Cecil the Lion: Lessons in misplaced outrage

The allegedly illegal hunt of a lion lured from the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe sparked international outrage and ruined the life of the hunter, a dentist from Minnesota named Walter Palmer. But such singular hatred about such a multi-faceted issue is largely misplaced.

Usually, the trigger for internet outrage about lion hunting is that the hunter is female. In the last few years, US Olympic shooting team member Corey Cogdell has been hounded off social media with crude threats of violence to her and her children, television host Melissa Bachman was similarly threatened with misogynistic violence, and 19-year-old Texan Kendall Jones had to face down a flood of equally vitriolic comment. Why women deserve death threats, rape threats and threats to their family, when the majority of big game hunters out there are male and escape unscathed, is left as an exercise for the reader.

So it was surprising to learn that the latest outrage involved a man: a hunter from Minnesota in the US named Walter Palmer. What triggered the outrage machine this time was that his quarry had a name: Cecil.

Unbeknownst to him, Palmer claims, the lion he shot and wounded had been lured from nearby Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, and it had a name: Cecil. It had been fitted with a collar for research purposes and could not be legally hunted. He apologised for the misunderstanding, but protesters hounded him off the internet and mobbed his dentistry practice, forcing him to close his business.

There is much to disapprove of about this incident. The professional hunter who arranged the safari for Palmer, Theo Bronkhorst, has lost his licence. Together with the land-owner, Honest Trymore Ndlovu, he has been charged with poaching.

Whether Palmer knew that his hosts did not have the permits to shoot this particular animal is a matter we’ll have to leave up to courts, if it ever gets that far. His extradition to Zimbabwe is reportedly being sought, though this seems a highly unlikely prospect.

What is known is that he wounded the animal, and it had to be tracked for almost two days to be put out of its misery. Not killing animals cleanly is frowned upon in the hunting community, as is shaming the hunting community, so it is doubtful whether Palmer will enjoy even their sympathy, despite the disproportionate response to his lion hunt.

Amid the uproar, facts were few and far between and emotions ran high.

Some – prompted by the release of a film by environmental activists – say there are between 6,000 and 8,000 captive lions bred for canned hunting in South Africa. These numbers seem to refer to the total number of lions classified as “bred in captivity” on private game reserves, no matter their actual circumstances. This number is doubly misleading because only 2% to 5% of male lions are taken by hunting. Academics consider this level “sustainable and low risk if well-managed”.

Calls to ban so-called “canned hunting” in South Africa were renewed, with zeal. But canned hunting has not been legal since 2007. Even major hunting organisations claim to oppose canned hunting. Besides, Cecil was not killed in a canned hunt, unless you use an unjustifiably broad definition that covers any lion bred and shot on a game farm.

A petition, to “Tell Zimbabwe to stop issuing hunting permits to kill endangered animals!” attracted an astonishing 1-million signatures. But Zimbabwe did not issue a hunting permit for Cecil, and lions are classified as vulnerable, not endangered.

In the US, a senator tabled a bill designed to ban imports of hunting trophies. In well-worn American fashion, he clumsily tried to make it fit “Cecil” as an acronym: Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large (Cecil) Animal Trophies Act.

In April South African Airways banned the transport of hunting trophies, though it reversed its stance last month.

While emotionally understandable, the troubling part of this outcry is that a ban (or similar prohibitions) on trophy hunting could have exactly the opposite effect of what is intended: it could well lead to a decline in wild populations and a rise in poaching.

The global population of wild lions is under pressure, showing a sharp decline in some African countries. This is not in dispute.

In South Africa, by contrast, the wild and “managed wild” population of some 3,100 specimens is healthy, and has grown by 30% in the last three decades. (All lions on private game farms appear to be classified as “captive bred”.)

According to a recently-gazetted Lion Management Plan, the South African government wants to downgrade this country’s lions from “vulnerable” (the category below “endangered”) to “least concern”, which means not threatened.

Zimbabwe is a bad example of either success or failure in wildlife policy because, thanks to its turbulent history of hyper-inflation and land invasion, neither private nor public conservation measures were able to save its wildlife. If you cannot consistently apply public policy, it doesn’t matter much what your policy is.

Other African countries, however, are more instructive. There appears to be a strong correlation between declining game numbers and hunting bans in East African countries.

Environmental activist and occasional Daily Maverick contributor Ian Michler calls this “a self-serving argument perpetuated by the hunting lobby”. Yet a lot of non-hunters are pointing this out. The last time I wrote about this subject, I quoted a professor at a university, whose independence from the hunting lobby ought not to be in question. This time, I’ll go one better.

Rosie Cooney chairs the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy. The IUCN is the primary inter-governmental nature conservation organisation, and maintains the Red List of Threatened Species. It also has a specialist group on how species’ survival, sustainable use and community livelihoods intersect, on which Cooney sits.

“Bans on trophy hunting in Tanzania (1973-78), Kenya (1977) and Zambia (2000-03) accelerated a rapid loss of wildlife due to the removal of incentives for conservation,” she writes. “Early anecdotal reports suggest this may already be happening in Botswana, which banned all hunting last year.”

