Treasure or trophy? Legal hunt for big elephants leaves many conflicted

Inside the world of trophy hunting
Inside the world of trophy hunting

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    Inside the world of trophy hunting

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Inside the world of trophy hunting 01:50

Story highlights

  • An elephant with massive tusks was killed recently in a legal hunt just outside a national park in Zimbabwe
  • Zimbabwe has lost 26 elephants to poachers using cyanide in the past month

(CNN)This time it is not a lion named Cecil, but an unnamed "tusker" elephant whose death is causing controversy.

Conservationists estimate it is one of the largest tuskers they have seen in the region in 50 years, each tusk estimated to weigh around 55 kilograms (120 pounds). It's so large it looks prehistoric, almost like a wooly mammoth.
    One of the tusks of the killed elephant.
    The hunt that killed this elephant was completely legal. It followed all the regulations and paperwork. In Zimbabwe, like Tanzania, South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique and other countries, controlled hunting is legal.
    How it often works is that a professional hunter will bid for a quota of animals from the government. For example: six elephants, four buffaloes, two lions, and smaller game such as gazelles.
    But there are restrictions. Hunters can't kill endangered animals, and certain ethical considerations prevail. It's considered unethical, for example, to hunt a young bull elephant who can probably still mate. However, it's illegal to kill young females that could be nursing a baby.
    Zimbabwe won't press charges against Cecil the lion's killer
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      Zimbabwe won't press charges against Cecil the lion's killer

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    Zimbabwe won't press charges against Cecil the lion's killer 00:54
    But otherwise, trophy hunting is an issue of documentation. As long as a hunter has the necessary permits and has stayed within a designated area, in Zimbabwe, nature's bounty is at a fee-payer's fingertips.
    This hunt took place just outside Gonarezhou National Park. Like many parks across Zimbabwe, it has borne the brunt of what a collapsed economy does to a country's wildlife. Poaching is rife. Some park rangers in Zimbabwe say in the more remote parks, they have lost around 75% of their wildlife. In the past month alone, Zimbabwe has lost dozens of elephants to poaching after they were poisoned with cyanide. The death toll last week was 14; it's now risen to 26.
    What happened to the first elephant was not poaching -- it was regulated. But regulated or not, it's hard to understand why anyone would want to kill a big, beautiful animal that's so full of life. But it is important to know there are several schools of thought about it.
    Conservationists and many professional guides say the unnamed tusker should not have been killed. They say the bull elephant was a prized, amazing tourist attraction that had most likely wandered across an invisible line from the national park to a hunting concession or "block" where it became a trophy and fair game for hunters. They maintain that through photographic safaris and tourism, the elephant would make more money alive then dead.
    Hunters, however, argue that regulated trophy hunting brings much-needed money into communities. They say the elephant that was killed was so old he would have already been past his breeding capabilities, and he would have likely already passed on to future generations the genes for his long glorious tusks. They would rather shoot the old elephants. And, they say, the hunt was legal. The hunters even had a national park ranger from Zimbabwe with them when they shot it. The death of this tusker also means money, some of which filters back into the economy and local community. An elephant hunt varies in cost from $25,000 to $75,000 per trophy.
    Conservationists argue that, as lucrative as that sounds, animals like this elephant will always be worth more alive than dead. They point out you can shoot an animal only once, and when you have, you lose the enjoyment of looking at it forever. And whether poached illegally inside the park, or killed legally just kilometers outside of it, the animal still ends up dead, perhaps with its head stuffed and mounted over the fireplace of the hunter who killed it. They are pushing for a ban on hunting, similar to what exists in Kenya today.
    This week, Walter Palmer, the American dentist who shot Cecil the lion, had all the charges against him dropped. His paperwork, according to Zimbabwe's National Parks, was all in order. The professional hunter who was escorting Palmer is now facing only minor charges, which will likely result in fines. Those fines, because Zimbabwe's hunting laws are so antiquated, are still listed in Zimbabwe dollars. No one has used Zimbabwe dollars since 2009 and the Zim dollar officially does not exist anymore.
    Gonarezhou means "place of many elephants," according to the park's website. But if illegal poaching and legal hunts in the area continue, that name may become a sad irony.