Safari Club International's Sick Plot to Turn Children Into Killers of Lions, Rhinos and Elephants

The fatal shot that killed Cecil the lion finally drew some much-needed attention to the shady business of international trophy hunting. Since the incident last June, 45 major airlines, including Delta, Virgin Atlantic and United, have banned the transportation of trophies—i.e. the heads and skins of wild animals—of the “big five”: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. A small victory for wildlife, but Cecil's death had an undeniably negative impact on Safari Club International, the organization that helped facilitate the lion’s death as well as that of countless other wild animals since its founding in 1971.


Still, it's nothing a little rebranding couldn’t fix.

Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who allegedly paid $54,000 for the "privilege" to kill Cecil, a beloved resident of the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe, was conveniently scorned by SCI for infractions and had his membership revoked. SCI also took the opportunity to make the contents of its website “members only.” In an effort to inspire sympathy amidst waning public support, the club overhauled one of its biggest PR vehicles: the International Wildlife Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

The so-called museum, located down the road from SCI’s global headquarters, is a 40,000-square-foot complex filled to the brim with taxidermied animals. Officially, the museum claims to be “dedicated to increasing knowledge and appreciation of the diverse wildlife of the world as well as explaining the role of wildlife management in conservation.” But the use of the terms “appreciation” and “conservation” are relative. 

On October 13, the museum will be hosting a three-day “Conservation Education Course.” The workshop, one of several new initiatives designed to draw visitors to the museum, is ostensibly geared toward providing educators with school curriculum materials with a focus on teaching children about conservation in accordance with a program created by Project Wild, a K-12 environmental education program run by the Council for Environmental Education, a Houston-based nonprofit. 

Though the direct link between Project Wild and SCI is fuzzy, it’s worth noting that the course includes archery lessons and a disclaimer on the application stating that participants agree any photos taken of them during the course may be used for "SCI promotions.” Alongside this workshop, the museum also regularly welcomes learners to its premises from both public and charter schools.

In light of the abovementioned activities, all focused on molding young minds, the critical question is, how exactly does Safari Club International define “conservation”? In essence, SCI and its various subsidiaries promote the questionable theory that trophy hunting is a necessary form of wildlife conservation, claiming that the large sums of money trophy hunters like Walter Palmer fork over are an essential part of maintaining financial support for wildlife.

But is this really the case? Most scientific research on this matter says no.

A paper titled "The Myth of Trophy Hunting as Conservation" presents a thorough breakdown of that research. Submitted to U.K. Environment Minister Elliot Morley, the paper was compiled by the League Against Cruel Sports, a U.K. charity dedicated to exposing the cruelty of sport hunting. Citing a 2004 study by the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa, the paper noted that eco-tourism (non-hunting-related safari) generates on average "more than 15 times the income of livestock or game rearing or overseas hunting.”

The paper goes on to explain the reasons for this:

Although hunters pay large sums, ordinary tourists are much more numerous. Hunters shoot an animal once, but photographic tourists can shoot it a thousand times and the animal is still there … Hunting safaris are seasonal and are open for a maximum of six months a year. They use very basic camps and staff rarely learn any other skills to support themselves during the rest of the year. In contrast, photographic safaris run all year. They use well-established, often luxurious camps or hotels. Staff are trained in management and other useful professional qualifications which advance their careers.

In order to uncover the true extent of SCI’s precarious position on conservation, one need look no further than the 2016 Arizona state tax budget. Despite the fact that Arizona is an austerity state with the lowest spending per student in the U.S., over $1 million was allocated by the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, for litigation against federal species protection and increased hunting access to state land.

Cyndi Tuell, an Arizona-based conservation attorney says these budget allocations are indicative of the questionable definition of conservation used by SCI and its affiliates.

"Whenever the Arizona Game and Fish Department—or anyone in the state government—talks about access for hunters, what they really mean is motorized access for hunters to drive their trucks or ATVs," Tuell told AlterNet, explaining that, while hunters already have access to "millions of acres of land for hunting," they have until now faced few restrictions on where they could drive their vehicles.

"What AZGF has been doing with support from groups like Safari Club International is pushing this idea that if a hunter can’t drive his truck up to an animal and either shoot it or put it in the back of his truck, he’s denied access," said Tuell. She points out that the implementation of this all-access measure is "incredibly destructive to the habitat” of the very animals these groups claim to protect. “Their conservation values when they talk about access are completely misplaced."

Tuell further explained that this measure also “pushes hunters who hunt the old-fashioned way off the land." In other words, these state tax dollars allocated to conservation and hunting end up helping neither actual hunters nor animals. The funds do, by contrast, help Safari Club International. Almost all of Arizona's game commissioners also happen to be members of SCI. Not a single wildlife biologist currently sits on AZGF's board.

"Wherever there’s good conservation, you can almost guarantee the AZGF will be there to litigate against it," said Tuell.

Just picture these twisted values being passed down to a new generation of children, eager to learn about wild animals. It's likely too late to change SCI’s definition of "conservation," but there may still be a chance to rectify its use of the term "education." A more accurate word might be brainwashing.

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