Cecil the Lion’s Death Reveals Americans’ Big Role in Trophy Hunting

A Minnesota dentist’s killing of the famous lion has sparked outrage, but it remains to be seen whether it will spur a crackdown on big game hunting.

(Photo: Flickr)

Jul 29, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

With one shot of his bow, Walter Palmer went from being a Minneapolis dentist to the world’s most reviled big game hunter.

The public outcry following his hunt of Zimbabwe’s famous tourist attraction, Cecil the Lion, has not only led to the closure of his dental office but could be a galvanizing force in altering the trophy hunting industry in the United States that’s fueling wildlife loss in Africa, according to conservationists.

Killing rare animals is nothing new for the dentist, who has crossbow records for killing a menagerie’s worth of wildlife, including rhino, warthogs, buffalo, and more. But none of his kills brought a spotlight on the contentious issue of trophy hunting until he and his hired Zimbabwean hunters lured the black-maned Cecil out from the protection of national park boundaries with bait.

The heavily studied lion—he had a GPS collar on when he was shot—wandered wounded for 40 hours before finally being tracked down and shot with a gun by the hunters.

“I’ve never seen any sort of animal issue resonate like this before,” said Beth Allgood, campaigns director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. When she first heard the reports about Cecil’s death at the hands of a Spaniard, Allgood was a little surprised, but then it was revealed the hunter was an American—a story line Allgood with her 20 years in conservation work is familiar with.

“Americans don’t like to accept the role we play in wildlife trade,” Allgood said. “We like to look at China fueling demand and Africa not doing enough to protect these animals, but when it comes to lions, we have a big part in it.”

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Americans traveling to Africa make up more than 60 percent of the foreign-participated lion trophy hunts carried out each year, according to John Jackson, president of the lobbying group Conservation Force. About 15,000 hunters make the trek annually, and a majority of them want to bring back a trophy, Jackson said. The group argues that lion hunts are integral to the species’ conservation, and the big game industry—worth $675 million in South Africa alone—brings in money for habitat expansion and species conservation efforts.

But those efforts haven’t stemmed the rate at which lions are dying off. Across the continent, there has been a 60 percent decline in lions over the past 30 years. Habitat loss and poaching have contributed to the demise, but hunting also plays a role, said Allgood.

Oxford University professors have also been studying the effects of big game hunting on lion populations in Zimbabwe. Of the 62 lions they tagged in the region, 24 have been shot and killed by sport hunters. Ten have died from other causes.

There were once 200,000 lions roaming Africa. Today, there are fewer than 32,000. That has prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing African lions as a threatened species.

The move could potentially limit the countries from which big game hunters can bring back lion trophies. Eleven countries currently allow lion hunt safaris, but new regulations would require these countries to show FWS officials that their lion populations are healthy and managed properly, and that plans are in place to conserve the species.

But listing the lion only puts a Band-Aid on a bigger issue, argues Eric Jensen, a University of Warwick professor who studies public engagement in wildlife issues.

“The problem is a long-standing association between hunting large animals and masculinity,” Jensen said. “While most Americans don’t support the activity, it still resonates with key ideas like Davy Crockett and Theodore Roosevelt. The fact that in 2015 people are still travelling thousands of miles to kill exotic animals and bring back trophies shows that there are deep-seated cultural problems in Western societies, where such behavior should be unthinkable.”

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Pro-hunting advocates argue that removing the older lions like 13-year old Cecil, who are less prone to breed, is actually beneficial for species populations because it allows more vigorous and youthful cats to mate more successfully.

That was not the case with Cecil, however. Hwange National Park officials said Cecil had been muscled out of his pride five years ago by a younger, stronger male. He subsequently mounted a comeback by forming a coalition with another older male lion named Jericho. For the past 18 months, Cecil had been back in charge of two prides—one of which consists of three lionesses and seven cubs under seven months old. Without Cecil to protect them, researchers who have been studying the animal expect a new lion to come in, take out Cecil’s cubs, and start his own bloodline.

“It’s called the ripple effect,” Allgood said. “You take out a pride leader like Cecil, and in the fight for dominance, the other males kill the young cubs.”

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said the $54,000 Palmer spent to kill Cecil pales in comparison to the millions of dollars the big cat would have garnered in tourist dollars over the course of his life.

In a report to be released by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, researchers calculated the value of a live elephant by viewing camps, safaris, and photo tours in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and South Africa, where elephants drive a growing regional ecotourism industry.

“When viewed through the ‘nonconsumptive lens’ of tourism, the report estimates a single elephant can contribute $22,966 per year to the local economy, and that grows to $1.6 million during a 70-year lifespan,” Allgood said.

Compare that to the average cost of an elephant hunt at around $20,000. The disconnect between the true conservation value of hunting animals, and the true conservation value of actually conserving animals is part of the systematic problem Jensen says will take more than one dead famous lion to turn around.

“Most likely the outrage will just die out,” Jensen said. “This [trophy hunting] is a multifaceted problem requiring some fundamental changes to actually make a difference. The crucial turning point will be if this is seen as a symbol of a much larger problem, as it is.”

And that turning point could be coming sooner than later.

Even the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa is seeing the writing on the wall, sending out an email to its members that it should reconsider its position on lion hunting—especially captive bred lion hunts known as “canned hunting.”

“From my dealings with the media and the community, 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,” said PHASA president Hermann Meyeridricks in a statement. “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.

“I have come to believe that, as it stands, our position on lion hunting is no longer tenable,” Meyeridricks said.

International airlines like Air France and Emirates have announced blanket bans for transporting hunting trophies of elephant, rhinoceros, lions, and tigers on their flights. And South African Airways, the largest airline on the continent, banned, and then was pressured into reversing its ban on trophy transport as well.