We read with interest the recent letters criticizing the article about a leopard hunt in Zimbabwe ("Skinning a cat the hard way," June 17). The authors of those letters have every right to express their personal opposition to hunting. Nevertheless, the letters also suggested that trophy hunting is bad for Africa's wildlife and people. As professional biologists and committed conservationists, we want to set the record straight on that account.
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In the 1970s, the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species banned the importation of Africa's big cats, including leopards, into the United States and other countries. It was a conservation disaster. Immediately, local people changed from valuing cats as something that enriched their lives, to despising them as worthless vermin that killed their livestock and threatened their villages. Widespread shooting, snaring and poisoning caused populations to plummet.
Fortunately, the mistake was recognized and exemptions were granted under CITES to allow importation of cats taken from well-managed programs. The plummet quickly stopped, cats were again recognized as a resource of great value, and populations began to climb to healthy levels that support a sustainable harvest today.
Key in this system is the substantial flow of benefits to local people, which creates positive incentives to share the land with the big cats. Hunters pay hefty trophy fees and their activities create diverse and well-paying jobs.
On a side note, one letter criticized the article's photographic depiction of black gun bearers as stereotypical. This interpretation stems from 1950s Hollywood portrayals. Most certainly the men in the photos were locally recruited trackers, whose extraordinary skills are instrumental in the success of any African hunt. They earned a place in those photos, and we're certain they were proud to share in the recognition of a successful team effort. The jobs associated with trophy-hunting are among the most highly respected and well-paying livelihoods available in rural Africa, especially highly skilled trackers.
Without well-managed hunting, the only place these large cats would survive is that small portion of Africa contained in wildlife parks, where rural people have largely been excluded from the equation. The fact that healthy populations of Africa's big cats exist outside the parks is a success story made possible by well-managed hunting that enriches the lives of many, including all who choose to participate.
Winifred Kessler and