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Who would want to kill a lion?

Inside the minds of trophy hunters

From the dentist who felled Cecil the lion to the woman who shot a goat on Islay, keen hunters are happy to fork out small fortunes to kill wildlife. But why do they do it – and what is the true cost of their obsession?

The most elephants that Ron Thomson has ever killed by himself, in one go, is 32. It took him about 15 minutes. Growing up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Thomson began hunting as a teenager and quickly became expert. From 1959, he worked as a national parks ranger and was regularly called on to kill animals that came into conflict with man. “It was a great thrill to me, to be very honest,” he says by phone from Kenton-on-Sea, the small coastal town in South Africa where he lives. “Some people enjoy hunting just as much as other people abhor it. I happened to enjoy it.”

Now 79, Thomson has not shot an elephant for decades, and he struggles to find an open-minded audience for his stories of having, in his own words, “by far hunted more than any other man alive”. Today there are people who hunt, and many more people who feel a deep-seated aversion to it; for whom the image of an animal slain by man – regardless of species, motive, legal status or even historical context – is nothing but repellent.

Today, these fault lines are most often exposed when a picture of a hunter grinning above their kill goes viral, as it did last month for the US hunter and television presenter Larysa Switlyk. Photographs of her posing with a goatand a sheep she had shot weeks earlier, and entirely legally, on the Scottish island of Islay went well beyond hunting circles on social media to be met with widespread disgust. Mike Russell, the local member of the Scottish parliament, told BBC Scotland it was unacceptable “to see people in camouflage … rejoicing at the killing of a goat”.

Nicola Sturgeon publicly sympathised with the outcry and said the law would be reviewed. Switlyk posted on Instagram that she would be heading out of internet access on her “next hunting adventure”. “Hopefully, that will give enough time for all the ignorant people out there sending me death threats to get educated on hunting and conservation.”