Waterberg, South Africa – Something moves in the thicket. Hunter Stan Burger and his tracker approach quietly, set the rifle up on a tripod to ensure its stability, and take aim.
A shot rings out. Moments later, the two South Africans emerge from the bush, carrying the carcass of a bush pig covered with coarse yellowish hair, a wound bleeding in its neck.
“A clean kill,” Burger says. “He was eating grass, and he was stone dead the moment the bullet hit him. Fortunately, the wind held for us” – coming from a direction which did not allow the prey to smell human presence.
The hunt took place in northern Limpopo province in an area measuring 2 700 hectares, one in approximately 10 000 private game ranches in South Africa, where wealthy foreigners pay thousands of dollars to hunt some of the continent’s most emblematic animals.
The trophy hunting industry run by professionals like Burger is worth more than 1 billion rand (77 million dollars) annually, according to government figures.
But after the killings of GPS-collared lion Cecil and of an unusually large elephant in neighbouring Zimbabwe sparked international outrage, and amid reports that some of the trophy hunters in South Africa target half-tame lions, the reputation of the industry has suffered.
It is “morally indefensible” to hunt animals for trophies, lion rights campaigner Linda Park said. “It is a relic from colonial days, with the great white hunter.”
Several airlines have announced that they will no longer transport big-game trophies, while Australia banned the import of lion trophies and the European Union toughened restrictions on trophy imports earlier this year.
Foreign hunters exported about 44 000 trophies from South Africa in 2013, according to the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA).
The vast majority of the hunters come from the United States, while other markets include Europe, Australia and Japan.
The prices of the animals range from $400 (about R5 304 @ R13,26/$) for an impala antelope to up to $80 000 (about R1.06 million @ R13.26/$) for a rhinoceros.
Many hunters buy a seven-day package allowing them to hunt five animals for $7 000 to $8 000, according to Burger, who will take up the presidency of PHASA in November.
Those aiming for the “big five” – lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros – may pay $200 00 for 21 days.
The hunters often stay in luxury tents at game lodges from where they go out in four-wheel drive vehicles, scanning the landscape for game to stalk on foot with their guide.
When the animals the hunter wants are not available on the game ranch, the organizer may take him or her to South African provincial wildlife reserves, or to Zimbabwe or Mozambique.
The US dentist who killed Cecil only wounded him with an arrow, allowing him to flee and suffer for 40 hours before he was found and finished off.
South African trophy hunting organizers admit that some of their clients need to be trained at shooting, but say that many are experienced hunters.
“They come here for an African adventure they have long dreamed of,” Burger said.
The industry says the high fees paid by the hunters have rehabilitated natural habitats, allowing the numbers of wild animals in South Africa to increase. Game ranches now contain an estimated 16 million animals on 20 million hectares, according to PHASA.
The industry also says it gives direct employment to more than 100 000 people.
The meat of hunted animals is often donated to ranch employees or local communities, while ranch owners prevent poaching by hiring rangers and by encouraging locals to see wildlife as an economic asset, according to PHASA.
Such arguments do not convince animal rights campaigners.
Ainsley Hay from South Africa’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says the rise in numbers of “animals confined to small unnatural camps or captive situations … is not a true reflection of an increase in biodiversity.”
Trophy hunting has not reduced poaching in South Africa, while “merely giving communities the meat and offcuts from trophies is not benefiting them in the long run,” Hay said by e-mail.
Campaigners also dispute statements by hunters that they mainly target older animals.
Trophy hunting “is unnecessary and not in the interest of the individual animals or the species as a whole,” Hay said, calling for a ban on the practice.
Such views however get no support from South Africa’s government. Trophy hunting makes a “substantial contribution” to the economy and “promotes private investment in wildlife,” said Magdel Boshoff from the Department of Environmental Affairs.
“Hunting is not just about killing,” but about the experience of being in the wild, Burger said, criticizing hunters who pose for photographs with their foot on the dead animal.
“The life of something has just been taken,” he said after shooting the bush pig. “You have to show a little respect.”