Cecil the Lion: Hatred and Hunting

Last month in Zimbabwe, a collared lion named Cecil was baited out of a National Park, wounded by bow and arrow, tracked for 40 hours, and eventually shot with a rifle.  The carcass was ultimately found – beheaded and skinned – from the signal of the satellite collar left behind.  A  miserable end for a fierce lion who managed to survive for thirteen years, overcoming the many challenges from other lions, defending his territory, regularly finding prey to feed on, and entertaining thousands of tourists with his magnificence.  He also provided vital information to Oxford University for nine years through his GPS collar.  Yes, this special lion was studied by an Oxford research team for nearly a decade.

The “hunt” for the culprits went viral.  The amazing power of social media revealed to the public the identities of both the (un)professional hunter and his client, a dentist from Minnesota.  I read yesterday that this dentist is now the most hated man in America.

Hatred and rage seem to be the primary emotions fueling this viral reaction.  Trophy hunters are perceived as disgusting murderers who contribute to the destruction of wildlife.  Are they?  Well, let’s examine this more closely.  Follow this narrative, and bear with me as I discuss the relationships among hunting, conservation, and tourism.  For the next few minutes, put aside all prejudice and, if you can, your emotions.  You will get a clearer picture of the issues at hand, which is a true necessity in the fight to protect Africa’s amazing wildlife.

I am Kenyan, and I will share with you an interesting Kenyan story.  Trophy hunting in Kenya was banned overnight in 1977 – an emotional decision fueled by something not so different from Cecil’s demise.  The story begins a few years earlier when Jomo Kenyatta, our first President (father of Uhuru, our current President), made a fateful decision.  He saw the East African Professional Hunters Association as the last enclave of colonialism.  He took away the association’s control of the hunter licensing process, which included a required apprenticeship.  As a result, very unprepared and totally unprofessional hunters were soon licensed to become Professional Hunters (PHs) and to take clients on safari.

In those days, the country was divided into hunting blocks.  PHs reserved the hunting blocks for their clients and purchased hunting licenses for different animals, both of which required government fees.  Those fees financed the Game Department, which was the agency in charge of the National Parks and all wildlife in the country.

So what happened next?  Well, a lot of the newly unprofessional PHs were doing bad things, like hunting in Game Conservation Areas, the buffer zones bordering the parks where hunting was strictly prohibited.  Animals were lured outside of the parks and shot, just as Cecil was.  That certainly cannot be called hunting.

In 1977, the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) donated a huge sum of money and asked for a ban on hunting to stop these wrong doings.  The ban happened overnight, and it caused a conservation disaster.  How and why?  It’s fairly simple: an industry was destroyed in an instant, leaving thousands of Kenyans jobless.  The crew members for the PHs had no alternative job options; all they knew in life was hunting, so some of them turned to poaching.  The Game Department did not receive additional funds to patrol the former hunting blocks that had been controlled, patrolled and protected by the PHs.  Those areas were teeming with wildlife, all of which had monetary value.  Think of a bank full of cash.  If the owner goes away on a Friday evening and leaves the gates open, good luck finding that cash on Monday morning!  The ban on licensed trophy hunting effectively ended control of the wilderness areas and removed the active protection of wildlife.  This caused an immense spike in illegal hunting.  Immense is an understatement.

The word “genocide” comes from Greek, and it means the killing of a race.  We normally use this terrifying term only for the mass murder of humans.  But what about animals?  Isn’t genocide the destruction of an entire group or species?  To me, it is.

Let’s take a look at the outcome of the trophy hunting ban in Kenya.  There were two genocides, one of rhinos and one of elephants, both caused by poachers.  Rhinos were killed for their pricey horns (desired in the Asian and Arab markets), and elephants were killed for their ivory.  Over 20,000 rhinos were annihilated in Kenya. Only 400 survived the massacre. In the ecosystem where I live and which I have dedicated my life to protecting, they were finished almost completely.  If you’d like to learn more, read this interesting paper.  In Tsavo National Park alone, 25,000 elephants sank to 5,000 in just ten years.  You can read more about that here.

In the era of legal hunting, poachers were unable to operate because the presence of Professional Hunters, accompanied by Game Wardens, enhanced the protection of wildlife.  Hunting was carried out in a controlled and sustainable manner that was regulated by the government.  When trophy hunting was outlawed, the control system implemented by the hunters was not replaced but simply removed.  Clearly the ban on trophy hunting destroyed wildlife and failed miserably to protect it.

Can we reverse this and magically get our rhinos and elephants back by reintroducing trophy hunting?  I certainly do not think so.  In the ‘70s, there were about 15,000,000 Kenyans.  Today there are 300% more, approaching 45,000,000 (if not more).  There is no unused wilderness that can be turned into hunting blocks.  However, we now have fantastic tourism infrastructure where the hunting blocks once were.  Tourism is the solution.  It is tourism that can create employment, that can reintroduce control of the wilderness and wildlife, and that can ultimately create sustainable income to protect the land and the animals that live there.  I will discuss this more later.

What happened to lions after the hunting ban?  Their numbers plunged as well.  Conservationists generally agree that 35 years ago there were about 300,000 lions in Africa.  Then 15 years ago, their numbers dropped to 100,000.  Today there may be as few as 14,000 to 18,000.   The African lion (Panthera leo) is now an endangered species.  But that’s not because of poaching for skins or meat.  The lions’ decline can be attributed to human-wildlife conflict and the disappearance of habitat.  Humans whose economic lives depend on livestock do not tolerate predators.  For example, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming ranchers shot them because the wolves were predating their livestock.  Africans are no different when their lives depend on herding.  If predators kill their cattle, they will retaliate by killing the predators, especially when population growth forces them to live in close quarters.

