Mark Sullivan can smell blood. His body tenses, focusing all energy on the prey. Only 40 yards away, a huge lion sits under a bush, with languid eyes fixed on the human hunters moving slowly toward him.

Crouching, Sullivan scoops up a bit of dust and watches as it trickles through his fingers, gauging the speed and direction of the wind by the way it drifts. He squints into the hot African sun and whispers to the nervous-looking man at his side.

"This is a beautiful lion," Sullivan says, clenching his teeth. "But we have to cut the distance down." He gestures and the man, clutching a rifle, follows. They move forward, measuring each step with caution as their boots crack and rustle on the deep, brown grass that carpets the dry earth.

At 30 yards, they take aim. The great beast has a quizzical expression on his face, blinking lazily at the actions of these strange, mostly hairless bipeds. He turns slightly and ruffles his long, blond mane, which encircles his head like an oversize crown. There is no sign he recognizes the danger. In fact, he is clearly losing interest, and has a regal, aloof manner of expressing it, not unlike his distant kin, the house cat.

The only difference is that this kitty has claws like meat hooks and teeth the size of summer squash. For these gifts of genetics and natural selection, he is about to pay with his life.

The first shot hits the lion in the neck, the impact of the blow forcing all 450 pounds of muscle, fur and teeth to cartwheel head over hindquarters. He roars.

Then comes the second shot. And the third. The creature rolls onto its side, and with a last shudder, dies. It is all over--except for the congratulations.

"You've just shot a great lion," Sullivan exclaims, grasping the man's hand. "Look at this beautiful, beautiful mane. This will look excellent in your trophy room!" The man grins in triumph at the video camera that is recording the event, and earnestly thanks Sullivan for leading him to the kill.

Chalk up another satisfied customer for Mark Sullivan's Phoenix-based Nitro Express Safaris, one of only a handful of American companies that offers personalized treks deep into the big-game hunter's Garden of Eden, the Moyowosi game reserve in remote Tanzania.

Depending on whom you talk to, such trips are either the last great adventure on Earth or a brutal, atavistic bloodfest. While animal-rights activists and politically correct purists may cringe, Sullivan, a professional hunter and articulate proponent of the physical and spiritual benefits of African hunting, ardently argues for the former.

"What I do is not wrong, what I do is right," he says. "I'm not a bloodthirsty maniac who slays beasts one after another. I don't take pride in seeing blood on the ground.

"I take people to Africa so they can hunt fairly and honestly, and everyone benefits."
Because of the diligent public relations efforts of animal-rights groups--who long ago declared open season on big-game hunters--this assertion is most likely to be met with doubt, if not outright public scorn. While big-game hunting was once thought of as the sport of kings (and ex-presidents; Teddy Roosevelt triumphantly brought back hundreds of big-game trophies from his yearlong 1909 safari), its status has now been reduced to that of a debased self-indulgence, a mortal eco-sin even more reprehensible than wearing fur.

Reinforced by reports of mass elephant and rhino massacres all over Africa, where greedy ivory poachers have killed countless herds just to pluck out the tusks, animal protectionists have almost succeeded over the past decade in shaming legal, American big-game hunters into extinction.

But now the few that remain are fighting back. Seemingly unmoved by the opprobrium heaped upon them by conventional wisdom, professionals like Sullivan are tenaciously clinging to survival and insisting that limited safari hunting, when conducted under strict rules and restrictions, is at worst harmless and at best a boon to the people and wildlife of Africa. Surprisingly, some mainstream wildlife protection groups and scientists grudgingly agree.

At stake is a business that provides Sullivan with a tidy income. Hunters--some quite accomplished, others who have hardly fired a gun--flock to Sullivan's Phoenix basecamp-office from all around the country, often lured by three best-selling video travelogues of his hunting exploits, to be taught at the feet of the master. As one of the premier professional hunting escorts based in North America, Sullivan obviously stands to lose from a social climate that condemns his profession outright and is thus continually eroding his potential market.

But there is something other than the bottom line that motivates Sullivan to passionately defend the safari tradition. In addition to putting food on Sullivan's table, hunting, he says, feeds his soul.

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Darrin Hostetler