With their $650-million hunting industry now jeopardized by a global uproar over the killing of Cecil the lion, South African politicians are staunchly defending the industry, but hunters themselves are calling for major reforms to salvage their battered image.

South African President Jacob Zuma laughed off the controversy on Tuesday, dismissing questions about whether the industry’s rules should be tightened after the furor over Cecil. “I think it’s just an incident,” he told journalists. “The hunter did not know Cecil was so popular. … I don’t think it’s a matter we can debate that much.”

Professional hunters, however, are increasingly worried about the damage to their reputation from controversial tactics that include the “diesel stalking” of lions in off-road vehicles and the shooting of domesticated captive-bred lions on “canned hunting” farms.

The furor over Cecil has intensified the calls for reform. The industry knows that it could be endangered by worldwide revulsion over Cecil’s killing. Many airlines have already announced a ban on the transportation of hunting trophies, although South African Airways has lifted its own ban on the practice.

Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer shot and killed Cecil with a bow-and-arrow last month after the lion was allegedly lured illegally from Hwange National Park. The lion was killed in Zimbabwe, but the biggest engine of the hunting industry is South Africa, where it employs thousands of people and generates more than $650-million in annual revenue. Some hunters, especially from the United States and Canada, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill rhinos and lions in South Africa and neighbouring countries.

In South Africa, public opinion was once in support of hunting. But there are growing signs of stronger opposition, and even the hunting industry is shifting its stance. “Our position on lion hunting is no longer tenable,” said Hermann Meyeridricks, president of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa, in a recent letter to his members.

A new documentary, Blood Lions, has been screening across the country, sparking further opposition. The documentary alleges that 7,000 of the 10,000 lions in South Africa are being kept on private farms, often in crowded conditions, where they are bred for commercial purposes, including as tame prey for foreign hunters who spend big money to participate in the “canned hunting” business. Only about 20,000 lions still survive in the entire African continent today, compared to nearly half a million about 50 years ago.

Mr. Meyeridricks said the professional hunters’ association has been calling for a “clean-up” of the captive-bred lion hunting industry to improve its standards and conditions. “We have made little demonstrable progress on this front,” he said in his letter.

He called for a reconsideration of the issue at the association’s next general meeting. “It has become clear to me that those against the hunting of lions bred in captivity are no longer just a small if vociferous group of animal-rights activists,” he said.

“Broader society is no longer neutral on this question and the tide of public opinion is turning strongly against this form of hunting, however it is termed. Even within our own ranks, as well as in the hunting fraternity as a whole, respected voices are speaking out publicly against it.”

One veteran hunter who is speaking out against current practices is Derek Carstens, owner of a game ranch in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. He warned that hunting could become as “socially unacceptable” as smoking. And he cited a barrage of negative practices and damaging images, including a notorious photo of two sons of U.S. businessman Donald Trump clutching a dead leopard that they had shot in Zimbabwe.

In an essay for African Outfitter magazine, Mr. Carstens criticized the widespread practices of “diesel-stalking” and shooting from behind a blind after the animals are lured with bait. American hunters are often unwilling to hike through the bush, so they use trucks or demand that local trackers do the work of finding their prey, he said.

“Heaving his not inconsiderable bulk off the Land Cruiser, the average hunter stares vacantly around as the trackers set about their business,” he wrote. “The fact that he has wounded the animal while shooting from the truck is more of an inconvenience than anything else, and so the chore of follow-up ensues, with the professional hunter typically finishing off the animal.”

JOHANNESBURG — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015 4:04PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015 11:34PM EDT