By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Hunters longing to shoot big game in the African wild may choose a different target after public backlash against a Minnesota dentist who killed Zimbabwe's Cecil the lion just outside a national wildlife preserve.
African hunts are booked months in advance and pricey affairs, often costing $8,000 to $50,000, with approval needed from U.S. and U.N. agencies to bring back trophies such as the head of a lion to the United States.
"It has left a bad taste in their mouths," said James Jeffrey, a Houston-based international hunting agent with more than 12 years experience.
"They read all those books and it is people’s dreams to go over there and do it. Some of these guys have worked their whole lives to do this one hunt," he said.
Cecil, a rare black-maned lion, was lured out of Hwange National Park using bait and wounded with an arrow by Walter Palmer. The lion was tracked for nearly two days and then shot dead with a gun.
A Zimbabwean court charged a professional hunter on Wednesday with failing to prevent the killing and may charge others involved with poaching.
The U.S. dentist, Palmer, said in a statement that he believed the hunt was legal and trusted his guides, to whom he paid $50,000. He has received death threats and temporarily closed his office due to a storm of criticism on social media.
Eleven African countries issue lion hunting permits. Of them South Africa's hunting industry is the biggest, worth $675 million, according to the Professional Hunters Association.
Americans make up the bulk of non-African hunters, with 15,000 going to the continent on hunting safaris each year, according to John Jackson, president of Conservation Force, a lobby group that says regulated lion hunting helps protect the animal by giving reserve owners a financial incentive to deter poachers and cultivate stock.
Supporters argue the money generated from hunts bolsters the coffers for conservation in emerging African countries that want to use their limited finances for social programs.
Critics see the hunts as an archaic bloodsport, hurting species such as lions, which an academic study in 2012 said had seen a population fall of nearly 70 percent in the last 50 years.
After Cecil's death, the Humane Society of the United States asked the U.S. government to increase protections for lions and crackdown on the import of trophies.
"American hunters kill hundreds of African lions each year and are contributing to the steady decline of the species," the Humane Society said in a statement.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October 2014 proposed placing the African lion under protections from the Endangered Species Act, which would make it more difficult for Americans to conduct licensed hunts and set up a system of permits for importing trophies from lion hunts. The proposal is still under consideration.
U.S. hunting agents contend that almost every American who goes hunting in Africa plays by the rules.
"They are not sadistic killers and have respect for wildlife and they think they are playing an important conservation role, a view that many of us in the hunting industry agree with," said Hunter Roop, a U.S. agent for Hunting Legends.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)