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Cecil Outcry Prompts Major Airlines to Ban Shipment of Hunting 'Trophies'

In the face of mounting public pressure following Cecil the lion's death, three major US airlines have become the latest to ban the transportation of big game trophies on their planes.
August 4, 2015, 1:25pm
Cecil in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park in 2010. Photo via Flickr

Three major US airlines have announced they will ban big game trophies as freight after international outrage erupted over the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.

Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines confirmed on Monday they would no longer transport bodies or parts of what hunters call "the big five" — lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceros and buffalo.

Effective immediately, we will no longer transport buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion or rhino trophies.

— American Airlines (@AmericanAir)August 4, 2015

As recently as May, Delta had said that it would continue to allow such shipments — as long as they were legal. At the time, some international carriers prohibited such cargo.

But in the face of mounting pressure from campaign groups, and a petition signed by nearly 400,000 people on change.org to ban such shipments, it seems the airline has had a change of heart.

The move comes after American dentist, Walter Palmer, killed Zimbabwe's most famous lion in an allegedly illegal hunt last month, sparking worldwide uproar. Palmer lives in Minnesota, which is a major hub for Delta.

The company also has the most flights of any US airline to Africa, making it an easy option for America's many trophy-hunting tourists, with around 15,000 travelling to Africa to go on hunting safaris every year, according to Conservation Force.

According to data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, tourists legally kill at least 600 lions annually.

Jane Smart, the global director of IUCN's Biodiversity Conservation Group, told the Washington Post this number did not reflect the true severity of the practice, and that the global lion population was depleted by two percent each year due to legal hunting. Much of that hunting is undertaken by Americans, who are responsible for the deaths of about 64 percent of all African lions killed for sport, according to a 2011 report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Related: US Police Open Investigation as Lion-Killing Dentist Faces Threats

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry consultant, said that Delta was probably responding to pressure following the news of Cecil's killing.

"I don't think there was much of this shipment taking place, so there is minimal revenue loss and big PR gain for them," he told The Associated Press.

The company issued a brief statement noting that prior to Monday's ban, "Delta's strict acceptance policy called for absolute compliance with all government regulations regarding protected species."

Hours after Delta's announcement, United Airlines announced a similar policy, covering the same five animals. "We felt it made sense to do so," Charles Hobart, a United spokesman, said.

Related: The Illicit Wildlife and Resource Trade Is Financing Militias and Terrorists

The move comes after The Humane Society had urged the airline industry "to join the international fight to end trophy hunting."

"Lions, elephants and the other species that make up the Africa Big Five belong on the savanna, not on the walls and in home museums of wealthy people who spend a fortune to kill the grandest, most majestic animals in the world," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement.

"Delta has set a great example, and no airline should provide a getaway vehicle for the theft of Africa's wildlife by these killers."

According to the New York Times, a group of airlines including Air France, KLM, Iberia, IAG Cargo, Singapore Airlines and Qantas also signalled last week that they would no longer transport such cargo. South African Airways initiated the ban in April, and Emirates, Lufthansa and British Airways joined shortly after.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo via Flickr