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Cecil the lion's killing could cost Zimbabwe tourism

Rachel Augusta leads the protest of the killing of Cecil the lion in the parking lot of hunter Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota.
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Rachel Augusta leads the protest of the killing of Cecil the lion in the parking lot of hunter Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota.

A Minnesota dentist may have temporarily lost his practice as a result of killing widely loved Cecil the lion, but the country of Zimbabwe stands to lose a lot more—millions of dollars more.

Outrage over the lion's death has renewed pressure on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the animals under the Endangered Species Act, with one petition surpassing 1 million signatures. Four U.S. senators introduced a bill Friday that seeks to extend further protection for lions.

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If those efforts prove successful, they would likely prevent lion trophies from being brought into the country, potentially hurting Zimbabwe's tourism industry. In 2013, the sector accounted for more than 10 percent of the country's GDP, with a direct contribution of $71 billion, nearly double the global average on a percentage basis, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

It's important to note that there are many more ecotourists in Zimbabwe than there are hunters, and the former part of the tourism industry is worth much more than hunting. The $20 million in annual Zimbabwean hunting revenue pales in comparison to the $200 million brought in by ecotourism, according to Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force Chairman Johnny Rodrigues.

Hunting advocates make the argument that without the money being brought in through consumptive tourism there would not be funding for conservation efforts and protection from poachers to keep both animals and the country's larger ecotourism sector alive.

There's precedent for U.S. law affecting the Zimbabwean hunting industry. In April 2014, citing questionable management systems and a lack of effective law enforcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspended the importation of elephant trophies taken from Zimbabwe. Since then, the country's hunting revenue has fallen more than 22 percent, according to the Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources, or Campfire, which is in charge of distributing hunting income to Zimbabwean communities.

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From Campfire's founding in 1989 to 2001, $20 million was transferred to participating communities, with 89 percent of that coming directly from sport hunting, according to one study.

Amy Dickman, a senior researcher with WildCRU (the same team that was studying Cecil) said she believes that overreacting to the killing of Cecil could have detrimental effects.

"If you completely stop something like hunting, it will have an economic impact," she told CNBC. "While that might help conservation in the short term, there aren't any guarantees (that) others won't find economic reasons like mining to destroy habitats that trophy hunting has shared an incentive to protect."

To be sure, a U.S. ban on lion trophies might not affect Zimbabwe hunting revenue in the same way the ban on elephant trophies did, due to the country's relatively low lion quotas compared with those for elephants and other game. Still, each lion hunt can bring in more than $55,000 and average nearly 50 percent more income for Zimbabwe operators than elephant hunts, according to a study.

Unlike the previous ban on elephant trophies which specifically targeted Zimbabwe, the proposed U.S. legislation would affect all imported lion trophies and hunting industries across Africa.