So what can we do to protect the astounding wildlife of the African continent?

I speak with direct knowledge, having written my doctoral thesis on “Sustainable Development and Environment Conservation: Wildlife as a Natural Resource in Kenya.”  My argument is straightforward: make wildlife profitable and it will be protected.

There are several different ways that wildlife can turn a profit.  Let’s examine them.  Use of wildlife can be categorized in two tiers: consumptive and non-consumptive.  Non-consumptive use is intuitive: tourism.  Consumptive use can be divided into three parts: trophy hunting, game cropping and live capture.  I will discuss each of these below.

Trophy hunting is licensed by governments.  As controversial as it is to say so, I believe the administration of trophy hunting in Africa is often badly managed (to say the least).  Many PHs are not professional at all, as was clearly demonstrated by awful killing of Cecil.  There is too much money at stake, and the pressure is too high.  PHs often fall to pressure from their clients, taking an animal that is too young, hunting from a car, luring animals outside of protected areas, or even shooting from aircrafts.  All of these things happen, and it cannot be denied.  I am sure most of the PHs feel even more strongly than we do about these dreadful practices.

Yet I know that many PHs are ultimately conservationists whose work is contributing to the preservation of the species that they hunt.  How?  In order to have certain areas set aside for wildlife, those areas need to procure income, either for private landowners (who could otherwise turn to ranching or farming) or for the government.  So hunting concessions ensure that habitats are maintained for wildlife that would not otherwise  be living there.

Game cropping is even trickier.  Game cropping is the practice of killing wildlife for their products, such as meat, hide, horns, or hooves.  The argument here is even more straightforward than for trophy hunting.  If a person is allowed to make a business out of wildlife, he will dedicate land and resources to protect the animals that generate his income.  Therefore, wildlife will thrive.

In practice, it is not so simple.  The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which I founded 15 years ago, was created precisely to avoid game cropping on the Maasai reservation where I live.  Why?  Game cropping in the Maasailand nearby was carried out by contractors, not by the landowners.  The contractors were overstating the wildlife census in order to procure higher quotas of shootable animals.  We certainly did not want that to happen here!  My wife Antonella and I completed a local wildlife census, adopted the cropping quota, and hired Maasai rangers to protect the animals, making a statement that live creatures are worth far more than dead ones!

In my experience, game cropping in communal land was marred by corruption and conducted unsustainably.  My findings eventually contributed to the Kenyan government’s ban on game cropping a few years ago.  I am proud of that accomplishment.

The third consumptive use of wildlife is live capture.  Imagine buying horses or cows for your ranch at a livestock market.  A similar practice can exist for wildlife.  If you can own wild animals and use them for profit, you might purchase them to stock your land, perhaps transforming it from a livestock ranch into to a wildlife ranch.  For this purpose, some African countries permit wildlife markets.
Again, if done with proper control and licensing, live capture can actually be great for conservation.  To give an example, I’ll tell a brief story about the bongo, an endangered species of antelope.  In the ‘60s, many bongos were captured in the Aberdares and on Mt. Kenya to be sold to zoos.  Ugly, right?  Indeed, but this story has a happy ending….  The remaining bongos in the wild were annihilated by poachers.  In the last ten years, bongos have been reintroduced to Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares, coming from those very same zoos that bought their great grandfathers 50 years ago.

To sum things up, hunting is a complicated issue.  I am sure there are cases in which hunting could help conservation.  That is, if I think objectively and unemotionally.  If you love wilderness and wildlife as I do, you must be objective to find the best possible strategy to protect them.  Once you have the strategy in place, you can let your emotions kick in again and allow yourself to be fueled by passion.  Take away my passion and I become nonfunctional.

So… with my full emotions in gear, I would feel completely defeated if 21st century conservation still had to rely on hunting to protect wildlife.  It is so anachronistic; hunting does not belong in the 21st century.  To derive pleasure from killing an animal is something I cannot embrace as a conservation policy.

Tourism is by the far the best conservation tool, yet it is not so easily put into practice.  Last year, ebola devastated tourism all over Africa, even in nations like South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya that were separated from the outbreak by thousands of miles, the Sahara desert, and the Congo forest.  Kenya in particular has also suffered because of travel warnings.

Hunters often overlook travel warnings. So, most likely, the dentist who shot Cecil would still come to Kenya to hunt if it were legal, and his hunting might support some sustainable conservation policies.  But I refuse that.  I do not want to think that hunting is the way forward.  Tourism is.

But Africa needs more visitors.  Iran has more tourists each year than all of East Africa.  Hard to believe, isn’t it?  The number of annual tourists in France exceeds the country’s population.  Africa needs that surge of tourism.  National Parks, game reserves, and conservancies all depend on tourism revenues to operate.  Conservation relies on tourism.  The tourism industry provides both park fees and employment, the two best weapons against poaching.

At Campi ya Kanzi, for example, each visitor pays a $101 conservation fee per day.  That money funds Wildife Pays, a compensation program that reimburses Maasai herders for livestock killed by predators. Thanks to this program, the Maasai have agreed to protect predators instead of hunting them in retaliation.  Our lion population is thriving.

I would guess that at least 500,000,000 people have been disgusted by Cecil’s horrible death.  I dream that 1 in 10 who have channeled their hate against hunters instead use those emotions to plan a safari in Africa.  There are choices for every budget.  Book a one-week trip in the next ten years.  If you come, you would support Cecil’s 14,000 lion cousins, the elephants, the rhinos, and the many impoverished Africans whose lives depend on tourism.

If you want to take a stand for Cecil and African wildlife, plan a safari.  You will save many, many lions.

Without tourism, lions can face a brutal fate.
This one had its mane and paws removed.
Tourism  offers lions the protection they need
and allows them to thrive in the wild.