On November 17, 2017, after much public outrage, President Donald Trump tweeted that hewould reverse the lifting of the import ban. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke released a statement saying he has put the issuing of import permits on hold while the decision to lift the ban is reviewed.
On November 15, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that trophies from elephants legally hunted in Zimbabwe and Zambia can once again be imported to the U.S., reversing a ban under former President Barack Obama. Elephant populations in Zimbabwe have declined 11 percent since 2005, and as much as 74 percent in some parts of the country. African elephants are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In a prepared statement the service says it “has determined that the hunting and management programs for African elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.”
Though the Fish and Wildlife Service's official position has long been that of supporting "legal, well-regulated sport hunting," the benefits of trophy hunting for wildlife conservation in Africa are controversial. This story from the October 2017 issue of National Geographic takes a closer look.
The people in this story agreed to be photographed on condition that their names be withheld.
Elephants kept appearing in wrinkled herds, loitering near the dusty pans, in search of water. With the September temperature pushing a hundred degrees at midday, the pachyderms were moving at the edge of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia in a community-run wildlife reserve, or conservancy, called Nyae Nyae, where roughly 2,800 San people live today in unyielding conditions.
The elephants left snapped branches and warm scat in their wake. When they caught our scent, our sweat mixing with the sun-scorched grasses, they broke into a trumpeting jog and were gone.
Later, more materialized on the horizon, in the shade of the camel thorn trees, shades themselves. For such enormous creatures, they were nearly invisible but to the sharpest eyes. And those eyes belonged now to Dam, a short, compact man, a tracker from the local San people who stood in the back of the Land Cruiser.
“Oliphant!” he cried, leaning hard over the right side of the vehicle, picking out tracks in the sand. He tapped on the door, and we came to a whiplashing halt. Dam jumped down, checking a footprint, its edges corrugated and etched inside with smaller bubbles. He motioned, and Felix Marnewecke, the professional hunter and guide on this expedition, popped out of the driver’s side door. Strapping, ruddy, and blond, in his 40s, he seemed straight from central casting, wearing a cloth hat and shorts. He stood over the impression for a moment, a quizzical expression on his face, and nodded his head in agreement. If Nyae Nyae’s desert scrub is home to San families, it is also home to some of the last, biggest wild elephants in the world. This footprint was proof.
The rest of us unloaded, followed by the tracker they only ever called the Old Man, another tracker in training, and one more San, who was acting as a “game guard” to make sure the hunt was conducted in accordance with the conservancy’s rules and quotas. Last to emerge in that swelter was the client himself, an American businessman, who opened the passenger door and reached up to the rack for his gun, a 12-pound, bespoke .470 Nitro Express double rifle. These guns, costing up to $200,000, are favored for big-game trophy hunting because of their stopping power, and this is what he was here for, of course—a trophy. Two of them, actually. An avid hunter whose adventures had led him to Central Asia to shoot Marco Polo sheep at 15,000 feet and to Africa to shoot a leopard, he was now back in Africa for elephants.
According to Marnewecke, the going rate for a 14-day, single elephant hunt is about $80,000. The trophy hunt limit of five elephants a year in Nyae Nyae represents real money to the San. A portion of the fee is paid directly to community members and to a fund for conservation projects to protect the area’s wildlife. As for the elephant trophies themselves, the client would take the tusks home, while the meat would all go to the San.
Marnewecke and his client—anonymous at his request, given the controversial nature of elephant hunts—hoisted their rifles over their shoulders and fell in behind Dam, who took off at the speed of a jackrabbit. Marnewecke turned to me and said, as I stumbled to keep up, “I swear, there’s no better tracker in Africa. If it takes 30 miles, he never gives up.”
From Charles Darwin and John James Audubon to Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, the most enlightened hunters have long viewed themselves as naturalists and conservationists, committed to sustainability among animal populations and the preservation of wild places where they stalk game. The linkage has become inextricable. Revenues of hundreds of millions in federal excise taxes levied on hunters go directly to wildlife management and related activities each year in the U.S. alone. And anyone who keeps a freezer full of venison is likely to tell you that the act of killing your own dinner in the wild is more humane than buying the plastic-wrapped meat of industrially raised livestock.
