At one time – say, between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago – “trophy hunting” was a way in which Stone Age hunters demonstrated their prowess and mastery over the large, dangerous animals that either threatened them or provided the clan with meat. At least the carcasses of those creatures were used in a productive way – bones, hides and sinews provided clothing and shelter, while meat was used to feed the clan.  Today’s trophy hunters are nothing more than idle rich people looking for an expensive thrill and a way to show off to their friends. It’s also exacting heavy costs on society and conservation efforts – and may ultimately affect the environment in unpredictable ways.

Like so many of the world’s ills, the modern practice of trophy hunting is rooted in the excesses of a hyper-capitalist system that demands a market value on everything – including life itself – and in which everything is for sale. Dentist Walter Palmer may be the current whipping boy for these so-called “sportsmen” (many of which are women), but he’s far from the only one. This rogue gallery includes television host and professional trophy hunter Melissa Bachman, Donald Trump’s sons, Eric and Donny Jr., and Bob Parsons, CEO of web services provider None of these people are winning any popularity contests (some have even received death threats), but they bear only part of the responsibility.

In an impoverished region of the world where the privilege of killing a rare and exotic creature such as a lion or an elephant can command upwards of $50,000 and more, the motivation for local guides to deliver their customers  prey is powerful. It should come as no surprise that local hunting guides are willing to skirt conservation laws in order to serve the interests of their well-heeled clients. In his defense, Palmer said:  “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt…I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”

It is possible, although unlikely, that Palmer is telling the truth. Either way, it does not excuse his actions. The ethics of hunting a wild creature purely for purposes of ego and amusement aside, he had a responsibility to investigate and thoroughly vet his guides prior to hiring them. Nonetheless, the fact remains that such behavior is aided, abetted and enabled by unscrupulous, greedy outfitters and guides who have no problem violating the law and engaging in decidedly unsportsmanlike tactics. Such tactics involve baiting animals and herding them with aircraft toward their clients.

Because trophy hunters have been targeting endangered species or putting some species at risk, conservation organizations and agencies are taking action. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering putting the African Lion on the endangered list, which would prevent Americans from entering the country with such trophies. This may exacerbate the problem, however, at least in the short term: one guide service, Discount African Hunts, is offering specials and urging clients to book their safaris as soon as possible before new regulations can take effect.

The problem in not confined to Africa, either. Here in the U.S. the trophy hunting industry is creating its own environmental risks while draining public resources. Last year, a team of journalists in Indiana published the results of their own investigation into the domestic “trophy deer hunting industry.” Entitled “Buck Fever,” the four-part series exposed the practice of breeding deer for abnormally large antlers and fencing them into confined pens for the benefit of high-paying clients. The reporters found that industry practices were not only cruel, they were responsible for the spread of diseases such as “chronic wasting disease” (CWD), an illness similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow”), affecting members of the deer, elk and antelope family as well tuberculosis capable of spreading to domestic cattle.

Hunting wild game in order to put food on the table is one thing. The wanton slaughter of rare, endangered and captive animals for recreational purposes is quite another. Between the cruelty, the environmental effects and overall costs to society, it’s time to put an end to the practice.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.