Despite intensifying calls to ban or restrict trophy hunting in Africa after the killing of a lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe, most conservation groups, wildlife management experts and African governments support the practice as a way to maintain wildlife. Hunting, they contend, is part of a complex economy that has so far proven to be the most effective method of conservation, not only in Africa but around the world as well.
While hunting is banned in government parks here in South Africa, animals inside their boundaries are routinely sold to game ranches when their populations are considered excessive, generating money to maintain habitats and fight poachers.
And because trophy hunting is legal in private game reserves, the animals end up fetching higher prices than they would in being killed for food or other reasons, conservationists contend.
In other words, hunting helps to save threatened species like lions. How does that work? There are two ways to explain this argument.
First, the trouble with most threatened or endangered species (like lions) is that they are a common resource - rival and non-excludable. Rival goods are those where one person's use of the good reduces the amount available to everyone else, i.e. in this case killing one lion reduces the number of lions available to everyone. Non-excludable goods are those where you cannot easily prevent a person from obtaining the benefit from them, i.e. in this case it is difficult to stop the hunters from killing lions. In contrast, if only hunters with an appropriate licence are allowed to hunt lions, that makes lions a private good - rival but excludable (because only licensed hunters can kill them). Making threatened species a private good creates incentives for local communities (or farmers) to conserve the species - it is valuable to sell the rights to hunt to hunters, and this value can only be realised in the long run if the species is managed sustainably.
Second, consider the opportunity costs of killing a lion. If there are hunting licences and the licence to kill a lion can be sold for between $24,000 and $71,000 (according to the Onishi article linked above), then the opportunity cost of killing a lion is the tens of thousands of dollars in income foregone. This provides incentives for locals not to kill lions, since they are very valuable as hunting trophies. On the other hand, if there are no licences to kill lions that can be sold to hunters, then the value of a lion falls to the value of the meat (less than 60 cents per pound according to the article, or about $300 for a mature male lion). The opportunity cost of locals killing lions for food is much lower, so more lions may be killed (a simple result of the Law of Demand - the 'price' (opportunity cost) of killing lions is lower, so more lions are likely to be killed).
Either way, hunting is a solution to the problem of threatened species, in a similar way that farming could also be a solution. So, many of the arguments against hunting threatened species may well be misplaced.