Cooney warns that under a trophy hunting ban, game farms in South Africa – which cover three times the surface area under government protection and contribute increasingly to conservation objectives – will likely revert to livestock and crops for survival, since not many will be able to make ends meet with photo-tourism alone.

“Wildlife on these lands (will be) largely gone along with its habitat – back to the degraded agricultural landscapes from before the 1970s when wildlife use (including hunting) became legal here.”

While Michler is clearly an environmental activist, someone sitting on the IUCN is probably not a shill for the hunting industry.

The hunting community, for its part, is not ignoring the public outcry. Hunting farms are feeling the heat, as is evident from a recent press release issued by the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa. In it, the organisation’s president, Hermann Meyeridricks, calls for a review of lion hunting policies. In the face of widespread anti-hunting opinion, Meyeridricks feels the association’s official stance against the most egregious captive-bred lion hunting practices, in line with legislation, has become insufficient. He believes it should develop “a policy that is defensible in the court of public opinion”.

Given the nature of the noisiest public opinion, that might be too tall an order, but it certainly signals intent.

According to an analysis by ecologist David Johnson, the reason South Africa does not have more wild lions is not because they’re being shot; it’s because we don’t have space for them. Wild lions and lions bred on game farms are genetically completely isolated, because there is no demand from national parks for fresh lion stock.

Research has found that the contribution from game farms to conservation does not lie in breeding animals but in “maintaining natural areas of habitat and by providing resources to support reintroduction programs for threatened species”. Simplistic calls for hunting bans will reduce revenue, and thereby undermine this conservation function.

A hunting ban will also decimate burgeoning community-based resource management projects, which are enjoying considerable success in South Africa and Namibia. If lions are to be protected, people will need to live on the land with them. Because of habitat loss due to development and farmers keeping their animals safe, local communities pose a bigger threat to lions than hunters ever will. Rural farmers need to see game as more than just a threat to crops, and predators as more than just a threat to livestock.

I’ll bet not one of those 1-million hunting ban petition signatories knows about these communal sustainability projects in southern Africa, or thinks about human-animal conflict near game farms and nature reserves. Few of them have likely heard of the correlation between hunting bans and declining wildlife numbers. Yet every one of them probably feels entitled to an opinion about how poor Africans can best lift themselves out of poverty, while conserving nature for foreign eco-tourists. (Don’t shoot animals! Make more awesome beadwork and wood carving! Here’s $5 to pose for a photo instead of going to school!)

I bet they’d be surprised to learn that the public backlash was not echoed across Zimbabwe itself, and very few locals would even have heard of the supposedly famous lion. The Sunday Times did not mince words: “What lion?” Zimbabweans ask, amid global Cecil the lion circus. A Mail & Guardian partner publication, Voices of Africa, took the opportunity to raise some rather more pressing issues that Zimbabweans would consider newsworthy, if Africans had any say in what the international media wrote about their continent.

Foreigners, and even domestic elites, have little grasp of what local communities need from the natural resources with which Africa is blessed. Perhaps they should let people who live with poverty, conservation and sustainability challenges every day decide whether hunting is permissible or not.

I do not like hunting. I can’t explain what drives hunters, or why they derive such pleasure from killing animals. I find it neither impressive nor appealing. But my personal opinion about hunting isn’t the issue. That is a subjective, emotional matter.

Shooting Cecil the lion appears to have been illegal. If it was not permitted by law, one hopes that the responsible parties – and in particular the local professional hunter and tour organisers – will face stiff penalties.

But here’s the crux: neither emotional responses nor an illegal hunt are relevant to the larger question of whether legal hunting is a net benefit to a country, whether it be from a conservation or economic point of view. And on that score, the numbers speak for themselves.

Where hunting has been banned, lion populations collapsed. Where it was permitted and adequately regulated, they survived, and even thrived. In South Africa, hunting brings in billions of rands worth of revenue. Each hunter pays more to visit our country than your average eco-tourist. Substantial businesses, employing thousands of people, are based around the hunting industry. Entire communities participate in the “sustainable use” of natural resources, to employ the phrase South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs uses to refer to hunting.

By all means, campaign against illegal hunting, or against animal abuse. There’s certainly a nasty side to hunting that nobody – not even the hunting community itself – likes. But a sensible response is measured, and sensible policy does not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If you think the welfare of people is a desirable objective of public policy, you need a public policy that can reconcile the need for development, protection from harm, and poverty alleviation on one hand, with the desire for nature conservation on the other.

A policy of sustainable use, imperfect and difficult though it is to implement in practice, tries to do exactly that. Hunting is an important part of this policy. Whether we like it or not, it should stay that way.

‘Blood lions’ sheds a harsh light on the canned hunting industry

Since the first public documentation in 2004, canned lion hunting has, in recent times, become more controversial and the film Blood Lions further stimulates that debate.

