The killing of one lion in Africa sparked worldwide outrage. But it’s common for Americans to hunt animals in foreign lands and ship them home. Since 1999, more than 39,000 African trophy animals have been legally shipped through Seattle.

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In a Kent warehouse sonorous with the clanking of busy forklifts and freight trucks, United States Fish and Wildlife inspectors John Goldman and Ashley Skeen pry the lids off two shoulder-high plywood crates that together weigh 1,850 pounds.

Then, the digging begins. They must find and identify the animal species stacked and curled and stuffed inside.

“I think those leg bones are also a giraffe,” Goldman says, periodically consulting declaration paperwork provided for the shipment.

In about an hour, the two will examine the mounts of a baboon, caracal, gemsbok, waterbuck, giraffe, impala, warthog, zebra, blue wildebeest, bushbuck, eland, kudu, nyala, hartebeest and blesbok — all shipped from South Africa.

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When a Minnesota dentist shot, beheaded and skinned Cecil the Lion outside a Zimbabwe national park, it sparked uncommon fury among animal activists and dominated the cable news cycle.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for Dr. Walter Palmer, who shot the lion with a bow, to be hanged. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began investigating the hunt’s legality.

But the fury over one popular lion belies that the practice is common: Americans routinely hunt animals in far-off lands, especially Africa, and ship their kills home.

And Seattle, as one of 18 ports where wildlife is typically imported, plays a quiet but substantial role in bringing those trophies back.

The United States is one of the world’s most prolific importers of wildlife. An analysis of federal wildlife-declaration records shows more than 7,800 lion trophies have been legally imported into the United States since 1999, nearly 250 of those through the Port of Seattle.

More than 39,000 African trophy animals have been legally shipped through Seattle since 1999, including 15 white rhinoceroses, nearly 200 elephants, more than 300 leopards and nearly 1,200 cape buffaloes, species — along with lions — that make up the so-called “Big Five” species of African hunting.

A Paul Allen-backed initiative this November will bring the African conservation fight to Washington voters but largely leave trophy hunters out of its crosshairs. Initiative 1401 would criminalize the sale and distribution of parts and products of 10 species, including elephants, tigers and lions. The campaign believes that would “reduce the incentive for trade and the poaching of these animals,” said spokesman Aaron Pickus.

Except to restrict trophy sales once they arrive in Washington state, the initiative would not affect the steady stream of trophies legally flowing through Seattle each week. According to federal data, fewer than 1 percent of trophies from Africa are imported for commercial purpose.

Enforcing treaties

More than 400 shipments like the one inspected in Kent were brought through Seattle last year.

Some animals, like the zebra, take extra care for the wildlife inspectors.

A zebra head was part of a shipment from South Africa on Aug. 19, 2015. John Lok / The Seattle Times)
A zebra head was part of a shipment from South Africa on Aug. 19, 2015. John Lok / The Seattle Times)

Skeen consults a Zebra stripe diagram to make sure the specimen is not a Hartmann’s zebra, which is protected under an international treaty called CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES bans commercial trade of animals threatened by extinction. Some imports are allowed if special exemptions are granted. It also regulates the trade of species, like the Hartmann’s zebra, that could be in danger of becoming extinct if trade is not controlled.

Inspectors with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service use guides like this to help identify game animals. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)
Inspectors with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service use guides like this to help identify game animals. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

“Our responsibility as representatives of the United States is to enforce the treaty,” said Goldman, who supervises Seattle’s wildlife inspectors.

That means ensuring that no extra animals are included in the shipment and that the protected species in danger of extinction came with documentation showing they were legally hunted and exported.

Inspectors also have to enforce U.S. laws like the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which can place additional limits on importation.

Everything in this shipment is legal. The stripes check out — it’s a more common Burchell’s zebra. The inspectors find the baboon and caracal, protected by CITES, have proper hunting and export documentation from South Africa.

Ashley Skeen, a wildlife inspector with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, inspects the contents of a large crate filled with game animals from South Africa at a warehouse on Aug. 19, 2015. In the center of the crate is an impala. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)
Ashley Skeen, a wildlife inspector with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, inspects the contents of a large crate filled with game animals from South Africa at a warehouse on Aug. 19, 2015. In the center of the crate is an impala. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

The inspectors repackage the trophies and tape over the plywood before the crates are sent to a small Alaskan town.

Most animals aren’t mounted, arriving instead as salted and preserved skins that “look like a large package of dryer lint,” said Goldman, the inspector.

Those shipments head to taxidermists.

