You might call the lions of southern Africa potential Bush meat. The former American president, George Bush senior, and his old Gulf War ally, General "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, are pleading with the government of Botswana to be allowed to revive their old alliance, this time in pursuit of Africa's endangered big cats.
Mr Bush is among prominent members of Safari Club International (SCI) who have written to the Botswanan authorities asking them to lift a ban slapped on trophy hunting of lions in February.
Arizona-based SCI describes itself as the largest hunting organisation in the world and people who do not like what it does as "animal protection extremists".
Mr Bush's former vice-president, Dan Quayle, is also among the signatories along with Gen Schwarzkopf. Both men went hunting in Botswana last year, although it is not known if they bagged lions on that occasion.
Rich Americans, Europeans and Japanese pay about £20,000 a time to kill a lion in Botswana. The government usually permits the shooting of about 50 lions a year by trophy hunters but decided to impose the ban in part because American shooters favour lions with thick manes for their walls, leading to a disproportionate killing of mature males.
The shortage of such beasts is now so great that hunters have been making use of a mane-extension service back in the US where fake hair is weaved in to give their trophies an extra flourish before they hang the heads.
Among those who campaigned for a ban on lion hunting in Botswana is Derek Joubert, the country's leading chronicler of big cats.
"I've been studying lions in northern Botswana for 20 years and watching them systematically decline in population size and health primarily, perhaps even solely, as the result of hunting," he said.
"We've also seen some bizarre situations arising. Hunters target the primary males. When they disappear the male cubs don't leave the pride, they're not chased out. So we've seen these young males breeding with their sisters and their mothers because the trophy males have been killed."
Mr Joubert estimates that the number of lions in Botswana has declined by about two-thirds in 10 years. That is average for the continent.
Exact numbers of lions are notoriously difficult to measure but there is broad consensus among conservationists and governments that the population in Africa has fallen from about 50,000 to less than 15,000 over the past decade. The surviving lions are largely confined to four viable populations in southern and east Africa.
Peasant farmers also had a hand in the Botswana ban. The government had already forbidden them to shoot lions that attack cattle. The farmers said it was unfair to permit rich hunters to go on killing lions for sport when peasants were prevented from protecting their precious livestock.
"There's no other reason to shoot a lion other than ego. As a hunter you want to feel great so you can hang it on the wall and your mates say: 'Wow, what a man'," Mr Joubert said. "I'm not particularly anti-hunting. I can't personally see the point in going out and shooting a lion. But I do have a problem with the ethics of it and the sustainability of it."
The nature of lion hunting has changed from colonial days. Faster vehicles and high powered rifles have further reduced the already bad odds against the animals. On top of that, the idea of three week hunts deep into the bush in the hope, but not necessarily the expectation, of bagging something big have given way to the concept of a sure kill.
"It's very difficult for a professional hunter to turn around to some guy who's paid $30,000 to kill a lion and say: 'Don't shoot that one he's too young, he's not ready'. The guy's going to say, I came here to kill a lion and that's what I'm going to do," said Mr Joubert.
At least there is still something of the hunt left in Botswana. South Africa offers the notorious "canned lion" service in which a trapped animal is virtually delivered to the barrel of a gun.
Many of the lions are bred in captivity solely as bait for hunters and then hardly pursued at all. They are released into what are no more than fields surrounded by fences and "hunted". They have no chance of escape.
On one occasion captured on video a lioness was separated from her cubs and shot just yards away. Last year a pride of problem lions - they had been eating livestock - in the state-owned Kruger National Park was sold to a hunting tour operator for delivery to his clients.
Tales of horrendous suffering by the animals abound. Some supposed hunters are so inexpert with guns that they take a dozen shots to kill a lion.
Sometimes the killing takes place on the same game farms that foreign tourists believe to be conservation centres. While the parks emphasise the breeding of lions to the visitors waving cameras, over the hill the hunters are shooting them with guns. The state-run South African tourist board even advertised "canned lion" hunts.
"Go for the ultimate trophy and score in South Africa," said one advert. "It is always in season in South Africa, where the world's finest hunting is in the bag."
Opponents of the ban in Botswana say it will have a big effect on the local economy. Lion hunting is estimated to be worth about £3m a year but most of the profits go to hunting operators.
The government earns just £1,500 for each lion bagged, a fraction of what the hunter pays, even though all hunting takes place on state-owned reserves and the animals are the property of the government.
Safari Club International, which calls itself a "charitable organisation of hunter conservationists" with 33,000 members across the globe, is unlikely to get its way. The tide appears to have swung against lion hunting in Botswana and conservationists are confident that when the ban comes up for review in a year it will be reimposed.
While SCI mobilises politicians, other prominent voices have spoken up in favour of the ban on lion hunting. Among those who have written to Botswana's wildlife department in support is the actor Kevin Costner, star of Dances with Wolves, about the devastating impact of hunting on America's bison population.
SCI referred questions about lions in Botswana and the prominent support for a lifting of the hunting ban to its chief executive, Rudy Rosen, who was not available.
But Gen Schwarzkopf is clearly a valued member. The organisation recently donated $10,000 in the general's name to a Grizzly bear information project.
Under threat from the gun
There were once hundreds of species but only five exist today and four of them are endangered. During the 1970s as many as half the world's remaining rhinos disappeared. Now fewer than 12,000 survive in Asia and Africa. The northern white rhino is reduced to only 30 individuals in the wild. In Africa poaching has been so ruthless that black rhino numbers have fallen from 60,000 to 2,500 in 22 years. Horn from African rhinos is worth£1,300 to £3,300 per kg, and horn from Asian rhinos up to £32,000 per kg.
The demand for ivory was behind the decline of the African elephant, which fell from 2m animals in 1970 to between 286,000 and 543,000 today.
The number of Asian elephants have been reduced to between 34,000 and 51,000 animals in the wild. Hunting for meat, hides and bones has affected both breeds.
Fewer than 30,000 exist in the world today, a 30% to 50% decline which has occurred in the past decade. The vast majority can be found in Borneo, where they are protected. Hunting for food and body parts has taken its toll and the trade in body parts, particularly skulls, continues despite the efforts of the authorities to eradicate it.
A population estimate in 1996 was between 4,600 and 7,200 in the wild, and there are now no more than 4,500 Indian tigers. The Siberian tiger is the world's largest cat but only 200 remain, mostly in Russia. The demand for tiger products has increased with the bones and other body parts being used for traditional Chinese medicines and as tonics or cures for ailments.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001