Je suis Cecil: pin a cause on a lion
13 August 2015

No animal, surely, has ever become such an overnight global sensation as Cecil the Zimbabwean lion. The bow-and-arrow shooting of the aging male by Minnesota dentist, Walter Palmer, on a private game farm adjoining Hwange National Park ignited a social media firestorm that was completely unpredictable. As might be the consequences.

The particularly unsavoury aspects of this hunt – of a creature that was collared as part of an Oxford University research project and apparently beloved of Hwange tourists – evidently tapped into a growing disquiet around the world about killing such magnificent animals. And rapidly expanding social media fuelled the rage.

Some of the reported facts of the case may not be true, but they have become an indelible part of the lore of Cecil anyway, encapsulated by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) when it tweeted: ‘Baiting, blinding and shooting a lion is NOT a sport. It’s murder.’

And so Palmer has been hounded and threatened by animal rights activists, and forced to suspend his dental practice. Cecil’s death has also inspired tremendous debate across social as well as conventional media. And not only about animal conservation.

All sorts of people have clambered onto Cecil’s hearse to make him the symbol or martyr of their peculiar cause or obsession – whether political, social, developmental or environmental.

Even South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma got flack from conservationists for making light of the incident and suggesting the hunter’s only fault was not to realise that Cecil was a special lion. Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, predictably, condemned the killing of Cecil as an example of nasty Western ‘vandals’ illegally exploiting his country’s resources.That was a bit rich coming from him, as his government recently reinstated hunting of lion, leopard and elephant after suspending it in the wake of Cecil’s death.

All sorts of people have clambered onto Cecil’s hearse to make him the martyr of their cause

In contrast, David Coltart, a politician of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and a human rights lawyer, tweeted that if the same global media attention had been given to all the people who’ve been murdered in Zimbabwe, Zanu-PF (the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) would ‘now be history’.

Socially, Cecil’s death brought to the surface many long-standing and deep-seated differences about the meaning and importance of conserving wild animals and of hunting. Many Zimbabweans said they couldn’t understand the fuss, as most had never even seen a real lion, and felt that conservation and hunting were elitist activities. Trophy hunters were just ‘glorified poachers’, said one commentator.

Taking the debate to another level, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) tweeted ‘Why Cecil is a development issue,’ and then described how it was supporting efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. It said this is among the five most lucrative illegal trades globally, worth an estimated US$23 billion annually, and that it is significantly hurting development.

Cecil’s death has also been taken up as a trafficking issue in many other quarters. This included the White House, which said it was working to stop wildlife trafficking in the wake of the killing of Cecil the lion, including throughthe Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Whether the death of Cecil was essentially a wildlife trafficking issue, though, is a moot, yet crucial point. Allegations of illegality, including elements of ‘canned hunting’, have been made, including that the lion was lured out of Hwange with bait onto a private farm and shot there. But these have been disputed, and we’ll probably only know the truth when Theo Bronkhorst, the guide who managed the hunt, appears in court again on 28 September.

It is notable that the biggest trophy-hunting countries are those that do well at conservation

However, as National Geographic online noted, the global revulsion around Cecil’s death may be reflecting and spurring a deeper ‘cultural shift’ globally: not just against the illegal trade in wildlife, but also against hunting, whether legal or illegal. It noted that there had been more than a million signatures to online petitions calling for the end of legal lion hunting.

Most legal trophy hunters in Africa are Americans, and three major United States (US) airlines have banned the transporting of trophies, insisting on strong proof that these are not of endangered species. The US government is also considering putting lions on its list of endangered species.

And as a result of Cecil’s death, US Senator Bob Menendez has introduced a law that would prevent the import of trophies even from animals that are still being considered for listing as endangered. Even professional hunters were having second thoughts, National Geographic said.

Hermann Meyeridricks, President of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA), was quoted as saying he had asked his membership to reconsider its position on the hunting of lions bred in captivity. ‘Even within our own ranks, as well as in the hunting fraternity as a whole, respected voices are speaking out publicly against it.’

‘All these recent developments “are good first steps” toward protecting lions,’ the National Geographic article quotes Jeff Flocken, North American Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, as saying. But the journal concluded that it was not yet clear whether long-term changes would result from the death of one of Africa’s most famous lions, because some hunters remain committed.

The hunting association, Safari Club International, suspended the membership of those involved in his hunt and issued a statement that condemned illegal hunting. But it upheld the right for people to pursue big game in accordance with local and international laws, repeating the familiar argument that legal and controlled hunting promotes the conservation of wildlife. This claim is infuriating to purist preservationists such as Flocken, who says ‘killing for conservation sounds like an oxymoron – and it is.’

At the least, Cecil’s death will probably lead to a tightening up of hunting laws in Zimbabwe

But professional trophy hunters with a financial interest are not the only ones who believe that hunting promotes conservation, as the New York Times pointed out in an article titled ‘Outcry for Cecil the lion could undercut conservation efforts.’

It quoted scientists who said that trophy hunting was part of a complex economy around wildlife, noting that wild animals inside protected national parks were routinely sold to private game ranchers, which generated money to maintain their habitats and to fight poachers.

Some of the animals were also sold to trophy hunters who pay US$2 500 to shoot a kudu in South Africa – 10 times more than if the animal were sold for meat, as one professional wildlife hunter said. The US$61 000 that Palmer paid to kill Cecil was about average, as the fee for a lion hunt across Africa ranges from US$24 000 to US$71 000, the paper said, quoting a 2012 study.

It also quoted Vernon Booth, a veteran Zimbabwe-based ecologist, as saying that lions were now protected mainly because of the high value attached to them as trophies. Locals only tolerated lions because of the trophy hunt fees that trickle down to them, and without that, they would increasingly poison them because of the threat they pose to people and livestock.

‘If there is a complete ban on lion hunting, the tolerance levels for lions would just plummet,’ Booth said. ‘And in wild areas outside of the protected areas, lions would be exterminated, and very quickly.’ He added that, ‘Even though hunting may seem unpalatable to a lot of people around the world, it is actually very, very necessary.’

Namibia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, last week likewise lamented the moves by US airlines to ban the transport of trophies and the general move against trophy hunting in the wake of Cecil’s death. ‘This will be the end of conservation in Namibia,’ the Namibia Press Agency quoted him as saying. It is worth noting that the biggest trophy-hunting countries are generally those that also do best at conservation.

The debate will clearly rage on. At the least, Cecil’s death will probably lead to a tightening up of hunting laws in Zimbabwe, including closing loopholes to prevent any form of ‘canned hunting’ such as baiting and night shooting. And perhaps to ensure the benefits of trophy hunting are better shared with local communities.

But if the old lion’s death leads to a ban or serious restrictions on even legal trophy hunting, that may have development consequences different from the ones the UNDP referred to when it tried to explain ‘why Cecil is a development issue.’

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant