Earlier this year, the Humane Society of the United States took a hidden camera to a trophy hunting convention in Las Vegas hosted by an international nonprofit that is at least nominally dedicated to wildlife conservation.
Trophy hunting—where large, rare animals like lions are killed simply to be stuffed and mounted—is a controversial sport. While it outwardly projects the image of a well-managed, conservation-focused sport industry, behind closed doors, a different scene unfolds.
The undercover video, which is just now being released, shows vendors hawking trips where tourists can hunt leopards, elephants, and other game, promising guaranteed kills. The Humane Society shot and edited the video and provided it to Motherboard. Motherboard blurred the faces of the individuals to protect their privacy, but otherwise did not alter it.
Nothing stated in the video, captured during the Safari Club International's annual convention in Las Vegas in February, is illegal or even all that surprising—similar claims can be found on the websites of trophy hunting tour companies—but it gives a raw look at the industry, which at its core is about killing rare animals for amusement in what can hardly be called a fair fight.
"These guys make it pretty simple," an attendee tells the investigator. "You don't have to be an expert to hunt."
Safari Club International is both a trophy hunting organization and a conservation non-profit. It drew international attention one year ago when a US member, Walter Palmer, shot and killed Cecil, a protected lion from the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Palmer said he did not realize the lion was protected, and the SCI suspended Palmer's membership and launched an investigation (but has not yet publicly stated the results of this investigation). But Cecil's death brought a lot of public heat on the world of trophy hunting.
Two vendors in the video are shown mocking Cecil. "What a load of B.S. that was," one man says. "I've been hunting there for 33 years. Who the friggin' hell is Cecil? I never heard of Cecil in my life." Another vendor jokes, of Cecil, that "we're looking for his brother."
Proponents of trophy hunting say it's a proven way to invest in conservation: Let some rich hunters pay for the privilege of killing, in a controlled way, a small handful of animals, then take the money to protect the species at large. And it makes logical sense: If trophy hunting draws in so much money, the industry probably doesn't want all its star prey to disappear from the planet.
However, opponents say the industry is poorly managed and question how much money actually makes it to conservation.
"If a country lacks the political will to strengthen and implement its conservation laws, or lacks the resources necessary to conduct populations surveys, prevent poaching, or protect and restore habitat, then killing additional animals through trophy hunting will only make the situation worse," read a recent report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which noted that scientific studies have found trophy hunting can be more detrimental than beneficial.
SCI purports to invest in conservation programs, but it also promotes the killing of vulnerable and endangered animals like lions, elephants, and rhinoceroses, and provides hunters with permits and access to safari trips designed solely for bagging a trophy kill. SCI did not respond to a request for comment, but it has said in the past that trophy hunting can provide valuable revenue to support conservation programs.
"SCI Foundation's Africa program assists governments and non-governmental organizations with scientifically monitoring and managing wildlife populations, setting wildlife policies and regulations, and regional cooperation to optimize the sustainable use of wildlife resources," its website states. "SCI Foundation has spent over $3.5 million on conservation in Africa since 2008, working with more than 11 species in over 13 countries."
At its annual five-day convention, SCI hosts vendors from around the globe offering up hundreds of expensive hunting excursions for sale or auction to its 20,000 attendees. Last year, the convention brought in $2.7 million.
It may sound counterintuitive, but hunting as a strategy for conservation has been a successful endeavor in the past: In the US, hunter conservation groups have made undeniable contributions to preserving our natural resources. Organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever build wildlife preserves and restore wetlands with the dual goal of conservation and keeping a healthy stock of hunting fowl. But is trophy hunting in the same category, or is it a convenient guise for a less controlled industry fueled by machismo?
Realistically, it's both. In some poorly-managed areas, it can be detrimental to wildlife. But when it's done right, even conservation experts defend the practice.
"Southern Africa's seen large scale recoveries of wildlife in the 20th century, built around hunting," Rosie Cooney, the director of the IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group, told the BBC last year.
But it can be tough to reconcile these two extremes. When footage of trophy animals being tortured before they're killed is leaked; or when a country bans the hunting of a species because it's not even sure how many it has left; or when a beloved lion is lured from his protected home only to be chased and killed; or when salesman pitching trophy hunts brags that "with hounds, your success rate is probably about 100 percent", it pokes holes in the idea that trophy hunting is an ideal way to raise conservation dollars.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated no media was allowed inside the event. While the Humane Society told us reporters from the Guardian and the BBC were not allowed inside, it can't confirm if other reporters had access.