But trophy hunting today, especially of the so-called big five in Africa (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and Cape buffalo), brings with it a larger set of moral and financial questions. The sport killing of animals beleaguered in the wild can arouse fierce opposition, even more so if the animal—Cecil the Lion, for example—is named. Biologists estimated total losses of large mammals in protected areas on the continent at up to 60 percent between 1970 and 2005. As big game populations dwindle further under pressure from human encroachment, shifting climate norms, and widespread criminal poaching, there are hunters—the American client in Nyae Nyae, for one—who argue that a thoughtfully regulated and expensive hunt for bull elephants in their waning days makes a sustainable way to protect both species and habitat.
On we went, following the footprints. Every so often Dam would retrace his steps, circling in the dust, until we slowed to a more careful crawl. Coming over a knoll, we saw them at last, Loxodonta africana—what seemed to be three bulls, munching on leaves and grass. Marnewecke reached for his binoculars, the American client took his rifle in hand. Everything narrowed to a nervous point. African elephants live to be 60 or 70, and the biggest tuskers usually are older than 45. Tusks are measured by weight, and anything estimated to be over 50 pounds is considered a “shooter” by hunters. The client was looking for something in the 70-plus-pound range, but in the end these elephants’ tusks were too small. Marnewecke made his determination, turned on his heel, and began walking back to the Land Cruiser. No one seemed disappointed exactly: It was almost enough to have stood in the suburbs of such magnificent creatures.
“The shooting is the last 5 percent of an elephant hunt,” Marnewecke said. “I feel quite shitty when an elephant dies, but those elephants pay for the conservation of the other 2,500 that move through here. Trophy hunting is the best economic model we have in Africa right now.” It was an argument I’d soon hear other hunters make and a host of activists and biologists tear apart. “In the end it may save this place—and the elephants too.”
Standing in the heat and dust of the Kalahari that bright day, elephants at our back, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is that really how this works? Can you really kill five elephants to save 2,500? Or start from the other side: Why kill one at all?
Seen from the air Africa can appear as an illusion, rich velds and dramatic rifts, wide deserts and thundering rivers, these seemingly vast stretches of unfettered, unpopulated wild ostensibly forgotten by time and people. At a glance it could be a repository for all our ideas about wilderness at its wildest. And yet today no patch here goes unclaimed, whether it’s marked, monetized, or fought over. The animals that roam the land have become commodified, part of a new consumerism, marketed and sold, their brands pitted against each other, their continued existence now a question of human demand, whim, and calculation. Wild game is the continent’s version of crude oil—and it too will run out someday.
Trophy hunting—the killing of big game for a set of horns or tusks, a skin, or a taxidermied body—has burgeoned into a billion-dollar, profit-driven industry, overseen in some cases by corrupt governments. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa allow trophy hunting, with varying degrees of transparency and control, establishing yearly quotas meant to reflect the status of species and creating exclusions for highly vulnerable populations. South Africa, for instance, no longer allows hunting of leopards. Kenya has banned trophy hunting outright since 1977, and in Botswana, a comparatively wildlife-rich country, a temporary ban in government-controlled hunting areas went into effect in 2014.
Africa once seemed to have “an inexhaustible supply of nature,” says American lion biologist Craig Packer, who has lived and worked on the continent for more than 40 years. But, he says, from 30,000 feet you would see that the habitats are shrinking. “Lions really are becoming more of an endangered species, and hunters should really not shoot these animals for sport unless they can provide positive evidence that they’re having a salutary effect on lion conservation.”
Biologists make the same argument against the hunting of other big game, including elephants, whose numbers across the continent have fallen sharply in recent years. Demand for rhino horn, elephant ivory, and lion bones, especially in Asia, has ignited a scourge of poaching. But the issue remains complicated, with some place-specific animal populations, such as the elephants of Nyae Nyae, thriving where there’s trophy hunting.
“If you get rid of those conservancies in Namibia,” Packer says, “you’d probably get rid of all the wildlife and be left with cattle.” He says he and other biologists “are concerned with populations, and that’s an abstraction. That’s where the real conflict with the animal-rights organizations comes, because in their mind, Fifi must never die. That’s where the biologists can sound pretty heartless and cold.” For Packer, saving an individual animal misses the point; what’s crucial is protecting genetically viable populations as a whole. “I’m not against hunting. There’s got to be a middle ground,” he says. In his estimation, though, that middle ground isn’t exactly in the middle: He believes that trophy hunting is of marginal value as a large-scale conservation tool in Africa.
