Walter Palmer should have just stayed home in Minnesota. Instead, earlier this summer, Palmer flew to Zimbabwe to hunt lions. What he likely imagined would be an exhilarating safari adventure left him the target of international scorn after he killed Cecil, a collared, black-maned lion and beloved tourist attraction at Hwange National Park.
In addition to the more than $50,000 Palmer paid for the hunt, the dentist's expedition also cost him his livelihood, with online commenters trashing him across social media and forcing him to shutter his clinic. Importantly, it also cost the lives of an iconic animal and between eight and 10 cubs, who will likely be killed as rival lions take over Cecil's pride.
Palmer's hunt was no doubt an illegal undertaking. The dentist insists that he was assured the expedition was all above board, a claim difficult to accept given Palmer's previous felony conviction for making false statements to federal wildlife authorities in the United States after hunting a black bear, as well as the reported timeline of events leading up to and after Cecil's killing.
Rare White Lion Cubs Too Cute to Ignore: Photos
But legal trophy hunters assert their sport has benefits far beyond the simple thrill of a hunt for those capable of spending upwards of tens of thousands of dollars on expeditions.
Texas Tech cheerleader Kendall Jones found herself in a similar position as Palmer last year after photos of her alongside the carcasses of big game made the rounds on social media. Although Jones' hunts were perfectly legal, she went even further to defend herself, saying she would "continue to hunt and spread the knowledge of hunting and wildlife conservation," according USA Today.
Big game hunters who operate within the law are often adamant that their sport can be an investment in conservation. Palmer, in fact, paid $45,000 at an auction in 2009 to hunt elk in Minnesota, the proceeds of which went to preserving the elk habitat, as the New York Times reported.
The hunting community likes to portray their sport in an altruistic light. Eighty-six percent of hunters surveyed in a study published in the journal Animal Conservation in 2006 "would prefer to hunt in an area if they knew that a proportion of the proceeds went to impoverished local communities."
Safari Club International (SCI), an organization dedicated to protecting hunters' rights, took a clear stand on the Palmer hunt - following the news of the death of Cecil, the group suspended the memberships of Palmer and his guide pending the results of an investigation - but also contends that hunting and conservation go together with the right incentives.
First Lions Return to Rwanda After Two Decades
"Long experience has demonstrated beyond any argument that the surest way to persuade an indigenous population to preserve animals is by giving those animals financial value," the group writes on their website on the subject of lion conservation. "And the surest way to give them value is to allow them to be hunted, with the locals getting the proceeds."
And it's not just SCI that suggests trophy hunting and conservation can go hand-in-hand. Some conservation groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund, somewhat reluctantly support the idea that trophy hunting within limited contexts "has demonstrated environmental and community benefits."
When large predators like lions and other big cats are off-limits to hunters, they can instead be seen as a threat, as these animals can prey upon local livestock and occasionally even humans.
Aging animals beyond their reproductive lifespan can also endanger other members of the same species, as was the case with a black rhino in Namibia who fetched $350,000 at auction last May for the right to hunt him. The proceeds for the permit went to Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
In total, trophy hunting generates an estimated $200 million in revenue in rural areas of Africa, according to SCI.
Animal-rights advocates insist that the proceeds from safari tours where animals are shot with cameras instead of guns can be a bigger revenue generator.
According to a poll published in an opinion piece on behalf of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), "70.4 percent of Americans would pay to view lions on an African safari, while only 6.6 percent would pay to hunt them." Those numbers suggest wildlife tourism has a significantly larger potential audience than trophy hunting.
Corruption can also play a major role in the permit process, fueling unsustainable hunting through what is essentially legalized poaching. Furthermore, the IFAW points to a study that found that a mere 3 to 5 percent of hunting revenues actually reach fringe communities.
Finally, hunting can promote "reverse evolution," according to the IFAW. Hunters often prize the largest, healthiest specimens they can find. Weaker animals with smaller manes or shorter horns aren't harvested, and therefore may pass on their genes. Many legal hunts get around this, however, by targeting animals past their breeding prime.
Video: Why Do Zebras Have Stripes and Lions Have Manes?
Countries that have taken the step of banning trophy hunting have found mixed results. In 2014, Botswana president declared a ban on all commercial hunting, a move hailed by animal rights activists as an example to the rest of the continent.
Although Botswana ecotourism industry is flourishing, bringing in an estimated £227 million ($354 million) last years, according to The Guardian, the loss of millions of dollars trophy hunting brought in has cost livelihoods. Poaching is also on the rise. Additionally, locals are complaining about their farmland being destroyed by elephants, who are no longer seen as a benefit to the community, according to Business Insider.
Trophy hunting isn't a clear win or lose then when it comes to conservation efforts. With the issue not settled, the matter comes down to a question of philosophy. Is the killing of one animal a justifiable means of protecting an entire species, or can we encourage life without causing death?