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Andy Loveridge / Wildlife Conservation Research Unit / AP

Important week for global wildlife preservation efforts

Wildlife conservationists push for end to poaching and illegal trade

This is an important week for wildlife conservation efforts across the globe. With Monday being World Lion Day and Wednesday marking World Elephant Day, both species have made recent headlines, since the death of “Cecil the Lion” in Zimbabwe and an increased focus on the international illegal ivory trade.

Cecil became an icon for the conservation movement when he was killed in Zimbabwe last month. American dentist Walter Palmer paid $50,000 to lure the beast from its sanctuary to its death. Social media brought the issue to the forefront, and now the Zimbabwean government is seeking Palmer’s extradition.

Big game hunting draws hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of Americans to various countries across Africa. According to the Program on African Protected Areas & Conservation, as of 2009 South Africa had made about $100 million per year from big game hunting safaris. It is followed by Namibia, Tanzania, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. But the group says although the figures may seem large, they only represent a small drop in those countries’ GDPs.

Some experts say, however, that if wildlife hunting is done correctly, it can actually preserve animals. They say when host countries set up the proper systems, revenue from hunters can be used to support and protect them.

Trophy hunting is not the only threat affecting large animals. Many of them face a loss of habitat when human development encroaches on their living space. But some critics also say that lions and other wild animals can often be threats to people, and controlling their numbers could even save human lives.

During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment “The Week Ahead,” Del Walters spoke to Jeff Corwin, a wildlife biologist, and to David Hayes, a former Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Interior.

“You may have a hunting license and purchased all the appropriate tags within the region that you’re hunting, but if you break any of those regional laws, for whatever reason, you’re considered a poacher,” says Corwin.

Hayes explains that “there’s a hunting tradition here in the United States that goes way back. I’m not an advocate for hunting, but there is a place for hunting and there’s a place where hunting should not occur.” He adds that the Department of Interior where he used to work found that elephant hunting in Zimbabwe and Tanzania were not being done responsibly, so the U.S. banned the entry of elephant trophies from both those countries.”

Since the killing of Cecil, Delta and other airlines have announced they will no longer transport animal trophies. The South African government responded with a statement saying, “The decision by Delta Airlines to enforce a blanket ban fails to distinguish between the trade in and transportation of legally acquired wildlife specimens, and the illegal exploitation and trade in wildlife specimens. It is a major source of South Africa's socio-economic activity, contributing towards job creation, community development and social upliftment.”

“I think the argument on the side of game hunting in Africa is that there’s an economic value attached to the aesthetic value of wildlife,” says Hayes. “And if that wildlife isn’t protected and conserved and available for hunting, then that revenue won’t come in to protect the other species under the umbrella of the right to hunt that creature within the environments where they live.”

Poaching is another concern gaining awareness. The United States used to be the center of the illegal ivory trade. John Calvelli of the Wildlife Conservation Society says, “In 1980 there were approximately 1.2 million elephants, and now there are less than 500,000. Every day 96 elephants are killed, that's one every 15 minutes.  That's 35,000 a year and at this rate the elephants will go extinct.”

“The level of poaching today is unprecedented,” says Corwin. “Poaching is why one out of every 12 African elephants has been illegally harvested and disappeared in the last few years. Poaching is also why a race of black rhino is now extinct and a sub-species of white rhino has only a few individuals left. We are at the battle lines, and right now we were losing the war.”

“When you have vibrant populations of animals, that there is a natural selection process that occurs, there’s a rhythm and a need sometimes for a culling and for hunting” says Hayes. “The issue is much more challenging, though, when you have species that are under tremendous stress, and that’s when the calculus gets much more complex.”

Corwin says we need to look at the bigger picture. “It’s very important that we need to take this energy and we need to be rational about it. We need to focus that energy in a real world situation to recognize the greatest challenges affecting wildlife. Certainly the challenges to human societies and to our own species plays a role in the management of all living life on our planet. Oftentimes when we see human beings in desperate situations, where human life is so cheap, it is often a reflection on an ecosystem that’s out of balance.”

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