On the other hand, hunters and government officials often cite a hotly contested estimate by the Safari Club International Foundation, a pro-hunting group with the stated goal of promoting conservation and education, that the roughly 18,000 trophy hunters who come to southern and eastern Africa each year contribute $436 million to the region’s GDP. The Humane Society International says the amount for that region is at most $132 million, or .03 percent of GDP.
In a 2013 op-ed in the New York Times countering the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to list lions as a threatened species, making it more difficult for Americans to hunt them, the Tanzanian wildlife director, Alexander Songorwa, stated that hunters on 21-day lion safaris paid government fees of up to $10,000 and pumped $75 million into the economy from 2008 to 2011. Packer says the 120,000 square miles of hunting areas in Tanzania need $600 million in investment every year, “and you’re not going to get that shooting lions for $10,000.”
For some, the hunting-antihunting debate boils down to Western environmentalists trying to dictate their agenda to Africa—a form of neocolonialism, as Marnewecke puts it. “Who gives anybody the right, sitting in another continent, to preach to us how we should manage our wildlife?” Hunters make the point that with all the outfitters paying to operate in conservancies and with trophy hunters paying fees for the game they shoot, hunting indeed has made significant financial contributions to the continent, and to habitat protection, while all that antihunting forces have done is make noise.
As for what happens to the hunters’ fees, that is notoriously hard to pin down—and impossible in kleptocracies. And anyway, Packer says, when it comes to funding lion conservation, “it’s such an underwhelming amount generated by sport hunting, it’s no wonder that despite years of lion hunting being allowed in these countries, the lion population has plummeted.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which monitors animal populations, reports that the number of lions in five populations in Tanzania fell by two-thirds from 1993 to 2014.
Yet hunters say they’ve helped fund everything from health clinics to schools to water wells to boots-on-the-ground assistance against poachers, all while leaving a lighter footprint on the land than the often cited alternative to killing game: wildlife-watching in the form of photographic safaris. The UN World Tourism Organization estimated that 35.4 million international tourists visited sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 and spent $24.5 billion. Operations designed to attract a higher-end clientele that craves a warm shower, big meal, and cool drink at the end of the day require infrastructure and equipment, maybe including a fleet of vehicles.
There’s a danger, some hunters argue, that too many tourists will spoil the very experience they’re seeking. “The Serengeti is amazing,” says Natasha Illum-Berg, a Swedish-born professional buffalo hunter based in Tanzania, who, like Marnewecke, leads clients into the bush for “hunting experiences” and trophies. “The Ngorongoro Crater is a miracle. All these national parks that are filled with minibus after minibus of photographic tourists—it’s fantastic,” she says, noting that the minibuses also put pressure on those iconic wildlands. “But what about the other areas?” she says. “How many people have been to the area I work in, that’s 500 square miles? This year maybe 20 people.” Without trophy hunting, Illum-Berg argues, there would be no antipoaching there, no management. “I keep on saying: Give me a better idea than hunting as long as it’s sustainable.” She adds, “The big question in the end is, ‘Who’s going to pay for the party?’ ”
The earliest evidence of an elephant having been killed by human hands dates back to a blue-mud swamp in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago. The spine of a woolly mammoth found at the confluence of the Ob and Irtysh Rivers seems to have been penetrated by a man-made weapon that left flake traces of stone inside one of the vertebrae. The tusks, we might imagine, weren’t displayed in a trophy room back at the hunter’s cave.
But hunting is more than a quid pro quo for sustenance. At some moment in our dawning consciousness, hunting became equated with status, virility, and power. Assyrian carvings from 650 B.C. depict lions being released from cages for slaughter by a chariot-riding king. The Maasai have long killed lions as a rite of passage.
With the advent of better weaponry, hunting also evolved as a sport, one with class stratifications, micro-cultures, and occasional egregious examples of waste. In records from 1760 for Snyder County, Pennsylvania, two hunters shot more than a thousand animals, including black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, wolves, foxes, bison, elk, deer, wolverines, and thousands more smaller creatures, dressing some of the animals and throwing most of the carcasses into a bonfire.
Theologians were among the first to criticize such wasteful butchery. By the late 1700s an anonymous British hunter had penned The Sportsman’s Companion, or An Essay on Shooting, advocating fair chase and setting forth “directions to gentlemen” in the field and forest, including limiting the number of game animals killed. Those rules were expanded and refined during the next century. In 1887 Teddy Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club, a group of influential American hunters who were worried about preserving swaths of their country’s wilderness and became instrumental in building the U.S. National Park System.