 Blood Lions is a sensationalised yet comprehensive true story of the canned lion hunting industry in South Africa. By definition, the term “canned hunting” is not considered as hunting, which is defined as the “chase or search for something (game, wild animals) for the purpose of catching or killing.” Another definition is “the act of conducting a search for something”. By all definitions hunting involves a search. There is none involved in canned hunting. Sport hunters of free-roaming animals have condemned the activity of canned hunting as slander.

Blood Lions not only clearly demonstrates that canned lion hunting is unjustifiable in terms of ethics but also conservation. The conditions under which the animals are kept are not reflective of their natural habitat nor do they conform to zoo or camp standards of enclosure size or quality. And little is known about what happens to lions bred in captivity that are not suitable for hunting.

Hunting for conservation?

Canned lion hunters justify the practice by arguing that for every canned lion hunted a wild lion has been saved. Blood Lions reveals otherwise. The film also clarifies that canned hunting makes a limited contribution to the conservation of the species or genetics.

The revenue generated returns to the owner and is plugged back into the owner’s business. Operating costs include the cost of building and maintaining the camps as well as purchasing and feeding the lions. Each lion can eat approximately US$16,000 worth of meat per year in the wild. However, captive bred lions tend to be fed more to fast-track growth, which pushes the feeding cost higher. Setting up a lion camp depends on the fencing material used, the camp design, water provision, electrifying components and installation.

Standard regulations stipulate that four lions can be kept in a 2 000m² electrified camp. As confirmed in Blood Lions the cost of a lion can be quickly recouped by being put up for auction to a large market of enthused ‘hunters’ and the lion bone trade. Although the profitable returns from the hunt make the activity economically justifiable, this only applies to the owner.

The size of the land where the hunting takes place is small and often does not meet the requirements or standards of captive lion facilities. This means that canned lion hunting gives the land owner high returns on a small piece of land.

More lions in captivity

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Endangered Wildlife Trust, there are more lions in captivity in South Africa than in the wild – approximately 7 000 in captivity and 3 500 in the wild.

Captive raised lions are raised for petting and handling by tourists and volunteers who desire a close encounter with charismatic wildlife. Blood Lions explains how this type of tourism feeds into canned hunting.

Hand-raised lions are notoriously difficult to rehabilitate into the wild – not only behaviourally but also because of limited available land in which to relocate them. Large predators such as lions require large expanses of free roaming land and ample food resources. Although small reserves can sustain lions, this requires management and financial resources.

Although the future of captive lions may seem bleak, there are opportunities to ‘rescue’ a handful. Lion sanctuaries have become a popular means of adopting captive bred lions. However, like those in captivity, the maintenance cost of these lions is high. On their own lion sanctuaries generate very little revenue or enough profit to be considered a sustainable option.

Furthermore, lion sanctuaries require intensive individual action to be driven forward and there is limited monetary incentive. Unless new release strategies are developed, lion sanctuaries and release programs have limited sustainability.

Profit verses ethics

Canned hunting and sport hunting differ in their ethics, execution and overall contributions. Canned hunting primarily focuses on the return of investment and profit from the raising of the animal. Although canned hunting does create employment, trophy hunting contributes to conservation efforts as well.

Thinking outside the box towards alternative land uses and business endeavours has become a necessity. Everyone has equal rights to make a living – but at what cost? The revealing nature of Blood Lions gets the viewer thinking about the negative use of natural resources.

Although there is a legitimate push and drive to have it banned and abolished, history and human nature has proven that canned lion hunting is likely to continue – unwanted but too profitable to exclude as a business opportunity and as the fulfilment of an addiction.The Conversation

Hunting captive-bred lions debate hots up

Cape Town – In the aftermath of the anger that followed the killing of Cecil, the lion from Zimbabwe, debate is intensifying over the practice of hunting captive-bred lions.

Ian Michler, maker of a documentary film called Blood Lions, has estimated that close to 1 000 lions bred in captivity in South Africa are fatally shot every year by trophy seekers.

The practice is an “extreme and a brutal form of trophy hunting”, Michler said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press news agency this week.

Those who oppose the practice and refer to the custom as “canned hunting” say lions that are bred in captivity are not afraid of people, making them easy targets for shooting in relatively confined areas.

While hunting operators in South Africa describe their industry as well-regulated, a key hunting association has called for a review of captive-bred lion hunting amid growing public criticism. In Zimbabwe, authorities have said two American hunters were involved in illegal lion killings in separate cases in the area of Hwange National Park in April and July.

The cases have put fresh scrutiny on hunting in Africa at a time when poaching has heavily reduced wildlife numbers, including threatened species such as lions, rhinos and elephants.

There has been some success in the conservation of wild lions.

Last month, however, Environment Minister Edna Molewa, held a meeting to discuss concern about alleged irregularities at what she called “the fringe” of the “legal, well-regulated” lion breeding and hunting industries.

It is time to review captive-bred lion hunting, Hermann Meyeridricks, president of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa, said in a July 24 letter to association members.

“Broader society is no longer neutral on this question and the tide of public opinion is turning strongly against this form of hunting, however it is termed,” he wrote.