At least three major US airlines—Delta, American, and United—have announced this week that they will no longer be shipping certain big game trophies. The airlines have not yet confirmed whether the decision had any connection to the death of Cecil the lion, which was killed by an American tourist last month. The airlines did say that the new policy has already gone into effect.
“Effective immediately, Delta will officially ban shipment of all lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo trophies worldwide as freight,” Delta said in a statement. “Prior to this ban, Delta’s strict acceptance policy called for absolute compliance with all government regulations regarding protected species. Delta will also review acceptance policies of other hunting trophies with appropriate government agencies and other organizations supporting legal shipments.”
Earlier this year a host of international airlines, including South African Airways, Lufthansa, and Emirates stated that they will no longer transport trophies, over the objections of hunting organizations. At the time, Delta staunchly refused to enact such a ban and said that the airline will continue to observe government regulations. However, some speculate that Cecil’s death may have provoked Delta and the other airlines to preemptively ban big game shipments to avoid criticism. Travel industry consultants like Henry Harteveldt noted that the airlines make very little business shipping big game.
“I don’t think there was much of this shipment taking place, so there is minimal revenue loss and big PR gain for them,” he told USA Today.
Sure enough, animal advocacy groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) praised the airlines’ decision.
“Lions, elephants and the other species that make up the Africa Big Five belong on the savanna, not on the walls and in home museums of wealthy people who spend a fortune to kill the grandest, most majestic animals in the world,” said HSUS president and CEO Wanye Pacelle. “Delta has set a great example, and no airline should provide a get-away vehicle for the theft of Africa’s wildlife by these killers.”
Until very recently, airlines appeared to be coming around to lifting their bans on shipping trophies. Last month South African Airlines announced that it will resume transport of big game, and it seemed that the other airlines were also considering the same. Then controversy erupted over the death of Cecil. The lion was killed near Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park in what the government claims was an illegal hunt. The man who fatally shot the lion with a bow and arrow, a Minnesota dentist by the name of Walter Palmer, quickly went into hiding as protesters camped outside his business and flooded him with death threats.
He is reportedly now in contact with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and has not been charged, although Zimbabwe officials have repeatedly called for his extradition.
Some have criticized the airlines for giving into the public pressure, and many, including hunters, say it is unfair for the companies to ban all big game trophies, even those that are legally harvested. Hunting and conservation groups have long maintained that big game hunting provides population control and pumps millions of dollars into local communities and wildlife preservation.
Edit 8-5-2015: Article has been amended to reflect that Cecil the lion was killed outside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, rather than inside it.