In 1934 at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, some white hunters established the East African Professional Hunters’ Association. It promulgated a kind of honor code and pushed for laws and regulations, including a ban on shooting nearly all female animals and on shooting animals at water holes or near vehicles. While the members worked to conserve hunting grounds, they also eliminated huge amounts of game from the continent. Today technology has taken a quantum leap forward, with drones, video of the hunt, and high-powered rifles equipped with laser range finders.
Meanwhile “kill shots”—images of hunters posed with their dead quarry—have created viral sensations and stirred animal-rights activists and the general public to fulsome disgust. People were inflamed when Minneapolis dentist Walter Palmer hunted and killed Cecil, the popular lion from Zimbabwe, in June 2015. Controversy resurfaced in July 2017 when Cecil’s son Xanda was shot on a legal trophy hunt.
With more than half the planet’s population living in cities, our relationship with the wild has become increasingly divorced from our everyday reality. We’re now less a part of that wild world from rain forest to veld than consumers of it. Yet if we eat meat or wear and use leather products, we too are hunters of a sort.
Within the hunting community our hurry-up, have-it-all mentality—our ceaseless consumptive entitlement—has begun to manifest itself in troubling ways. Eschewing the time and cost of an African trophy hunt involving fair chase, some hunters have turned to canned hunting—the killing of often habituated animals in confined areas—baited hunting, herding animals with helicopters, or the shooting of their prey from the back of Land Cruisers. In Tanzania there have been reports of foreign hunters gunning down animals, including pregnant females, with AK-47s. In a hunting area called Loliondo that the government has leased long term to officials from the United Arab Emirates, local Maasai have reported transport jets leaving with game of all variety, dead and alive. Social scientists writing recently in the journal Biology Letters describe a kill-and-tell generation of hunters exhibiting “show-off behavior” by propagating their own kill shots on social media, sometimes in poses that undermine the dignity of the animal whose life they’ve just taken.
In South Africa, which has some 2,000 wild lions, canned lion hunting has grown into a more than $100 million industry, with in excess of 200 facilities raising about 6,000 of the big cats for easy killing. According to Ian Michler, a South African safari operator and photographer who investigated the canned lion industry for the 2015 documentary Blood Lions, the animals are caged and bred sometimes under terrible conditions. The young are taken from their mothers and brought to petting zoos. When male lions grow into adulthood, many are shot and killed for “hunting” fees that are much lower than the cost for a wild lion on a standard 21-day hunt ($5,000 to $15,000, versus $50,000 and up). And the trophy is virtually guaranteed. “It’s appalling,” Michler says. “It’s perverse behavior.”
Canned hunting has another deleterious effect. While hunters happily take the pelt and head, and the claws and teeth once were sold in the tourist shops of Nairobi and Zanzibar, today the bones are most in demand—shipped to Asia either to produce traditional medicines or to be repackaged as “tiger bone wine,” made from crushed bones and Chinese herbs and marketed to the upper class as a health tonic and aphrodisiac. This year South Africa authorized the export of up to 800 lion skeletons, and the worry among biologists, conservation groups, and animal-rights activists is that by legitimizing and allowing the trade, the country is spurring more demand for lion bones and more killing of the continent’s remaining 20,000 or so wild lions.
As it turns out, some of the most vocal critics of these hunting practices are hunters themselves.
“If we are not able to convince the majority of people that hunting is morally in order,” says Kai-Uwe Denker, a renowned professional hunter in Namibia, “there is no future for us.” In the face of bad publicity and bad behavior, some hunters have fallen back on an economic argument—that their presence in Africa provides jobs, that it’s a viable strategy for poverty alleviation. But Denker disagrees. “I see a very big danger in promoting only the financial side. Livelihoods, income generation, job creation—this is an additional thing. You cannot justify immoral things with money.”
When I met Denker in a valley in the Erongo Mountains, where he lives 25 miles off the grid in a house he built, he lamented the intrusion of humans on the African landscape. According to him, hunting, when done properly, brings you into “a conversation with your own death.” As we spoke in the shaded portico, the sun flashed off a blanched elephant skull set nearby, and the wind stirred the acacia, blowing away a certain noon deadness that often grips the desert. Time seemed to bend to the prehistoric. Tall and slender, wearing a torn shirt and short shorts, Denker is legendary for walking up to 40 miles in a day of hunting. He also abides by a strict set of principles that includes hunting game, such as elephant and kudu, that have unfenced free range in historic habitat and shooting only older nonreproductive animals without fixating on large trophies.
