When U.S. television host Melissa Bachman posted a photo on Facebook Inc. of herself smiling and holding a rifle above the head of a lion she had shot, the response was instant.
Users of the social network vilified Bachman, 30, who also killed a Nyala antelope last year on a trip to South Africa, as "evil," a "low-life" and a "disgusting excuse for a human being."
The hunting trip was part of South Africa's game-ranching industry, which is worth $1.1 billion a year and growing at 10 percent annually, according to Barclays Africa Group Ltd.
The industry is also responsible for boosting the country's large mammal population, a measure that excludes animals such as rodents, to 24 million, the most since the 19th century, and up from 575,000 in the early 1960s, Wouter van Hoven, an emeritus professor at the University of Pretoria, said in an interview last month. By contrast animal numbers in Kenya, which bans hunting, have plunged.
"We're made out to be the bad guys," said Peter Oberem, 60, a veterinarian turned game rancher, as he pointed to three adolescent rhinos being raised on his farm in northern South Africa, funded by hunting antelopes. "We put everything we earn back into conservation. Hunters pay us to save the rhino and repopulate Africa with native species."
Game ranching, the private ownership of wildlife for hunting, tourism and meat production that's been allowed by law since 1991, has split conservation groups.
Some, such as London-based Save the Rhino, say the money raised from hunting is vital in the fight against poaching. The Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, says it's hypocritical to conserve animals by killing them, and that turning wildlife into a commodity is bad for natural ecosystems.
Kenya, which focuses on eco-tourism, has lost 80 percent of its wildlife since it banned hunting almost 30 years ago, said Mike Norton-Griffiths, an academic writing for London's Institute of Economic Affairs, a social policy research group. The country's elephant population has dropped 76 percent since the 1970s while rhinos are down 95 percent, said Stephen Manegene, a wildlife-conservation director in Kenya's Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Foreign hunters, about 60 percent of whom came from the U.S., spent $118.1 million on licenses to hunt in South Africa in 2012, figures from the Pretoria-based Professional Hunters' Association of South Africa, known as PHASA, show.
Hunters target animals ranging from the Big Five -- rhino, lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo -- to plains game, a term for antelopes. The hunting of endangered animal species, such as the black rhino, is subject to quotas.
In 2012, 617 lions were shot at an average price of $24,300 and 635 buffalo were killed at a cost of about $8,800 each in ranch fees, hunting licenses and taxes, PHASA Chief Executive Officer Adri Kitshoff said in an interview. There were also 63 white rhino, the most common rhino species, hunted at an average price of $84,100. One black rhino was shot for $300,000.
Bachman, host of the Winchester Deadly Passion television series on hunting around the globe, defended her actions in a Dec. 13 Facebook post, while saying the photo was "upsetting" to some viewers. The hunt was legal, with the money helping maintain national parks and animal populations, she said.
"To those who have criticized my hunting, I hope you will consider that only through sustainable use of our natural resources will we reach a balance for both human and wildlife populations," Bachman said.
Bachman wasn't available to comment for this article, said Michelle Scheuermann, her spokeswoman at St. Paul, Minnesota- based BulletProof Communications LLC.
"People compare it to the Lion King," said Kitshoff, referring to the 1994 Walt Disney Co. movie featuring Simba, the Swahili word for lion, as its main character. "There's a very high emotional level when it comes to hunting bigger animals. They don't see the whole picture behind it."
Trophy hunters provide the financial incentive to reestablish animals' natural habitat and boost populations of endangered species, said Oberem, the game rancher.
Rhino, giraffe and wildebeest roam Oberem's 1,000-hectare (2,761-acre) property. Impala antelope dart through the undergrowth while waterbuck graze on knee-high yellow grass.
Driving in his Land Rover game viewer, Oberem said he bought the ranch as a money-losing corn farm with few animals 20 years ago. He now has about 1,000 large mammals and funds the ranch by allowing hunters to shoot 8 percent of them a year, mostly old male antelopes. He doesn't allow rhino hunting and does not own lions.
Ranches such as Oberem's have increased fivefold to 10,000 since a change in the law permitted South Africans to own and profit from wild animals. They now cover 20 million hectares, or about 16 percent of the country's land, according to South Africa's government-backed Agricultural Research Council.
The law change has also led to a trade in wild animals with captive-bred species ranging from sable antelope to wildebeest sold at wildlife auctions. Johann Rupert, the billionaire owner of luxury goods maker Cie Financiere Richemont SA last year led a group that paid a record 40 million rand for a tuberculosis- free buffalo bull intended for breeding.
Prior to the legal change, large mammal populations had been decimated by indiscriminate hunting and habitat loss to urban development and farming, according to Van Hoven, the professor. He collated his figures from government statistics, surveys of private ranches and research projects. He says he receives no funding from hunting groups.
South Africa now has more than 20,000 white rhinos, 80 percent of the world's total, up from 1,800 in 1968 when hunting was introduced, according to Save the Rhino. That's even as rhinos have been poached a rate of almost three a day in the last two years.
Giving wildlife a commercial value is key to the country's success in boosting populations, said Barry York, a neighbor of Oberem who converted his cattle farm into a wildebeest-breeding ranch in 2010.
"Rural people will only keep wildlife if the sustainable use thereof can give them a better return than other land-use options," he said. "People must choose. Would you rather see the rhino extinct than see people like us, or poor African people, profiting and making a living out of them?"
Communities in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe have benefited from hunting by issuing permits for marksmen to shoot animals on their land, according to Norton-Griffiths. In Kenya, by contrast, they have no incentive to preserve wildlife and so often kill them to clear space and stop predators eating farm animals, he said.
Habitat loss is the biggest threat to biodiversity and animal populations, the Washington-based World Wide Fund for Nature says. Profitable game ranches return this habitat to its natural state, said York, who says his earnings have increased 20-fold since he switched from rearing cattle to wildebeest.
That has resulted in some conservation groups supporting hunting.
"Funds raised from trophy hunting can provide a real difference for the conservation of rhino populations," Katherine Ellis, spokeswoman for Save the Rhino International, said by e-mail. The Johannesburg-based Endangered Wildlife Trust also backs "ethical and sustainable" hunting, spokesman Andrew Taylor said.
Chris Mercer, a director of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting, says numbers alone are an irrelevant indicator of conservation success. While South Africa has about 10,000 lions, a seemingly healthy population, about 75 percent are bred in captivity, mostly for hunting, he said. Canned hunting is a reference to a now discouraged practice of shooting captive-bred lions in relatively small enclosures.
"You've got to look at why the numbers are increasing," Mercer said from Wilderness, on the country's south coast. "Hunting simply feeds itself. The animals just become a commodity."
South Africa should instead increase the amount of protected land and fund it through eco-tourism, according to IFAW's Greenwood. Eco-tourism is the "best conservation option for Kenya" after hunting was abused in the 1970s, said Manegene, the Kenyan wildlife-conservation director.
Hunting typically takes place on scrubby, unscenic land where eco-tourism isn't viable, said Norton-Griffiths. Even where they do take place in the same areas, one hunter spends the equivalent of 11 eco-tourists, according to Rich York, the son of game rancher Barry York.
While increasing the amount of publicly protected land might be the ideal for conservation, it "lacks a realism of working in Africa," according to John Hanks, an academic who was chief executive officer of WWF South Africa between 1990 and 1997.
"The cost of conservation is going up everywhere," he said from Cape Town. "I don't enjoy hunting myself but I'm pragmatic enough to appreciate it brings in a huge amount of money that we need, and it does make a hugely significant contribution to biodiversity conservation."