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Cecil the lion was just one of many killed by rich, foreign trophy hunters. Why is that permitted?

WATCH: The story of a dead lion and an American dentist has galvanized public opinion around the world the way few stories can. The lion – named Cecil – has become the poster animal for all that’s wrong with trophy hunting, and the dentist has gone into hiding. The fact is, hunting licenses are a big business for countries like Zimbabwe. Jackson Proskow reports.

A Minnesota dentist who is reported to have paid $50,000 to kill what turned out to be a beloved lion in Zimbabwe is far from the only wealthy adventurer to pay top dollar for the thrill of the kill.

Roughly 600 lions are legally killed in similar hunts annually, according to numbers from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and 64 per cent of those kills result in trophies for Americans like Walter Palmer.

The difference is, Palmer didn’t have a permit to kill the 13-year-old lion known as Cecil — which was collared and being tracked as a part of a study in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

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“[In] the areas that have got wildlife, [officials] do a count to see if there’s a problem where there’s overpopulation. They give a quota of so many animals to be taken off and this is when they issue a permit,” said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman for the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. “This place where this happened, there was no permit, no quota.”

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Whether or not Palmer knew he was hunting illegally when his guides lured the lion out of the national park at night with a dead animal as bait — he said in a statement he believed the hunt was legal — Cecil was ultimately poached.

He was skinned and had his head cut off; the carcass was left behind and the guides allegedly tried to destroy the GPS collar that had been affixed around his neck after they realized he was being tracked.

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“Most of the safari areas have run out of lions, so now the only way to do it is to lure them out of the park,” Rodrigues told Global News. “There’s a lot of lions that are being researched in that area [where Cecil was killed], it’s the biggest national park, so it’s easy to go to the boundaries and actually lure lions out of there and shoot them.”
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In recent years, 24 collared lions like Cecil have fallen victim to a similar fate, Rodrigues said.

READ MORE: Dentist who killed Cecil the lion bombarded by threats, mocking reviews

Permitted game hunts, when carried out under regulations, are said to have some benefits, including ensuring the sustainability of animal populations and supporting local economies. In neighbouring South Africa, for example, game hunting is a $744-million industry that employs some 70,000 people, according to VOA News.

CITES (Conservation on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is a United Nations administered international agreement that “aims to ensure the international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.” The export of game hunting trophies falls under the convention.

“Many countries in the world allow sport hunting… and Zimbabwe is one of them,” Tom De Meulenaer, the chief of scientific services for the CITES Secretariat, told Global News in a phone interview from Geneva, Switzerland. “In the case of Zimbabwe, lions are not considered threatened or rare.”

WATCH: Zimbabwe officials say country has good record of conservation despite Cecil’s death

The IUCN includes lions on its Red List of threatened species but has for the past two decades listed the animal as vulnerable and noted a 42 per cent overall decrease in the global lion population — with an estimated 30,000 lions across Africa. There was an 11 per cent increase in sample populations in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, IUCN noted.

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Trophy hunting, the organization said, has had both positive and negative effect on lion populations.

“Trophy hunting has a net positive impact in a few areas in Zimbabwe but may have contributed to population declines in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe,” the IUCN assessment reads.

De Meulenaer pointed out the IUCN assessment warned habitat loss and human-lion conflict — such as with encounters with lions on cattle farms — are bigger threats to lion populations.

“That is actually one of the other arguments that is being used by the governments allowing hunting,” he said. “This allows local people to tolerate the lions in their vicinity if they know that at some point a hunter will come in to destroy the animal and will leave behind a portion of the benefits.”

De Meulenaer explained that CITES is at the “crossroads” of trade and conservation and takes a neutral stance on hunting and permitting game hunts, saying they are a matter of national policy. But if a country runs afoul of the conventions, it could be subject to export bans.

READ MORE: Celebrities react to U.S. dentist’s killing of Cecil the lion

Rodrigues and other conservationists, however, believe CITES is not doing enough to hold governments accountable to ensure trophy hunting is being carried out in accordance with rules and regulations.

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“If CITES had to do their job properly they would find a lot of problems, he said, explaining complaints to CITES go to the government — which in Zimbabwe is under the authoritarian leadership Robert Mugabe and is perceived as one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

“The law and order [in Zimbabwe] is broken and it suits certain individuals,” Rodrigues said.

He hopes the international condemnation over Cecil’s killing will put pressure on the Mugabe government to ban the hunting of endangered and vulnerable animals —  something Kenya did in 1977 and Botswana did in 2014.

“[Cecil] was a good tourist attraction,” Rodrigues said. “This is what people want to see. They want to come and see this.”

But with so much money at stake, the argument for permitting big cat hunts is strong.

Neighbouring Zambia announced a ban on hunting lions, leopards and other endangered wild cat species in 2013, because of unsustainable populations. But the country is lifting the ban on leopards for the 2015/2016 season and will permit lion hunting next year.

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