“Some of the best guys in the world are here (in the Northwest) as far as their art,” said Goldman.

Longtime taxidermist Buzzi Cook (“Most kids got bicycles for Christmas. I got skinning knives.”), who operates out of North Bend, said about 25 percent of his business comes from animals hunted in Africa.

Click upper right to expand
Click upper right to expand

Clients have kills shipped to Cook, who sends the salted and preserved skins to a tannery.

Six months later, Cook will shape a custom foam form, cover it with epoxy and attach gleaming glass eyes. Then, he’ll soak the skin in water, stretch it over the foam and carefully sew it together, before painting and preening the animal to achieve a lifelike appearance.

Cook said he receives about 10-15 shipments of African animals each year. Base prices range from $655 for a shoulder mount of duiker, a small antelope, to $9,155 for a full-body mount of an eland, a large antelope with twisted horns. Full lion mounts start at $6,455.

An open mouth, which requires detailed painting, costs extra.

He said his clients range from a lawnmower who saves all his money for African hunting trips to wealthy businessmen.

“You’d be surprised at the amount of trophy rooms in this state,” Cook said.

Analysis of declaration records shows a steady flow of trophies through Seattle, especially African “plains game,” such as impala, kudu and gemsbok, the most commonly imported species.

Since 1999, shipments through Seattle rose until 2008, when nearly 3,900 trophies were shipped through the port.

Few hunting trophies declared for import are disallowed entry. Records show just 206 trophies have been refused since 1999. Trophies that don’t have proper documentation or were not legally hunted can be seized or sent back. .

Many trophies come from South Africa, where hunting ranches and private breeding farms have flourished. Although the shipment of hunting trophies as a whole has decreased, records show that’s not true for lions, due to a growth in captive hunts. In 2014, more than half of lion trophies imported nationwide were captive animals likely killed on game ranches.

Animal-rights protests

With thousands of animals being hunted and shipped with regularity, animal-rights groups are fighting to restrict big-game hunting on several fronts.

Last year, after petitions from animal groups, the Fish and Wildlife service proposed listing lions as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and to limit lion imports to those coming “from countries with a scientifically sound management plan.” The rule has not been finalized and is under review.

Animal-rights groups also seized on Cecil’s popularity to pressure airlines to restrict trophy shipments.

The Humane Society International boasted this summer that 42 airlines have banned wildlife trophy shipments, though many commercial shipping companies have continued to traffic trophies.

Hunters complain activists have misplaced their energy by targeting trophy hunting.

Safari Club International, a hunting organization that promotes big-game hunting, encouraged its members to send a letter to airlines chastening carriers for “paying greater attention to hyperbole than science“ and said hunters are “among the strongest and most effective forces for wildlife conservation.”

John Goldman, inspector with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, takes a closer look at animal skins that were part of a shipment of game animals from South Africa on Aug. 19, 2015. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)
John Goldman, inspector with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, takes a closer look at animal skins that were part of a shipment of game animals from South Africa on Aug. 19, 2015. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

Generally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency supports trophy hunting.

“Well-regulated sport hunting can be beneficial if a community and country can manage to conserve a population,” said Goldman, the inspector.

University of Florida professor Brian Child said hunting provides economic incentive for people in Africa to allow wildlife, instead of using land for livestock or farming.

The problem: Experts say trophy hunting is rarely well-regulated.

“When it’s working well, when the hunter flies in and pays money and the money gets to the landowner and the community, hunting is almost always a good thing,” said Child. But, “corruption is creeping into the loop.”

An Australian economic report found just 3 percent of African hunting revenues went to communities.

(Data analysis by Evan Bush and Justin Mayo / The Seattle Times) (Graphic by Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)
(Data analysis by Evan Bush and Justin Mayo / The Seattle Times) (Graphic by Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

University of Minnesota professor Craig Packer studied lions in Tanzania and found overhunting was decimating the animals’ population. When large male lions are killed for sport, their cubs are often killed by other male lions that refuse to step-father cubs.

“Infanticide is a very large risk when hunting is not properly managed,” said Packer, who suggested countries disallow hunting of lions less than 6 years old. Packer said Tanzania agreed to limit hunting to older male lions, but little changed.

“The Tanzanian hunting industry is famously corrupt. I don’t see any evidence they’re following their own law about harvesting older males,” he said.

Neither activists nor hunters possess a magic bullet for conservation in Africa.

“In the constant dispute between the pro-consumption and animal-welfare types, they both exaggerate,” Packer said.