“Many of the antihunters, they criticize hunting as perverted,” Denker said. “Hunting as such is not perverted. It’s in our genes. If hunting is immoral,” he continued, “I will stop immediately. But it will be the end of nature.”
If it pays, it stays. It was a phrase I heard over and over again, in myriad discussions about African conservation, in part to describe how money has changed the mind-set of rural populations regarding the value of big game. Too often people have seen an elephant destroy their annual crop, and some have known the pain of a lurking lion taking a child for food. Here there’s no mythologizing or fetishizing, no fund-raising around a fuzzy face: The leopard is a killer, the rhino is a ruiner. To protect themselves against the enemy, villagers often shoot and poison these intruders, without an iota of sentimentality. And yet, the argument goes, if those animals are worth money to a local community, that community will work hard to conserve and protect its assets.
This is something I witnessed firsthand. My time in the Kalahari coincided with Nyae Nyae’s annual game count, in which 50 or so San camped for three nights at various water holes, trying to account for the number of animals within 3,500 square miles of sand, bush, and baobab trees.
As fragile as it is, Nyae Nyae might be called a conditional success story, in part because the hunt quotas have been methodically monitored and increased over the years. On occasion cattle have threatened to overrun the conservancy, but the big game have returned, and the menu of animals offered to hunters includes leopard, kudu, and wildebeest, with prices set by a management committee of five members of the conservancy. Profits are shared communally: Last year each adult over 18 in Nyae Nyae was issued about $70. “We have enough,” the chief, Bobo Tsamkxao, told me as he sat in his yard in front of a disintegrating house, his wives sitting in a row among children and litter. The arrangement also requires that the professional hunter employ and train local people and contribute toward development projects such as schools and health clinics.
Nyae Nyae became Namibia’s first conservancy, locally owned and run, in 1998. Every five years the conservancy is put up for tender, with professional hunters offering bids to the San for the right to establish an on-site operation. Last year the winning bid was more than $400,000, a rich number in large part because the elephants have become so big and valuable. The professionals sell hunting packages to clients to recoup the tender offer, cover expenses, and make a profit. Many operate on more than one conservancy; some string together enough to build their own little fiefdoms.
When I was there, in September 2016, Marnewecke had just learned that he’d been outbid and would lose his Nyae Nyae operation by season’s end. “I’ll miss the San,” he said, but he had another conservancy to the north that would keep him busy. What worried him most was the Jenga-like fragility of Nyae Nyae, and that irresponsible people might come with their own selfish designs—crisscrossing the conservancy with new roads and upsetting the equilibrium.
While Namibia has turned wildlife management over to the local population, governments in places such as Tanzania have taken an opposite tack, directly owning and leasing hunting grounds. Critics say that no country should be in the business of selling and profiting from dead animals. When coffers run low and funds are needed, they say, hunting quotas get raised without regard for the animals’ population numbers. And in those hunting areas where funds aren’t reinvested, there’s no wildlife left to hunt. That could explain how 40 percent of Tanzania’s designated hunting areas have been emptied of game animals during recent decades. A promotional video that surfaced in 2014 shows a hunting company, Green Mile Safari, guiding hunters from the United Arab Emirates on a disturbing shooting party. The minister of tourism and natural resources said the party violated a host of laws by, among other things, firing automatic weapons, hunting female and young animals, and allowing a minor to hunt. The government banned Green Mile from conducting hunts in Tanzania in 2014 but reissued the company’s license last year, leading to accusations of corruption. No arrests were made, and Green Mile claims that the guide was at fault.
In the Selous Game Reserve ecosystem, a prized trophy hunting destination, aerial surveys estimate the elephant population at some 15,000, down from perhaps 50,000 as recently as 2009. “Why has the Selous been such a killing field?” says Katarzyna Nowak, a conservation scientist associated with the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, in South Africa. “If hunters are coming in from all around the world, and you’re really pumping money earned from trophies back into the Selous for conservation and antipoaching, where have all the elephants gone?”
