The Mighty Hunters–Now and Then

Ashurnasirpal II hunting lionsAssyrian king portrayed as a lion hunter

Many of you have read about the dentist who paid $54,000 for the privilege of luring the lion Cecil out of a wildlife sanctuary, shooting him, and taking his head and skin home as trophies. People were outraged, but it wasn’t a unique occurrence. Just in the last few months a gynecologist parted with an undisclosed sum to kill another lion, also illegally. A Texas millionaire spent $350,000 to shoot an endangered black rhinoceros, and has posted photos of himself smiling over the corpses of his other victims: gnus, ibexes, rams, and bears.

Most trophy hunters are men, but not all. Another rich Texan took his daughter to Africa and introduced her to the sport. By age 14, she’d shot an African elephant, a lion, a Cape buffalo, a leopard, and a white rhino, the sought after “big 5” game animals. In the face of public criticism, all these hunters protest that they are helping conservation efforts and infusing African economies with much-needed cash.

In nomadic societies, prestige accrued to individuals who provided plenty of meat to feed the tribe. Hunters took small souvenirs, such as bear claws for a necklace. Nowadays some country boys mount deer antlers over the barn door, but the main purpose of that hunt is still food.

By contrast, trophy hunters are too wealthy to know hunger, or real danger, or even much discomfort. They hire locals to carry their gear, cook, pitch tents, and stand by with loaded guns in case something goes wrong. Canned hunts risk even less: A caged animal is released, and the buyer shoots it as it emerges from the cage.

Canned hunts are nothing new, though, and go back at least to ancient Assyria. A king’s neck was too precious to risk, so his servants corralled a big cat and he took the first shot. Then he had his sculptors depict him slaughtering 40 lions from his chariot. Meanwhile, below is a subsistence hunt from The Stars in their Courses. (The same technique is used by modern Bedouin.)

Elijah found a white willow growing around a tiny spring and a scattering of gazelle dung in the area. He collected some thin branches and the spines of a nearby acacia, and brought them back to the cave where the fugitives were hiding.

“What’s that for?”

“You’ll see. Give me two headbands and I’ll bring you more meat than you can eat.”

Two men loosened their hair. Elijah cut the bands into cloth strips, bound the branches into a wheel the size of his hand, and stitched the acacia spines to the cloth so that they faced inward. Then he tied a rope to a stick that had been blackened in the fire and made a slipknot noose with the free end of the rope. That night he dug a small hole by the spring. He laid the wheel over the hole and the noose over the wheel. Then he covered the trap with sand and slept behind a boulder.

At first light one of the gazelles stepped into the hole. It ran and ran, spines irritating its leg, noose tightening, the blackened stick making a tell-tale trail, until the stick caught between two rocks and Elijah was able to catch up with the gazelle and slit its throat. The dead beast was heavy across his shoulders but when he arrived back at the cave he couldn’t help strutting.


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