Among the bustling crowd, a trio of lions with snarling teeth stares down at shoppers as they pass by.
With eyes glazed over and manes perfectly manicured, the big cats just sit there frozen like statues. Under the bright lights, their huge teeth and giant whiskers shine.
Although magnificent, these lions aren’t alive. They were shot dead by a trophy hunter — and now they’re stuffed and up for sale at a creepy convention with dozens of other dead animals who were killed the same way.
This is the scene at Safari Club International (SCI) annual hunters’ convention, which this year began Jan. 9 in Reno, Nevada. There, guests can buy taxidermied wildlife, firearms and animal pelts — and even book trips to hunt and kill animals like elephants, lions, cheetahs and rhinos.
Thousands of hunters are likely plotting their next kills right now, although some of their targeted animals may not even be born yet. Many animals used for trophy hunts come from the canned hunting industry, where animals are bred in captivity so that hunters can pay to kill their babies.
At the four-day festival, guests can also browse various animal body parts for sale, including animal teeth and heads. Hundreds of retailers set up booths with items for sale, advertising free airfare with the purchase of a hunting trip and other special “sales.” Flashy posters line the aisles between booths, offering up “menus” of different species for people to pick and shoot on their trips.
This is the chilling reality of trophy hunting — and it brings in quite the pretty penny for SCI, the organization which hosts the festival.
In 2016, SCI earned more than $7.7 million by hosting the convention, according to federal tax filings obtained by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Later that year, SCI and the National Rifle Association filed a joint lawsuit calling on president Donald Trump to lift the ban on elephant trophy imports, which would create more of an incentive for hunters to travel overseas to hunt more elephants.
In an open letter to Trump, SCI claimed its pricy safari hunts support wildlife conservation and protect elephants from poaching — but this couldn’t be further from the truth, animal welfare experts say.
“The SCI convention is a huge gathering of people in the business of buying, selling and auctioning off dead animal parts and opportunities to slay wild animals for fun or bragging rights,” Kitty Block, president of HSUS, said. “SCI’s claim of concern for wildlife conservation is greatly undercut by its agenda of advocating and celebrating the killing of the planet’s most threatened species.”
While the SCI claims its hunting trips help protect animals, the numbers simply don’t add up. Since 1959, SCI hunters have killed at least 2,007 African lions, 1,888 African leopards, 791 African elephants, and 572 rhinos, including 93 critically endangered black rhinos, SCI record keeping books show.
At a time when every individual is crucial to the survival of species, trophy hunters still kill around 105,000 animals in Africa every year. Over the past century, trophy hunting has been lauded by hunters as a method of conservation — but the perilously low animal populations today shows hunting is hurting, not helping, species across the board.
While trophy hunting in Africa alone rakes in around $200 million each year, less than 2 percent of these profits actually trickle into the economies of where the hunts take place. Instead, the majority of profit goes directly back to hunting officials, travel organizers and government agencies — while trophy hunting companies still claim these funds give back to at-risk communities.
“We urge everyone, including government decision-makers, to challenge the conservation claims made by SCI and call them out as an industry group with a product to sell that is not beneficial to anyone, least of all imperiled wildlife,” Block said.