Craig Packer sees the conservation of African wildlife in practical terms: If hunters were shooting lions “for a million dollars and returning a million per lion directly into management, they would be on solid ground. But lions are shot for tens of thousands of dollars, and very little of that money goes back to conservation.” With two billion dollars a year we could save and protect the wildlife in Africa’s national parks, Packer says. But that would have to come from international partners such as the World Bank, eco-philanthropists, and nongovernmental organizations.
Some trophy hunters say it’s not fair to blame them. Make of their sport what you will, they don’t set the fees or determine the quotas. And they can’t control endemic corruption in some countries, even if they indirectly feed it. Some claim to share the concerns of environmentalists who see collapsing habitats and dwindling populations. Kevin Reid, a big-game ranch owner in Texas, says he raises endangered African species not only for the sport of trophy hunters but also to create “a seed vault of animals,” including oryx and white rhinos, to help rewild Africa once its problems have been sorted. “We’re trying to reverse extinction,” Reid says. In the never ending ironies of the issue, though, the near extinction of African elephants, rhinos, and lions comes today courtesy of the barrel of a gun.
Perhaps, then, it boils down to another set of questions: In light of who we’ve become as a species, what new form has nature taken, and what new rules might be practiced there? Might we owe it to the natural world, after bunging it up so badly, to act differently—less acquisitively, more generously—toward it? Might it now be time to stop killing the dwindling herds for sport and display? Or, perhaps more difficult to ponder: Will these trophies be all we have left someday, tokens of a wild nature we once knew?
On the 12th day of the elephant hunt in Nyae Nyae, in the rising heat of the day, Dam, the tracker, picked up the marks of three bulls moving together. Once Marnewecke and his client saw the elephants from a mile away, they knew they were big and approached them from downwind so as not to be detected. Two of the bulls were in front of them, but the largest and oldest stood apart and behind. So they maneuvered out around the others and came up on the third as he began to walk toward a clump of brush. The client crouched low on one side as the old bull—sagging and on his sixth molars, half ground down already, which means he was well on in the last season of his life—unwittingly ate on the other side.
Would killing an old bull like this one help save all those other elephants in Nyae Nyae?
Old bulls, says Caitlin O’Connell, a biologist and elephant researcher focused on how the animals communicate, are a font of wisdom, deciding when and where the herd will move in search of water, imposing an order on pachyderm society. “Contrary to myth, elephant bulls are very social creatures,” she says. “They move in groups of up to 15, and they maintain a strict hierarchy. The older bulls exert a very important regulatory impact on the herd and an emotional-social influence on the younger bulls.” Younger bulls in musth, a heightened state of aggression during which testosterone levels can be 10 times as high as normal, will be more likely to fight each other when an older bull is absent.
At 15 yards, the client could see every wrinkle draping the elephant. He aimed his 12-pound double rifle with its hand-engraved silver stock and fired directly at the heart. The bull turned and began to run, 30 yards before it fell. The client put one more shot in the brain, and it was done. The tusks weighed out at more than 70 pounds each. Within six hours the carcass had been stripped by the San, who took roughly three tons of meat for their families.
Two days later the hunting party found another big bull. The client fired a shot, bringing it down—but then, as another bull gave chase, he and Marnewecke ran for at least half a mile before the elephant lost interest in them. Eventually the process repeated: the flensing of the skin, the stripping of the bone, the feeding of families. With that elephant, Marnewecke’s quota for the year was filled. His client flew home; the tusks of the two elephants would follow, destined for his trophy room back in America.
I thought about those tusks in the weeks that followed, possessions now, totems of a fraught accomplishment. They were all that was left of two 15,000-pound sentient beings. Which brought me to Bobo Tsamkxao, the San chief, and his wives and children, and how they and others in the community would eat from those animals. And how they would receive money, at least indirectly, from those animals as well. But something still seemed askew: a paying client killing a vulnerable animal to feed the San or conserve Nyae Nyae’s land. Even if hunting is in our genes, as Denker said, the essential question remained: Was it moral to kill such an imperiled creature at this moment in our history?
After the hunters had packed up, the herds—sometimes called a “parade” of elephants, or even a “memory” of elephants—searched for water in temporary peace, unaware that another season would bring another group of hunters. We must imagine: Memories of elephants wandering all that contested space, some already with price tags on their head, there for us as things of wonder.
Michael Paterniti, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a correspondent for GQ magazine, is at work on a book about the North Pole. David Chancellor has spent years documenting the complex relationship between hunters and their prey. This is his first story for National Geographic.