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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.