sweetheart deal to help 41 big-bucks, trophy-mad hunters import the heads of rare polar bears they shot in Canada. None of these millionaire trophy hunters, who paid as much as $50,000 each to shoot a polar bear, ate the meat. They just went on a head-hunting exercise in the Arctic, and paid a fortune to do so--all for the head and the hide and the bragging rights that go along with it.

U.S. law bars import of these trophies because polar bears are in terrible trouble with their very survival at stake, thanks to climate change, commercial trade, and over-hunting. These animals were killed during expensive trophy safaris in Canada at a time when the Bush Administration had proposed listing the polar bear as a threatened species--the U.S.'s contribution to conservation. These fat-cat hunters proceeded knowing that the door would be closed to polar bear trophy imports, but confident that they could always call upon friends in Congress to do their bidding and get them an exemption.

Indeed, Congress has several times granted similar import allowances--a de facto repeal of the import ban--sending a message to trophy hunters that they can continue killing imperiled species and eventually exert their influence to get approval to bring home their trophies. The cumulative impact of this corrosive pandering encourages more reckless killing of these animals around the globe.
The whole sordid business is fueled by competitive killing programs that give "hunting achievement" awards and "grand slams" for kills in specific categories. For example, hunters at the Safari Club International compete for the "North American 29" award, which requires killing a minimum of 29 species and subspecies of animals, including the polar bear, in North American habitat. They also strive to earn the "Bears of the World" award, which requires killing five bears, such the polar bear and Eurasian and Siberian brown bears, on a number of continents.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering a rule to list the African lion as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Should all the Walter Palmers of the world seeking the "Africa Big Five" award now rush to be among the last hunters to bag the king of the jungle? That acceleration of killing inverts the very purpose of the law.

These trophy hunters don't care that African lion populations and polar bear populations are declining fast. They don't care that time is running out to slow the mortality of these majestic creatures. But Congress should.

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