THEY had been tracking the lion on foot for hours, and now, under a scorching Kalahari Desert sun, the king of beasts stood a mere 25 yards away.
“The lion’s looking at me,” recalls John Martins, 50. He edges closer. The lion growls. The two native trackers and the professional hunter who accompanied Martins urge him to fire. “They told me, ‘You better shoot or he will charge.’ ”
The Florida entrepreneur carefully draws his arrow back and aims. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and the lion’s got to do what he’s got to do.”
The arrow finds its mark in the lion’s chest. “If you hit him in the heart, he will probably run 50 yards and then drop dead. If you hit him in one lung, he might run 20 yards and then lie down and wait for you … An African lion with a big mane … it’s hard to pick a target,” he says.
“It took a few arrows to finish that job,” admits Martins, who paid a $32,000 trophy fee for killing the prized cat.
“It’s the most dangerous thing I ever did.”
It’s that danger that attracts thousands of Americans to Africa each year for hunting safaris, where lions, elephants, zebra and rhinos are all fair game, for the right price.
“The African lion is a very dangerous animal. It will kill you,” says Martins, who prefers hunting with a bow for the extra challenge. “And that gives it kind of an adrenaline rush. You can call it thrillseeking.”
Martins and other hunters now worry the thrill is gone after Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer illegally killed a beloved Zimbabwe lion named Cecil.
It has since been revealed Dr Palmer tried to use his now-infamous “kill” photo with Cecil to try to pick up a waitress.
“A few people give everybody a bad name,” says Martins, who also brokers hunting safaris via his website, Discount African Hunts.
He does, however, forgive Palmer for fleeing back to the United States. “I wouldn’t want to be a white guy in a prison in Zimbabwe. They don’t have enough food to feed their guards, much less a prisoner.”
Unlike Palmer, whose guides allegedly lured Cecil out of his safe haven at Hwange National Park and onto private property using an animal carcass, Martins and his peers say they practice ethical — and legal — hunting.
“We don’t shoot animals that are lying down, we don’t shoot animals at water holes, and we don’t normally shoot them coming out of national parks,” explains Martins, who sells lion hunts adjacent to the park where Cecil was killed. “It’s considered unethical to bait near a park.”
Martins boasts that he has shot five of the “dangerous seven” — a lion, leopard, buffalo, hippopotamus and crocodile.
“I’m still missing a rhino, and I will not kill a rhino,” he says. “Rhinos are endangered. And I haven’t taken an African elephant, yet. I probably will at some time.
“I’m not going to shoot something that I’m not going to bring back as a trophy. And if [the animal] is endangered I’m not going to take one of those. So that’s my contribution to conservation.”
Tourists legally kill about 600 lions a year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found in 2009.
But Chris Mercer, founder of Campaign Against Canned Hunting, says that the number is higher and that 1,000 lions a year are killed in South Africa alone. He argues that even if the hunts are legal, it doesn’t mean they are right — especially on “canned,” or fenced-in, hunting grounds.
“There are more than 200 lion farms in South Africa breeding lions for no other purpose than for being shot,” Mercer says.
“Your canned lion hunters are a different category. [The hunter] will fly out with his family and be picked up and be taken to a five-star lodge. He will already have bought his animals,” Mercer says. “He will have his rhino by 3pm … In the evening, after he’s taken the animals, which are being set up for him like [bowling pins] to knock down, he and his family will go to the nearby casino to spend the evening gambling. He’s not a hunter at all. He’s just a collector. And he doesn’t care how much bloodshed and misery he causes in order to get his trophy.”
But Annette Williamson, a 56-year-old Texas farmer who has been on four hunting safaris in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Tanzania, stands by the economic and environmental benefits of her hunts.
“I’m telling you, no one loves hunters more than the communities around the concessions because it is an unbelievable source of revenue for them,” says Williamson, who started hunting 12 years ago after deciding she “wanted a little bit more” than the standard photographic safaris she had been on.
The average cost for each of her hunting safaris, she says, ranges from $47,000 to $75,000 per person. Some of that money goes to protecting animals in national parks, like Cecil, as well as the local communities.
“They get the meat, the organs. Hunters come to their clinics and schools. It provides jobs,” Williamson says.
American huntress Sabrina Corgatelli has courted ire with her defiance of international upset over the practice, proudly posting photos of herself on Facebook posing with big game she’s killed and warning critics: “To all the haters. Stay tuned, you’re gonna have so much more to be p****d off about.”
Martins, who has been going on once-a-year, 30-day safaris since 2010, insists his hunting aids conservation.
“The [human] population of Africa is rapidly expanding. It’s expected to triple by the end of the century,” he says. “They are moving out to rural areas, and the wealth in these rural villages is cattle. So here comes Mr. Lion, and all the small game has been taken out of there [by the villagers], and he sees this tasty cow coming by. What do you think he’s going to do?
“Would you want lions going into your bank account and eating all your money and eating your children?”