As an aside I've actually done something similar to big game hunting. During one of my jaunts around southern Africa I worked with a conservation/research team in South Africa and as part of their work they needed to bring down a rhino so they give it a health checkup and plant a tracker on it. The tranquilizer dart itself had to be shot by a trained and licensed vet but I was able to take the secondary shot (with a dart full of vitamins to try to prevent any issues for the animal). As such a lot of the elements of a "proper" hunt were there; tracking the animal, trying to avoid spooking it, getting into range and a clear shot, pulling the trigger etc etc. If anything on the "thrill and danger" side of things it probably beats "proper" hunting; most "proper" hunting shots are taken at a considerable distance and immediately either kill or disable the animal. In contrast a tranquilizer dart needs to be fired from much closer and takes about 30 minutes to bring a rhino down... the amount of paperwork and disclaimers I had to sign before taking part put some of the work I did as a corporate solicitor working on billion+ pound deals to shame. As such I think I have at least some understanding of what attracts people to big game hunting and the thrill of doing so... and to be honest it was a massive thrill.
The first somewhat controversial thing to note. Big game hunting can be a good thing in the right circumstances. There's a tendency from those who haven't spent much time in southern Africa to think of it as a theme park and the animals there as something between pets and art exhibits. It isn't and they're not. While South Africa tends to fence in their national parks most of the other countries don't; animals generally ignore lines on a map saying that they're no longer in a national park and instead heading towards a settlement. I've seen the damage an elephant who wanders into a village can do, see the absolute devastation to infrastructure that they can cause. You'll see a lot of Kenyan elephants with scars on their sides. That's frequently not from dueling with rival elephants, fighting off predators or escaping poachers... its from villagers throwing rocks and branches at them in an attempt to drive them away from their homes. It's one of the difficult balancing act from living in such a region; the animals can provide a huge economic boost to you and your community (both through legal and illegal methods) but all it takes is an elephant to turn right instead of left and you can see your home destroyed and your life's work in ruins.
It should also be noted how lucrative hunting can be. To kill a southern white rhino? We're talking $70,000+ for a permit. A lion? In this story the figure was around $50k and the lowest I've ever seen was in the low thirties. Elephants? Around $25-30k If a permit for a black rhino ever came up (and from what I understand those are once in a blue moon type events) you're literally talking millions. Even the "general" hunting permits which allow the hunting of 10 or so non-protected animals (think common gazelles or antelope) can run to thousands of dollars. That and the other costs associated with going on a hunt brings a lot of money to the government, the community and those who work and assist with the hunts themselves. The conservation team I worked with are actually largely self-funding through offering people the chance to do the sort of "green hunting" I did (I should note that I didn't pay anything directly for taking the shot or even know I was going to be doing it until the start of the stalk), attracting those who either don't want to kill or can't afford the prices mentioned above. If you spend a bit more money you can have a photo taken standing next to the unconscious animal and in the case of rhinos get a cast made of their horn to take home. The big hunting organizations now accept these as evidence of a successful hunt which may well lead to less people going on "proper" hunts.
With regards to what licenses are issued I also did some work with one of the bodies that regulates hunting in South Africa. Populations need to be healthy and sustainable before any licensees are issued and, even when they are, a license for hunting a protected animal tend to be for one specific
animal where possible rather than a carte blanche to shootthe first one you come across. To use male lions as an example when a license is issued it tends to be for old lion who's coming to the end of his expected lifespan and already lost a battle for his pride, thus being forced out with little hope of ever getting a new one. Their death has less impact on the wider system then the killing of a lion within a pride would (as their death will quite possibly lead to their cubs being killed unless their mothers are sneaky... which many are). As such there can be a lot of economic benefit with little ecological impact and while I'm certainly not saying I support it I can at least see the case for it, especially in a world where poaching remains a huge issue; there's less financial incentive to either poach or accept bribes from poachers to kill large numbers of animals if a rich person is going to come along and spend thousands to shoot a single one a month later.
But that's discussing a situation where the proper licenses are obtained and the requirements stuck to. And that didn't happen here.
To first give the best possible spin I can for the dentist in question. He'd hired a local professional hunter and expert to facilitate the trip and arrange the paper work. He did have a license to shoot a lion with a bow and arrow... just not that lion and not in that place. But as mentioned above it's not as if national parks have big signs all along the edges saying that it's a national park and Hwange (the park the killing took place just outside of) isn't fenced. If his expert told him that he was allowed to take the shot then I can see why he would accept that. Likewise tracking collars aren't particularly easy to spot on male lions due to the mane and especially not at distance... to take Cecil himself as an example this is the last known shot of him
taken about a month ago (with Jericho the other male lion). Another, earlier, photo can be seen here
. In either case can you make out the tracking collar? Because I'm struggling to. Attempting to destroy the collar after the kill certainly doesn't look good but I can conceive of the group panicking after they realized that they'd made an innocent but deadly mistake and trying to cover their tracks. Now, similar to how when an accountant screws up their clients tax return the client can't just wash their hands of it and place all the consequences on the accountant, even if this spin is true the dentist can't be held blameless... but I think most can accept it's a less morally blameworthy situation.
But that's putting the most positive spin possible.
I've met some big game hunters and to a man (and they were all men) they fitted pretty squarely into the "alpha male" stereotype... or at least tried to present themselves as being alpha males. The dentist reportedly paid $50,000 for his trip... I can see him putting a huge amount of pressure on his helper/assistant/guide/expert to let him shoot the lion; Cecil's black mane which made him famous also made him a tempting trophy. As for the helper, big game hunting isn't a massive community (if nothing else there aren't that many people who can afford to do it) and I imagine word gets round. If a client spent $50,000 to shoot a lion with a bow and arrow and you didn't get him a lion to shoot I can certainly see how that could darken your reputation and put your business under pressure when the client gets home and talks about his trip and ff you're an employee rather than the business owner itself then it's probably worth more than your job is. I can see why you'd under immense pressure to let a client who paid as much as he did do basically what he wanted or demanded. Likewise I can easily perceive a situation where the hunter demanded that the expert baited the lion out of the national park so he could shoot him seemingly without consequence.
Big game hunting is an emotive topic at the best of times. But I think we should be careful to avoid conflating this hunt with all big game hunts. That's not to say that one has to support (or at least tolerate) big game hunting or even that people crossing the line from legitimate hunting to poaching isn't a issue... but a single tragic example shouldn't be used as both the start and end of the discussion.