JOHANNESBURG – In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt headed a Smithsonian hunting and trapping expedition in Africa that included colleagues who prepared the wildlife he killed for shipment back to America. The former U.S. president and his son, Kermit, shot hundreds of animals.
"Really, I would be ashamed of myself sometimes, for I felt as if I had all the fun," Roosevelt later said in a speech. "I would kill the rhinoceros or whatever it was, and then they would go out and do the solid, hard work of preparing it. They would spend a day or two preserving the specimen while I would go and get something else."
Despite the killing spree, Roosevelt also advocated "a happy mean" between hunting and preserving wildlife sanctuaries, foreshadowing today's debate on hunting that has become more polarized as poaching and human encroachment have vastly reduced wildlife in sub-Saharan Africa. An international outcry erupted after an American dentist killed a well-known lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe last month in an allegedly illegal hunt. Wildlife authorities in Zimbabwe on Sunday reported another allegedly illegal lion kill involving a different American in the same area in April.
Many "Big Five" hunters believe that what they do is a legitimate sport, conserves wildlife by funneling funds back into game reserves and can be the ultimate personal challenge in a natural setting.
"Hunters are normal, living, nature-loving people," said Adri Kitshoff, chief executive officer of the Professional Hunters' Association of South Africa. "They're not bloodthirsty killers."
Some 7,600 foreign hunters traveled to South Africa in 2013, more than half of them from America, according to association figures.
Numerous slick websites tout hunting tours. South Africa's Palala reserve offers a 7-day beginner's "safari" for more than $5,000 in which clients hunt species including a large antelope and a warthog. Martin Pieters Safaris says it provides "ethical, fair-chase safaris" in Zimbabwe and describes the suspense of a leopard hunt:
"In the shadows you wait . as silent and as quiet as the dark night ... this is what it is all about sitting motionless a mere 60 yards from your bait, waiting for your chance, knowing that even though you have done everything right, he still might not come, that is leopard hunting!"
Critics say the Zimbabwe cases points to wider irregularities in the trophy-hunting industry. Online photos of triumphant hunters posing beside the carcasses of African wildlife only deepen the gulf for hunting opponents.
Minnesota dentist Walter James Palmer lacked authorization to kill Cecil the lion, according to Zimbabwean authorities who say they will seek his extradition. The lion was lured out of Hwange National Park, wounded with a bow and then tracked down and shot, conservationists said.
Hunters can pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot a lion, making it an exclusive club. King Juan Carlos of Spain made an elephant hunting trip to Botswana in 2012 at the height of Spain's financial crisis. Word got out after he was injured on the expensive expedition, and his reputation plummeted. The king, who abdicated in 2014, apologized for the trip.
In "African Game Trails," an account of his expedition, Roosevelt described himself as a "hunter-naturalist" and said he and his sons' kills included 11 elephants, 17 lions and 20 rhinos.
"Game butchery is as objectionable as any other form of wanton cruelty or barbarity; but to protest against all hunting of game is a sign of softness of head, not of soundness of heart," Roosevelt wrote.
In recent years, poachers have killed tens of thousands of elephants annually to meet demand for ivory in Asia. In South Africa, home to most of the world's rhinos, more than 1,200 were reported poached last year for their horns, which also fetch big money in Asia. Lions are designated as vulnerable on an international "red list" of species facing threats.
Brent Stapelkamp, a wildlife researcher who monitored Cecil, said he believes that some hunters in Africa try to locate and kill their quarry as quickly as possible, in contrast with old-style hunting trips that lasted weeks or months.
"They're here for the trophy more than the actual experience," Stapelkamp said.
But for some, it is also about the experience.
"You cannot describe a wild lion's roar," Ernest Hemingway wrote in "True at First Light," a book that was published posthumously. "You can only say that you listened and the lion roared. It is not at all like the noise the lion makes at the start of Metro Goldwyn Mayer pictures. When you hear it you first feel it in your scrotum and it runs all the way up through your body."