Sunday, 2 August 2015


"Lion Ngorongoro Crater". Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
It is unlikely that anyone has missed the passing of Cecil the Zimbabwean male lion. This magnificent beast who has become a celebrity in his native land was killed this week by a trophy hunter. Trophy hunting is a legal pursuit having  been previously banned between 2005 and 2008 [1]. Before I start to dissect this thorny situation I want to start by making this primary salient point. I am deeply saddened by the loss of Cecil. Any creature being hunted down is sad and the way in which Cecil died is not nice. Although radio collared he was lured out of a game reserve where he was stalked by an American dentist who shot him with a bow. Apparently bows give more thrill than a rifle, nevertheless the bow did not kill Cecil and they had to follow up and despatch him with a rifle before beheading and skinning him.

Rightly the dentist and his guides have received much criticism for their actions and may even be subject to criminal charges but in this post I want to sensibly approach a number of factors, number 1 being the Cecil is not unique.

Cecil was a well established 13 year old male lion, he was part of a study programme run by the world renowned Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. They have studied the Hwange lions since 1999. The team had tagged 62 lions as part of the study 34 of whom died. Death is a part of all species studies but in this case 24 of the 34 were shot by hunters. Cecil was well known locally and a visitor favourite and his radio collar made certain that his death was noted, and this is my first point. Cecil is not the first lion to be killed in this manner. He is just another in a long line, in 2013 49 lions were killed for trophies [1] and it is estimated that 560 lions each year across Africa are killed with most carcasses being exported to the US [2] few of these animals got the column inches that Cecil got, most in fact have gone unremarked in the wider press. Due to our anthropomorphic nature Cecil however has become the poster boy for lion conservation and activism. This can only be a good thing. News stories such as this allow people like me and other writers to explain the problems and let everyone know what is happening. It is sad though that so many unnamed and less well regarded lions have died in the past until Cecil’s death has galvanised the world.

The second point I want to address is this idea of trophy hunting and how some claim that its use is somehow a viable conservation tool. Lion numbers across Africa stand at 32,00 across 67 specific areas. To put this in perspective between 1993 and 2014 lion numbers fell by 42% [3]. Since 1996 it has been listed by the IUCN as vulnerable and a lot of effort has been made to stabilise and increase populations. Much of the research supporting this effort has come from institutions like the Oxford Research Unit. Despite the doom and gloom there are sparks of light. Lion declines are not global across the board in fact in Botswana, India, Namibia and South Africa numbers are actually increasing by 11% [3].

As already alluded to Trophy hunting is not a new pursuit and has been legal since 2008. In fact the IUCN even has a suggested sustainable limit of 1 male per 2000km2 as a guideline for species management and financial gain [3]. Conservation is expensive and in poor countries there is often conflict between local business and the need to conserve. A study by IFAW questioned the financial worth of trophy hunting lions challenging claims that it raised $200 million per annum for the local economy [4]. Even if the income raised isn’t as high as this it is easy to see that this is a lucrative market, a basic hunt can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $70,000 for 21 days. Analysis of Tanzania hunting however indicates where that money goes, 3% goes in government royalties, 11% wages, a further 3% is invested in local development and 22% goes to the wildlife division (The rest on other sources). 22% is a reasonable slice going to the wildlife agencies. Wildlife authorities are often poorly financed by central governments and so such monies present a tempting lure and so here comes the ethical question.

Can lions be sustainably hunted? Licensing and permit systems exist and if managed by adherence to population trends and local densities then one is tempted to say yes. Does the loss of a lion balance out the number of species or area of land that can be protected for all species? Would the lion selflessly lay down its life for others? Would it acknowledge the good its death brings to its fellow wildlife? The answer is undoubtedly no. Lions have one goal, pass their own genes into the next generation, they care little for the plight of the Leopard, and in fact they would probably welcome their removal as a competitor.

This tragedy, the death of an undoubtedly magnificent animal allows us to question as wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists as to where we draw the line. We trap and kill mink in this country to protect Water Vole and we cull deer to protect trees, these are conservation measures necessary for species survival the key difference here is the human one. The reason we abhor the killing of Cecil is more about the human nature it displayed. That desire of one human being to despatch a wild animal, to stoke an ego or slake a dark lust for blood. Were Cecil culled by a park authority due to population size would the story be as big as it is. As usual it is the human aspect that has attracted the press and not the wildlife conservation message.

Regardless of the cause it is up to us conservationists to use this death to explain the complexities faced by field conservationists and how species can be conserved. The general public need to be aware of the issues and understand that they are not just idle bystanders, in the UK the best way to support the lion is not to lambast the dentist nor to sign a petition for extradition this does little more for the lion but to urge the African governments to end licensed trophy killing in any form and to donate money to conservation and aid agencies to ensure the local people are not driven to such efforts through poverty. There will always be people willing to pay to kill so let’s make the effort to take away their source. Take pride in making a stand.

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